Kaufmann on Popper on Hegel

We’ve been discussing today Popper’s treatment of various philosophers. Paul Ennis pointed me to Walter Kauffman’s essay critiquing Popper’s reading of Hegel. Walter Kauffmann is one of the missing links in early continental thought in the US. His works were popular and were the way, for example, I first found continental works in high school (not knowing them as such). I’ll just put some of the highlights. I’ll begin with the worst/best (which is so awful it’s possible Popper didn’t even read Whitehead, which is what started this conversation):

In the case of Hegel, there is voluminous evidence that Popper ignores …Furthermore, Popper has relied largely on Scribner’s Hegel Selections, a little anthology for students [!!] that contains not a single complete work.

This device [quilt quotations], used by other writers, too, has not received the criticism it deserves. Sentences are picked from various contexts, often even out of different books, enclosed by a single set of quotation marks, and separated only by three dots, which are generally taken to indicate no more than the omission of a few words. Plainly, this device can be used to impute to an author views he never held.

No conception [he is discussing the notion of influence] is bandied about more unscrupulously in the history of ideas than “Influence.” Popper’s notion of it is so utterly unscientific that one should never guess that he has done important work on logic and on scientific method. At best, it is reducible to post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Thus he speaks of “the Hegelian Bergson” [!!] (p. 256 and n. 66) and assumes, without giving any evidence whatever, that Bergson, Smuts, Alexander, and Whitehead were all interested in Hegel, simply because they were “evolutionists” (p. 225 and n. 6).

Popper often lacks the knowledge of who influenced whom. Thus he speaks of Heidegger and “his master Hegel” (p. 270 and asserts falsely that Jaspers began as a follower “of the essentialist philosophers Husserl and Scheler” (p. 270 ). More important, he contrasts the vicious Hegel with superior men “such as Schopenhauer or J. F. Fries” (p. 223 ), and he constantly makes common cause with Schopenhauer against the allegedly proto-fascist Hegel, whom he blames even for the Nazis’ racism — evidently unaware that Fries and Schopenhauer, unlike the mature Hegel, were anti-Semites.

Two simple points may illustrate how thoroughly Popper misunderstands the whole framework of Hegel’s thought. First, he claims that Hegel taught that “self-evidence is the same as truth” (p. 237 ), although Hegel’s first book begins with the denial of this view and Hegel never changed his mind about this.

Popper’s most ridiculous claim — and the last one to be considered here — is that the Nazis got their racism from Hegel. In fact, the Nazis did not get their racism from Hegel …


  1. Wow. A pretty big Pittsburgh philosopher once told me that when he was a student studying abroad Popper followed him on the bus and wouldn’t stop embarrassingly hectoring him in public over some point about which they disagreed. If I remember the story right, he just wanted Popper to shut up and just kept trying to agree with everything he said.

    Putnam’s article in the Library of Living Philosophers volume on Popper really elegantly lays to rest Popper’s central conceit (falsificationism as something different from verificationism).

    As far as Kaufmann’s evisceration, I don’t know though. Lots of (possibly most) great philosophers are really bad historians just because the story they tell themselves is such an important part of how they come up with their own ideas. I mean, if we were to read Hegel’s huge history of philosophy with the same critical spirit as Kaufmann brings to Popper, we would come up with a whole list of things too. This being said, obviously Popper is not even a pimple on Hegel’s ass (and this is not to insult him).

    A more interesting example is probably Russell’s History of Western Philosophy which is equally abominable, though still a great book. . . (if Graham ever does a most *under*rated philosopher contest, I’d pick Russell, though I disagree with him on almost every substantive issue).

    I’m almost certain that Kaufmann’s “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ” was actually the first philosophy book I read from cover to cover. And “Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre” might have been the second one. I wish I could make my students read both.

  2. Another example, consider Heidegger as a historian of philosophy. If Kaufmann wanted he could get him just as much as Popper (Faye does in his recent book; at least with respect to Heidegger’s readings of Greek texts in the lectures during and after his rectorship).

    I think it just comes down to Popper’s misreadings not being a substantive enough part of something philosophically important in his own right?

    Totally off the subject- One thing that does bug me about Kaufmann all these years later is that I think he’s too exculpatory about the morally odious things that Nietzsche says. Not because I think Nietzsche presents a threat to civilization, but because I think Kaufmann doing this leads to pretty substantial misreading of the texts.

  3. I second Cogburn re: Russell. Funny how I love reading his History of Western Philosophy even though I know I need to take everything stated in that book with two fat pounds of salt.

    He’s just so damn witty.

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