Outline of The Poverty of Historicism
The Poverty of Historicism is a short book on the methods of the social sciences and the methods of social reform. It first appeared as a series of three journal articles in the 1940s and, with revisions, in book form in 1957.
Popper’s aim in this work was to transform the social sciences in the same way that he had transformed the philosophy of the natural sciences. This transformation had a moral and political purpose because he believed that defective views on the methods of the social sciences had contributed to the rise of fascism and communism. The book is dedicated to the victims of these movements.
He hoped that the social sciences could generate a social technology to underpin advances in social organisation in the same way that the natural sciences and technology have transformed the natural environment for human benefit.
The social science and the method of piecemeal social engineering that he envisaged would be value-free and hence would be subject to abuse (like science and technology) but not nearly to the same extent as political programs inspired by historicism (his label for a kind of historical determinism) and attempts to implement revolutionary utopian schemes.
Work on this book took a surprising turn when he reached section 10 on essentialism and nominalism. The notes that he took on the historical roots of essentialism and its linkage to historicism grew into the two volumes of The Open Society and its Enemies.
Popper later described The Poverty as his stodgiest piece of writing and his view on the descriptive and technological function of sociological laws did not stand up. Further confusion has been caused by his use of the term ‘historicism’. When he started in 1938 the term was not in general use so he felt free to define it to suit his his own purpose but by 1957 it was commonly used to translate ”historismus” from German which was similar but not the same as Popper’s usage.
Ian Jarvie wrote a paper titled Popper on the Difference between the Natural and Social Sciences to clarify some of the ideas in The Poverty and to suggest some of the reasons why it has been overlooked by many people at work in the social sciences. “It is my observation that these important cautions have gone almost unheeded, as witness the blithe radicalism in the academic atmosphere since the 1960s, with scarcely a passing thought for the actual aleviation of concrete suffering, still less for the danger of making things worse”.
Diversion: A Window of Opportunity that was Missed
During the 1930s three men worked on the same problems in the methodology of the social sciences at the same time and they came up with practically the same solutions. Two of the three did the work as a recreational activity at the end of their busy working days. Karl Popper wrote his first book on the philosophy of science after teaching science and mathematics in school. The working title of the manuscript was “The Fundamental Problems of Epistemology”. With that book in press he turned to the problems of the social sciences. Not far away another public servant, Ludwig von Mises worked in the Treasury. In the evenings he worked on a book called “The Fundamental Problems of Political Economy”. On the other side of the world Talcott Parsons returned from postgraduate studies in London and Heidelberg and wrote The Structure of Social Action (1937).
Their combined efforts offered a framework for the study of economics and the other human sciences which could:
1. Maintain sociology and economics as an integrated discipline.
2. Sponsor partnerships between economists and students of all social institutions – law, politics, literature, religion and cultural studies at large.
3. Ensure that “high theory” and empirical studies inform and correct each other.
4. Contribute to good public policy, especially by checking the results of increased regulation and intervention in the marketplace and the impact of the erosion of the “bourgeoise virtues”. This work could have commenced when the role of government was much smaller and less entrenched.
There was a window of opportunity for the these three leading figures in their respective fields, plus their followers, to form a united front across the disciplines of sociology, economics and philosophy to promote the ideas that they shared and to debate the views that they did not share.
This did not happen. The published works of Popper and Parsons contain no references to the other parties. One book by von Mises has a favourable footnote reference to The Structure of Social Action and another of his books contains some dismissive remarks on Popper’s philosophy of science. No reader of their books would be moved to read the work of the other two. So there was no united front across the three disciplines. The defective ideas which all three identified in the 1930s became embedded in the rapidly growing community of academics and researchers after the war.
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