All Life Is Problem Solving, by Karl Popper
In reading a book like this one has to temper one’s expectations. Typically when a great philosopher or writer dies, there are a lot of essays and generally unread speech transcripts and letters and other loose writings that are combined together into omnibus collections for fans of the author to appreciate. Such is the case here. As someone who has read more than my fair share of these collections, I have to say that this one meets the bill of precisely what one would expect, a mixture between very insightful essays that are worthy of a wide and appreciative audience, papers and transcripts that one can take or leave that show the author giving rather ordinary presentations of his familiar material, and some writings that are not particularly good or that represent an off-day for someone who was usually on. At any rate, this book is not a particularly long one and some of the essays are very good, and that is about as much as one can expect from something like this. Those who expect more would do well to read the author’s more serious and more lengthy philosophical works and not a feast of scraps like this book is.
This particular book is a bit more than 150 pages and consists of fifteen essays divided into two parts. After a publisher’s note and a preface, the first part of the book consists of six essays that discuss questions relating to natural science (I). These include essays about the logic and evaluation of scientific theories (1), some notes from a realist on the mind-body problem (2), epistemology and the problem of peace (3), the epistemological position of evolutionary epistemology (not good) (4), the author’s thoughts about an evolutionary theory of knowledge (5), and a look at Kepler’s metaphysics of the solar system as well as his empirical criticism (6). The rest of the essays deal with miscellaneous thoughts on history and politics (II). These include essays on freedom (7), the theory of democracy (8), the titular essay on problem solving (9), hostility to the cynical view of history (10), waging wars for peace (11), understanding the collapse of communism (12), the necessity of peace (13), Masaryk and the open society (14), and how the author became a philosopher (15). After this the book concludes with a subject index and an name index after having dealt with a very miscellaneous but simultaneously revealing set of essays about diverse subjects.
In reading this book, I was able to find at least a few things both to like and to dislike about it. The author’s view that life amounts to a series of experiments for each life and the author’s pessimism about evolutionary epistemology are certainly welcome to me, but at the same time there was also much about the author’s pacifism I had reason to question and disagree with. I can see where the author is coming from but at the same time I would not ever consider myself a pacifist personally given the reality and inescapability of conflict in life. What I found most intriguing about this collection was the way that the author never stopped pondering over late-Austro-Hungarian history and post-imperial Austrian matters, most notably in his essay on Masaryk and the fact that his death before World War II deprived Czechoslovakia of a vital defender in the face of Hitler’s aggression and someone who likely wouldn’t have been cowed into surrender the way that his successors were. In these essays, for better and for worse, one can see the way that the author’s upbringing in Vienna powerfully affected his political and cultural views, and how scientists and philosophers are not immune to such concerns.