Karl Raimund Popper — "All Life Is Problem Solving"
Philosophical, Ethical and Practical Ideas for Management
Karl R. Popper was the founder of critical rationalism and the philosopher of science in the 20th century. While privately a modest man, publicly he was disputatious.
The man and his life
(born 1902 in Vienna, Austria — died 1994 in Kenley, England)
Karl Popper grew up surrounded by books and a piano. His father, a renowned Viennese lawyer, guided his reading, while his mother engendered his love of classical music. At thirteen he was already keen on philosophical questions, such as the nature of eternity. He was so bored with high school that he dropped out to attend university lectures on mathematics and pure physics as well as history, literature, philosophy, music, psychology and even medical science. Popper said he studied not for a vocation, but simply to learn.
During his early youth in Vienna, during a great culture upheaval, Popper was a searcher, idealist and socialist. He sympathized very briefly with communism until, at the age of seventeen, the contradictions of policy, propaganda and practice converted him to a confirmed anti-Marxist. Popper then joined and explored the world of laborers and tradesmen: working as a laborer, apprentice furniture maker and tutor of disadvantaged children, where he found his first calling, as a teacher. This treasure trove of practical experience learned him to reject theoretical societal systems that wished to redeem the world and grand schemes to improve the human condition. From then on, he became a sharp critic of Marx, Hegel and Freud. Throughout his life, Popper warned against all forms of totalitarianism.
Popper never lost an early attraction to Einstein’s theories and quantum physics. He was also fascinated by pre-socratic thinkers such as Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Xenophon (he even translated them): these ancient thinkers had already asked the big questions of natural philosophy. Popper often turned to epistemological questions (the theory of knowledge): the mind-body problem and interaction of mind and matter(1). At that time, Popper was a vagabond philosopher in the world of heated intellectual debate in Vienna, at the heart of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian empire. Unattached to schools of thought or movements, he acted as an 'official opponent' of logical positivism and was therefore in opposition to the legendary Vienna Circle.
Presaging the National Socialist annexation of Austria, after a short stay in England, he emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand. There, while a university lecturer, he wrote The Poverty of Historicism and his world famous, The Open Society and Its Enemies(2). In 1946, the London School of Economics appointed him Professor of Logic and Scientific Method: the two subjects he was to study throughout his life.
Popper held a lasting dialog with many great scientists such as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Bertrand Russell, and with Austrian exiled friends in England (Erwin Schrödinger, Friedrich A. von Hayek, Ernst Gombrich) and childhood friend Konrad Lorenz(3). He was a sought-after speaker, teacher and advisor. In Germany, he is still famous for his Tübingen lecture, and his conversations with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and President Richard von Weizsäcker, banker Alfred Herrhausen, political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf and philosopher Hans Albert. Internationally, Popper taught and debated at several prestigous universities(4) with both passion and sincerity, and he fought many intellectual duels well into his old age.
Popper named himself a critical rationalist, Kantian and optimist. He opposed utopias, ideologies and intellectual fashions of all sorts(5) and often criticized intellectuals for their hard-to-understand language and arrogance. He disliked the spread of what he called 'foul language' in academia. Popper deserves special credit for creating the modern theory of science, and introducing falsifiability as the test of science: the ability to test the validity of statements, methods, theses and theories. He understood science as a means to achieve continuous improvement, a relentless search for truth, to serve the wellbeing of humankind.
He argued that fundamental insights must be made simple and easy to understand. Ideas should be regulative and not absolute. Rules should prevent a situation from getting worse, rather than create a presupposed ideal condition. The purpose of his pragmatism was to establish a new set of rules for science and politics. Based upon his knowledge of history and life-time observations, Popper was convinced that we are living in a better and fairer world than ever before.
In the following essay, three fields from the wide scope of Popper’s work are described, and related to management theory and practice. Although he did not discuss business leadership and management, his reflections are of practical value for all who lead in business and society.
Popper described critical rationalism as an attitude to life, which admits that "I can be mistaken, that you can be right, and that together we can, perhaps, get closer to the truth". Knowledge is discovered by trial and error, and is always merely assumed knowledge, so it is always wrong to immunize theories against criticism or to derive ideologies from apparently verified theories. Popper said that falsification (testability) is the ability to prove an assumption or solution is false; he considered this a criterion for demarcation (distinguishing the scientific from the unscientific), but not as a test of meaningfulness.
