Alert observers may have noticed occasional references to the Austrian tourist-turned-Brit Karl Popper in my scribbling over the years, starting around 1972 when the story broke about Popper’s encounter with Bazza Mackenzie. That story never made the mainstream media. Like that story, his associates have mostly travelled under the radar. They deserve more recognition. No mafia don ever survived without loyal soldiers who were prepared to go on the matresses, or write a letter to The Times newspaper.
Starting with the series of research assistants who were eventually funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Some of them were based in a room in the London School of Economics and spent a lot of time on the road to the don’s compound near the village of Penn (out of High Wycombe).
Paul Feyerabend was the first of note (the one before him made no mark). He went to work with Popper on a British Council grant after they met at an Alpbach Conference, he went on holiday to Vienna in early 1953 and did not return, keeping Popper waiting for a year with various excuses until Joe Agassi took on the job in early 1954. Feyerabend and Agassi remained in touch for years but eventually Joe had enough of being abused in print and decided the game of friendship was not worth the candle.
We went in different directions, and his public statements were plainly false and overtly insulting – mainly concerning the philosopher [Popper, and his wife] but also involving myself. He kept telling me not to take it personally. I am afraid I did: I do not wish to have friends who behave this way: perhaps he is right to call me a prig.
After seven years of intense cooperation Popper and Agassi parted company in August 1960 and Agassi took a post in Hong Kong. Like most people, Joe found the experience of working closely with Popper to be exciting, challenging and draining in many and various ways. He wrote a book to sum up the adventure. A Philosopher’s Apprentice: In Karl Popper’s Workshop gives some insight into the psychological stress of living on the leading edge of thought in several fields and the way this upsets scholars of lesser note who “pile on” in the devious ways of academics.
Joe Agassi went on to write more books than I can count, including one that is in press (or maybe even out of it) based on his doctoral thesis on metaphysical research programs, a theme that became one of the four “turns” that Popper promoted. These are (1) the conjectural or ‘hermeneutic’ turn to accept that all our knowledge is fallible or conjectural, so even our best scientific theories are liable to be found wanting and superseded, (2) the objective turn to focus on public, inter-subjective and scientific knowledge in addition to the subjective beliefs which are the obsession of traditional theories of knowledge, (3) the social turn to take account of the way that science and scientists function in social groups, mediated by conventions, traditions, “rules of the game” and institutions, and (4) the king hit on the anti-metaphysical stance of Vienna Circle (logical positivists), the retrieval of metaphysical theories as influential drivers of intellectual effort in scientific research.
You can find out heaps more about Joe and his beautiful and gracious wife Judith Buber Agassi at their shared website.
Next up. Ian Jarvie and Alan Musgrave.