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Discovering Karl Popper

Unfortunately, we still have to act. If I did not assume that because water has come out of my tap in the past when I turned the handle the same will happen today. I might equally sensibly hold my glass under the electric light.

On this pragmatic issue Popper’s more recent contributions do have a little more to say, but it does not help. He says that, as a basin for action, we should prefer “the best-tested theory.” This can only mean the theory that has survived refutation in the past; but why, since Popper says that past corroboration has nothing to do with future performance, is it rational to prefer this? Popper says that it will be “rational” to do so “in the most obvious sense of the word known to me…. I do not know of anything more ‘rational’ than a well-conducted critical discussion.”

The reader familiar with Popper’s contempt for linguistic philosophy will rub his eyes at this. Popper has picked up that once trusty but now discarded weapon of linguistic philosophers, the argument from a “paradigm usage” of a word—in this case, the word “rational.” The argument proves nothing. As Popper himself has said many times, words do not matter so long as we are not misled by them. Popper’s argument is no better than Strawson’s claim that induction is valid because inductive reasoning is a paradigm of what we mean by “valid” reasoning. In fact Popper’s identification of a “well-conducted critical discussion” with the idea of rationality is doubly unhelpful, since until we know how to establish which theory is more likely to hold in the future we have not the faintest idea how to conduct a “well-conducted critical discussion” that has any bearing on the question we want answered.

More fundamental still is the question how, even in theory, we can possibly prefer one hypothesis to another, or take one as a nearer approximation to truth than the other, if past corroboration has no implications for the future. Without the inductive assumption, the fact that a theory was refuted yesterday is quite irrelevant to its truth-status today. Indeed, in the time it takes to say: “This result corroborates Einstein’s theory but not Newton’s,” all the significance of the remark vanishes, and we cannot go on to say that therefore Einstein’s theory is nearer to the truth. So jettisoning the inductive assumption makes nonsense of Popper’s own theory of the growth of scientific knowledge. ‘While it is true that on Popper’s view induction is not a means of scientific discovery, as it was for Bacon. It remains indispensable, and the logical problem of induction is no nearer to solution than it was before Popper tackled it.

Popper’s theory of “objective knowledge,” presented in his most recent book, is less rigorous, less tightly argued than other aspects of his thought. The theory itself comes over clearly enough, but how it helps to solve important problems is not easy to discern.

Popper divides the kinds of things that exist into three “worlds.” “World 1” is the ordinary world of tables and flesh and bone—the world that materialists say is all there is. “World 2” is the ‘world of consciousness, minds, and, if you believe in them, spirits—the world that idealists say is the only real one. Duelists, of course, say that both worlds exist. Popper adds a third world, the world of objective knowledge. By this he does not mean the marks on pieces of paper stored in libraries (those are World 1 objects) nor the subjective consciousness of the import of these marks in the minds of scholars poring over them (this is World 2) but the knowledge itself, which is said to “exist” independently of being known by a conscious subject.

Popper has a point here. Humans postulate theories, but once postulated there are logical connections between these theories that are independent of human consciousness. A computer may print out formulas that are filed away without being looked at; nevertheless the stock of knowledge has been increased.

So what? It may seem an odd extension of our ideas of “existence” to apply them to knowledge in this sense, but if Popper wishes to do so there seems little harm in it. Equally it is unclear what is gained.

Magee, of course, thinks an enormous amount is gained, but he does not explain how. Popper himself has not used the theory to solve major philosophical problems; at most he has suggested that attention should be shifted away from traditional problems toward those his theory can handle. Thus, in reply to Feigl and Meehl’s case for determinism, Popper says that what concerns him is not the refutation of determinism, but the demonstration of “the openness of World 1”—that is, the fact that the physical world may be affected by the mental world and the world of objective knowledge. In some contexts this is an important point to make, but it is quite compatible with the truth of determinism. Similarly Popper does not actually offer a solution to the problem of the relation between minds and bodies, he merely says that the problem is altered once we admit the existence of World 3 and its interaction with World 1 via World 2.

However, if the theory of objective knowledge is taken up and applied it may prove fruitful. It should in any case be a healthy influence against excessive subjectivism in fields like art, literature, and perhaps even morality. These activities, Popper wants to say, are human inventions but not merely the expression of subjective human feelings. Just as mathematics is in some sense an invention of the human mind, but still subject to objective criteria, with real problems and right or wrong answers to them, so art, for instance, sets its own problems, and solves or fails to solve them.

