My Favourite Karl Popper Quotes

A rare instance of me doing Post A Day, but seeing this post today, and I immediately had a writer in mind. For those who don’t know, Karl Popper is one of the most famous philosophers of science. He was also an astute analyst and a master of words. Here are some of my favourite quotes.

“True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.”


Who is worse, he or she who knows nothing, who has been sheltered from the world, or he or she who has access to many sources of information but remains entrenched in their view of the world, letting the political bias of his or her media of choice guide their thinking? For Popper, it is not those who do not know, but those who refuse to see.

What would he make of the world today if he was still alive? I would hope, disparaging of the group-think of identity politics and the willingness to surrender our right to form an opinion to oligarchical media empires and believing everything we are told by those in our peer group. On a similar note:

If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.

Wise words for our time, I feel. We lash out at those who disagree with our deeply entrenched beliefs. We “No Platform” people who might offend sensibilities of others, even when these people have done a lot of important and prestigious work. If we can’t have free speech in our universities, where can we have it?

Next one…

…no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white

The meaning is pretty obvious – don’t judge a group by observations of some of its individuals. Bear with me on this last one, because it is a bit long but he completely nails it.

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Intolerance comes in many forms and we cannot extend unlimited tolerance towards the intolerant or tolerance will be destroyed and the tolerant society with it.

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