How Popper Opened Up My Future

BY NICOLAS MULLER.

My encounter with Karl Popper’s ideas was an immeasurable event in  the pursuit of my studies and in the conduct of my life. It is still a great help  in my daily life today. I will present to you the ideas and circumstances that  created this event. The great thing is that when I wrote this text, which was a  kind of anamnesis, I discovered that this meeting was even more complex and  rich than my memories would suggest at the beginning. You will see that I was  able to find very precise traces of it. 

It was at the University of Lyon, France, in the 2nd year of Philosophy  that I first became aware of the fruitfulness of Karl Popper’s ideas. At that time  I experienced this reading as a deliverance and a relief. Indeed my first year  of study in Philosophy was quite disappointing from an intellectual point of  view. It was so boring that I thought about changing school.  

I had a general philosophy lesson on Hegel’s philosophy. It lasted the 2  semesters of my year. It was long, indigestible and discouraging. Other courses  referred to him and this author was often presented as an unsurpassable  philosopher. Despite my efforts to figure it out, I couldn’t, my school results  were very poor and I found no pleasure in thinking. My image of philosophy at  the time was tarnishing. There remained Descartes whom I admired for its  clarity and also ancient philosophy because I had been drawn to ancient  Greece since my teenage years through my ancient Greek language courses. 

While writing this article I remembered the text that struck me and kind  of relieved me. It was about Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance (called in  French) which can be found in the introduction of the book Conjectures and  Refutations which I consider to be one of the most important works of the 20th  century. I also remembered having borrowed it from the library with the book  Objective Knowledge. The next days, I remember navigating from one to  another, from text to text. There were so many philosophical problems that  were addressed in these two books and there were mostly attempts to solve  them. This Karl Popper way of finding very telling examples really set me free  and liberated. 

Abstraction was at the service of understanding reality. There was a  clear exposition of the problems, the theories, the clashes of ideas. In each text  I felt a concern to be clear, to be modest and above all to take the philosophical  problems as something serious and important. A lot of the topics and articles  had nothing to do with my 2nd year classes but I couldn’t stop myself. It was  so jubilant. It was a new world opening up. 

I went to the second year of philosophy before knowing Karl Popper.  What determined me to do my second year was the fact that we had access to  two courses that I was sure to like: the mathematical logic and the philosophy  of science courses. And indeed I had rich and exciting lessons which were  taught by great teachers (Jean-Pierre Ginisti and Denis Forest). They were all the more important to me as they enabled me to meet the thought of Karl  Popper. My passion for philosophy was going to be strengthened, consolidated  and even multiplied.

Under what circumstances and on what subject was Karl  Popper introduced to me? It was done in two stages actually. 

The first memory I had was about my philosophy of science class which was about Darwinism. This was in 1995 during my 2nd year of study in the  second semester. But in writing these lines, I wanted to know the exact date and  verify this memory. So I went to look for the lessons in question in my boxes.  The reality was much more complex than my memories let me see. 

I did indeed find the course in question, it was dated April 4, 1995, and  it spoke well of Darwinism and evolution. This was an introduction to chapter  37 of Unended Quest. The bibliography of this course mentioned 3 works  by Karl Popper: The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Unended Quest, Objective  knowledge. My recollection was more or less correct on this point. But there  was still a mistake. My memory had been selective, it was playing a trick on  me. It was not my first encounter with the ideas of Karl Popper. 

Indeed by arranging and reclassifying my courses I came across the  notes of my very first semester of philosophy of science which focused on  mathematical idealities and there it was a surprise. I discovered that my very  first course in Philosophy of Science which took was of October 18, 1994,  began with a reference to Popper’s theory of three worlds. I had no memory of  this meeting and yet it is a theory that I find very important. 

Indeed, this theory has always allowed me to better understand the  world of mathematical objects. I regret that it is not taken seriously enough  and that it is not used enough in my opinion. Yet, it seems to me capital. It  accounts for the reality and the force of abstractions without falling into an  idealistic philosophy. It also had a huge impact on my life as it made me  understand the importance of theories and the importance of finding and  choosing the best ideas. 

As a reminder, this world 3 refers to anything that can be produced by  the human mind. World 3 refers to everything that is produced and  transmitted using descriptive and argumentative language. All intellectual  works, all technical or artistic achievements which presuppose rules,  procedures, algorithms are part of it. You can see them in the animal kingdom  with spider webs, beaver dams or the dance of bees. This world of culture and  idealities has often been approached by philosophical theories but they lead  to contradictions (Platonic idealities) or aberrations (the unreality of  Berkeley’s material). Currently the theory of memes seems to circumscribe  this world quite well. When we think of technological innovations or the  environmental impact of man, we measure the importance of theories and  values, the role of the world 3. From my point of view, Popper’s philosophy is  one of the most beautiful contributions to the enrichment of this world 3. 

