Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at Warwick (UK) with a prolific publication record, mostly on the history of ideas and social epistemology. Along with that is a concern for the proper function of the universities and a political agenda along the lines of left liberalism. He was at the Popper conference in Vienna but we did not get to speak (there were 300 other people there). He was highly visible on account of his height and his attire, which was reminiscent of the 1960s hippies.

His talked about “Karl Popper and the Reconstitution of the Rationalist Left” and his thesis is quite incredible, at least on my reading of the situation.. He is looking for a merger of Popper’s ideas with those of Adorno, Habermas et al to generate a new synergy that will revitalise the social sciences and the political project of left liberalism as well. Malachi Hacohen took a similar line in his (otherwise) magisterial book on Popper.


Hans Albert’s opening speech at the conference can be used to set the scene in examining Fuller’s proposal. Albert described the impact of Popper, Wittgenstein and Heidedgger on philosophy in the twentieth century. During this time philosophy became fully professionalised and specialised (most notably the philosophy of science in the hands of the positivists) and it lost touch with the educated public who previously would have provided a substantial readership. These days, there is a move back in that direction to serve a general readership by the likes of Alain de Botton, Grayling and Blackburn.

According to Albert, at the start of the 20th century there were two great reform movements, the analytical movement inspired by Moore and Bertrand Russell and the phenomenological movement founded by Edmund Husserl. (Actually I think that Husserl branched from a line of thought developed by Brentano and Meinong, not necessarily in a helpful direction). Both were in the Englightenment tradition of rationalism and realism, with a positive attitude towards science. The analytical movement was essentially empiricist and the other was a new form of apriorism (the quest for eternal truths revealed by intuition). To simplify, Albert seemed to suggest that Wittgenstein corrupted the first movement and Heidegger corrupted the other, so modern philosophy became substantially deracinated in addition to its fragmentation into specialties. The process of deracination was especially apparent in the popularity of Thomas Kuhn who was all the rage when Fuller started his career.

Three controversies

Albert listed three controversies where Popper’s contribution was central.

First, the debate with the logical positivists which commenced in the late 1920s. This was effectively settled in 1934 with Popper’s first book which laid the foundations for his later work on evolutionary epistemology and metaphysical research programs.

Second, the debate with Kuhn and the sociology of knowledge after The Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared in 1961. Fuller was trained as a devotee of Kuhn but has substantially emancipated himself, as indicated by his review of Hacohen’s book on Popper. This debate turned out to be a storm in a teacup, demonstrating that most people, including many admirers of Popper like myself, took a long time to fully appreciate the nature of the problems that Popper had solved and the way that his achievement was not challenged by the historians and sociologists. The criticisms that they directed at Popper were rather like rubbishing Einstein because he failed to find a cure for cancer.

Third, the so-called “Positivist Dispute” which involved Popper and others versus Adorno and others, following speeches by the two principals at a 1961 conference of sociololgists at Turbingen. Popper had no part in this after the opening exchange which prompted some members of the Frunkfurt School to write long pieces of criticism against Popper’s alleged positivism.

Fuller to the rescue

Fuller is on side with Popper in all three controversies. He is also on side with Adorno and his mission in this paper is to show how Popper and Adorno should have kissed and made up (like the Peter Munz idea that Popper and Wittgenstein should have shaken hands and been boon buddies as well).

The first part of his paper is called “Picking up the pieces of Popper’s vision”.

"Karl Popper will be remembered as the twentieth century figure who most successfully used a theory of science to launch a full-blown general normative philosophy. The republic of science was designed to provide the blueprint for institutionalizing civic republican democracy in society at large [as described by Jarvie]. My own social epistemology increasingly draws inspiration from Popperls project. Nevertheless Popper’s own aspirations have generated no end of misunderstanding, from both intended targets and potential allies [especially the Austrian economists]."

"To be sure, Popper was always swimming against the current in two senses. First, he was a resolute dialectical thinker (and so) he ofen presented his views as critical sketches that presuppose acquaintance with the details and history of what is being criticized. Second, the twentieth century has accelerated the ‘outsourcing’ of philosophical problems, if not to the special sciences themselves, at least to philosophical sub-disciplines that shadow those sciences. Thus, the readers of Popper who are interested in, say, his falsificationist methodology, his political liberalism, his philosoph of social science, and his evolutionary epistemology tend to fall into four distinct camps - none with an interest in trying to pull all the pieces together."

He went on to suggest that Adorno had suffered from the same fragmentation, and so he and Popper, despite being opposed in the debate over Positivism, were allies even though neither they or anyone else apart from Fuller apparently appreciated this. For Fuller, this demonstrates the debacle of the unregulated division of labour that has undermined the quest for a holistic philosophical vision.

On top of that is the changing political fortunes of Marxism has divided the forces that he calls the Rationalist Left into the Critical Theory team (Adorno et al) and Critical Rationalism (Popper and his more left liberal followers). Nothing is said about the classical liberal followers of Popper, who are presumably cast in the role of bad fairies at the bottom of the Critical Rationalist garden. [Critical Rationalism is the name of the movement associated with Popper which does not have any particular ideological orientation and is concerned with the optimum use of imagination and criticism in problem-solving of all kinds.]

Fuller wrote

"My assessment of Popper’s contribution should be understood as part of an atempt to reconstitute this Rationalist Left, wherein (I believe) lies the fate of the premier autonomous knowledge-producing institutions, the universities, the governance of which provided the concrete context for the Positivism debate."

The business end of the paper is headed “The Rationalist Left divided against itself: How Popper and Adorno misrecognised their common cause - and a hint on how to go forward.” In my view the alliance of Popper and Adorno is totally unsustainable and Fuller’s position here represents a spectacular piece of wishfull thinking based on failure to realise the full extent of the debacle of socialism in all its forms, including the soft and woolly-headed form of cultural ruminations represented by the Frankfurt School. Fuller has not realised that the robust and durable ideas of Popper are not compatible with the left, as demonstrated in my reviews of Hacohen’s book which anticipated Fuller’s project to recruit Popper for the left.

Fuller prepared a table to list various points of legitimate criciticism that Popper and Adorno directed at each other and another to indicate their points of agreement against assorted intellectual opponents. All the points are couched in such general terms as to be practically meaningless. For example a “philosophical flaw” scored against Popper is “Naive falsificationism: spurious transparency” but Popper was never a naive falsificationist, so what is the point? An area of agreement is the perception that philosophy and sociology are mutually reinforcing, not antagonistic disciplines. But the devil is in the details of the philosophy and sociology advocated by Adorno and his colleagues. By the standards of critical rationalism the epistemology and methodology of the Frankfurters are radically defective, as are their political programs when matched against minimum state liberalism, or even the economic rationalism that is practiced by the more responsible social democrat administrations.

Other reviews and notices of the Centenary papers.

A short review of the Canterbury (NZ) papers. Phillip Catton and Graham Macdonald (eds) Karl Popper: Critical Appraisals.

Comment on Karsten Weber's paper.

John Pratt on the Vienna papers "One of the mysteries of intellectual life", Higher Education Review Vol 40, No 1, 2007. pp 72-76.

Steve Fuller “Karl Popper and the Reconstitution of the Rationalist Left” in Jarvie et al (eds) Karl Popper: A Centenary Assessment, Ashgate, 2006.  
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