” Well, I don’t think the bridge is all that immediate, but I do think you could develop a theory of art according to which art is a method of creating responses.( Karl ) Popper once said or wrote that language enabled us to tell ourselves a story—you know, to console oneself by telling oneself a story. You also can whistle in the dark. In other words, there are all sorts of things by which the individual finds a kind of shelter and consolation in his own creation. I think that this is a very important part of art: that it creates, call it a “third world,” one which is of our own making, and which creates a kind of home fondle mind.
…This is not an expressionist theory—as you see, it is a theory, again, of trialand-error. I think that the development of Western music, for instance, shows that somehow, gradually and step-by-step, a system has been developed which is appealing to a very, very large number of people and minds—and not only culture-bound, because Japan, for example, has taken to Western music like anything. There’s something objective in the effects of great music, and not only great music. ( Ernst Gombrich )
Edward Zerin: You have asserted that you respect religion for two reasons:(1) You know nothing about it, and (2.) some people may need it and, therefore, it might be useful to them.
Karl Popper: I do think that all men, including myself, are religious. We do all believe in something more and–it is difficult to find the right words-than ourselves. While I do not want to set up a new kind of faith, what we really believe in is what we call a Third World, something which is beyond us and with which we do interact, in the literal sense of interaction, and through which we can transcend ourselves. It is a kind of give and take, but not on the animal expressive level, of learning from works that have been created. The arts are an example. Music is the art that means the most to me. I can lose myself in my music which for me is an objective experience through which I try to improve myself.
Since Bertrand Russell, there has probably been no philosopher writing in English who could match Karl Popper ( 1902-1994 ) in the range, or in the quality of his influence. Yet Popper, was not only, or even primarily, a political philosopher. What is perhaps the outstanding work in art criticism in the modern era, Ernst Gombrich’s “Art and Illusion” , contains in its preface the sentence: “I should be proud if Professor Popper’s influence were to be felt everywhere in this book”.
Politics, science, art. In fact few broad areas of human thought remain unillumined by Popper’s work. The mere fact that one man could span such a range explodes a lot of myths about our so-called age of specialization and reveals something about the underlying unity of culture.
In the 1920’s he was part of the avant-garde in the Vienna Circle, whose revolutionary innovation was logical positivism. And it was, in a sense, against the views of the Vienna Circle that Popper’s first published book was written in 1934. The logical positivists regarded themselves as bringing scientific method to bear on philosophical problems. Popper argued, and in the end his arguments carried the day, that their conception of scientific method was fundamentally in error.
The attack was against induction, whose first formulations about the logic of scientific discovery were first articulated by Francis Bacon. The inductive method evolved into the hallmark of science, secure in its expansion consisting of the continual addition of new certainties to the corpus of those that already existed. Some embarrassing questions about induction were raised in the eighteenth century by David Hume, who pointed out that no number of observation statements could logically entail a general statement. For example, though all observed swans may have been white, it still could not follow that all swans were white.
Consequently, there arose the famous problem of induction, the skeleton in the famous cupboard of philosophy. Scientific laws appeared to be incapable of rational demonstration. They all assume the regularity of nature and that the future will be like the past. In effect science works, but we are at a loss to show why it works. Popper’s seminal achievement was his solution to the problem of induction.
Popper pointed to a logical asymmetry between verification and falsification.Although universal statements cannot be proved, they can be disproved. So, although any search for conclusive verification is irrational in that it is a search for something that is not to be found, attempted refutation is perfectly rational. Scientific statements can be tested to any degree we like, by systematic attempts not to prove them right but to prove them wrong. This would mean that we never actually “know” a scientific statement to be true. Popper showed that the history of science is a history of superseded theories, theories that do not arise out of our observations and experiments but precede them and are tested by them. The formulation of a fruitful theory is thus seen as a creative human act that requires great gifts, not least of which is boldness and imagination.
From the very beginning Popper realized that his views about the natural sciences had profound implications for the social sciences. Theories that claimed to be scientific in his time, psychoanalysis and Marxism , made no allowance for their own fallibility. Whatever happened, they were able to provide an explanation. Indeed, it was this ability to explain everything that so excited their adherents, and gave them a sense of revelation as if having discovered the key to life. Popper’s views, coalesced into a devastating onslaught on the scientific claims of Marxism that he was later to incorporate in “The Open Society and its Enemies”. But his first full scale demolition job was carried out on logistical positivism.
The central concern of the logistical positivists was with meaning. In their desire to clear away all the unnecessary verbiage from intellectual activity, they sought to distinguish those statements that really do mean something from those that do not. This meant meaningful statements were of two kinds; the purely formal in mathematics or logic and the false which are ultimately self-contradictions. From this developed the famous verification principle , which held that a statement only contains information about the world if it is somehow or other susceptible to verification. Such statements may be false as well as true, of course, but in either case they have a meaning. Statements that no conceivable observation could veify have no meaning: they are mere noises in the mouth: exhaust. This meant the elimination of he whole of metaphysics.
Popper argued that science had its historical origins in metaphysical theories; in religious, magical, mythical and superstitious views of the world; so metaphysical theories could demonstrably be of the highest value and importance. And once that was admitted it was hard to see how they could be held to be meaningless. His most powerful argument was that the verifiability criterion eliminated not only metaphysics but the whole of natural science, since scientific laws were themselves unverifiable.
