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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / biography


Karl Popper
The Formative Years

Malachi Haim Hacohen

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To purchase Karl Popper

Title: Karl Popper
Author: Malachi Haim Hacohen
Genre: Biographical
Written: 2000
Length: 551 pages
Availability: Karl Popper - US
Karl Popper - UK
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  • Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating broad examination of Popper; especially strong on historical context

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 21/11/2002 Colin McGinn
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 12/11/2000 David Papineau

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hacohen has labored long and hard in the archives, and the result is a magnificent work of scholarship. (...) Attitudes toward Popper's standing are likely to influence responses to this biography. Hacohen's achievement is not in question. This splendid work would be worth reading for the background alone." - David Papineau, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) was among the most important philosophers of the 20th century. His early work, Logik der Forschung (1934, translated as The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959) remains one of the most significant texts in the philosophy of science. Popper's most famous book, his work of political philosophy, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), remains hugely influential (George Soros' organization being only one of the clearest manifestations of the application of Popper's ideas).
       Popper only truly achieved renown with the publication of The Open Society and its Enemies. Living in New Zealand at the time he then took a position at the London School of Economics, becoming a fixture there for the next decades. Popper led a long and active life, continuing to work (mainly on refining his earlier ideas) and publish well into old age. He was also an influential mentor (of sorts) and teacher, and though he ultimately broke with many of his students he was also an intellectual father-figure to many of them, his shadow evident in much of their work. Among those he taught were Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, John Watkins, Joseph Agassi, and William Bartley.
       It is the later Popper that is best remembered now, his work elaborating on (as he saw it) the ideas of Logik der Forschung that are most discussed (and criticized). His complex relationship with his students (in his "(in)famous Tuesday evening seminar [...] he enforced clarity of ideas and simplicity of speech with an iron hand", Hacohen notes -- an iron hand that could be tremendously intimidating), his conviction in his own ideas, and his withdrawn (and work-filled) lifestyle perhaps dominate this picture. The harsh criticism some of his work has received (notably from Paul Feyerabend, but also numerous others) has also coloured the picture of the philosopher and the man.
       Curiously, little has previously been written about the young Popper. His carpentry-apprenticeship, his work as a schoolteacher, his dealings with the Vienna Circle, the events in Hörlgasse in June, 1919 (leading to young Popper distancing himself from the communist party), and his exile in New Zealand are familiar -- but generally little more than these few facts is known. Popper's own "intellectual autobiography" (Unended Quest, 1976) contains some useful detail, but is highly selective. (Hacohen usefully also makes note of material that Popper wrote but did not include in his memoir in retracing Popper's life.)
       Malachi Haim Hacohen takes a huge step in filling this void with his comprehensive biographical work. An historian, Hacohen specifically places Popper -- and his work -- in its historical context, focussing on the interwar period in Vienna. Born in 1902, Popper grew up as Vienna underwent a radical transition, especially with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and what followed. Much has been written on fin-de-siècle Vienna in the past few decades, but few of these intellectual and cultural histories have focussed beyond that. Only occasionally have historians looked to what came afterwards -- generally only to confirm the decline and end of the cultural and intellectual flowering that was Vienna 1900 (and thereabouts). The formative years of the best-known figures from the time can be said to fit before the beginning of World War I, and it is this period which is accorded the greatest importance in examining their lives. Wittgenstein (born 1889), Arnold Schoenberg (b.1874), Egon Schiele (b.1890), Robert Musil (b.1880), and Hermann Broch (b.1886), among others, are seen as products of fin-de-siècle Vienna, even though in most cases their work dates mainly to the interwar period.
       Karl Popper was of a different generation, though he still enjoyed some of the best of fin-de-siècle Vienna. As the son of a prominent lawyer, living in an apartment across from St.Stephen's Cathedral in the very heart of Vienna, he enjoyed a quite privileged youth. His father had an enormous library, and Popper grew up in an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. The First World War, however, drastically changed the material circumstances of Popper's family, and of the rump-country that remained of Austria.
       Noting that Popper "took special exception to Wittgenstein's Vienna" (the Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin book (1972) -- which, Hacohen reassures his readers in a footnote, he considers a "major contribution") Hacohen emphasizes a different aspect of the Vienna of the time. Hacohen writes about Popper:

