A brilliant if somewhat eccentric young genius in the Vienna school, Karl Raimund Popper was poised from an early age to make a mark on Europe’s intellectual life. His every waking hour was devoted to philosophy and science—or at least it had been until, overwhelmed by the encircling shadows of Nazism, he was forced to decamp from his native Austria, first for England and then New Zealand. The culture he was to encounter in his adopted home of Christchurch— agrarian, Anglican, conformant and resolutely anti-intellectual—could hardly have been more different than the one he left behind.
Yet it would be at the University of Canterbury that Popper enjoyed the intellectual alchemy that made it possible for him to produce his life’s seminal political work, The Open Society and Its Enemies, an exegesis on the pseudoscientific ideas of Plato, Hegel, and Marx, all of whom Popper excoriates for their claims to "certain knowledge" about how societies ought to be organised. The late Isaiah Berlin, a biographer of Marx and a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, called it perhaps "the most scrupulous and formidable criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living writer."
Elsewhere, the National Review, a conservative magazine, ranked the New Zealand-produced book sixth on a list of the 100 “most important” nonfiction works of the past century. In a different cultural corner, one of America's best-known philanthropists, the Hungarian-born George Soros, was sufficiently moved by the ideas he acquired from Popper while an undergraduate at the London School of Economics and Political Science that he named his Open Society Institute after Popper’s work.
It’s interesting to picture, as others have, this self-imposed European exile stuck with considerable personal and professional discomfort at the outer limits of the world—toiling away by stealth for seven long years on what effectively a philosophical love letter back to the world he had been forced to abandon. Here we have a Viennese Jew in monolithically Christian New Zealand, a philosopher of science working out of an agricultural college in rural Canterbury, an intellectual in a strongly anti-intellectual culture, s stranger in a very strange land.
Soon after the war, in 1946, Popper was to decamp again, this time to England, where he remained with the London School of Economics until his death in 1994. He was 92.
Image above header: Portrait of Karl Popper, Macmillan Brown Library. MB 456, University of Canterbury inwards correspondence and subject files, 15977, reproduced with permission.