Unfortunately the application of the theory to fields like art and morality is only hinted at, and none of the essays in either Objective Knowledge or The Philosophy of Karl Popper attempts a detailed application. Part of the trouble is that Popper has neglected one of his own sound maxims/?/ start from a specific problem and previous attempts to solve it. Instead, the theory of objective knowledge is an attempt to “enrich our picture of the world.” This does not suit Popper’s argumentative style. The change of approach leads. Magee astray to such an extent that he excitedly reports the success of the idea in illuminating a variety of fields, apparently oblivious of the un-Popperian methodology this implies. Whereas in an earlier chapter Magee criticized psychoanalysis and Marxism on the grounds that “once your eyes were opened you saw confirming instances everywhere, the world was full of verifications of the theory,” now he so far forgets himself as to report that Popper’s theory accounts for “virtually all processes of organic development,” “all learning processes,” mathematics, art, human relationships, etc. Magee fails to ask what would falsify the theory—a question to which there is no easy answer.

We have seen that Popper’s interest in scientific method developed as a result of his realization that a theory like Einstein’s risked refutation in a way that Marxism or psychoanalysis did not. One outcome was Popper’s defense of this method of formulating and testing scientific theories. The other, which did not emerge in print until much later, was his critique of the claims to knowledge of social, rather than physical, phenomena made by those writers whom Popper calls “historieists.” By this term Popper refers to those who approach the social sciences with the aim of predicting the course of history, an aim they believe attainable once we reveal the general laws and patterns that are supposed to underlie the historical process.

Popper’s attack on historicism forms the core of two separate volumes: The Poverty of Historicism,1 and the second volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies. The former is a general critique of writers as diverse as Comte, Mill, Marx, and Toynbee; the latter concentrates on Hegel and Marx.

In his lucid essay on historicism in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Alan Donagan reminds us that when Popper wrote The Poverty of Historicism the belief that iron laws determined the course our future would take was relatively widespread. Undoubtedly Popper influenced the decline in popularity of this idea in Western intellectual circles, although the continuing perverse refusal of events to conform to the best historicist predictions may have been even more influential. Now that some radical circles have revived historicist views, however, it is worth asking how many of Popper’s arguments are still telling.

One important point that Donagan makes and Popper, in his reply, appears to accept is that although particular historicists have often been confused about their aims, and especially about how the method of the natural sciences might be applied to history, the aim of making historical predictions is not itself incoherent, and it cannot be shown merely by philosophical arguments that it will never succeed. The most that Popper has shown is that predictions may always be invalidated by unpredictable advances in knowledge that change the initial conditions on which the predictions are based; but this still leaves considerable scope for suitably qualified predictions.

So contemporary historicists cannot be refuted simply because they claim knowledge of the course of history. Nor are they likely to be impressed by Popper’s arguments against specific historicists, for of those Popper discusses only Hegel and Marx are still fashionable in radical circles and, as we shall see, what Popper says about these two is hardly definitive.

What then remains of Popper’s critique? I believe the core of it—the application of the critical method to the social sphere—is as valid today as it ever was. Those who believe that interpretations of history in terms of class struggle (or, for that matter, in terms of the struggle between “Aryan” and “non-Aryan” races) are scientific theories, rather than more or less fertile sources for formulating hypotheses that need to be tasted, should face the challenge of formulating their theory so that it is testable. That an interpretation of history is capable of ordering a good many facts does not demonstrate its truth, any more than do similar claims about past conjunctions between the positions of the planets and events on earth demonstrate the truth of astrology. The historicist, like the astrologer, must say what future developments, or new discoveries about the past, would refute his theory; and if he cannot or will not do so, his claim to scientific knowledge need not be taken seriously.

Popper’s attack on the two historicists most influential today—Hegel and Marx—did not help his general attack on historicism. The scholarly furor provoked by The Open Society gave those opposed to Popper’s views a chance to impugn his scholarship and ignore his arguments.

  1. 1

    First published in Economica, N.S. vols. XI and XII, 1944-1945; first published in book form in 1957, Second Edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1960: Harper Torchbook, 1964.

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