Popper Circles the Circle
The following excerpt was published in Wittgenstein's Poker (2001).
by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
"All this made me fell that, to every one of the [Vienna Circle's] main problems,
I had better answersmore coherent answersthan they had." Popper
hat then was Karl Popper's relationship to the Vienna Circle? Popper, like Wittgenstein, never attended its weekly discussions. In Wittgenstein's case this was because he chose not to; in Popper's it was a matter of not being asked. He writes in Unended Quest that he would have considered it a great privilege to be invited, but the call never came.
In 1920, during the meager days after the First World War, a café, the Akazienhof, some three minutes' walk from the University of Vienna's mathematics department, served cheap but wholesome meals on a nonprofit basis to impoverished students. In summer they could eat outside under the shade of the trees. There Karl Popper, then an external (ausserordentlicher) student at the university, ran into Otto Neurath, the most eclectic of the Vienna Circle. This was Popper's first contact with any member of the group, it was Neurath who would eventually describe Popper as its "official opposition."
This title was one in which Popper always gloried. He saw it as epitomizing a characteristic of his life in general and as justifying his philosophical existence. He was not just an opponent, he was the opponent; not just the opponent but the triumphant opponenttriumphant not merely over the Vienna Circle, but over Plato, Hegel, and Marx (though he respected both Plato and Marx), over Freud (whom he grouped with astrologers and other pseudoscientists)and, of course, over Wittgenstein.
Popper was always anxious to finish off what he grandly called the Popper legend. This told that he was a member of the Vienna Circle. Not true, Popper insisted. And it told that, from within the Circle, he had avoided certain philosophical difficulties that had arisen there by changing the verification principle on which a statement was judged as meaningful to one of falsification. Also not true: "The difficulties which beset the Vienna Circle were my making, I invented the difficulties, I showed that their criterion was not practicable, and I didn't try to rescue them out of these difficulties, but I had a completely different problem." His criticisms, he said, soon sowed confusion within the Circle. "But since I am usually quoted as one of them I wish to repeat that although I created this confusion I never participated in it." The stress is on "I" throughout.
Why did Popper always remain outside the Circle's circumference? After all, he did become friends with several of its members, including Carnap, Kaufmann, Kraft, and Feigl, all of whom had a high regard for his abilities. Carnap, Feigl, and Popper even spent a holiday together in the Tyrol in 1932. Feigl said that Popper had "an outstandingly brilliant mind:" and Carnap later wrote, "Dr. Popper is an independent thinker of outstanding power."
So Popper had the intellect and the contacts. And he also had the interest in transferring the analytic disciplines of science to philosophy. His first major work, Logik der Forschung (The Logic of Scientific Discovery), published late in 1934, brought the approbation of Einstein and was of equal power to anything that members of the Circle produced. The issue of his exclusion could be put this way: how could the Circle fail to include this young man as he began the work that would bring his international recognition? The answer must be: they could because Moritz Schlick so willed it.
Schlick was not an admirer. His earliest brush with Popper came in 1928, as an examiner for part of Popper's doctoral thesis, which left Schlick unimpressed. But, more importantly, there was Popper's fundamental hostility to Schlick's guru, Wittgensteinin particular, Popper's attacks on Wittgenstein's rejection of metaphysical propositions and on Wittgenstein's claim that, to be meaningful, propositions have to mirror possible states of affairs. (If the cat is on the mat, then the sentences "The cat is on the mat" and "The cat is on the hat" are both meaningful, since both represent possible states of affairs, even though only one is actually true. Wittgenstein believed that the logical structure of the sentence "The cat is on the hat" reflects the structure of a possible world.) In Unended Quest, Popper describes Wittgenstein's long-abandoned picture theory of languageby which language in its structure represents the worldas "hopelessly and indeed outrageously mistaken." A footnote then goes on to criticize Wittgenstein for exaggerating the gulf between the world of describable facts and what is deep and cannot be said: "It is his facile solution of the problem of depththe thesis 'the deep is the unsayable'which unites Wittgenstein the positivist and Wittgenstein the mystic."
Popper had been contemptuous of Wittgenstein's philosophy since first encountering it as a young student in the early 1920s. But this disdain only became apparent to a wider audience at a stormy meeting in December 1932eleven years after the first publication of the Tractatus, and when Wittgenstein was already reconsidering the views he had expressed there. It was the decisive moment for Popper's Vienna Circle ambitions, and it took place at what was known as the Gomperz Circle.
Although Schlick's was the most prominent of the groups in the Austrian capital at the time and acquired the widest recognition, there were other, often overlapping, circles. Many intellectuals belonged to several. Heinrich Gomperz, another Viennese philosopher, had a discussion group that focused on the history of ideas. The details of this December gathering, so fateful for Popper, are extremely sketchy. But one account tells how Popper was asked to address the Gomperz Circle and was informed that not only Schlick but also other luminaries of the Vienna Circle, such as Carnap and Viktor Kraft, would be in attendance. There could not have been more at stake for the young teacher. At this stage Logik der Forschung had still not seen the light of day, existing only as a vast tome in manuscript form, with the title "Die beiden Crundprobleme der Erkenntnis theorie""The Two Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Knowledge." This was reincarnated as Logik der Forschung after being heavily cut and substantially rewritten. Schlick was the editor of the series in which Popper hoped it would be published, and an impressive showing in front of him might bring the much sought-after call to his Thursday seminar.
