Karl Popper - The Formative Years, 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna

Malachi Hacohen

Cambridge University Press, 2002

This intellectual biography examines the early life of one of the 20th century's most influential philosophers. Born in Vienna, Popper (1902-1994) grew up among educated, middle-class Jews who, despite their efforts at assimilation (Popper's father was Lutheran by conversion), still suffered prejudice. Though Nazism would eventually force him out of Europe, Popper spent the interwar years in Austria, developing the foundations of both his character and his soon-to-be-influential ideas. Like most of his countrymen, he believed that Jews' high public profile in the arts, sciences and professions contributed to anti-Semitism; he eschewed all religious practice, condemned Zionism and established a "life-long pattern" as "eternal dissenter and intellectual loner." In the mid-1930s he fled to a university in New Zealand; later, he secured a prestigious post at the London School of Economics. But Hacohen, an Israeli-born historian (Duke University), doesn't just map out the biographical details of Popper's early life. He combines them with critical readings of the philosopher’s most important writings from these years, The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Logic of Scientific Discovery, to argue against a contemporary academic trend. "Popper," Hacohen asserts, struggled with " 'poststructuralist' dilemmas" (like the notion that language both describes and invents the world) but crafted different solutions to these questions than today's scholars do. And Popper's contributions along these lines have been forgotten, in part, Hacohen suggests, because scholars have ignored the first half of his career. By remedying this oversight, Hacohen also "recommend[s Popper's] solutions as against poststructuralist ones." While much of Hacohen's book is accessible to analysts of language and philosophers of science, its rich evocation of the turbulent yet vital interwar Vienna should win this formidable book a wider readership.