C.G.Jung / Philosophy

Karl Popper and the fireplace poker


The two great philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper – who both had a rap of abusive discussion style met only once: on the 25th October 1946.  The meeting in a crowded classroom in Cambridge went bad. Legends formed rapidly to their loud and aggressive confrontation, Wittgenstein supposedly used a red-hot fireplace poker to emphasize his points, gesturing with it as also the argument grew more heated.

Wittgenstein claims: In philosophy, there are no real problems, the language feigns them for us. Philosophical problems are only fake problems. Only mathematical, science or logical problems can be solved. Wittgenstein opened with the common language term “missed team spirit”. He explained that this term does not mean, that there is a being with this name. So before philosophizing one has to clarify bewitched language, has to exercise language critic in order to clarify what problem is worth to think about.

Popper disagrees: In philosophy, there are real problems,  the  language is not the problem. In his view there valid physical problems exit and presented a prepared list of philosophical problems which can be solved through rational thinking:

  • The problem if we can know things by senses or by thinking. Reply: this is not a philosophical but logical problem.
  • The problem of the infinite. Wittgenstein replied that is a mathematical problem
  • The problem of moral problem principles. Wittgenstein replied – name one.  Popper was only mildly impressed and replied with an explanation of his moral principles: “you should not threaten scholars with a poker when they are guest lectures.”

What happened really? Who were these two great philosophers? What was the point?. The majority of the philosophers in the  20th century followed Wittgenstein. How is it in the 21st century?

Popper tried to determine how we can ascribe truth to the claims made by science, religion and politics. Karl Popper has criticized Hegel’s dialectic, Marx, Freudian psychoanalysis and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as re-inforced dogmatism. He also argued,that scientific theories can never be proved to be true, but are tested by attempts to falsify them. Attempts to present theories such as Marxism,  Freudian psychology and Astrology as scientific are subjected by Popper to his own analysis of falsificationism, and fail the test.

Wittgenstein’s relationship with science, religion and psychoanalysis is ambivalent.  For example, to him Sigmund Freud succeeded to merge the semantic and empirical level in his theory so successfully, that still many think of him as a great scientist. Wittgenstein declined the psychoanalysis as a theory of the human psyche in the fiercest form as unscientific and dangerous. “What says Freud about the unconscious”, Wittgenstein blasted once in a lecture, “sounds like science, but actually it’s just a means of representation to persuade the reader or the patients and to accept a specific image”.

Popper was not member of the Vienna Circle, that group of logical positivists who, following on from the work of Wittgenstein (i.e.Tractatus) aimed at the unification of the sciences and the wholesale rejection of metaphysics. Popper’s antipathy to Wittgenstein meant of course, that he was not invited – although Wittgenstein was not a neo-positivist either.

Popper took a stand against an empiricist view of science, endeavouring  falsificationism. The key difference between Popper and the Logical Positivists is that their division was between science and nonsense, in that a non-scientific statement was of no value, whereas Popper’s was between science and non-science, in that a non-scientific statement had a value, just not a scientific one. Popper seems to have been a radical inductionist. Only conclusions based on induction and therefore subject to falsification – for instance the arrival of a black swan to contradict the conclusion that all swans are white – have any validity. The best we can hope for is not truth but more or less useable correlations. For Popper a theory is an ideology if it is based as it is on deductive logic generalizing the empirical evidence.

It is perhaps worth noting that Popper’s own doctorate was in psychology. Popper’s had, as Wittgenstein a distaste for the psychological models of Freud’s for different reasons, in particular for attempts to present psychology as a science. Popper pointed out, psychological theories are unfalsifiable in principle.

Each generation got their own problems, and in Europe we have plenty of real ones. With regard to analytic philosophy, it has undergone a very good transformation keeping the treasure of  Wittgenstein’s language critics without getting too much back into the puzzle-solving mode. It gave way to a ‘ general language philosophy’, whereby here the emphasis on must be “language”, which shares its theme with the linguistics and in some other philosophy branch which looks and feels more than sociology than philosophy. To make it short: I think that in this century a synthesis born between philosophy and natural sciences will leave both areas transformed – naturally the philosophy more than the natural sciences. In the moment I see (as an layman) in French and German philosophy more sociology than philosophy. This was a value statement.

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