Karl Popper: A Centenary Assessment by Ian Jarvie, Karl Milford and David Miller (eds), Aldershot: Ashgate. Volume I: Life and Times, and Values in a World of Facts, ISBN 0-7546-5375-7, (hbk) £55.00; Volume II: Metaphysics and Epistemology, ISBN 0-7546-5376-5, (hbk) £55.00; Volume III: Science, ISBN 0-7546-5712-4, (hbk) £55.00
It is one of the mysteries of intellectual life that the man who, according to these books, was 'without doubt . . . one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century' (Volume I: 1), is still comparatively unknown, even by many of those whose work lies in fields to which he has made fundamental contributions. Put simply, Popper transformed understanding of the logic of the advance of knowledge, in effect turning conventional wisdom on its head. He showed that scientific knowledge advances by testing hypotheses against observation, rather than by generating theory inductively from data, and that it is always provisional. His work in the social and political sciences challenged the dominant paradigms and formulated ideas that anticipate and – mercifully – refute much of postmodernism in these fields. For me, attendance at his last year of lectures on the philosophy of science at the London School of Economics in the late 1960s was a revelatory experience, making clear what my previous decade of scientific education had been about. His ideas have guided my work in educational research for nearly half a century (see Pratt, 2003). Yet, unlike Einstein, whose ideas of relativity are at least as difficult to understand as Popper's 'critical rationalism', Popper’s name is not a household word. And worse, with some notable exceptions – Medawar, Dawkins and Fortey amongst them – his theories of knowledge are, disconcertingly, apparently unknown by many scientists. More widely, as Nordin (Vol II: 231) notes of induction: 'most people take it to be a self-evident hallmark of all empirical research'.
The picture is particularly dismal in education and the social sciences. Students taking the EdD programme at the Open University, for example, are still advised that they may develop their research design inductively (though to be fair they are told that it – like a deductive approach – has its flaws), and that the inductive grounded theory approach 'remains popular' (Burgess et al, 2006: 46, 47). It is as if Popper (let alone Hume) had never written on the topic and shown its logical invalidity. Often, too, Popper's ideas are misrepresented by his critics (and sometimes sadly by his supporters). Too frequently one sees him lumped together with many of his epistemological opposites as 'positivist'.
These books attempt to redress this historical anomaly. They contain just over 60 of the 2,000 papers presented at Karl Popper 2002 – a congress held in Vienna to mark his centenary. By then, of course, Popper was dead (though recently – he died in 1994). But it was apt that the congress be held in his birthplace, the more so as he had been forced to flee it by the totalitarianism that he rebutted so forcefully in The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945.
The introduction to the three volumes by Professor Hans Albert (Honorary President of the Congress) sets out, in much more detail and with greater philosophical skill than I have done here, Popper's key contributions and the controversies surrounding them. The volumes deal with the three different aspects of his work identified by their titles, each containing about 20 papers. Although many of the topics are not easy, the papers are mostly more readable than you might expect, which is a credit both to the authors and the editors. (A few are in the original German, which limits the readership, including this reviewer.) Because this is a collection, it's hard to get an overall sense of current thinking on Popper's contribution. I felt the need for a concluding chapter, assessing what the papers have added to our understanding of Popper and the impact of his work. But given the amount of effort the organisers and editors have made, it is perhaps unfair to ask for more. Nonetheless, taken together the papers show the huge range of topics to which Popper contributed and offer reward for the effort of reading. One (Chapter 7 of Volume I, by Heidi Koenig) is a 'tour of Popper's Vienna', which offers temporary relief from intellectual stress. It is not possible here to do justice to all the topics covered, but the range reflects the impact that Popper's work can – and should – have.
The first volume contains papers about Popper's early life and on his influence outside philosophy (though this latter theme is also evident in papers in Volume III). Some papers offer what may be historical insights (like Hansen, Chapter 3, on whether the problem of induction or demarcation came first), though it is not clear to me whether the process of Popper's thought is significant – or very 'Popperian'. After all, Popper himself emphasised logic rather than method, saying in his lectures, as I recall, 'there is no such thing as scientific method'. Nevertheless, the papers show Popper's influence in unexpected places. In Iran, according to Ali Paya (Chapter 9), his views are 'by and large, and to varying degrees, known to a large portion of the educated public', a claim I would not make for Britain. Other papers relate to the former GDR and to Japan. There are several on Popper's concept of the open society - for example, John Wetterstein, Chapter 17 reflects on Popper's conceptions of the closed society, and Marcello Pera (Chapter 19) discusses the challenges of relativism which Popper so forcefully rejected. One (Chapter 16, by Ulrich Steinvorth) incidentally touches on what seems a personal contradiction, or at least tension between his political conservatism and intellectual radicalism. As Magee (1973: 84) contended, Popper failed 'to accept, in matters of practical politics, the radical consequences of his own ideas'. I remember that during the student disturbances at the LSE in 1968 Popper came out on the side of the administration, even though it was seeking to dismiss staff - who had taken not part in violent events - for the subsequent expression of supportive views. Similarly I recall the contradiction between his espousal of open criticism and the demolition in lectures of students who differed from his views.
