It is believed that Hermann Hesse began serious writing of what was to become “The Glass Bead Game” in 1931. It took Hesse until 1942 to complete it, during this time the world was eclipsed by the horrors of Fascism, Stalinism and war. It was published in 1943 and by then Hesse’s books were prohibited in Nazi Germany. The dedication was to The Journeyers to the East. “The Journey to the East” had been written in 1930. The Glass Bead Game explores the world of reason in a time when reason was in peril. There are parallels with problems that Popper was working on at the same time, both were in exile.
“Alphabets” is a poem attributed to Joseph Knecht, The Glass Bead Game master and hero, an extract of which is:
“From time to time we take our pen in hand
And scribble symbols on a blank white sheet.
Their meaning is at everyone’s command”
This can be compared with a much later quote from P.J.B. Slater’s “An Introduction to Ethology” 1985:
“The form of signals: The message is what an animal encodes in a signal it sends; the meaning is what another makes of it. The signal is the physical form in which the transmission from one to the other takes place.”
A salient point of Popper’s thought is that he rejected meaning as a criterion of demarcation of science and metaphysics. Both of the above quotations make it clear why. It is not that meaning is not an important problem for individuals or societies but that it belongs to Popper’s World 2 (mental) rather than World 1 (physical/natural world) or World 3 (the stated or expressed world of knowledge). Without living beings or their computers to create or interpret the messages encoded in the signals scribbled on blank white sheets they have no meaning.
“It is a game whose rules are nice and neat.
But if a savage or a moon-man came
And found a page, a furrowed runic field,
And curiously studied lines and frame:
How strange would be the world that they revealed,
A magic gallery of oddities,.
He would see A or B as man and beast,
As moving tongues or arms and legs or eyes,
Now slow, now rushing, all constraint released,
Like prints of ravens’ feet upon the snow.”
We do have plenty of conjectural knowledge as in the Glass Bead Game. Objectivity arises in inter-subjective testability, which means through dialogue. Objectivity is not secured by trying to hold on to justifications or dogmatic grounds.
The men of principled simplicity
Will have no traffic with our subtle doubt.
The world is flat, they tell us, and they shout:
The myth of depth is an absurdity!
For if there were additional dimensions
Beside the good old pair we’ll always cherish,
How could a man live safely without tensions?
How could he live and not expect to perish?
In order peacefully to coexist
Let us strike one dimension off our list.
If they are right, those men of principle,
And life in depth is so inimical,
The third dimension is dispensable.”