The ‘Truth’ of Karl Popper

Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery

by Karl R. Popper, edited by W. W. Bartley
Rowman and Littlefield, III pp.

II: The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism

185 pp., $23.50

III: Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics

229 pp., $26.50

Karl Popper

by Anthony O'Hear
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 219 pp., $25.00; $9.50 (paper)

Karl Popper is the author of a striking treatise on scientific method, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, as well as the celebrated wartime tract against totalitarianism notorious for its irreverent denunciations of Plato and Hegel, The Open Society and Its Enemies. He is an independent, versatile, lucid, and eloquent philosopher, among the most distinguished of contemporary thinkers who have undertaken the task—once a commonplace aspiration among philosophers but currently regarded by most of them as unduly ambitious—of constructing a rational critical system that would illuminate the entire range of human experience—science, art, morality, politics.

Though he has been much honored, his reputation has always been uncertain. Some—and not only philosophers, but scientists, politicians, artists—have professed to find unsurpassable wisdom in his works, while others, no less acute, regard the work as too blunt, oversimplified, audacious, disfigured by blunders and ungenerous presentations of opponents’ positions and by poor scholarship. For many, Popper’s work is the last expression of the neo-Kantian critical rationalism which flourished over a century ago, before skeptical intellects rendered it obsolete.

As Anthony O’Hear explains clearly, Popper has been for many years engaged to show through argument and illustration that a pervasive way of thinking about human knowledge should be replaced by what he regards as a more rational and coherent one. What in fact goes on when we come to know a mathematical proof or the chemical composition of a substance or the name of a neighbor? What procedures do we follow, if any? And what, after all, is human knowledge? These questions have led Popper, like so many other philosophers, to the somewhat abstract concerns of the “theory of knowledge” and particularly to the analysis of the methods and aims of science and scientific knowledge, the most successful and reliable knowledge we possess.

A prominent tradition in modern philosophy has held that all of human knowledge is founded or “based” on “experience.” As Popper describes one version of this view, the mind at birth is like an empty box. The box has windows or openings—the senses—through which information passes in the form of “ideas,” “atomic data,” “molecular experiences.” These items are pure, and “directly” perceived by us; they form the building blocks or “foundations” of all our knowledge. They “associate” with one another, giving rise to concepts (“swan,” “whiteness”) and to expectations (“All swans are white”), which are strengthened by repetition of conforming instances; even the most complex, abstract theories of modern physics could be shown by a patient genetic analysis to be “built up” from these humble beginnings.

It is no longer widely held that we arrive at hypotheses like “All swans are white” by “abstracting” them from elementary experiences, but nearly every modern philosophy of science has agreed with the box theory that repetition of certain instances somehow supports or confirms our hypotheses and raises the degree of rational confidence we may have for claiming them to be true.

This entire view of science, according to Popper, is misconceived. To him it suggests…

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