The second volume tackles some of the great epistemological controversies that surround Popper's theories about induction, critical rationalism, and one chapter (23, by Ikka Niiniluoto) defends his ontological doctrine of three worlds. The famous disputes between Popper and Wittgenstein, Feyerabend and Kuhn are all (re)considered. Volume III starts in even deeper epistemological waters, with papers discussing Popper's contribution to logic, mathematics and physics. These are mostly for the cogniscenti in those fields. For those of us in education or the social sciences the going gets easier towards the end of this volume. There are several papers on biology, mostly concerned with evolution, before the concluding nine on the social sciences. Interestingly, the last two topics link in David Miller's paper (Chapter 55) on Darwinism and situational logic.
Miller's thesis is that trial and error – the (only) way in which we learn – 'epitomizes the situational logic of a state of ignorance' (Vol III: 157). In a paper that (like many in these volumes) covers a lot of ground in few words, he seeks to rebut criticisms of Popper's idea of situational logic. It is, as Miller says, 'perhaps an unfortunate' expression (Vol III: 158). Part of the problem arises, I suspect, because Popper's forays into the social sciences were intermittent and he saw this field as something of a sideline to his main work on the philosophy of science (notwithstanding his view of the 'unity of method' of all sciences). Other papers in this volume also criticise aspects of his ideas on situational logic (Chapters 58 and 59).
This is important in the social sciences because Popper associated situational logic closely with rationality – a term that often sends social scientists (at least those who cannot distinguish rationality in human behaviour from logic) into a frenzy. One of the problems is that Popper was rather brief, and perhaps a bit casual (or, if not that, uncharacteristically ambiguous) in his writing on this topic. The main view taken from his writing is that agents 'always act in a manner appropriate to the situation in which they find themselves' (cited by Lagueux, Vol III: 198). Both Lagueux and, in the next Chapter, de Bruin take exception to this, arguing (manifestly correctly) that people do not (always?) act rationally. (The classic example, offered by Popper himself is of the flustered driver trying to park a car in a space too small.) Miller's view is that we should be less deterministic than many of those who have interpreted Popper: situational analysis, in his view, does not prescribe a 'definite' (that is unique) course of action, rather a generic one. Thus, 'it should be no part of situational logic that an agent should act completely appropriately to his situation, even to the situation as he sees it' (Vol III: 159). The impossibility of the agent's omniscience makes actions always a matter of trial and error to a greater or lesser extent. Hence we have evolutionary epistemology ('knowledge = adaptation', as Miller, citing Popper, notes).
Yet, none of these contributors take up Popper's statement (1961: 141) that the assumption of rationality is the basis for 'constructing a model', rather than an assumption of what people actually do. It is then used as a basis for 'estimating the deviation of the actual behaviour of people from the model behaviour, using the latter as a kind of zero co-ordinate' (my italics). We can see how rational they actually are. Used in this way, situational logic provides a basis for understanding, for example, the responses of individuals or institutions to their policy situation. My colleagues and I have found this a fruitful way of analysing the outcomes (particularly the unintended ones) of education policy and of suggesting, in advance, what steps might be helpful to ensure that the intentions of policy are achieved (Locke et al, 1985; Pratt, 2003).
Few of the papers focus on such directly practical outcomes of a Popperian approach. Perhaps this is appropriate, for Popper's main concerns were philosophical, and even his 'war effort', The Open Society and its Enemies, focuses on the ideas that underpin action. There is, however, one paper that attempts to apply one of the lesser known aspects of Popper's thinking into practice. Joanna Swann (Vol III, Chapter 64) proposes that we should try to create schools in which, following Popper's dictum, 'there are no unwanted answers to unasked questions' (p 261). Indeed, she goes further than Popper by suggesting the students, even young children, need to – and can – engage in practical trial and error activities rather than 'merely participate in discussion' (Vol III: 261). She sets out how this might be done, drawing on experience in the (now sadly and unnecessarily defunct) School for Independent Study at North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London) and of her own primary school teaching. Perhaps if there were more practical developments like this from Popper's work he might be better known to the general public, and social scientists, in particular, might be better educated.
Burgess, H, Sieminski, S and Aurther, L (2006) Achieving your Doctorate in Education, London: Sage
Locke, M, Pratt, J and Burgess, T (1985) The Colleges of Higher Education 1972 to 1982, Croydon: Critical Press
Magee, B (1973) Popper, London: Fontana
Popper, K R (1961) The Poverty of Historicism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Pratt, J (2003) 'A Popperian approach to policy research (Chapter 4) in Swann, J and Pratt, J (Eds) Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology, London: Continuum
Google Books extracts from the Vienna papers
Notices of Centenary Papers
A short review of the Canterbury (NZ) papers. Phillip Catton and Graham Macdonald (eds) Karl Popper: Critical Appraisals. Alain Boyer's French review of both the Vienna and Canterbury proceedings.