The Birth of the Open Society: A Personal Reminiscence

by Colin Simkin

Quadrant December 1990
*  ESSAY *
Two remarkable things about The Open Society are that this great work of scholarship was produced under very unfavourable conditions for research, and that there was considerable difficulty in getting it published.

In 1937, Dr Karl Popper, a thirty-five-year-old Austrian refugee, joined the small Department that taught Philosophy and Psychology in Canterbury University College, Christchurch, New Zealand. He was given a heavy teaching burden as the only philosopher, and it was made more onerous by continual harassment from the psychologist who was Head of the Department. For economic reasons Popper also undertook some teaching for the local Workers Educational Association, and he was in demand for addresses to student and other societies.

Much of his teaching was evening work in the days when the constituent colleges of the federal University of New Zealand catered largely for part-time students. There was, of course, nothing in the way of research grants for staff who were not natural scientists, and very little for those who were. Nor did he have any secretarial assistance from the College; the typing of his many drafts and letters was all done by his exceptionally cooperative wife, Hennie. The Head of his Department even went so far as to make him buy paper used for non-teaching purposes. There was no effective authority to whom appeal could be made; the governing body of Canterbury university College (as I was myself warned after taking up an appointment there) seemed to regard time spent on research as time filched from the primary job of teaching.

Popper was also handicapped by a paucity of both library resources and intellectual contacts. He had been unable to bring more than a few of his own books to New Zealand, and the College library was very small and particularly deficient in non-English books (beyond literary works for the language departments). Other professional philosophers were all in distant colleges, the nearest and most valuable being John Findlay, then a professor in Dunedin, two hundred miles away, with whom he developed a warm friendship. He also corresponded with Henry Forder, the Professor of Mathematics in far away Auckland, who was interested in modern logic. He quickly attracted the friendship of some of Canterbury’s natural scientists and that meant much to him as he tells us in Unended Quest, his intellectual autobiography.

They could not, of course, help him with political philosophy, and there were then no departments of politics in the University of New Zealand. He had come to Christchurch with the material of an address which he gave, in 2936, to Hayek’s seminar at the London School of Economics, and which was to become his Poverty of Historicism. Soon after arrival he began to shape his material into an article, and discussed it with Harold Larsen, a temporary lecturer in the Department of Economics, but Larsen left for London at the end of 1938.

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.

I had also, of course, like almost everyone else beyond Vienna’s philosophical circles, no initial understanding of the methodological ideas which Karl had recently published in Der Logik der Forschung, and which he was now trying to apply to social science. I had unwittingly begun an informal postgraduate course in which, besides arguing with him about English, I learnt something about epistemology, natural science, probability theory and mathematics in return for a little help in economics. More than that, our close friendship led to discussion over a wide range of subjects, with wonderful insights into the political conditions and intellectual life of postwar Austria and its neighbours.

Work on the Poverty article was soon upset by the outbreak of war. I remember our sense of despair for Europe when listening together to a BBC report of Paul Reynaud’s final appeal to the United States as France was succumbing to Hitler’s guns, tanks and planes. Karl had already told me that he felt the still far from completed article was too abstract for wide appreciation, and that he would embark on a companion to be called “Marginal Notes on the History of Historicism”. He now regarded both these articles as his war work, and four years of most intensive work went into writing them. But much higher priority was given to the second which became The Open Society and its Enemies.

Karl increased not only his own research effort but also his demands on my own time, somewhat to the resentment of the girl I had married within three months of my appointment to Canterbury University College, although our two wives also became warm friends. He now, however, had help from Henry Broadhead, the scholarly lecturer in Classics, with that half of the book which is devoted to Plato. My own contribution was mainly to the chapters on Marx. Like Karl, I had delved into the Marxist literature during radical student days, and he seized upon my copy of Emile Burns’ Handbook of Marxism. Our collaboration ceased in May 1942 when I entered the Royal New Zealand Air Force and was soon posted overseas. But it was not long before Margaret Dalziel, a new lecturer in English, came to help him put both The Open Society and The Poverty of Historicism into final shape.

I returned to Christchurch in May 1944 to spend there what were to be my last fifteen months in the RNZAF and so resumed personal contact with Karl, though necessarily a much more limited one than before. He told me that both the Poverty and the Open Society had been accepted for publication, but only after a most frustrating period. Mind, the leading journal in philosophy in Britain, had rejected the Poverty as being insufficiently philosophical. This had grown so long that, when eventually accepted by Economica, it had to be published as three long articles. [The manuscript of The Open Society did not find a publisher in the US].

But the clouds of despair began to break when, by chance, he was given the address of a family friend, Ernst Gombrich, who was working for the BBC . Gombrich responded at once to Karl’s appeal for help in finding a publisher for the Open Society, although it took many months before one was found…Hayek was greatly impressed by both the book and the articles, so much so that, as Karl told me in confidence, Hayek had raised the possibility of Karl coming to the LSE as a Reader.

By this time he had become so dissatisfied with his own academic conditions in Christchurch that he was anxious to escape from them; a return to the intellectual life of Europe, a congenial institution, and a much better salary were very inviting. But he realised that Hayek’s prospect was quite uncertain and would, in any case, involve considerable delay. He also felt that his chances would be much improved if he could add the book and the articles to his list of publications, and that made him desperate to have them published as soon as possible.

