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Ewan Rodgers

March 20th, 2019

Conjectures and refutations – Karl Popper and the growth of LSE Philosophy


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ewan Rodgers

March 20th, 2019

Conjectures and refutations – Karl Popper and the growth of LSE Philosophy


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the promotion to Professor of the hugely influential philosopher, and founder of LSE’s Philosophy Department, Karl Popper. To celebrate this event Ewan Rodgers goes back to the archives to trace the story of LSE’s earliest forays into philosophy and the historical events that gave birth to the now world-renowned Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method (and, later, the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science).

A little pre-history

LSE’s philosophical activities and affiliations go back a long way. Bertrand Russell himself served as School governor from as early as 1901 and actually taught here in 1896 (one year after the School’s foundation) – though it was a course on German social democracy.

However, the foundation stone for LSE Philosophy was really laid by Abraham Wolf with his course on Logic and Scientific Method – first mentioned in the 1905/06 Calendar.

Wolf, described by the Aristotelian Society as “a historian of ideas and of science”, was a former rabbi of the Manchester Reform Synagogue who had settled on more secular concerns with a Fellowship in Logic and Scientific Method, later to become a Professorship, held jointly at UCL and LSE.

Abraham Wolf (1876-1948)
Abraham Wolf. IMAGELIBRARY/969. LSE

Wolf’s Logic and Scientific Method course ran from 1905/06 to 1940/41 and was initially billed as “a general course of sixty lectures preparatory to sociological studies”.

Wolf’s amazingly long-lived course continued through his promotion to Professor in 1921, beyond his retirement in 1941 and, in spirit at least, right up to some of the courses we teach today.

Logic and Scientific Method was not a degree subject in its own right – named subject degrees as we now know them would not be conferred by the School for some years to come – but was instead listed as an optional course for all students on the BSc (Econ), at that time the School’s primary degree. If you’d like to get a taste for Edwardian logic and scientific method then why not try your hand at the 1908 exam paper!

As well as Logic and Scientific Method, Wolf taught courses on psychology (eg in 1912/13), the history of philosophy (eg in 1917/18 and 1921/22) and a course on “recent British contributions to philosophy” in 1931/32.

Although Wolf was the only permanent representative of the “prehistoric Department”, other visiting and guest lecturers do crop up in the records. Amongst them are J S Fulton, who co-taught logic for a year in 1928/29 before returning to Balliol College, Oxford, and H Wildon Carr, who taught a course on the philosophy of Henri Bergson in 1913/14 (though we try not to mention this to current faculty!)

Following Wolf’s retirement in 1941, the war-time flux experienced by the School led to a brief philosophical hiatus. This was brought to an end with the arrival of Karl Popper in 1946 and the beginning of LSE Philosophy proper. Wolf passed away 2 years later, in 1948.

1946 and all that

During a trip to London in 1935, the Viennese philosopher of science, Karl Popper, met F A Hayek. Hayek, an economist and fellow Austrian, invited Popper to give a talk at LSE the following year. Ten years later, in 1946, Popper took up a Readership at the School.

Karl Popper was born into a family of Jewish descent in 1902. By the mid-1930s, fearing the rise of Nazism and the threat of the Anschluss, Popper started work on his first book, The Two Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Knowledge, the publication of which he hoped would lead to his being offered an academic position away from the dangers of central Europe.

At the end of 1936, with support from Bertrand Russell, G E Moore, Susan Stebbing and from scientists like Niels Bohr, Popper was appointed to a position as the sole lecturer in Philosophy at Canterbury University College, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Bronze head of Sir Karl Popper, who founded the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics in 1946. Bronze head by Josef Pillhofer, donated to the department by Dr Thomas Klestil, Federal President of the Republic of Austria, on the 9th February 1995
Bronze bust of Sir Karl Popper, who founded the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at LSE in 1946. Bust by Josef Pillhofer, donated to the department by Dr Thomas Klestil, Federal President of the Republic of Austria, on 9 February 1995

Whilst in New Zealand, Popper had begun writing what is probably his most influential work, The Open Society and its Enemies, and on 26 April 1943 (two months after its completion) he again made contact with Hayek, with whose help it was accepted for publication by Routledge by mid-March 1944.