Karl Popper opened my future and he also opened me to the infinite  richness of the world 3. I continued to read books of philosophy and reread  the texts of Popper. Two books have recently been translated into French and it was a real pleasure to discover them. At first glance one might think that  philosophy is not useful for the exercise of the profession of school teacher. It  is enough to teach 6-year-olds to read and count. This is why I would like to  point out three more essential points in relation to my teaching profession and  still show my gratitude to Popper : 

First, I was able to progress more easily in my job. Popper made it easier  for me to open up to criticism, although it’s always difficult to question his  ideas. Indeed, I always keep in mind that we can always be wrong. This allowed  me to test devices, compare them, and change methods much more easily and  quickly than most of my colleagues. It is also an attitude that should be  conveyed to students. 

Second, I came to realize that knowledge is not a mental state but a  logical object. Knowledge is a set of propositions or procedures that can be  constantly improved, because all knowledge is conjectural. Students must be  taught to manipulate objects in the world 3. They must be taught to be inspired  by it and to improve it. 

Third, I understood using Popper early on that learning is about  modifying prior knowledge. The child is not a blank sheet on which it suffices  to print knowledge. Theory always precedes observation and practice. 

For these three reasons I appreciate the importance of Karl Popper in  my teaching profession. In elementary school, mainly, we teach and of course  we pass on what we know. But what matters more than anything is our way of  being in relation to others and in relation to knowledge, in relation to the  objects of the world 3. It is of the utmost importance to be exemplary in our  way of acting and to interact with others but also with knowledge, if we really  want to progress in our search for truth. 

You must have understood that in my class I do not take a course in  philosophy , strictly speaking, I did not subscribe to Matthew Lipman’s ideas,  which nevertheless start from a good intention. The way we act and react, our  values, our attitudes towards knowledge are what is most important to  communicate in any teaching. we must make understand the importa nce and  the role of the symbolic entities. It is not about making people believe in ideas  or theories by imposing certainties. Nor is it about leaving children to  themselves by making them believe that they will build their knowledge on  their own as advocated by constructivism. It’s true children at this age need to  be active in their learning, it’s not about giving them lectures and just  rehearsal exercises.  

Moreover, they all have a propensity to want to learn and to want to  grow. We must help them in this process and it is not a question of comforting  them and restricting them to their daily life or their daily vocabulary. It is first  necessary to show requirement and benevolence to help them to rise with the  help of the world 3. At the center of all learning, there is knowledge, it is what  must make the link between the student and the teacher. I hope that this  imperative can one day spread more widely and become a milestone for the  improvement of education

Finally, I would like to summarize the ideas that have allowed me to have  access to a more open world, to have access to a larger, more beautiful world  with many more possibilities. These ideas are like a step that anyone can  climb. These are also the ideas that keep humanity moving forward. These  philosophical principles are here: 

– be wary of our memories, our ideas, our intuitions
– recognize that we can be wrong
– look for our mistakes
– correct our mistakes in order to broaden our understanding of reality
– discuss and exchange with others to get closer to the truth
– choose the best explanations
– defend the values that improve human relations and the world around  us 

This is all that has allowed me to enrich my everyday life and also to  always seek to improve my understanding of the world. I will say that Popper  gave me the strength to admit my mistakes, to put my failures into perspective,  knowing that our first attempts or choices are not necessarily the right ones.  It also gave me the opportunity to change my habits if there were good reasons for it. Popper’s work therefore reinforced my attraction and interest in  philosophy. These ideas and his theories have helped me to lead my life well  but also to consolidate the defense of values that were dear to me such as  humanism, reason, science, progress. I am infinitely grateful to Karl Popper.


Photo NicoNicolas Muller

Caluire-et-Cuire, Rhône, FranceContributor 

Nicolas obtained a master’s degree in philosophy in 1997 (4-year-degree). His thesis defense was on the calculus of predicates and infinity (Logic Of Quantifiers) . Then he graduated as a school teacher. Nicolas missed philosophy so much that in 2010, he decided to do another Master’s (5-year-degree). For that second degree, he defended a thesis on the foundation of mathematics and the question of paradoxes.  Nicolas has been a primary school teacher for 20 years. Most of the time he is busy teaching 6-year-olds to read and count.

Nicolas can be reached at nicolas-muller[at]numericable[dot]fr.

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