2018-05-07

Book Reviews: "An Introduction to the Thought of Karl Popper" by Roberta Corvi & "Philosophy and the Real World" by Bryan Magee

I've recently read two books about the life and philosophy of Karl Popper. One is An Introduction to the Thought of Karl Popper by Roberta Corvi (translated from Italian to English by Patrick Camiller, while the other is Philosophy and the Real World by Bryan Magee. Both have some similarities in form and structure. They are both relatively shorter books (under 200 pages, each in hardback form). They both devote a single chapter as an overview to Karl Popper's life, and then devote subsequent chapters to his philosophy of science, philosophy of politics, and the broader themes of his philosophy. Furthermore, they were both written during Popper's life, with some level of consultation with him.

As a layperson when it comes to philosophy, I found Corvi's book, which I read first, to be a bit of a struggle to understand. The prose used in the book is often unclear, and I especially found the first 30 pages to be so densely packed with jargon and assumed background on philosophy that I was tempted to put the book down at that point; thankfully, my persistence paid off, as I found the rest of the book to be progressively clearer. Additionally, there are some tonal shifts throughout the book that I found a bit odd; Corvi does not uniformly praise nor criticize Popper's philosophy, but while her criticism is generally clear, her praise merely restates his philosophy as if it were self-evident fact. I'm not sure if the abstruseness of Corvi's book is due to her own writing style and assumption of a more philosophically-educated audience, due to issues with the translation, or due to the translator's own deliberate choices in tackling the subject of Karl Popper. The book claims to be an accessible introduction to Popper's philosophy, but I'm not sure if that really means accessibility for lay readers (as opposed to philosophy students early in their careers).

By contrast, Magee's book, which I read second, has much more clear and accessible prose. In particular, there were a few misconceptions that I had about Popper's beliefs from Corvi's book that I felt Magee's book cleared up, such as the extent of Popper's rejection of Marxism and disdain for socialism as a political practice versus his belief in essentially social democratic ideals. This book is also shorter, and because Magee was a student of Popper, the narration of this book seems more self-consistent and intimate, reflecting Magee's emotional and ideological closeness to Popper, and it even includes a few points where he makes explicit mention of discussions with Popper; Corvi's book, in comparison, is much more dispassionate and disinterested. However, that intimacy in turn raises questions about the impartiality of Magee's narration. For example, Corvi spends a little time questioning the philosophical foundation of Popper's belief in indeterminism, while Magee completely sweeps this under the rug; this appears to be a broader trend, as Corvi does generally do a better job formulating her own and addressing other people's criticisms of Popper's philosophies.

Both of these books were written before or around the time of the end of the Cold War. This makes the political views espoused in the book somewhat dated; of course hindsight is 20/20, but that throws into especially stark relief the rather inductive nature of the arguments positing ever-increasing rationality and liberal democracy around the world. The arguments that the development of ideas, logic, technology, structures, and so on are indicative of human evolution seem similarly inductive, especially considering that these changes have happened over such shorter time scales compared to typical evolutionary changes observed in humans (over tens of thousands of years and more), and this may also be because understanding of evolution was less sophisticated at that time than it is now, though I'm not entirely sure of that considering that I'm not in the field of evolution. In any case, these books' ages show, and it isn't clear how much of the description of evolution and politics comes in each book from Popper himself versus each respective author's interpolation & interpretation; I'd be curious to see more modern books that address these recent issues. With these issues aside, overall, I think Corvi's book gives a fuller picture, but Magee's book is the clearer introduction for a philosophical layperson like myself.

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