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.
During the early 1950s Popper prepared almost a thousand pages of manuscript for publication as a companion volume to the The Logic of Scientific Discovery. For various reasons, publication was delayed though photocopies of the galleys circulated among Popper's colleagues and students, and parts had some early impact, especially by way of Imre Lakatos and his 'methodology of scientific research programmes' (MSRP). Unfortunately, this development has caused a great deal of confusion and misplaced effort which might have been avoided if Popper's theory of programs had appeared earlier.
By 1978, it seemed that Popper would never find the time or the energy to pull the manuscript together, especially as advances in physics continually called for revisions. William W. Bartley undertook the task of editing the vast bulk of material and finally The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery appeared in three volumes (with further additions) in 1982 and 1983. Volume 1 is Realism and the Aim of Science, volume 2 is The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism and volume 3 is Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics.
As described in The Purpose of Popper, the third volume contains a 'Metaphysical Epilogue' that is remarkable in at least two ways. First, it is clearly the inspiration for Lakatos' theory of scientific research programmes. Second, it provides a key to understanding a set of themes that unify Popper's whole system of thought.
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It was Plato who first conceived the program later carried out by Euclid: it was Plato who first recognized the need for a reconstruction; who chose geometry as the new basis, and the geometrical method of proportion as the new method; who drew up the programme for a geometrization of mathematics, including arithmetic, astronomy and cosmology; and who became the founder of the geometrical picture of the world, and thereby also the founder of modern science - of the science of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton.