Karl Popper--The Formative Years 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna. Malachi Haim Hacohen. Cambridge University Press, 2000. pp. xiii, 610, $54.00 (hardcover), ISBN 0-521-47053-6.
Malachi Hacohen's biography of Karl Popper is in many ways an extraordinary book. Although Popper is one of the most well-known philosophers of the twentieth century--even most economists have some idea who he was and roughly what he said about scientific knowledge--no serious intellectual biography was available until the publication of Hachoen's book. There have been a few precis volumes, some collections of critical papers, a number of interpretative monographs on particular aspects of Popperian philosophy, and of course Popper's own Autobiography, but there was no in-depth general biography of his life and work. Hacohen's book is not only unique, it is extremely careful, quite detailed, and very well-written. It is clearly a very important contribution to the literature; not only the literature on the philosophy of Karl Popper, but also the Vienna Circle, positivism, Red Vienna, the interpenetration of philosophy and politics, European Jewish intellectual culture in the interwar period, and a host of othe r subjects. Many of the things that have been written about Popper--particularly by those of us who have discussed the relationship between Popper's philosophy of science and economics--will need to be revised in light of this book.
One of Hacohen's goals is simply to provide a philosophically substantive and historically accurate biography of the first half of Popper's life, but, like all biographers, the author also has specific arguments to make about Popper, his political and philosophical views, and the interpretations of others. While there are far too many such arguments to discuss them all in a short review, let me just mention the three that seem most prominent. The first is the philosophical argument that Popper never endorsed either foundationalism or positivism, and that his anti-positivist and anti-foundationalist philosophy offered (and continues to offer) a viable rationalist middle-ground between foundationalism-essentialism on one hand, and postmodernist-relativism on the other. A second, but equally important theme, is Hacohen's position regarding the role/commitments of the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia in interwar European intellectual and political life, particularly in Vienna. Finally, but again equally importan t, Hacohen offers a sustained argument about Popper's politics--particularly his socialism--how it has been misrepresented (even by Popper himself), and how, once properly understood, Popper's position provides an effective and appealing political philosophy for our times: "By historicizing Popper, I hope to recover the legacy of progressive and socialist Vienna for the post-cold war world" (p. 6). I will briefly discuss each of these three arguments.
Neither the claim that Popper was a conventionalist about the empirical basis of science (that empirical basic statements are not "ultimate foundations" or "given by objective nature," but rather decisions made by members of the scientific community), nor the argument that Popper's philosophy of science was nonfoundationalist and demystifying while also being committed to progress and the growth of scientific knowledge, is a reading of Popper's philosophy that is unique to Hacohen. It is an interpretation that is widely accepted within the Popperian philosophical literature. It is not, it might be noted, the way that Popper is generally viewed among economists who endorse a Popperian methodology for economic science--Popperian economists generally subscribe to what Hacohen calls the legend of the positivist Popper (p. 424)--but it is certainly the way that most Popperians, and other careful readers, interpret Popper's philosophy of natural science. Where Hacohen goes beyond this standard reading is in his ins istence that Popper's nonfoundationalist philosophy of science was in direct competition with, and in many ways was much more successful than, the anti-foundationalism of Otto Neurath: a positivist view that has recently been reexamined by Cartwright et al. …