Joe Agassi on Novelty

"Somebody may be original in being systematic, even if he is not successful in his effort to be systematic".

'The Novelty of Popper's Philosophy of  Science', Intnl. Phil. Quarterly, 8, 1968. Reprinted in one of his collections, probably Science in Flux.

The interesting thing about this paper is  the take on novelty in general, with Popper's ideas as a major example. An important idea to take away is the notion of  originality emerging from the simple discipline of being systematic about some idea or insight, just taking it as far as it will go to see what happens. "Somebody may be original in being systematic, even if he is not successful in his effort to be systematic".

This is a another key thought: "Declaring a known but unappreciated solution to a given problem to be important may change our view of the field in which the problem occurs and thus may lead to a series of major discoveries; it may then be itself considered a discovery which renders one of many given problems the central problem in that field".

Prompted by these ideas, I embarked upon the task of drawing out the consequences of Popper's theories of  "non-justificationism" and objective knowledge across a range of problems and issues. This work did not get very far but some results can be found here in a draft paper on objective knowledge. In addition there are some papers on the implications of non-justificationism in a number of  areas: the theory of literature (a rejoinder to the deconstructionists), in the philosophy of liberalismby sorting out some tensions in Hayek, in helping skeptics to "drain the swamp" of unreason and prejudice, in overcoming some tensions in other theories of knowledge and promoting tolerance in political debate.

Getting back to Agassi's paper, he started with the old saying that every new idea is first declared contrary to reason, then contrary to religion, and when it gets ove those two barriers it is declared to be old hat. A related sequence is from heretical to controversial to old hat.

Writing circa 1968 he detected signs that Popper's philosophy was passing from the second to the third stage, although it seems in retrospect that this view was premature. The signal that impressed him at the time was the game of showing that every "new" idea that you can find in Popper had been
published by someone else, often long ago.

That led to the first section of the paper,

On the Novelty of Ideas in General.

To anticipate what he says later (and using his own ideas to explore the importance of this paper) he has shifted the problem of Popper's originality to a deeper question of what it is to be original, given the problem of reconciling the tension between  the two propositions (a) what Popper said had been said before and (b) he did something that is truly original.

He explored various episodes of creativity. James Watt is often credited with the invention of the steam engine, in fact he improved its efficiency by adding a cooling chamber using the "old established fact" of condensation of steam on cold surfaces.

His next example makes one of his points even more effectively, that is the importance of being systematic (and persistent) to extract the maximum value from in idea. This example is logicism, the idea that mathematics is a branch of logic. This theory is very old, it was discussed by Peirce but it was Frege, Russell and Whitehead who took the idea seriously enough to follow a program of logicism in detail, working for many hours a day for years.

"Somebody may be original in being systematic, even if he is not successul in his effort to be systematic".

The next example was Kekule and the benzene ring. The story is often told of his dream about snakes taking their tails in their mouths, that is, forming a ring. Agassi's point is that it was Kekule who saw the (possible) significance of the neglected problem of the benzene ring, before it was identified as a ring, merely a compound with equal numbers of carbon and hydrogen atoms which did not obey the rules as they were understood at the time.

His next example was the work of Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement to establish a new state (at one stage it could have been Uganda).

Sometimes a person has a problem in one hand and the solution in the other but the two hands don't meet. Actually there is an example of that in my own work in soil plant relations, explained as a footnote to this piece.

This is a key thought: "Declaring a known but unappreciated solution to a given problem to be important may change our view of the field in which the problem occurs and thus may lead to a series of major discoveries; it may then be itself considered a discovery which renders one of many given problems the central problem in that field".

That was probably the sentence that prompted the effort that I made to apply the three world theory to a whole range of issues in different areas, as described in this unpublished draft from 1985.

That was also an attempt to be systematic, to achieve novelty by unpacking the contents of an idea across a whole range of problems and issues.

Moving on with the paper.

