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Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 23:  The Sociology of Knowledge

"To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method"

This chapter signals what Ian Jarvie later called Popper’s “social turn”, his recognition that whatever objectivity and rationality we can achieve cannot be attributed to special qualities of mind but to the give and take of criticism in a community.

Popper identified two dangerous ideas that were emerging in progressive intellectual circles during the 1930s. One was the idea of controlling social change by means of largescale central planning, the other was the theory of the social determination of scientific knowledge. One of the products of  this impulse (some decades later) is  the "strong program in the sociology of science".

Moving on to the subject of this chapter, Popper refered to the Marxist doctrine that our opinions, including our moral and scientific opinions, are determined by class interest, and more generally by the social and historical situation of our time. The main target is Karl Mannheim who apparently anticipated by some decades the strong sociology of science that came later in the wake of T S Kuhn.

"The sociology of knowledge argues that scientific thought, and especially thought on social and political matters, does not proceed in a vacuum, but in a socially conditioned atmosphere. It is influenced largely by unconscious or subconscious elements. These elements remain hidden from the thinker’s observing eye because they form, as it were, the very place which he inhabits, his social habitat. The social habitat of the thinker determines a whole system of opinions and theories which appear to him as unquestionably true or self-evident. They appear to him as if they were logically and trivially true, such as, for example, the sentence ‘all tables are tables’."

"Along with social determinism comes the idea of unveiling hidden motives, a ploy that is usually used as a weapon against opponents without noticing that the same approach could just as well be used in reverse! In a previous chapter, when dealing with ‘Vulgar Marxism’ I mentioned a tendency which can be observed in a group of modern philosophies, the tendency to unveil the hidden motives behind our actions. The sociology of knowledge belongs to this group, together with psycho-analysis and certain philosophies which unveil the meaninglessness’ of the tenets of their opponents. The popularity of these views lies, I believe, in the ease with which they can be applied, and in the satisfaction which they confer on those who see through things, and through the follies of the unenlightened. This pleasure would be harmless, were it not that all these ideas are liable to destroy the intellectual basis of any discussion, by establishing what I have called a ‘reinforced dogmatism’. (Indeed, this is something rather similar to a ‘total ideology’.)"

Popper objected to the tendency for sociological determinism and the sociology of knowledge to subvert the process of critical give and take that is essential to make progress by detecting and eliminating error. For a few paragraphs he played around with the idea to demonstrate what fun it could be to use apparently esoteric concepts to baffle opponents and would-be critics. Then putting jokes aside, he went on to explain that the emphasis on the subjective approach to knowledge (with science and knowledge depicted as processes in the mind or consciousness of individual scientists) failed to engage with the very topic of the sociology of knowledge, that is, knowledge as a  public, social product.

"Considered in this [subjective] way, what we call scientific objectivity must indeed become completely incomprehensible, or even impossible; and not only in the social or political sciences, where class interests and similar hidden motives may play a part, but just as much in the natural sciences. Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring…"

The public character of scientific method comes from two aspects of scientific procedures and practices. The first is the process of (more or less) free criticism in the scientific community and the second is the way that scientists (especially natural scientists) usually try to avoid talking at cross purposes. Of course free criticism can be undermined by many factors ranging from political interference to the dominance of fads and fashions in "normal science". Similarly the obsession with conceptual refinements that Popper labelled essentialism has cramped helpful criticism and collaboration in the social sciences, with a proliferation of verbalism and ideologically motivated exchanges.

"To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science."

"The only course open to the social sciences is to forget all about the verbal fireworks and to tackle the practical problems of our time with the help of the theoretical methods which are fundamentally the same in all sciences. I mean the methods of trial and error, of inventing hypotheses which can be practically tested, and of submitting them to practical tests. A social technology is needed whose results can be tested by piecemeal social engineering. The cure here suggested for the social sciences is diametrically opposed to the one suggested by the sociology of knowledge."

"Practice is not the enemy of theoretical knowledge but the most valuable incentive to it. Though a certain amount of aloofness may be becoming to the scientist, there are many examples to show that it is not always important for a scientist to be thus disinterested. But it is important for him to remain in touch with reality, with practice, for those who overlook it have to pay by lapsing into scholasticism. Practical application of our findings is thus the means by which we may eliminate irrationalism from social science, and not any attempt to separate knowledge from ‘will’."

Chapter 22 The Moral Theory of HistoricismChapter 24 The Revolt Against Reason

Start of The Shorter OSE

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper