Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Karl Popper in the Antipodes

Australia and New Zealand can claim to punch above our weight in many areas of human endeavour, including some sports and some contributions to the life of the mind as well. Often in the past our thinkers found it necessary to leave home to seek fame and fortune in distant lands, but in some cases things worked the other way and we became the site of great work by visitors. Such was the case when New Zealand provided refuge for Karl Popper from 1937 to 1945.

During that time he wrote The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism which appeared as journal articles in 1944 and in book form in 1957. Also during that time 14 of his relatives perished in the Holocaust. I have often thought that The Open Soceity was a bit on the long side, running to some 800 pages, many consisting of notes in smaller print. So recently I realised a longtime ambition to produce a condensed version.

One of his colleagues was a young economist named Colin Simkin, 26 at the time he met Popper in 1937. He became a lifelong friend of Popper and a regular visitor to the Popper residence in Britain. He was also allowed to smoke while he walked with Popper in the garden, a privilege indeed in view of the way that Popper banned cigarette smoking in his vicinity at the London School of Economics.

Simkin came to the University of Sydney and in retirement he lived within a mile of our place in Cremorne. We became friends and this revived his interest in some aspects of Popper's philosophy that he felt were not adequatelyappreciated in the social sciences. He wrote a fine book to rectify the situation, unfortunately costing an arm and a leg.

"This book offers a straightforward account of Sir Karl Popper's views on scientific methodology ranging from Logik der Forschung in 1934 to A World of Propensities in 1990. Part I covers his treatment of the interrelations between metaphysics and science, the fallacies of induction, the method of conjectures and refutations, evolutionary epistemology, the propensity theory of probability, and the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Part II considers the problems of the social sciences, his critiques of historicism and holistic planning, his defence of piecemeal planning on both scientific and humanist grounds, his method of situational logic based on models that use a `rationality principle', and the roles of institutions, traditions and history. The book is addressed to those who are interested in general problems of scientific method but find it difficult to get a clear or connected view of Popper's important contributions because these have been published over long intervals and have been subject to misinterpretations."

He also wrote a touching memoire of the time while Popper was writing The Open Society.

"Early in the following year I came to Christchurch as the only lecturer in economics, and very soon was visited by Karl Popper who charmingly introduced himself and asked for help such as Larsen had given him. As he put it, his English was bad and he was ignorant of the social sciences, so that he needed help from someone like me. I felt confident about assisting him with the English language but less confident that a twenty-four-year-old lecturer of quite limited experience could render the same service with the social sciences.
As it quickly turned out, my confidence in regard to English was misplaced. Karl’s command of the language was, naturally, then imperfect so that my pencil made many rapid changes to what he put before me. But his first book had been most critically read by Robert Lammer who had insisted that everything be made crystal clear, a lesson which Karl took permanently to heart and which he applied to my corrections. I had to justify all of them and was often in difficulty when confronted by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which was then Karl’s main recreational reading – along with stories about Dr Doolittle. Karl had a strong sympathy with children and liked good stories for them. I don’t think he missed, during his time in Christchurch, any talkie of Deanna Durbin, an appealing child star who appeared in singing roles."

During 1945 Professor Anderson offered Popper a position at Sydney but he delayed his decision in the hope of making a move to London. In the event he went to the London School of Economics.

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