As well as helping with its publication, Hayek had shown copies of The Open Society to such LSE luminaries as Harold Laski, Morris Ginsberg, Lionel Robbins and Alexander Carr-Saunders (the then Director), who were at that time searching for a replacement for Abraham Wolf as Chair of Logic and Scientific Method. Very much impressed by the manuscript, Carr-Saunders et al acted on Hayek’s suggestion of converting Wolf’s part-time chair into a full-time readership, which was offered to Popper on 8 December 1943.

For the next 18 months Popper remained in New Zealand, working on The Poverty of Historicism (which had grown out of the talk he gave at LSE back in 1936) and finalising The Open Society for publication. He continued teaching at Canterbury University College until the end of the academic year 1944/45.

Popper’s appointment at LSE was dated 1 October 1945, and announced in the 1944/45 Director’s Report – though it was known that he wouldn’t arrive until sometime later. The Open Society was published in London in November 1945, just before Popper and his wife Hennie set sail from Auckland on 5 December.

Popper arrived in London on 5 January 1946 and began his lectures the following week. LSE Philosophy had begun.

Uncertain beginnings

The post-war “Department” was a lonely place: like Wolf before him, Popper started out as LSE’s only dedicated philosopher. So how did we get from there to the bustling philosophical environment that we know (and love!) today? One philosopher does not a department make. And it turns out that even as a one-man-show, the future of the embryonic Department was initially far from certain.

In a letter dated 28 April 1945, the Assistant to the University of London’s Academic Registrar writes that “Prof Ginsberg has raised the question of whether Dr Popper should be appointed in the first instance for a period of five years.” This question was answered in a memo from 5 May of that year in which it is confirmed that Popper’s appointment would indeed be for an initial period of 5 years only, to terminate on 30 September 1951. One philosopher on a temporary contract definitely doesn’t a Department make. And things were about to become even more precarious.

On 29 October 1948, Popper wrote to LSE Director Alexander Carr-Saunders to inform him of a pending job offer at the University of Otago, New Zealand. In July of ‘48, the Vice-Chancellor of Otago had visited Popper in London and whilst here had invited him to apply for their Chair of Philosophy. Popper writes that “[i]n spite of the fact that I explained to him my reasons why I would not apply. I received yesterday the following cable:” “Council Otago University offers you Chair of Philosophy subject formal approval New Zealand University. Please reply of receipt of letter posted to-day.”

Popper goes on to explain that he’d received several letters from former colleagues urging him to take up the offer and that he was indeed tempted – he gives as the primary reason for his being tempted the fact that “they seem to want me there”.

It seems that this development took LSE a little by surprise, and judging by the number of memos regarding the Otago offer included in Popper’s personnel file for this year, there was a bit of a scramble to ensure that the Chair in Logic and Scientific Method was not left vacant. For example, on the very same day as Popper wrote to Carr-Saunders, in a memo to the Director, the economist Lionel Robbins urges that “the matter could be considered as one of some urgency”, as “[i]t would be a great pity if he were to go.”

It’s probably safe to assume that in the pre-digital days of the late 1940s, the bureaucracy of higher education moved at a much slower pace than today. So it is testament to the high regard afforded to Popper that a counter-offer to Otago’s had been drawn up within less than a month: a memo to the Academic Registrar dated 26 November 1948 states that “[t]he Governors of the School have agreed to ask the University [of London] to confer the title of Professor on Dr K R Popper.”

Just over three months since the insecurity of Popper’s position had become apparent, the great philosopher of science’s tenure was confirmed. On 4 February 1949, Popper received the below letter from Senate House (the administrative HQ of the University of London) to confirm that the Vice Chancellor had approved a resolution to confer on him the permanent title of Professor of Logic and Scientific Method, to be backdated to 1 January of that year.

Popper’s Letter of Promotion
Popper’s Letter of Promotion, 1949

With Popper’s promotion to Professor, the survival and longevity of LSE Philosophy had been assured.

And the solitude? Well luckily for Popper (and for us), the 1948/49 LSE Calendar featured the name of Irish philosopher J O Wisdom for the very first time. Initially employed as a Lecturer, later to be promoted to Reader, Wisdom’s would be the first of many appointments to be made to Popper’s fledgling department, and was soon followed by those of John Watkins (who transferred to Philosophy from the Government Department) in 1958, and of Imre Lakatos in 1960. LSE Philosophy was here to stay.

We’re grateful to Brian Boyd for providing the finer details of Popper’s movements during 1936–1946.

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About the author

Pencils on a yellow background. Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Ewan Rodgers

Ewan Rodgers is Marketing and Communications Manager at the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, LSE.

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