Flemming Steen Nielsen: A Personal Recollection of Popper

From: Sandhedens Sider, Institute of Philosophy, Copenhagen, Autumn 1994

Happy Acquaintance With a Difficult Person
In memoriam Karl Raimund Popper, 26.7.1902-17.9.1994.

By Flemming Steen Nielsen

One morning a few weeks ago my friend Troels Eggers Hansen (theoretical physicist, editor of Karl Popper’s Die beiden Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie) telephoned to tell me that our friends in London had called to inform us that Popper had just died. The conversation which followed was not, of course, a particularly cheerful one. On the other hand it was not dominated by grief – rather by a quiet sadness and a strange feeling of emptiness (’one somehow feels like an orphan’ as Troels put it). After all it could hardly be considered very tragic when a person dies at the age of 92 – of sound mind till the end, and after an extremely eventful and productive life. Starting out as an out-of-work school teacher around 1920 and ending up a friend of and discussion partner with many of the world’s most brillant scientists; the creator of philosophical arguments and theories of wide-ranging importance; the inspiration of statesmen and cultural celebrities; knighted and highly decorated by nations and universities; and, not least, loved and admired by his many readers – this must surely have been a good life. The following days many thoughts and images whirled around in our heads: About the joy, many years earlier, of discovering the works of this amazing thinker; about the exciting days when ’a new Popper’ appeared in the bookshops or arrived by mail with his signature; about the fascination of meeting him in person etc. So when Sandhedens Sider asked me to write a few pages on the occasion of the death of this strikingly original philosopher I decided to offer some hints about those thoughts and images rather than attempting a solemn obituary.


On my way to a summer holiday tour in Jutland in June 1961 I looked in at the Institute of Philosophy, then situated at Copenhagen Cathedral Square, to look for one more book to bring with me (- I already brought Viktor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, (1946)). Here I came across a stout volume with the title The Open Society and Its Enemies, (1945). Who could resist a title like that? Not I, and so I brought that one too. Incidentally, Popper’s book complemented Kravchenko’s splendidly, so every day during the two weeks’ tour from one beautiful Jutland locality to another, some chapters of the one were read in combination with some chapters of the other. The horrible experiences of a Russian engineer under Stalin’s terror and his later escape to the West made acutely real and concrete the bloodshed and sufferings caused by the totalitarian state. And Popper’s diagnosis of the collectivist and utopian ideas from more than 2000 years’ philosophical tradition, which have constantly been used as standard ammunition against liberty and democracy – and resulted in world wars and tyranny – was enough to remove from my mind the few remnants of utopianism and ’philosopher king’-ways of thinking that might have survived many years’ discussions with my father or my wonderful history teacher at school.
Apart from the book’s passion and moral force – an emigrant to New Zealand, Popper began writing on the day of Hitler’s inclusion of his native Austria into the German Reich and finished the book during the War – it was its manner of arguing that made an impression on a young philosophy student. The book showed that it is indeed possible to do philosophy the old way: attacking important metaphysical, moral and political problems with substantial, general arguments. You have to remember that at the time of my first reading it there was a strong tendency within the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries to remove philosophy from its original cosmological and ethical context and into one of two directions: (1) Viewing it as ’linguistic analysis’; i.e. treating it as the study of pseudo-problems originating in a perverse misuse of ’ordinary language’ – problems that could only be cured, not solved, by a sort of linguistic psychoanalysis (see Ernest Gellner’s critical diagnosis of the phenomenon in his brillant Words and Things from 1959). Or (2) replacing philosophy by the construction of formal systems representing scientific theories and the ’evidence’ supporting them – often resulting in desperate inductionist or confirmation-logical attempts to clarify that elusive relation of ’support’. How refreshing on this background to encounter a philosopher who took a stance against these tendencies and explicitly chose to do philosophy in the traditional manner!
The Open Society shows how important the theory of knowledge is to political philosophy according to Popper. If, for instance, you accept an epistemology according to which we are able to reach authoritative, apodictic knowledge about both descriptive and normative questions you will quite naturally tend towards elitist and anti-democratic ways of thinking. If you reject the idea of expertise concerning normative questions, but all the same believe in the possibility of apodictally certain and detailed knowledge about societal processes, then what Popper dubs holistic utopian engineering, or at least central planning of the economy, will seem within reach and basically desirable – and the possible advantages of the rule of law and market economy will become invisible. And thus it is evident how indebted his philosophy of the open society is to the well-known ideas of his epistemology and philosophy of science. His view of knowledge as basically a trial-and-error process, his fallibilism, his model for testing, explanation and prediction, and his view of rationality as comprehensive critical discussion – all are ingredients of his critique of totalitarianism, revolutionism and historicist prophecy as well as his arguments for democracy, individualism and political reformism.


