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Under The Microscope

KARL POPPER: PHILOSOPHY AND PROBLEMS, edited by Anthony O'Hear; Cambridge University Press, 1996; 297 pp; $55.95

Reviewed by Andy Reisinger

One of the greatest compliments which can be made to a philosopher is not that all their arguments and theories are correct, but that they inspired fruitful debate even where they were shown to be wrong. From this perspective, the present collection of essays on Sir Karl Popper's philosophy amply proves that he was one of the most important philosphers of the twentieth century.

The fifteen essays contained in this book are a collection of edited lectures held at London's Royal Institute of Philosophy's annual lecture series in 1994/1995, very shortly after Popper's death in August 1994. Despite this unfortunate coincidence, the essays are neither valedictory nor do they try to avoid open criticism of Popper's arguments.

Even those who feel vaguely acquainted with Popper in the philosophy of science may be astounded by the breadth of issues covered in this volume. The topics range from aspects of his philosophy of science, particularly the falsifiability criterion and his views on determinism and probability, to his criticism of historical explanation and the theory and practice of politics.

The thoughtful discussions can well serve as critical introductions to Popper's ideas which the reader may not have been familiar with before, as most essays take considerable care to lay down Popper's position before it is subjected to a critical discussion. The fact that the essays originated from verbal lectures further adds to their readability. However the texts certainly go beyond an introductory level, and some background knowledge of Popper's philosophy is of benefit in understanding the arguments expounded by the various contributors.

Within the variety of topics that Popper covered during his lifetime, the aspect of critical examination and open discussion of arguments is an all-pervading theme. If nothing else, his intellectual legacy is the exhortation that criticism and eventual refutation of a theory is more beneficial to progress than ideological adherence to a strict rule. This book pays a highly recommendable tribute to that ideal.

Andy Reisinger is with NIWA in Wellington