"I shall now expound Popper's critical realism and show its novelty. Critical realism is the view - definitely not original with Popper - that any view of the world, being of the world, is realistic, is a set of assertions about the thing in itself, yet the elusiveness of  the thing in itself  ensures that our assertions about it may be false...Apply that to science and you get Popper's philosophy of science. In order to show its novelty let me contrast it with the philosophies of science which preceded it."

That is followed by an important paragraph on the need to understand the problems that a thinker was working on, and the way that novelty can emerge from combinations of problems and solutions that some people knew about but never put together or did not do enough systematic work to find the connections.

Section II Science and Truth

This explains the problem situation in physics and the philosophy of science which Popper confronted. There was a crisis in physics precipitated by Einstein's challenge to Newton. Agassi wrote that the crisis in physics was something everbody talked about but it is now quite forgotten.

The crisis was partly about the status of Einstein't theory and also about the nature of abstraction involved in high level theories in contrast to the commonsense representation of the world that we see. Agassi referred to the modern abstract painters such as Picasso to convey a sense of the strain engendered by pictures that are related to appearances but are not strictly representational in the traditional way.

Conventionalism in the philosophy of science was one reaction to the strain. "The conventionalist philosophers of science declared that those who brought about the crisis in physics were mistaken in considering scientific theory as representation of reality...The crisis in physics, in other words, is not a scientific crisis, but a philosophical crisis. It is the crisis caused by the attempt to see in science representation...To avoid crises, say the conventionalists, you should avoid all interpretations - thus avoiding all representation and thus, further, avoiding truth-value".

Recall that Popper wrote his first book without talking about truth and it was Tarski who reinstated his confidence in the corresondence theory of truth using levels of language and metalanguage.

The point is that people did not want to think about false theories.Theories had to be true or else they were convenient instruments (or perhaps abstactions, without regard to truth). He referred to an article where the author described the two ways of looking at Newton's theory (either verified or an instrument for calculation). Agassi pointed out the third possibility, that the theory is false, but that is an option that scientists find very difficult to accept. There have been several debates in the Critical Cafe over the years, when people argued at length that Einstein did not refute Newson, but extended his theory. Not false, just incomplete.

According to Agassi the basis of Popper's originality was his articulation of the third option (that Newton's theory, before Einstein, was false but still the best theory available, and after Einstein, more obviously false but still an awesome achievement). He went on to explore some implications and ramifications of the "third way". He detected the deep-seated moralistic attitude towards error. "Somehow, says Popper, it is traditional to equate falsehood with sinfulness for the simple reason that traditionally it is taken for granted that falsehood can be avoided".

Agassi referred to Catholicism, Protestantism and the Communist party organiser, in each case providing a source of the Truth. This is where we encounter the doctrine that truth is manifest (if only the right source or method is employed to find it).

He suggested that there was a major (though not fundamental) shift when there was a move away from the authority of the church and the schoolmen, from the Source to the Method.

The idea was to break away from the priests interpretation of Aristotle and submit the matter to scientific investigation. The assumption persisted that error can be avoided.  Both Bacon and Descartes perpetuated the doctrine that truth is manifest.

"Bacon said truth is manifest through plain facts; Descartes said truth is manifest through plain reasoning. Though Descartes added to our certainty that truth is manifest, it was Bacon's doctrine that became the official doctrine of the scientific community".

[Maybe Descartes fed into the official doctirne of the other wing of the "justificationist" movement, the Continental rationalists or intellectualists. Where did Kant stand in that lineage?]

Agassi described how Bacon's main problem was the decline of antiquity and the fall into the Dark Ages. He blamed Aristotelianism, which was self-perpetuating error. In his view all error is self-perpetuating (taught as dogma?) and so "the first task for a true scientist is not the search for truth - that is his second task - but the avoidance of error; once one has erred one is disqualified as a seeker after truth".

Hypotheses are out of order because they are akin to prejudices which are supposed to be cleaned out of the  mind to make way for the truth.