His deepest argument, the bedrock underlying several of the others, was that the conception of scientific method that the logical positivists regarded themselves as bringing to philosophy was wrong; indeed, it was the one he had overthrown. This idea was so radical that his opponents failed to grasp it. They did not see that Popper, having debunked the inductive method, was proposing another to put in its place, namely falsifiability.
Instead, because of their obsession with meaning, they took him to be putting falsifiability forward as the criterion of “meaning” to replace their own verification principal. And because they, contrary to Popper, thought that empirical statements not of a scientific character were meaningless, they dismissed attempts to put the matter straight with the assertion that the two things came to much the same in the end. it was years before the full implications of what he had done sank in.
He left for New Zealand during the rise of Naziism as he realized that the Left in Austria would be quite incapable of stopping Hitler. He became seriously disillusioned with the realities of left-wing politics; the flabbiness and cowardice of the social democrats no less than the self-deluding Machiavellianism of the Communists. He saw the Nazi takeover resulting in a European war in which his beloved Austria would be on the wrong side.
Not long after his arrival in New Zealand the news reached him that Hitler had annexed Austria. He decided that very day to write “The Open Society and Its Enemies” . He spent the entire war in New Zealand , a place he once described as the last stop before the moon. He called “Open” his war work, a fact that explains the book’s biting emotional drive and unremitting sense of urgency. In two volumes, it is the most massive and powerful statement in the English language of the case for political democracy.
“The Open Society” traces the history, and tries to analyze the appeal, of totalitarianism; in doing so, it singles out the greatest geniuses of “right” and “left” totalitarian theor, Plato and Marx respectively, and subjects their political philosophies to extended criticism of a sustained an passionate brilliance.Popper asserted that when Karl Marx imported what he thought of as scientific method into socialist theory, he made what was essentially the same mistake as the logical positivists when they imported scientific method into their philosophizing. In effect, Popper laid the groundwork for his disciple George Soros’s attack on the theory of the efficiency of financial markets by attacking the basic assumption that the market is efficient, meaning that all information, collectively, is priced into asset values.
“What Popper saw clearly was “the strain of civilization” that afflicted the open society. The open society was difficult to achieve. It was not “natural” to us; we had to work devilish hard to make it succeed. Popper agreed with Freud that, as the latter would have put it, the burden of the super-ego was too great. Popper would have said the burden of individual moral responsibility. Too many of us too much of the time were only too happy to have some absolutist doctrine, some sacred text, or some charismatic leader take the burden of responsibility from us: to return us to the familial comfort of closed, tribal society, where it was all decided for us.
If all this sounds very contemporary, then Popper has made his point. It is not just the gullible mob and the crypto-aristocrats who are ready to betray the open society: its own intellectuals are often in the forefront of the stampede. Why, asked Popper, were his intellectual contemporaries so bewitched by Fascism and Communism, just as Plato was by Spartanism?
The sinister appeal of the closed society to even the best minds haunted Popper. The Western democracies are the most open societies yet achieved, but they too tend to become, or try to become, empires. Their growing complexity makes harsh demands on our capacity for rationality and individual moral responsibility. The “perennial appeal of tribalism” (my phrase not Popper’s), both to the masses and the elites, is often overpowering. When things are looking bad for us we cry out for a savior — a doctrine and a leader to return us to the safety of tribal society and the tribal mentality.
Max Weber was just as bothered as Popper by this. But he added an important point. He saw that charismatic leadership had an innate appeal, but he also saw that the growth of giant bureaucracies — indeed the very bureaucratic principle itself — added a new and dangerous variable to the equation. This was the most “rational” of rational social developments, and yet it had no inherent moral impulse. It could serve a vicious tyranny with the same amoral efficiency as it served a beneficent welfare state. Indeed it was the perfect instrument for totalitarianism.
Popper misses this. The Soviet Union under Stalin, and the Fascist dictatorships, were nightmares of bureaucracy as much as nightmares of tribalism. The tribal elements were the more spectacular (Nuremburg), but the bureaucracy got the totalitarian job done (Eichmann). The Soviet system eventually broke down because this form of government became perilously inefficient. The result of the breakdown is not the free enterprise democracy that was our hope, but a resurgence of Russian tribalism.” ( Robin Fox )
Paul Levinson: So would it be exaggerating things too much to say that in a sense what you’re doing by applying Popper—applying some of what Popper has worked out in the philosophy of science to the philosophy of art—is really raising the correct primacy of art as opposed to science?
Ernst Gombrich: I wouldn’t see it that way. You see, I have always resisted the category of”Art” with a capital “A.” As you may know, what people call art in various civilizations differs enormously. In fact, our notion of art is an eighteenth-century notion—”fine arts,” you know. After all, even earlier and even later were the “art” of healing, and the “art” of love, and the “art” of war, and the “art” of who knows what. It really is a term for skill, isn’t it?…
Now, like Popper, I don’t think one should waste a lot of time on definitions; but one must be aware that our grouping of, let us say, Lascaux under “art,” and the arrowheads which may be found there not under “art,” is our point of view, our categorizing.
About Lascaux, though I have been lucky enough to have seen it, I am very much aware of the depths of our ignorance about these cave paintings. People always enthuse how marvelously naturalistic they are—I have never encountered a bison in my life, and I don’t know what they looked like.