John (J. W. N.) Watkins, a decorated naval officer, went to the London School of Economics after the war to study politics. He fell under the influence of Karl Popper and for many years was one of the most productive Popperians. His output spans morals and metaphysics, politics and the methods of explanation in the social sciences, logic, theories of rationality and the philosophy of science. This range of activity is reflected in the nineteen papers collected in his honour.
The essays are grouped in two parts, the first dealing with studies in history and methods of social and political theory. This has contributions from Joseph Agassi, Philip Pettit, J.J.C. Smart, Gregory Currie, David-Hillel Ruben, Leon J. Goldstein, Noretta Koertge. Ernest Gellner, Adolf Grunbaum and Gerard Radnitzky. Part II contains studies in the history and methods of the natural sciences by Paul Feyerabend, J. N. Hattiangadi, W. W. Bartley, Peter Munz, Fred D'Agostino, John Worrall, Alan Musgrave, Elie Zahar and Graham Oddie.
Overall, the collection is disappointing because many of the writers seem to have rather little to say. Most of them offer generous compliments to Watkins and a picture emerges of a friendly, helpful and industrious colleague, but not one who initiated or stimulated original thoughts. The book is saved by some memorable papers which draw their inspiration from elsewhere, from the sociologist and historian Ibn Khaldun (Gellner), from Hayek (Radnitzky), from Popper (Bartley and Musgrave), from evolutionary epistemology (Munz ) and from the Goon Show (Worrall).
The piece from Worrall provides a sparkle of humour as a team of philosophers trot out the Popperian arguments against inductive support of justified beliefs. At the same time they try to stop a lunatic called 'Floater' from stepping off the upper level of the Eiffel Tower in the belief that he will float gently to the ground. Popper's ideas come out rather badly in the debate but Musgrave provides the rejoinder in his article where he concludes "Popper's solution [to the problem of induction] is so frequently misunderstood, by its defenders as well as its detractors, that I have been at pains... to say what the solution is" (p 322).
Gellner takes up the awkward question of defining human rights in cultures that lack the array of assumptions about individual liberties and critical thinking that underpin western democracy. Following some leads thrown out by the sociologist, Khaldun, he offers many insights into the problems posed by the militant Islamic nations. This interest of Gellner’s has assumed a somewhat sinister importance in the wake of Sept 11 in the year 2001.
Radnitzky's article on science and the 'taming of the state' argues that the 'Rise of the West' depends on three pillars; the market economy, the (pre-democratic) achievement of limited government and autonomous science. Linked with this is an account of the evolution of primary theories to cope with daily life and the need for 'secondary' theories with a spiritual or metaphysical dimension to transcend the experiences of everyday living.
Bartley's paper Unfathomed Knowledge in a Bottle follows up some of Popper's thoughts on the information content of theories. He suggests that knowledge is a human product that we can never fully understand because in some sense we know far more than we realise due to the untapped content of our theories. This may be similar to the deconstructionists' views on the indeterminacy and multiplicity of meanings of texts, with the advantage that it is spelled out in English and not the convoluted prose that is apparently required for cult status in some circles.
Munz explains how one of the subversive insights of evolutionary epistemology concerns the fallibility and plasticity of our mental and sensory appparatus. This contrasts with the two main streams of epistemology which posit something approaching foundational status for, on the one hand, rational insights, on the other, sense impressions.
The papers by Gellner, Radnitzky, Bartley and Munz contain a great deal of 'untapped content' and so they could well be growing points for further work. In that way they justify the existence of this memorial volume, though not its unfortunately high price.
Fred D'Agostino and I. C. Jarvie (eds.), Freedom and Rationality: Essays in Honour of John Watkins. [Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol 117, ser. ed. Robert S. Cohen] Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989. $US99.00 (hb).