Book Review: Unended Quest, by Karl Popper

“Pfuel was one of those theorists who so love their theory that they forget the purpose of the theory – its application in practice; in his love for theory, he hated everything practical and did not want to know about it. He was even glad of failure, because failure, proceeding from departures from theory in practice, only proved to him the correctness of his theory.”

– Leo Tolstoy, War & Peace, Vol. III, Pt. 1, Chpt. X


My self-guided study in philosophy brought me to Karl Popper this past summer. Yes, another 20th century Austrian (seeing as the last philosopher’s book I reviewed was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus). Another logician as well, but what’s compelling about Popper is that he did not limit himself to one particular field of study (in his case, science). He was just as passionate and knowledgeable about social dynamics, art, and politics.

Popper approached the long-held observational scientific method with distrust; rather than prove a theory to be correct with empirical evidence, he took inspiration from Einstein’s openness to critique (when he released his theories on relativity) and insisted that falsification was a better method (ie. allowing one’s theory to be refuted by opening it up to the community-at-large for inspection from more angles). This, he argued, protected the world from the success of pseudoscientific “pet theories”. His inspiration for this came from his disenchantment with social and academic institutions of the day which rigidly held the works of Marx and Freud in high esteem.

Allow me to stop here and say the following: there is no way in hell I can sufficiently (to my own or anyone else’s satisfaction) and clearly lay-out the man’s theories, justifications, and *how* he came about his all in what I always hope and aim to be a succinct blog entry. It has taken me a day to revise the above paragraph and I’m still not particularly happy with it.

That said, I found Unended Quest to be a fascinating portrait of a great mind who refuses to stop questioning. His way of thinking about the underpinnings of logic and about systemic, ingrained assumptions in society is nothing short of radical. Under Popper’s means of demarcation such seemingly scientific pursuits as economics, climatology, and even dietetics are left looking like…well, not quackery, but certainly not anything approaching science.

So, yes, feet get stomped on, lines get drawn…and this brings me to what makes a great philosophical treatise: it forces you, whether you like it or not, to recalibrate your assumptions about society. Even if you have fundamental disagreements, you are forced to work hard to justify them. In other words, it’s the perfect way to give your brain a shake (perhaps even your foundations of understanding).

Unended Quest is full of ideas and strong opinions, with the socio-political history of the 20th century as its backdrop. This is a man who lived through two World Wars, whose early experiences as a social worker with neglected children made him fundamentally question the learning process, and who ended up being on a first-name basis with some of the greatest minds of the then-burdgeoning realm of quantum physics (Einstein, Schrödinger, Bohr).

That’s it. That’s all I can write without this becoming a term paper. All I can add to this is that I aim to re-read this book on a yearly basis, which is perhaps the best complement I can pay to an author.

Unended Quest (ISBN: 978-0-415-28590-2), by Karl Popper is available at an independent bookstore near you, or online at any number of vendors.


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