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Popper: Meek or Angry?

On page 183 of Confessions of a Philosopher, Bryan Magee writes
In practice this meant [Popper] was trying to subjugate people. And there was something angry about the energy and intensity with which he made the attempt.


Emotionally, Popper understood little if anything of this. he behaved as if the proper thing to do was think one's way carefully to a solution by the light of rational criteria and then, having come as responsibly and critically as one can to a liberal-minded view of what is right, impose it by unremitting exercise of will, and never let up until one gets one's way. "The totalitarian liberal" was one of his nicknames at the London School of Economics, and it was a perceptive one.

... discussions with me were carried on by him in a kind of rage ...

... the angrier he got ...

In later years [Popper] said that in those early meetings I was frequently rude to him, but I do not believe this to be true ... The truth, I think, is that I stood up to his intellectual bullying and hit back hard, and that he was taken aback by this, coming from someone half his age, and he resented it--and then, because he resented it, saw it as offensive.
And on page 198:
I became uninhibited about hitting him with all the artillery I could muster ... [Popper] turned every discussion into the verbal equivalent of a fight, and appeared to become almost uncontrollable with rage, and would tremble with anger
David Miller contradicts Magee:

[Popper] said that I did a good job as his assistant, and later he trusted me with his writings in a way that he rarely trusted others; nonetheless, I was amazed, and endeared, by the meekness with which he so often accepted my suggestions and emendations.


I never really managed to quarrel properly with Popper in all the years that I knew him. We disagreed on many issues, of course, philosophical, technical, stylistic, tactical, and personal. But far from being overbearing, he was patient and tolerant. If there was difficulty in resolving disagreements, it was not tiresome confrontation ... Sweet in argument, Popper was as often as not the one who gave way.

I am inclined to think Miller is correct. There are hints in Magee's story that he himself was not calm during those discussions and may have misinterpreted what was going on. Popper's view was that Magee was rude and Magee, by his own report, "hit" Popper "hard" which supports Popper's view. Magee interpreted their discussions as fights, but that does not mean that Popper did too.

Magee's assertion that Popper was taken aback by criticism -- that he was surprised by it -- is at odds with the facts of Popper's life. Popper was never idolized during his career; he was closer to an outcast; people disagreed with Popper and criticized him all the time, certainly more often than they agreed with him. Being criticized was the status quo for Popper, not something that would shock him.

My guess is that Popper was very accustomed to criticism, and genuinely enjoyed it, and that's why he did not realize his criticisms were offending Magee, who was less open to criticism than Popper.

Elliot Temple on August 19, 2008

Messages (1)

A mixed record

My personal contacts with Popper were limited to short social visits and we never talked really seriously in a way that could lead to disagreement. So much for my personal experience which has left me a memory of a kindly and charming gentlemen (but not a great car driver, like Mises - see the story of my first visit to his home http://www.the-rathouse.com/shortreviews/revHacohenIHS.html )

I think that Popper was (a) not consistent in his reaction to criticism and (b) deteriorated with age.

I am prepared to cut him a massive amount of slack on account of the truly contemptible quantity and quality of criticism that he had to endure.

The most detailed effort to come to grips with Popper's personal foibles can be found in Joe Agassi's book "A Philosopher's Apprentice: In Karl Popper's Workshop". It is not a happy story.

I do not question David Miller's perception and I think that Popper's response must have been conditioned by a number of factors including the person who offered the criticism (and his perception of the person's motives), the issue at stake, and a few other things.

Anonymous at 10:14 PM on September 9, 2008 | #1489 | reply | quote

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