How Famous Researchers Work: Karl Popper

The philosopher Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994) represents well-known positions in epistemology, philosophy of science and the social sciences. But how did a scholar such as Popper write and under which circumstances did he produce the texts that started some of the most famous debates in science?

Popper seemed to have shared a trait with many other professional writers: persistence. From 1938 to 1943, for example, Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies, revising his manuscript by hand 22 times, while his wife typed it out five times – persistence at its best.

Working on a text for a long time and revising it again and again is an example of how Popper worked on his ideas. He refined and developed them through rewriting. Today, we would say that he wrote in order to learn more about his ideas and to dig deeper into the subject.

Maybe his thorough work was what led Popper to be a famous defender of clear and comprehensible academic prose. He detested those who needed to make things more complex and complicated than they were in order to impress. His advice: Those who can’t write clearly should return to their desk and try again until they succeed – or simply remain silent. He addressed philosophers and sociologists in particular. To make his point, he even dared to translate Habermas’ prose into clear language.

Back then, of course, everyday life must have been less distracting than it is today, but Popper still had to shield himself from possible distractions. He didn’t like big city life with all its diversions. Instead, he lived (for some time) in the country in Britain and dedicated much of his time to thinking and writing. There was no television or daily newspaper to distract him. He deliberately sought the best environment in which to write. That’s dedication.

Sources
Geier, Manfred (1994): Karl Popper. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.
Popper, Karl (1984): In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years. London: Routledge.

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