Before long Hayek expressed willingness to publish the articles in Economica, which he then edited, provided that they could be somewhat reduced. It was not until a full year after my return to Christchurch that Karl had the satisfaction of seeing the first of them published, after a good deal of further work in satisfying Hayek’s reasonable requirements and in making his own improvements. Meanwhile the joint efforts of Gombrich and Hayek to find a publisher for The Open Society were not succeeding. Cambridge University Press had turned it down, and unsuccessful approaches were then made consecutively to other English publishers. Early in 1944 Hayek tried Routledge where Herbert Read found the book very impressive and sent a contract to Karl in May.

That was an enormous relief, but Karl now began to send many corrections and additions for the ever-patient Gombrich to make in the text, and to urge Read that the book be published quickly. Gombrich also had a good deal to do in regard to Karl’s application for the LSE Readership which had now been advertised.

The strain of all this, on top of a heavy teaching load and continued harassment, had undermined his health. He was doing with very little sleep as he spent most of his nights getting the last part of the Poverty and some of The Open Society into final shape. His blood pressure became very low, so that his doctor put him on to a variety of tablets and injections. On medical advice he took two short holidays in the \southern Alps towards the end of 1944 and felt better for them. The improvement, however, was temporary as before long he was suffering from a burnt back, toothache, colds and sore throats. Nevertheless he went, at the invitation of John Eccles, to give the most successful lectures on scientific methodology at the Otago Medical School, and was urged to apply for the Chair of Philosophy which his friend Findlay was vacating in order to return to South Africa. It was not unattractive to him, and he might have gone to Otago but for a cable from Hayek telling of his appointment to the LSE, a post which he definitely preferred.

After signing his contract with the LSE in May 1945, Karl set about what proved to be a tiresome business of getting exit permits and nationalisation from New Zealand, entry permits to Britain, and shipping passages. It was not until late November that he and Hennie sailed from Auckland. I saw them just before they left as I had come to be interviewed for the local Chair of Economics and recall that Karl was taking, for reading on the voyage, The Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour which had just appeared from the pens of von Neumann and Morgenstern. Such was his idea of relaxation.

Within a few months of their arrival in London the final article of Poverty appeared in Economica and The Open Society came into the bookshops. After eight years of comparative obscurity in a small and distant university college, Karl became almost immediately famous in a great intellectual centre, where he stayed for the rest of his salaried career. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom had appeared a little earlier than The Open Society and both attracted wide attention for their complementary and striking exposures of the intellectual roots of totalitarianism and the dangers of its various manifestations. Some attention was also given to Karl’s methodological ideas as explained in the Poverty articles, but it was not for another fifteen years that they became fully available to English readers with the publication of The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

It and the Postscript, completed in 1956 but not published until it appeared in 1982-83 as three volumes edited by William Bartley – are Karl’s towering intellectual achievements, although he has since written much else of prime interest, more especially in connection with his important ideas of “evolutionary epistemology” and a “propensity theory” of probabilities. But after leaving New Zealand he wrote little about the problems of the social sciences, and although some of his terms have become widely used by economic theorists, they seldom interpret them properly or realise their import. Nor has the Logic had a better reception from philosophers, especially in English-speaking countries, mainly because of their absorption with various forms of logical positivism, linguistic analysis, Marxism, or, more vulgarly, with trendy social issues.

Karl’s main influence, it seems to me, has been on natural scientists and on thinking people outside universities, especially in Continental Europe. The Royal Society has elected him to a fellowship, and similar honours have come from foreign academies of science. His books have sold widely, and gone through many editions an translations. He has, moreover, received two royal honours, many honourary doctorates and three other prestigious international awards (the Danish Sonning Prize, the Alexis de Tocqueville Prize and the Catalan Prize). No other philosopher, living or dead, has had so much public recognition yet such professional neglect.

The Open Society is the most popular of all his books; up to 1984 it had gone through five editions and the last edition through six reprints. This year a sixth edition has appeared. Philosophers themselves have praised it highly, Russell, Ryle and Berlin among them. The reason for its success may well be that it gives much more than a thorough exposure of the fallacies of historicism and collectivism: it gives the soundest case for a liberalism that is infused with both rational and humane values. But it should be read together with Poverty because, as this account shows, in spite of the Poverty’s less lively style and narrower range, both are aspects of the same analysis.

That, too, is the case with the Logic and its Postscript. In this sense, Karl has written only two books, both master works, as the other 10 can be regarded as collections of important essays. For all of them, the main assistance Karl had was given by his remarkable wife, and especially during the difficult times for the first three – the Logic, The Open Society and the Poverty. With the times so difficult and the tasks so great, I regard these three books as a triumph of spirit as well as a triumph of mind.

Colin Simkin later wrote a very good introductory book to explain Popper's ideas, especially as they apply in the social sciences.  This is a summary of the general introduction and this summarises the second part of the book on the social sciences. In the second part the introduction to Popper's ideas is excellent but the treatment of economics is less convincing because Simkin was inclined towards macro and mathematical economics.

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