Popper alert – Melvin Bragg edition

Popper fans, acolytes and those less impressed might like to download the podcast of Melvin Bragg doing a show on the great man. This is on his ‘In Our Time‘ series on the BBC which I’ve found a bit disappointing. He gets three experts in and has a gasbag about some great event, person, movement or other aspect of history. I’ve not listened to the podcast yet, so I can’t say whether I think this one is better or worse than the average ‘In our Time’.

Bragg is a good sort, but he’s often a bit out of his depth in this series. That could be a strength in the sense that he could lead the experts in a way that helps them explicate their knowledge to us ignoramuses out here. But somehow it doesn’t quite work out that way. Having just listened to a previous episode on Archimedes Bragg seems to fixate on a few ideas – some relevant, some silly (like how much we know of Archimedes real life and how true the anecdotes about jumping out of the bath shouting ‘Eureka’ were) and the show is a bit shallow. I prefer the LNL format of interviews based on some book or article some eminence has recently published.

But since the blogosphere is full of Poppophiles, now’s your chance to have a listen in. Remember, the BBC only posts these things for easy download for a week, unlike our own more economically efficient ABC that posts weekly programs for four weeks (though should post them forever).

And one day I’ll get a chance to set out my own opinions about Popper – which are that he’s OK, but I’m not that impressed. In case anyone’s interested you can subscribe to Melvin Bragg’s weekly email. It’s a kind of personal letter on what he found out about the subject he tacked that week. It’s nice enough but I usually don’t make the time to read it. As a sample the newsletter on Popper is over the fold.

I wish Iâd known the work of Karl Popper much better in the late Fifties and through the Sixties. The prevailing notion in the late Fifties and early Sixties was that there was still a lot of life in Marxism. Even if it had got some things wrong, they would surely come right because so much of it was right. I genuinely distrusted that but found it extremely hard to marshal enough energy, let alone vehemence, behind my own point of view. Marxism was like some weed that gets to your feet in shallow waters and trips you up and never lets you go. Popperâs blast through it would have been a great help.

Even more, I could have benefited from his attack on Adler and Freud in the Sixties. Freud seemed to enmesh thought about motivation in a way that left me claustrophobic. Just as I tried to oppose Marxism with what seemed to be the poor tools of piecemeal Labour Party thought and pragmatism, so my only defence against Freudianism was to put against it literary and poetic insights and my own sense that it was no system that could call it for respect which delighted in being fathomless.

Itâs curious now that the Vienna school which was so embraced for so long in the twentieth century as setting the course of the century itself â Marx, Freud, Schoenberg, others and not least (though not often mentioned) Hitler â has become increasingly discredited. At one time that city and that group appeared to irradiate all that was new and modern and necessary and inevitable about a future life. Now they seem at the best flawed and at the worst downright dangerous.

There was much talk about Popper himself after the programme. It turns out that he was â this was the consensus â an extremely unpleasant man, making enemies wherever he turned. One of the contributors called him âa nasty little manâ. Another of the contributors said that Popper would not let a chair at LSE be named after him if this particular contributor was to hold it, because of a quarrel he had had with someone close to said contributor! When he was in New Zealand he fell out so badly with his fellow professor, a man called Sutherland, that Sutherland resorted to reporting him to the authorities as a German spy. It appears that Popper went along as charged and attempted to discuss Plato with them for some time. He was hurriedly released.

Most importantly, given that he insisted on the essential nature of criticism and in fact the Open Society is a society that is in a perpetual state of self -criticism, he himself reacted violently against any criticism whatsoever, it seems. Even if fond disciples attempted to tweak his ideas ever so little and clearly improve them just a tad, he would never speak to them again. One of the contributors said âhe fell out with everybodyâ.

That need be no surprise. One of the sure things is that some heroes and heroines have feet of clay. The wonderful poet you meet whose work is intoxicating, whose tongue is coated in spite. I think Iâll stop there.

Safe to say that Popper was extraordinarily invigorating. He was deeply angry with the Bader Meinhof gang in the 1960s and said we do not tolerate the intolerant. His would have been a very useful voice in Britain now.

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[…] I’ve mentioned to Troppodillians previously, Melvin Brag has an interesting show on BBC radio called ‘In our time’. It’s a […]