Popper’s Conjectural, Objectivist, Social, and Metaphysical Turns
Since this essay was first written it has become apparent that the reception of Popper’s ideas has been limited by widespread misconceptions that readers bring with them to the texts. This applies especially to people with a background in philosophy. It is widely accepted that Popper was a kind of eccentric positivist who simply substituted falsification for verification, and distorted versions of his ideas are circulated with the label “falsiciationism” attached. Quite likely one of the most influential books in this regard is What is this thing called science? and I trust that this review of that otherwise admirable text will clarify the situation.
The standard account of Popper as a falsificationist does not do justice to the full extent of Popper’s program, starting with the first step which can be described as a full-blooded “conjectural turn”, to claim that even our best theories may be rendered problematic by new evidence, new criticisms and new theories. This anticipated the “hermeneutic turn” when appreciation of the theory-dependence of observations and arguments became more widespread in the wake of Kuhn and the modern French theorists. Other “turns” include the “objectivist turn” to break with the obsession with the justification of beliefs and instead to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of theories that are stated in a public, inter-subjective or “objective” form. Then there is Popper’s “social turn” to examine the function of institutions, traditions, conventions and “rules of the game” in science and society. And finally the “metaphysical turn” to recognise the pervasive influence of philosophical or metaphysical ideas which are the framework assumptions or presuppositions of thought.
The error of essentialism is widespread in the mind industry. 'First define your terms' is one of its slogans, and especially the belief that it is important to find an answer to 'What is...?' questions; what is the state, democracy, justice, freedom? The more advanced form of the error is entrenched in the mainstream of philosophy and the social sciences, propped up by the belief that progress consists of refining concepts.
Karl Popper labeled this error 'essentialism'. It consists of a cluster of theories and practices which deflect discourse from matters of truth and falsity, or whether to pursue this policy or that, into arguments about the meaning of terms. This converts substantial problems into merely verbal ones, and far from being recognised as error, the shift from the concrete to the conceptual is often regarded as the distinguishing characteristic of genuinely rigorous theoretical work. This chain of argument turns up an important result, similar to the discovery that the element of 'true belief' dogmatism in traditional theories of rationality has sustained an environment that promotes irrationalism. The shocking conclusion is that essentialist methodologies destroy the critical faculties of people who are inducted into them and generate anti-intellectualism among people who refuse to play the game. The 'house of intellect' loses both ways, by the corruption of its inhabitants and the distrust aroused among outsiders.
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This article is a critique of two things. One is a defective method, which converts substantial problems into word games and thereby brings the 'house of intellect' into disrepute, generating anti-intellectualism in reaction. The other is the doctrine of the organic state and its positive or morally coercive function. Both the method and the doctrine can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle; given new life by Hegel they lie at the heart of both the conservative and radical critiques of liberal democracy. These two things are linked because the method generates a verbal smokescreen, which conceals the anti-humanitarian content of the doctrine.