The theory of fallibility (or fallibilism) should be applied not only to natural science (natural knowledge), it is also valid for social science, including economics and business administration. In fact, the latter has a history of numerous failures of fashion-based judgments. There are still many business schools, management consultants and professors who will preach recipes, but have little or no interest in testing their validity.
Popper was a declared opponent of relativism, according to which there is no absolute truth because truth always depends upon subjective circumstances, contexts and points of view. He argued instead that absolute truth does exist, even if has not yet been revealed. The search for truth is a never-ending journey and every form of dogmatism is an obstacle on that path. All kinds of historical determinism - Marxist historicism is the worst example - always assume some knowledge of the future. He believed it was wrong, as the social sciences had done, to become scientistic (believing that natural scientific methodology is the only true source of factual knowledge), micro-methodological (studying ever smaller domains) or psychological (subjectivistic: believing that all knowledge is limited to experiences by the self). The point of philosophy should be to reflect critically upon the universe and our place in it, as well as over the dangers inherent in our knowledge, and our capacity to do both good and evil.
Popper's critical rationalism is founded on argumentation (or reasoning). The utilization of experience demands that we adopt an impartial attitude and critical distance to any claims of authority, a tolerant approach, but tolerance which ends upon encountering intolerance. To choose reason and not force is an ethical decision; it is an attempt to solve problems rationally rather than through violence.
In Popper's opinion, too much is written and even more is preached, superficially, on ethics. If ethical codes are to be practiced and not just preached, then role models are needed: leading by example is what is called for. The first historical role model of ethical behavior was Socrates, who chose death over sacrificing his moral principles. Preaching water and drinking wine is useless moralizing, it benefits no-one, apart from those who are paid to preach it.
According to Popper, meaning and responsibility are inseparably joined. That is why it is vital that people find a moral purpose in life. This will then, for the greater part, solve a fundamental question of human existence: simply put, everyone should, to the best of their ability, try to make the world a better place. In practice it will always be necessary to weigh up various possibilities, but always with reference to a set of guiding moral principles(6). Popper believed there is a connection between justice and the size of communities and societies. If organized groups are too large, then oversight and transparency are lost, and it will be more difficult to bring about satisfactory solutions and just ends.
Popper thought it necessary and logical to forego any absolute (transcendental) justification for morality. In accordance with his dictum that "All life is problem solving", ethical codes emerge when we begin to solve practical problems in the social sphere, the economy and commerce. He believed in identifying bad rules and attempting to improve them. According to Popper, the essential feature of democracy within a group is not rule by the people, but the supervision of government by the ruled(7), and their ability to remove a government. If that option is denied to, say, wage earners then some other form of participation could at least offer wage-dependent employees a chance of affecting the dismissal of CEOs or boards.
He believed that the superiority of freedom, creativity and responsibility compared with authoritarianism is apparent. Entrepreneurial freedom has also proved to be a positive regulating influence.
Popper adopted a pragmatic approach to codes of ethics(8). He first pre-supposed a basic set of moral rules and a civilized attitude among participants, with a degree of reasonableness and willingness to co-operate constructively. In this way, Popper contributes a valuable insight, that for social rules to be established and obeyed, some other conditions must already exist.(9)
According to Popper, it is a maxim for lively and fruitful dialog never to argue over words and their true meaning. Words and meanings can be unnecessary distractions from real problems and solutions. Instead, Popper argued, we should take seriously(10) questions and propositions of fact, theories and hypotheses, the problems they pose and their solution. It is our duty to solve such problems and not contemplate the true essence of things or intellectualize on the meaning of words.
Problem solving is closely tied to expectations that we can learn something new from any mistakes we make. He strongly argued that social problems, in particular, should be solved by small and considered steps; small so they can, if wrong, be rapidly corrected or reversed. Social systems - including businesses - are complex systems and because of their internal structure are not one-dimensional and therefore cannot be quickly restructured or rapidly turned around. Yet it still makes sense to strive for continuous improvement, to continuously adapt, and to avoid sudden culture-change shocks. It is no mere coincidence that gradualism is a characteristic of sustainable business enterprises. This approach, also known as piecemeal social engineering, is not only less risky, it is consistent with human nature, and follows long traditions, in theory and practice, of continuous improvement.(11)
In contrast to Marxists, and those who believe in the all-powerful state, Popper preferred small units (and communities), which facilitate meaningful learning. He criticized Marx, who favored gigantism, and instead advocated decentralized people-friendly technology. He saw that the pursuit of size would lead to monopolized markets - a characteristic of managerism - and would be a dead-end street(12). As we can only choose between reason or force, open dialog and effective communication are essential to promote reasonable behavior and to facilitate an improvement in the human condition.