I had the priviliege of living at the old ”kollegium” (students’ dormitory) Regensen at the time. On returning there after my tour I told the other members of our ’Regens-club’ (a sort of small beer and debating society) – a physicist, a mathematician, an astronomer, a historian and a literature guy – about Popper, and we decided to study his Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934, 1959) together. One thing strikes me when I think back to our discussions about that book. The objection which nowadays in broad circles is considered an absolutely devastating refutation of it, and which has given rise to a series of ’new and better’ philosophies of science, never had an important place in our discussion. I’m referring to the objection that Popper’s view of testing as attempted empirical falsification af strictly universal theories, must be wrong because it is just as impossible to falsify a theory as to verify it – all because of the point made by Popper himself that it is impossible to give unambiguously applicable criteria for certain and unrevisable verification of observation statements (because they themselves must refer to strictly universal laws). We were aware of this objection, but did not take it seriously. As we read Popper’s book, it attempted to give a Logic of Science, i.e. a set of abstract rules and proposals for how we can make our theories as critisizable as possible, how we can compare their informative strength, which objections concerning initial conditions and auxiliary theories are relevant in a discussion about concrete test results, etc. etc. The analogy to the regulative application of formal logic’s schemata and principles to discussions in general seems clear. For this purpose we found Popper’s version of the hypothetico-deductive method eminently superior to for instance positivist-inductivist or con-ventionalist models of scientific debate. What we certainly could not read from the text was that it (1) presumed to describe how and why actual scientists actually choose or chose to believe in individual theories; nor (2) that it pretented to give us a set of unambiguous criteria to tell us when a given empirical theory is conclusively falsified. Could Popper really be supposed to think that he had given us a kind of touchstone – a veritable ’philosopher’s stone’ – which would make it possible for us to go around from laboratory to laboratory and authoritatively and conclusively in-form scientists about which particular experimental results must be considered firm and final, and consequently which theories are falsified once and for all? Of course not.
Popper also gave os (in ”Appendix X” as well as in the article ”Science: Conjectures and Refutations”) a psychological and logical critique of Hume’s idea of repetition as a basis for induction, as well as an effective, rational strategy against various phenomena we considered pseudo-scientific, for instance astrology, para-psychology, and Freudianism. Until then we had been forced to take shelter in the usual positivist critique that these theories couldn’t be verified empirically – some-how hoping that their proponents would not point out to us that neither could the best physical theories! Now we could attack them by arguing that they did not specify any possible phenomenon which – according to the theory itself – could not happen; or we could at least challenge their proponents to identify at least one possible event that they themselves would admit to be a decisive falsification of their theory if it ever happened.