The focus on Viennese modernism, he felt, produced a distorted picture of fin-de-siècle culture. The Vienna he knew -- progressive, optimistic, reform oriented -- virtually disappeared from accounts of modernism. Social reform, not cultural crisis, prevailed in his Vienna 1900.
       Hacohen is an historian, and the book is particularly strong in setting the historical stage around young Popper. Hacohen offers a good deal of background, focussing especially on the changing role of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a role that, of course, continued to be an issue in the Austrian after-state for decades). Popper's family was originally Jewish, though his parents converted to Lutheranism in 1900, and both anti-Semitism and Zionism would colour much of Popper's thought (as well as affecting his career).
       Hacohen follows Popper's early career closely, always tying it up with the constant political and economic turmoil in interwar Vienna. Popper was rarely a true political activist, but he followed many of the events of the day closely and was present on several historical occasions when various factions and the state clashed. The economic climate also made it difficult for Popper to find employment, and his career progressed unevenly. He apprenticed as a carpenter, and qualified as a teacher -- though it took years for him to get a position, as there was no great demand for teachers at that time.
       Popper's interests were far-reaching. He volunteered to help psychologist Alfred Adler in 1919, and Hacohen describes a fairly close relationship developing -- though noting that Popper "heard Adler sing and thought his voice much superior to his psychology". Popper continued to be interested in psychology, but Hacohen notes that "contrary to Popper's recollections, his logic and psychology collided during the 1920s, making his intellectual progress impossible." (Hacohen has no qualms about dismissing some of Popper's own accounts, convincingly refuting a passage from Popper's Conjectures and Refutations, for example, after stating emphatically about Popper's version: "This is not the way things really happened.") While Popper would continue to tie in psychology (as he later would evolutionary biology), the focus shifted to what is now familiar as his philosophy of science.
       Hacohen does an excellent job of following all the strands of Popper's thought as it evolved in the 1920s and 30s, his historical perspective a welcome counterbalance to those who focus solely on the philosophy itself. By examining all the documentation available Hacohen makes the reader aware of the shifts and changes in Popper's philosophy, and he also suggests a variety of reasons for them. It is a fascinating evolution, well-related.
       The Vienna Circle took on a larger role as Popper flirted on its periphery, and Hacohen does a good job of keeping the various figures and philosophies and their mutual influence in some sort of order. Personalities clashed as much as philosophies did and Popper, though still young, seems always to have been a complex person to deal with. The arduous evolution of Logik der Forschung -- and the immense (and often peculiar) difficulties in getting it published are all recounted in quite interesting detail.
       "Logik der Forschung was a philosophical revolution", Hacohen writes, and he describes the enormous impact it made well, following the various reactions it occasioned. (Among the points of interest is that "although Logik was widely read, it did not sell very well." Of 860 copies printed, 60 were complimentary and only a further 200 or so were sold by the summer of 1935. By August, 1939, only a total of 449 had been sold. The Nazis then prohibited the sale of the book and the remaining stock went up in flames during an Allied bombardment.)
       The text was recognized as very significant, even if many prominent figures in the field disagreed with it. Still, Popper had difficulty securing any sort of post or fellowship. The situation in Austria was growing dire and Popper had to look abroad for any sort of opportunity. The one that finally presented itself led him to antipodean extremes -- New Zealand.
       It was there that he wrote, in a second language, The Open Society and its Enemies. New Zealand, however, was just a place of refuge. As Hacohen writes:
After the Anschluss, when public criticism of socialism could no longer hurt the democratic cause, he launched "The Poverty of Historicism." The critique of Austrian socialism provided the impetus for his political project. We owe The Open Society to interwar Austrian politics.
       Hacohen does an excellent job of discussing the relevant Austrian politics, and the complex interplay of power struggles among the various parties. Socialism took on many different forms in Europe in the interwar period, and Red Vienna certainly had its own unique version that also left its mark on Popper.
       Hacohen writes that Popper specifically:
... bemoaned the loss of the popular scientific culture that he had experienced in progressive Vienna. He would spend his life trying to restore "the tradition of rationalism," shattered by war and ethnonationalism. (...) In exile, he recovered progressive Vienna as the Open Society and the Republic of Science.
       Hacohen makes a convincing case for this. His story is more one of making the connexions than of interpretation (though there is some of that as well), and it usefully places The Open Society -- too often seen as a text addressed towards the world of the Cold War -- in its true historical context. Hacohen also goes through the text itself carefully, explaining Popper's attitude towards and treatment of Plato, Hegel, and Marx, and noting his lack of familiarity with and interest in some of the material (notably Hegel).
       "Few philosophical works have left a comparable impression", Hacohen notes, and his own contribution towards the understanding of the material is a welcome addition. He is also willing to take Popper to task for the text's shortcomings ("Popper misinterpreted not only Hegel but also contemporary German intellectuals as well", etc.), and presents a very balanced view of it.
       The focus of Hacohen's book is on Popper's formative years, ending in 1945. His star in the ascendant, Popper would go on to international fame and considerable glory shortly after (once The Open Society was published -- which, as Hacohen recounts, took considerable effort as well). An epilogue traces the rest of Popper's career and legacy, a useful summary.
       The value of the book is, however, in its expansive coverage of Popper's life and work until 1945. Hacohen has written an exemplary intellectual history. It makes for a quite fascinating read, even for those outside the field. Though occasionally a bit heavy on the historical detail (Hacohen is nothing if not thorough), these were wild times in an unusual place and most of the detail is gripping. Hacohen convincingly shows the synthesis of external influences and Popper's own insights in the two important books he published in this time.
       Highly recommended for anyone interested in intellectual history, philosophy of science, political philosophy, and interwar Europe.

       A few minor points should be mentioned. Hacohen writes well, but there are a few occasions where he is unnecessarily frivolous, suggesting at one point, for example, that Popper was overly ambitious in one undertaking by saying: "Most intellectuals having similar aspirations would be well advised to seek medical help". Fortunately, such expressions are the rare exception, not the rule.
       The book is heavily (and usefully) footnoted, and the documentation overall very good. The index, however, is not quite as comprehensive as one might hope for, as a few pages of the text seem to have been largely skipped in the indexing process. Almost none of the names on page 105 appear, for example (the references to Bohr, Einstein, and Russell are noted but about a dozen other names are not -- including figures such as Felix Ehrenhaft (a professor whose lectures young Feyerabend also attended), Alfred Whitehead, and Hans Thirring), and we noted several other pages with similar omissions.

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Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945: Reviews: Karl Popper: Open Society: Malachi Haim Hacohen: Books by Karl Popper under review: Other books about Karl Popper under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Malachi Haim Hacohen is an associate professor of history at Duke University.

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