How (not) To Be A Great Philosopher
In his impressive volume Malachi Haim Hacohen undertakes to tell the story of the first half of Karl Popper’s long life. (He announces that there will be no sequel dealing with the remaining nearly fifty years of his life, which he thinks to be better known and of less interest). Hacohen’s narrative is also a very good story of the first half of the past century’s intellectual and political upheavals. He describes in detail in what sense Popper was a victim of the turmoils, how he reacted to them, and to what extent, later on, he informed them, both in the world of ideas and in the world of politics. This well written and extremely well researched biography of Popper is also a comprehensive account of the socio-political Viennese context in which Popper formulated his fundamental ideas about science and society. For this reason Hacohen’s book could well be entitled Popper’s Vienna and will successfully compete with Janik and Toulmin’s shorter Wittgenstein’s Vienna, devoted to the same period of this unique city at the turn of the 20th century.
The secret of Hacohen’s success is that he very skilfully negotiates between his evident enchantment with Popper and his philosophy (Hacohen thinks he was a genius) and the well documented fact that he has to cope with a very recalcitrant and not always likable subject. Popper was notorious for his difficult character (one is surprised that this showed itself prominently so early in Popper’s career!). The difficulty for a biographer lies, however, not in the intricacies of Popper’s temper (they are rather easy to decipher), nor in the complexity of the intellectual work (which is famed for its exceptional clarity, if not simplicity – no mean feat for someone for whom the English language was the second one, learnt in mature age at that), but in the fact that Popper’s autobiography (and numerous fragments that did not appear in the published Unended Quest) and his later views of his earlier work are, to put it mildly, rational (or irrational) reconstructions of an intellectual development which was very different from the one Popper wished to be known. For Popper not only dehistoricised but also depsychologised his development (something only to be expected from the leading antihistoricist and antipsychologist). This has made Hacohen’s task quite formidable. But his extensive knowledge of the Popper archives, his deep understanding of contemporary philosophy, together with excellent narrative skills, make for quite fascinating reading.
Isaiah Berlin’s (and Archilochus’s) much used distinction between the hedgehog and the fox in its application to thinkers works well in Popper’s case too. Popper wished us to view him as a monolith of cosmopolitan, liberal and individualist morals, and of critical rationalist convictions from his philosophical childhood. But, as Hacohen shows, he was, at least initially, a groping and confused aspirer, led in different directions by rather extreme and powerful ambitions, helping himself generously on the way to other people’s ideas (without bothering much about acknowledgement), and eventually composing a system of ideas known as Critical Rationalism, which he spent the second half of his life defending from the attacks of foes and friends alike.
Hacohen muses as to why Popper’s original ideas, the most important of which seem to have been his nonfoundationalism and anti-positivism, and the idea of the contingency of knowledge, are now neglected, in the advent of the deconstructionist and poststructuralist haute couture. After all, the current fashion is not much dissimilar in content from Popper’s ideas formed in the 1930s, which now pass, however, for plain prêt-à-porter at most. He also regrets that Popper did not form a coalition with e.g. the now fashionable Jürgen Habermas, despite an essential closeness of their views on politics and society. This provokes a question, not put by Hacohen, as to why some people’s ideas catch on immediately and stay with us, why others’ have to wait for recognition, and why still others’ grow obsolete prematurely. Russell (much admired by Popper) said that the rationalist is distinguished not so much by the contents of the ideas s/he holds but by the way s/he holds them. In principle, in the present nonfoundationalist age, it is difficult not to subscribe to some ideas that Popper was the first to put forward. The issue is why few people now use Popper as the inspiration. An answer would have to show in historical and psychological detail why Popper’s ideas, in the times of positivism and the cold war (theoretically and performatively) quite powerful, even if misunderstood, do not enjoy nowadays the respect Hacohen thinks they deserve. Hacohen demonstrates that Popper’s main philosophical contentions were initially too revolutionary to be fully appreciated. On the other hand, they are perceived at present, as outdated and too conservative to find a wider following. One of the answers seems to be that Popper, though he lived long enough to see the birth of postmodernism, in his later work did little to demonstrate the validity and pertinence of his thought, living largely of the rent of his past achievements. Was it only because the spirit of time had wandered the other way? It is certainly quite clear that few people expected the old Popper to say something wholly unexpected. This enables us to draw a risky (since antagonising) comparison: if Wittgenstein was a mystic hedgehog who forced himself to be a (reluctant) fox, Popper was a confused fox who grew later into a conservative and predictable hedgehog.
There are some grievances one can hold against author. In one of the most interesting fragments of the book Hacohen discusses critically Popper’s stunning, indeed shocking “solution” of the Jewish problem, which Sir Karl thought the Jews should apply themselves (namely a complete renunciation of their Jewish identity). At the same time Hacohen (himself a Jew) seems to be making a bit too much of Popper’s Jewishness, profusely rejected, denied and suppressed by the doctrinally anti-ethnocentric Popper. In addition, despite evident admiration for Popper, Hacohen does not attempt to hide his multiple failures; thanks to this truthfulness, Popper’s portrait gains a lot by becoming more human (if not always humane), all his vices and virtues evenly interwoven. Unfortunately, in some places Hacohen omits quotations (especially from the voluminous correspondence) which would drive his critical points home more vividly; such authorial policy is much against the fine art of critical philosophical biography, whose standards were recently set very high by Ray Monk’s works. Another problem which (sometimes) bothers the reader is that in drawing an expansive picture of the context of Popper’s work, Hacohen betrays some lacunas in his otherwise impressive historical knowledge (one example: Protagoras did not “end up in exile” for, expelled from “tolerant” Athens, he actually never got anywhere, but perished in the depths of the seas due to a storm.) What is more, in parts of the book where Hacohen attempts to defend Popper from justified and unjustified criticisms, his narrative becomes somewhat wooden. These are, though, minor failings, and Hacohen’s book is much to be recommended to the widest philosophical public. For in its honest scholarship and balanced criticism, it is tremendously instructive as to how to be, and, at the same time, how not to be a (great) philosopher.