On Popperian Generosity


I encountered the thought of Sir Karl Popper first as an undergraduate student of economics in the UK. This was in 1985 or thereabouts. A lecturer called Dr. John Posnett said something about black swans and the logic of refutation during a lecture about the methodology of positive economics. I suspect that the question at issue was whether neoclassical positive economics was an empirical science. At the time, I was devoting most of my energies to less intellectual matters, so I didn’t dwell on the question. But the curious logic of refutation seeded itself in my mind precisely because I thought that this was not what the theorists of neoclassical economics were at all interested in deploying.

Next, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I acquired the habit of buying books in various second-hand book shops. One such, was Bryan Magee’s Popper. It was a ‘wow’ experience, not least because Magee was a master of the literary equivalent to the blended aperitif. This was not, however, my first introduction to philosophy because I had read previously Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy—in itself, a life-changing moment intellectually.

The Poverty of Historicism was the first of Karl Popper’s books that I read. That was Christmas 2003. I know this because I wrote the date alongside my name in the inside front cover. I didn’t understand this work at first, and I have read it three times since, always trying to unpack its many hidden connections; but I knew enough about social science and history to recognise its significance and central concern. I read several more of Popper’s books in the 2000s. Most memorably, The Open Society and Its Enemies while on vacation and staying in a 1930’s era block of flats in Spandau, Berlin. I could feel the ghosts of that era on every Strasse. One outcome of my appreciation of historicism, collectivist justice, anti-rationalism, and Platonist anti-democratic politics, was that I became an opponent of the project of European Union. Instead of holiday photographs, I took home Popper’s teaching that we should never sit back and assume that our freedom is secure. Several years later I enlisted in the largest ragtag assembly of anti-authoritarian critical rationalists ever seen in the British Isles. Together, we began the democratic campaign to take back control of European history from those who had solemnly declared that there was a collective European identity and a prophesised collective historical destiny.

But that is to leap into the future. In between, I met the Popper scholar, David Miller, at an Oxford University summer school about the legacy of Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy. That was 2007. David was one of the tutors and Bryan Magee, incredibly, was a fellow student. I read also works by Ian Jarvie, William Warren Bartley III, Ernest Gellner, Peter Munz, John Oulton Wisdom, Joseph Agassi and Mark Amadeus Notturno. The latter’s On Popper is a brilliant nutshell guide to critical rationalism. I also extracted readings from Rafe Champion‘s fantastic Rathaus web site. All of this helped me to think about and write my own academic papers about the relevance of critical rationalism to business/management studies and economics. These are subjects relevant to my work as a university lecturer in the UK. Those papers were published in the journals Philosophy of Management and Cambridge Journal of Economics. In one such, I wanted to reproduce a photograph of a young Karl Popper in the Alps, but I thought that obtaining copyright clearance would take weeks. At the suggestion of Joseph Agassi, who had a digital copy of the photograph, I wrote speculatively to Melitta Mew to request the permission of the Estate of Karl Popper to reproduce it. Melitta generously granted permission by return of post. Another published paper was a dialogue about banking and the Open Society, co-authored by Popper’s sometimes editor Mark A. Notturno. Although at that time we had never met in person, I had engaged Mark in an e-mail correspondence about the ‘credit crunch’ and the 2008 banking crisis as viewed from a critical rationalist perspective. Mark gave generously of his time and ideas and we agreed to convert our lengthy correspondence into a Platonic-style dialogue. This led me to attend periodically Mark’s on-line seminar on The Future of Science and the Open Society. In 2014, I met Mark and his wife Ieva in person when they visited England. During their visit, Mark gave a talk at the London Mathematical Laboratory to an audience hosted by Ole Peterson and his co-workers. To hear Mark say that the most a valid deductive inference can offer us is not a proof but a choice, and that an invalid inductive inference does not even offer that, was like feeling a scalpel slice through the paradigmatic mess of modern academia. On attending his on-line seminars, I came to admire Mark’s indefatigable effort to make available an open forum in which to discuss critical rationalism. The participants come and go, but the critical discussion goes on and on. This quality of indefatigability applies equally to Rafe Champion and his co-workers on the critical rationalist blog.

Another paper that I authored, about the standard account of research method in management studies, would probably have never been published had David Miller not given generously of his time and knowledge in criticising an early draft. At the time, if I had a query about Popper’s philosophy, I would cheekily send an e-mail to David asking that he share his thoughts. It was always exciting to receive his perfectly crafted replies, in their distinctive lucida console font.

I suspect that it was these various encounters that led, in 2015, to the honour of my being invited to address a conference in Ankara on Karl Popper and the Problem of Change in Science, Society, the State and Faith. The conference was hosted with overwhelming generosity by Halil Rahman Açar. In Ankara, I was privileged to meet Joseph Agassi, Jeremy Shearmur, Philip Benesch, Dmitri Sepety, Ray Scott Percival, Ali Paya, Harald Stelzer, Bilal Sambur, Jack Birner, Rafe Champion and many other scholars of critical rationalism.

I would not claim to be a Popper scholar and I have never been especially dedicated to the academic way of life, but I have certainly found the afore mentioned to be of great help in my own intellectual development. I am pleased to be able to detail the influence that Sir Karl Popper and these various Popperians have had upon me. But above all else, I would like to thank them for their unremitting generosity.

rod-thomas-1Rod Thomas

Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England, UKContributor

Rod Thomas was born in Wales, UK. He was educated at the University of York, UK and presently works as a senior lecturer for the Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, UK. Prior to this he worked in management for the UK National Health Service. He has published articles in Cambridge Journal of Economics, Philosophy of Management, Kybernetes, The Journal of Management in Medicine, The Journal of Organisational Transformation and Social Change and elsewhere.

To learn more about Rod’s research interests ad publications, click here. He can be contacted at rod.thomas@northumbria.ac.uk.

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