Some years later I wrote Popper to tell him about my interest in his ideas as well as a little about the state of philosophy in Denmark. His reply was extremely kind and encouraging, although he gave me a – probably well-deserved – rap on the knuckles for a youthfully arrogant remark I had made about Niels Bohr’s philosophical efforts. Popper had met Bohr in Copenhagen at a congress in 1936 and had had a somewhat overwhelming conversation with him about the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. This led him to characterise Bohr as ”… everything a great man should be!”
In the summer of 1967 Troels and I finally got the opportunity to meet Popper at a congress for Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science in Amster-dam. At the opening cocktail party we went around eagerly looking for him – com-paring the many new faces with our only source: a perfectly awful portrait from a book about Popper, which made him look very angry and strangely Prussian. A poor little man who had some resemblance to this portrait, got visibly flustered by our youthful interest and almost fled the scene. Later we found out that he was an extremely nice professor fra Roumania, otherwise having a perfectly wonderful time in beautiful, free Amsterdam. Little did we know that Popper never attended occasions like that, but only lectures, seminars etc., where a total ban of smoking could be effectively upheld. Allergy or no allergy,- as one of his colleagues at the London School of Economics once told me with a wry smile, Popper’s insisting on his right to avoid tobacco smoke had at least excused him from taking part in countless dull faculty meetings.
Then came the great moment when we would be able to see and hear our hero. Strangely enough, Popper had been given the honourable task of giving the plenum talk. ’Strangely enough’ because the congress to our great surprise proved to be dominated by a not very pleasant cliquishness – a remarkably scientistic at-mosphere, as if we were a gathering of Logical Positivists in the Thirties. Incessantly, the tough-minded ’real’ philosophers distanced themselves from all the ’metaphys-icians’ (to be pronounced with a sneer) and all the formal-logical illiterates, i.e. more or less all other schools of philosophy.
Perhaps a brief remark may help to explain what followed: as hinted at in my title, Popper was by many of his philosophical colleagues thought to be a particularly difficult person. Bill Bartley’s article ”Ein schwieriger Mensch” elabor-ates upon this and explains it by the fact of his being extremely critical of his opponent’s often very superficial interpretations of his writings and by his never compromising in theoretical debates in order to politely smoothe out what he thought were genuine disagreements. In this particular gathering his conviction that he had ’killed Positivism’ hardly made things easier, of course (see his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest (1976), Section 17). His habit of mischievously doing the exact opposite of what his audience expected may have played a role, too.
For no sooner had the rather short man with the strongly marked features and a gentle smile sat down in front of the hundreds of participants before he started something like this: ’Today I’m going to set forward and defend a metaphysical theory in important ways similar to Plato’s Theory of Ideas and Hegel’s doctrine of the Absolute Idea.’ A shiver went through the audience and eyes glazed. ’What’s going on? Is he making fun of us?’ people seemed to ask. Well, he wasn’t; and for the first time we heard about Popper’s metaphysical theory of the three worlds: World 1, the physical world; World 2, the mental world; and World 3, the world of abstract entities and theories like for instance the natural numbers. These World 3-en-tities are created by World 2, i.e. our thoughts and our imagination; but when they have been thus created they possess a certain autonomy and objectivity. For instance, we evidently cannot place the prime numbers where we want them. Theories about World 1, too, are World 3-entities, but can be used to influence the physical world (think of nuclear physics and Hiroshima) – though not directly, only via World 2.
Next day I introduced myself to him. Great was my astonishment when he was immediately quite clear about who I was and about the content of our letters. ’Let’s get out of here’, he said, crinkling his nose at the tobacco smoke in the foyer of Hotel Krasnapolsky. He then took a firm grip of the sleeve of my jacket and led me out into the sunshine. So here I was, with this famous, busy and much sought after celebrity firmly attached to my sleeve, walking briskly round and round the central square of Amsterdam, with his eyes permanently fixed on me as he asked questions about my interests and plans, criticised my ideas, made suggestions, joked – as if the whole situation was the most natural thing imaginable. When, after about an hour, he was fetched for other duties by Imre Lakatos who in those days rather humbly functioned as a kind of secretary to him, the young Danish philosopher was sweaty and exhausted – the 65 years’ old still quite fresh and brimming over with energy.
On this as on other occasions I met him – in his and Lady Poppers beautiful home Fallowfield in Buckinghamshire, at the L.S.E., or elsewhere – Popper never wasted time on small talk or polite conversation: ’Here is some tea and some pastry, what’s the situation about drugs and Danish youth?’; or, ’Let’s get away from all these people, what do you say about Lakatos’ statement that Newtonian me-chanics is no more falsifiable than Freud’s psychoanalysis?’ these were typical Popper openings. A difficult person? Not in my experience. Perhaps a bit intense and demanding, in fact wonderfully so!
The delight of discovering Popper the philosopher was of course primarily one of living with his books – but also one of teaching his ideas. In Denmark we have been a handful of persons who by teaching his views at universities, peoples’ universities, peoples’ high schools, and also through various publications have done our best to make sure that his ideas did not remain unknown in this country. Already in the beginning of the seventies we must have had a certain succes. For when we made an official proposal that Popper should receive the Sonning Prize (’for Contribution to European Culture’), there was great support from many sides. He received the prize during his particularly successful and pleasurable stay in Copenhagen in 1973. At a solemn occasion in the University’s ’Solennitetssal’, professor of philosophy Mogens Blegvad gave an impressive motivation speech about Popper’s many contributions to European thought (’very well-informed’, Popper whispered to me). His own lecture was formed as a critique of the then as now extremely influential ideas of closed conceptional frameworks, the incommensurability of paradigms, and cultural relativism. The publication of Popper’s that comes closest to that lecture is the article ”The Myth of the Framework” from E.Freeman’s Schilpp-volume (see below). He also gave a seminar on the subject at the Institute of Philosophy.
Popper gladly accepted an invitation from my wife and me to take part in a less solemn occasion in our new home – not least because I mentioned to him that he could meet many students and others who actually knew his ideas, but had not been present at the grand dinner at the Hotel D’Angleterre or similar gatherings. Fortunately it was a lovely, sunny day as there would hardly have been room for all invited indoors. Popper went round for some minutes’ talk with almost every one present and seemed to enjoy himself enormously. During his four day’s stay in Copenhagen he gave the impression of being grateful for his reception in Denmark as well as for the considerable sum of money involved. His attitude to the honour and the host country was markedly different from that of two other philosophers who had received the prize: the Norwegian Arne Naess (Sonning Prize 1977) who not even gave a lecture or a seminar, and Bertrand Russell (1960) who wrote a friend before going to Copenhagen, ’We’re just going over to pick up the money and come straight back again.’ (R.Crawshay-Williams: Russell remembered, Oxford 1970, pp. 127-28).