Popper formulated twelve principles of new professional ethics for intellectuals and leaders in technology, commerce and society(13):
- There simply cannot be any authorities, because objective conjectural knowledge goes beyond what any one person can master.
- It is impossible to avoid all mistakes.
- It remains our duty to avoid mistakes wherever possible.
- Mistakes may be hidden even in those theories which are very well corroborated.
- We must revise our attitude to mistakes. (The attitude of the old professional ethics leads us to cover up our mistakes, to keep them secret and to forget them as soon as possible).
- We must learn from our mistakes in order to learn how to avoid making new mistakes.
- We must be constantly on the look-out for mistakes.
- The maintenance of a self-critical attitude and personal integrity thus becomes a matter of duty.
- Since we must learn from our mistakes, we must also accept gratefully when others draw our attention to our mistakes.
- We need other people to discover and correct our mistakes (as they need us).
- Criticism by others is a necessity.
- Rational criticism must always be specific.
With these proposals, Popper wished to demonstrate that (while always open to improvement and discussion) it is possible to adopt ethical principles, which can lead to greater personal integrity and a tolerant attitude to others. There is no doubt that such a need exists in business and management, for a new approach to mistakes, which does not prevent but instead facilitates and promotes learning, adaption and innovation. Managerist behavior and authoritarian attitudes have the opposite effect. The adoption of Popper's principles can help to encourage more responsible and accountable corporate leadership(14).
Popper believed that optimism is our moral duty. We should concentrate upon those things that should be done and for which we are responsible – and never reflect upon what will be tomorrow, but instead do what we can do today.
Selected works of Karl R. Popper:
- The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959
The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945
Unended Quest: An Intellectual Biography, 1976
The Self and its Brain: An Argument for Interactionism (with Sir John C. Eccles), 1977
In Search of a Better World, 1984
Die Zukunft ist Offen (The Future is Open) (with Konrad Lorenz), 1985 (in German)
All Life is Problem Solving, 1994
The World of Parmenides, 1998
In order to better understand his views, Karl Popper recommended The Defense of Socrates by Plato.
Manfred Hoefle, March 2016
(1) He is renowned for the exchanges with John Eccles, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology.
Popper and Eccles were co-authors of The Self and the Brain, 1982.
(2) His wife and fellow-teacher Josefine Anna Henninger (1906–1985) was a lasting member of
his 'editorial board'.
(3) Together with Schrödinger on quantum physics and knowledge theory, with von Hayek on state constitutions, democracy and knowledge generation, and with Gombrich on the theory and history of art.
(4) Popper was awarded 20 honorary doctorates, including from Cambridge, Oxford and Chicago. Among his students are philosophers of science such as Imre Lakatos, Thomas. S. Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, the investor George Soros and many other renowned individuals.
(5) Fitting his dictum: "Those who promised us paradise on earth never produced anything but hell."
(6) During the Popper era the question of responsibility was investigated by philosopher Hans Jonas (The Imperative of Responsibility) and psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning); see Lesson No. 30 Viktor E. Frankl.
(7) Popper drew attention to problems of proportional representation and coalitions formed merely to retain power.
(8) Popper does not rely on explicitly transcendental foundations for morality.
(9) Presumption of a strong civilizing undercurrent and community spirit
(10)"Seriously" is one of Popper's favorite words.
(11) See the Kaizen approach: originally a Japanese method of continuous improvement.
(12)He concurs with social philosopher Leopold Kohr (1909-1994) and advocates transparency.
(13) Summary of Popper’s professional ethics.
(14) What is apparent, but perhaps not surprising, are the concurrent ideas of Popper and of Peter F. Drucker, the great management thinker, and a contemporary from Vienna. See
Lesson no. 30, Viktor E. Frankl, Lesson no. 25, Konrad Lorenz and Insights Number 8, Peter F. Drucker.