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.
And now, back to...
Popper's Theory of Objective Knowledge
This article is written to encourage literary intellectuals who may feel threatened by Lord Snow's scientists who 'have the future in their bones' (and who know all about the second law of thermodynamics). From time to time people need to be reminded that we do not live by bread and technology alone. We live by values, traditions and myths, which are embedded in our literature and are studied by the humanities. A society which loses the capacity to subject these myths and traditions to imaginative criticism will die. The reason for this is that our traditional heritage contains a dangerous mixture of elements and if we do not maintain our efforts to eliminate error and confusion the risk is ever-present that the bad will drive out the good. This is a task that Popper undertook in The Open Society and its Enemies, pointing out that Plato, perhaps the most revered, and rightly revered, figure in western philosophy, harboured dangerous ideas that could create havoc if given the opportunity during times of political and social dislocation.
Another reason for critical attention to the humanities is that they are important areas of intellectual activity and as long as we value the growth of knowledge and the search for truth we should not devalue them. Those of us who are professionally outside the humanities may sometimes be critical of the way the scholars are going about their tasks and they should welcome our interest and concern.
I will argue that Sir Karl Popper's theory of objective knowledge breathes fresh life into the study of values, myths and traditions. This theory goes to the root of the problems of the social sciences and the humanities. It also provides a new perspective on the old problem of freedom and rationality as shown in his essay 'Indeterminism is not enough' in Encounter, April 1973. This introduced the notion of objective knowledge and the three "\'worlds' of bodies, minds and ideas, shortly after publication of the book Objective Knowledge which presented the theory in more detail. His ideas about 'world 3' of objective knowledge have aroused little enthusiasm up to date, reflecting perhaps the time that new ideas need to germinate and bear fruit. I will show how this theory illuminates and unifies problems in the scope and methods of philosophy, in some aspects of moral and political philosophy, in the theory of literature and criticism, in the social sciences and in psychology.
Section I contains some background on Popper's ideas, explaining why they have not penetrated to the educated public. Section II sketches the theory of objective knowledge and some of its history. Section III treats Russell's method of logical analysis and argues that the valuable part of this method consists of teasing out the objective content of scientific theories, not the process of clarifying concepts as is usually believed. Section IV argues that Wittgenstein's 'forms of life' may be regarded as the objective contents of traditions These traditions exert plastic control over our activities and they can be subjected to rational (critical) scrutiny as soon as we become conscious of them. Section V argues that morals have a similar kind of existence and this enables them to exert a plastic control over our actions. They cannot usefully be described as true or false, but the acceptance or rejection of specific values can be controlled by critical discussion and can be a matter of critical preference between alternatives. Section VI examines the nature of creative literature and shows how T.S. Eliot's ideas about the social function of poetry can be illuminated by Popper's theory. Section VII suggests that this theory can contribute to a model of explanation in the social sciences; this is explained with reference to Durkheim's problem of social order and Weber's problem of social change. Section VIII pursues the idea that psychology needs to be revolutionised by looking at the brain as an organ that enables us to interact with objective knowledge in the form of theories, traditions and values. For some of the social and political implications of this theory (and Popper's rejection of the quest for "justified beliefs") see this paper.
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