Apart from the moral and intellectual strength of his critique of totalitarianism, collectivism, historicism, and utopianism (a critique which made many of my students burst out: ’If only I had known these arguments when I was on the defensive during discussions with my Marxist friends or fellow students!’) the aspect of Popper’s philosophy that has especially made an impression on the general public is that he was an ’old-fashioned’, rarely very technical thinker of the kind that non-professional philosophers are attracted to. His philosophical writings have a science-oriented but also common-sense character which makes it a pleasure to teach them. His approach is, as he often stressed himself, basically an ontological one: Is there, apart from material things, also such a thing as consciousness – if, indeed, there is such a thing as matter at all? Has the world always existed or has it had a beginning? Is it divinely created or perhaps just evolved from nothing? Does human consciousness have en influence on physical or economic reality, or is it in every detail determined by these? Do we have free will? Is our biological evolution teleologically directed towards a perfect final state; is it determined by an absolute ’law of evolution’, or is it a process of ’emergence’ involving real novelty? Do ’time’s arrow’ and the given ’now’ have ontological reality or are they the result of a human Anschauungsform? etc. etc.
But how can Karl Popper, being a well-known proponent of Positivism, express an interest in such metaphysical questions as these? – you might ask. In fact, Popper is not a Positivist at all. On the contrary, he is one of the greatest and most explicit critics of that philosophy. Not only does he refute Logical Empiricism’s criterion of meaningfulness with devastating reflexivity-arguments, but his view of scientific theories as systems of strictly universal statements makes evident the futility of its probability-inductivist attempts. A large part of his works are on metaphysics: In The Self and Its Brain (1977), (another lovely title, I think!) he critizises different versions of materialism and develops his interactionist Three World-Theory as well as giving interesting hints about how we humans have to ’learn to become selves.’ In The Open Universe (1982) and Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (1982) he takes on determinism: There is ample room for rational, free acts in a universe that shows its fundamentally creative and open character every time a new argument, a new work of art, a new theory, even a new piece of prediction, is created; for aren’t we ourselves a part of the Universe? In Realism and the Aim of Science, (1983) Unended Quest (1976), and Objective Knowledge (1972) he defends philosophical realism against phenomenalism, instrumentalism, relativism etc. In A World of Propensities (1990) we find an elegant survey of his view of objective probability and of his evolutionary metaphysics and theory of knowledge.
His views on evolution make his deductictivist theory of knowledge perfectly understandable. According to Popper’s version of Neo-Darwinism our bio-logical evolution is such that, at no point in Evolution, a ’direct (’Lamarckian’) instruction’ takes place from Nature to organisms. Analogously, we humans have no ”hotline” to reality in itself or to any other ’source of knowledge’. We have to do with a secular view of human knowledge, you could say. Mankind is episte-mologically alone in the world: we can never receive instruction or communication ’from outside’ to the effect that this or that set of statements are irrevocably true and certain or even that this particular theory is inductively probable to a certain degree. What, then, would be the rational strategy if this is our situation? Free critical dis-cussion of (logically speaking) freely invented hypotheses – metaphysical as well as scientific – but, importantly, a discussion not allowing typically ’philosophical’ objections to the effect that the opponent’s thesis has not been proven. For the demand for proof and the ideal of perfect certainty entail either logical circularity or infinite regression or irrational adherence to fundamental dogma. ’Apodictic certainty’ is not something inherently desirable, but something we can always get hold of, for instance through passionate subjective belief, effective censorship, immunisation of paradigms, or whatever. Paradoxically, if we strive to understand Reality, we will have to make do with fallible hypotheses and the critical comparison of fallible hypotheses.


In his later years, Popper concentrated his efforts in the fields of evolutionary epistemology and objective indeterminism; but his worries concerning the fate of Mankind led him now and then to speculations about politics and social matters. Among university philosophers he soon lost whatever influence he might have had (very little, he sincerely thought); but in broader intellectual circles he increasingly acquired the status of a sort of wise old man who was always worth listening to, not least because he – whether as a lecturer or as an interviewee – was often ready with surprising and often provoking statements. For example, he never accepted the common talk of the West’s, and especially USA’s, ’cultural imperialism’. That Western Civilisation in important respects is ’objectively superior’ to other cultures could be rationally argued, he said, as well as seen from the fact that individuals all over the world adopt it to an increasing extent or even vote for it ’with their feet.’ There is no question of compulsion there.
The greatest dangers for world peace, he argued, is the growing number of well-armed pocket-dictatorships (he unhesitantly supported the role of Western countries in the First Gulf War) and the spread of plutonium and nuclear scientists from the former Soviet Union. We must create international task-forces to fight this particular problem; and, in general, democracies must be ready to ’go to war for peace,’ as he put it. Areas of Free Trade is a good thing and ought to be steadily extended for the sake of peace and prosperity; but new, big state-constructions such as an European Union are definitely harmful.

There is some encouragement to be derived, I think, from the fact that one of the last tasks of this great philosopher of freedom was overseeing one more edition of The Open Society and Its Enemies – in Russian.

Further references.
Bartley, W.W.Bartley III: ”Ein Schwieriger Mensch: Eine Porträtskizze von Sir Karl Popper”, in: Nordhofen. E. (ed.): Physiognomien: Philosophen des 20. Jahrhunderts in Portraits, 1980.
James, Roger: Return to Reason. Popper’s Thought in Public Life, 1980.
Nielsen, Flemming Steen: ”En kritik af den totalitære statstanke”, in: Svend Erik Stybe (ed.): Politiske ideologier, 1972.
– – : ”Karl Popper som evolutionistisk filosof”, in: Hoffmeyer & Stangerup (eds): Naturens historiefortællere II: Fra Darwins syntese til nutidens krise, 1987.
– – : ”Begrebet streng universalitet hos Karl Popper”, in: Filosofiske Studier fra Filosofisk Institut, København Universitet, bd. 9, 1987.
Karl Popper: Conjectures an Refutations, 1963.
– – : ”The Myth of the Framework”, in: E.Freeman (ed): The Abdication of Philosophy. Essays in Honour of Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1976.
– – : In Search of a Better World, 1990.

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