Others in the same situation might have pursued a tactic of attentive deference and studied courtesy. But Popper, when tense, was always liable to take an alternative routeno-holds-barred aggression. On that of all nights, he launched into a full-blooded firade against his philosophical opponents. Wittgenstein was the main target of his derision, being accused by Popper of behaving rather like the Catholic Church in prohibiting discussion of any topic on which he did not have an answer.
Schlick left in disgust halfway through the meeting; later he grumbled to Carnap that Popper had caricatured Wittgenstein. It is a tribute to Schlick's integrity that, despite this contretemps, he subsequently recommended Logik der Forschung for publication. But membership of the Circle was something else. If brilliancy was one qualification, civility was another. Perhaps a reasonable attitude to Wittgenstein was a third. Popper had effectively flunked his interview. There is no evidence that after the Gomperz evening Schlick ever again considered asking Popper to join his circle. And, according to Joseph Agassi, Popper said many times that the problem he had with the Circle was his refusal to concede that Wittgenstein was a great philosopher.
For the rest of his life Popper would always exaggerate the gap between himself and the Circle. The Circle, he wrote with splendid self-assurance, could be divided into two groups: "those who accepted many or most of my ideas and those who felt that these ideas were dangerous and to be combated."
Yet, beyond the axe grinding, Popper's attack on the Circle's general position was unerringly targeted. He dusted down and polished up a two-hundred-year-old artifact of reasoning to use against the Circle's central tenet. In the eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher David Hume first questioned the process of inductive reasoning: just because the sun has risen every day so far, asked Hume, do we have any rational reason for believing that it will rise again tomorrow?
Hume thought not. An appeal to the laws of nature, for example, would simply take us round a circular argument. The only reason we have for believing in the laws of nature is that they have proved dependable in the past. But why should we assume that past reliability is any sort of guide to the future? Bertrand Russell, with his instinct for the arresting image, put the same riddle this way: "The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken."
Popper showed that Hume's work had important implications for scientific method, where there is a fundamental asymmetry. No number of experiments can prove the validity of a theory (for example, that the sun will always rise), for however often the sun does indeed rise, at some time in the future it may decide to take a well-earned day off. But one negative result can prove a theory false. We cannot logically deduce the validity of the statement "All ravens are black" even if we have tens of thousands of sightings of black ravens and none of any other huea blue one might be nesting just around the corner. (A chilling version of this came from the IRA man who pointed out that security for a politician may appear to "work" day after day, but the terrorist only has to be successful once.)
The theory of verification was therefore useless. And, just as fundamentally, the Circle was hoist with its own petard. Its famous slogan that condemned as meaningless all statements that failed its criteria ("meaningful = analytic or verifiable") failed its own test. For the claim that the meaning of a proposition is the method by which it is verified is itself neither true nor false by virtue of the meaning of its terms, nor is it open to verification. The principle cannot be seen, tasted, felt, or smelt; it cannot be experimented on in a laboratory or spotted in the streetso, according to the positivists' own principle, it is meaningless.
Popper entitles one section of Unended Quest "Who Killed Logical Positivism?" and feigns remorse in answering his own question: "I fear that I must admit responsibility." He complained, however, that because Logik der Forschung was not published in English for another quarter of a century, and because he originated from Vienna and wrestled with many of the same issues as the Vienna Circle, thinkers in the Anglo-American world took him to be a positivist. Neither he nor Wittgenstein could escape the Circle to which they had never belonged.
It was not only outsiders and later observers who associated Popper with the Circle. In place of "verification" Popper had proposed "falsification." A scientific theory could not be proved, but it could be shown to be untrue. For a theory or hypothesis to count as truly scientific, it had to expose itself to disproof. This was interpreted by some in the Vienna Circle as a mere refinement of their principle of verification, a tinkering with their otherwise well-functioning machine. Carnap maintained that Popper exaggerated the differences between his views and the Circle's. Carl Hempel wrote that Popper kept a definite philosophical distance from the Circle"a distance which I think was excessive; for after all, there was no party doctrine to which the members of the group were committed." And when another member, Viktor Kraft, wrote a short history of the group, he asserted that the Circle's ideas were proselytized in England through, among others, Karl Popper.
Popper always proclaimed that such attitudes represented a serious misreading of his critique. "Verification" had been employed by the Circle to delineate sense from nonsense. But Popper had no interest in drawing such linguistic distinctions. His aim was rather to distinguish science from nonscience or pseudo-science. He certainly did not reject a statement such as "Mahler is a wonderful composer" as gibberish or condemn it as merely subjective: he simply believed it did not fall within the realm of science. "It was clear to me that all these people were looking for a criterion of demarcation not so much between science and pseudo-science as between science and metaphysics. And it was clear to me that my old criterion of demarcation was better than theirs."
It is indisputable, however, that the parameters of Popper's lifetime philosophical interests were established early on, in Vienna. The preeminence he always gave to science and the scientific methodto proof, to logic, to probabilitymirrored the foci of investigation in his home city. However far he took the answers, he owed most of the questions to Schlick and his circle, and to Vienna.
( David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers, New York: Harper & Collins, 2001, pp. 165-172. )
Home Page | Further Reading | Site Map | Send Feedback