Bacon banned the use of hypotheses (a la Newton 'I feign no hypothesis') because it reflected an excesive desire for renown in advance of putting in the effort to search for the truth in the appropriate manner. (Bertrand Russell echoed this with his scorn towards speculation, as though working by conjecture was substituting "theft" for the "honest toil" of accumulating data).

Agassi concluded that section of the paper with the comment that when Bacon's doctrine of prejudice (avoidable error) is overcome, we can see science as a picture of nature that can be true or false or abstract. Hence the problem of choice has been radically changed and that is the way that Popper altered the philosophy of science.

Section III   Popper's View of Science

"Bacon said, you cannot criticize and man and admire him". Agassi suggested that respectful criticism is gaining ground in science. There is a related issue, whether journals should publish negative evidence.  For a long time the inductivists maintained control and only "positive  evidence' was acceptable. Medawar and Popper collaborated on a paper that suggested an alternative to the "inductivist" format of journal articles.

Due to the status of Medawar and the bleeding obvious merits of the suggestion, it is said that the situation has changed.

(to be continued...)


Before going further with the paper I will take this opportunity to drop in the soil-plant relations problem of mine, mentioned above. It is an example of a "known" solution to a problem that was missed by the person standing closest to it, in this case myself.

Two problems

There were two linked problems regarding root hair growth and nutrient uptake. The first problem was to establish the capacity of root hairs to penetrate clay of different strengths. The second problem was to work out if it mattered whether the root hairs grew or not, did it make a difference to uptake of nutrients by the root?


During a term spent reading undergraduate Soil Science for weekly seminars with Dr Kevin Marshall we discussed a paper about the fine structure of the interface between plant roots and the soil. I think it was Whaley and Molenhaur circa 1965/66. They used electron microscopy to identify a
substance or a zone around the root which was permeated by an exudates from the root which they called the "mucigel", a mixture of cell debris from the growing root and the metabolic products of the bugs in the vicinity. They speculated that this would be a zone of intense microbial activity and also it would or could act as a bridge to soil particles and facilitate the transport of minerals from soil to plant.

In the following Honours year with Keith Barley in Adelaide I moved on from the mucigel (too hard to investigate) to the hairs which grow from the walls of the outer layer of cells behind the growing point of the root. These are visible with the naked eye and the same question arises, do they help with nutrient uptake. But that question was shelved for the moment in favour of a more feasible project that could be completed within the year.

A PhD student was completing a thesis on the penetration of clay by plant roots, essentially a bridging project between biology and engineering ( and a topic that exercised the mind of Charles Darwin). I modified his equipment to investigate the penetration of clay by the hairs on the roots.

Problem One. The penetration of clay by root hairs.

The study revealed that the hairs have the same penetrating capacity as the roots, after taking into account the compacting effect of the root on the clay immediately adjacent. That means that if the root is just at the limit of penetrating capacity, the hairs will not develop because the compacted
clay will exceed the limit.

You can read all about that in Champion and Barley (1969) in a journal aptly called "Soil Science".

Problem Two. Do the root hairs make a difference in the uptake of nutrients?

We wanted roots with and without hairs, but the same in other respects (cetaris paribus). One way to get roots without hairs is to deprive them of air (oxygen) but that produces other changes in addition to the hairless state.

That problem was not resolved before I went away to study the social sciences. Hands up everyone who has seen what I did not see at the time?

My supervisors hit on the idea to use roots that grew through saturated clay of different strengths, so some had root hairs and some did not, but they were (presumably) not different in any physiological way like the roots grown plus and minus oxygen.

So they got to publish another paper, Barley and Rovira circa 1970 to report that the hairs did make a diference. Not a surprise but still....

No meeting of hands. So with the problem in one hand and the solution in the other, I missed the connection and left the idea for some other people to get the result. Still, it couldn't have  happened to two nicer guys. It was Keith Barley who lent me The Open Society and its Enemies before I left town.

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