Published in Metascience, 1999

Stokes has provided a well-written report on a wide range of Popper’s work, though in order to keep the task within reasonable bounds he has not attempted to treat quantum theory or Popper’s technical work in logic and probability. The book addresses, in turn, Popper’s project (problem and method); falsification and its critics; the politics of critical rationalism; the methodology of social science; metaphysics and freedom; evolutionary epistemology; and critical rationalism and critical theory (an engagement with the Frankfurt School). The aim is " indicate the key intellectual components and priorities in his thought, to show how they form a complex whole, and how they lead to certain problems and inconsistencies" (6).

Stokes is especially interested in the relationship between Popper’s views on scientific methodology and his politics. This approach has enabled him to locate some important points that are often overlooked, such as Popper’s concern about the political consequences of the ‘manifest truth’ epistemologies of Bacon and Descartes. The consequences that concerned Popper were the fanaticism and intolerance of those who believed that important truths of were self-evident to those who adopted the correct approach (the correct authority or the correct methodology), so that any deviation from those truths could be attributed to wickedness or bad faith.

Stokes has also identified some problems that have not received adequate attention from Popper’s supporters. These include some awkward comments by Popper on the need for a little dogmatism to maintain a theory in its early stages, ambiguity about which proposition or propositions have actually been refuted in the event of experimental falsification (the Duhem-Quine problem), difficulties with methodological individualism and uncertainty about the precise nature of Popper’s social and political liberalism.

Such a large number of complex and controversial issues are touched in the book that most readers are likely to feel that their special area of interest has not been given adequate coverage. A major concern in this regard is the lack of development of some of Popper’s central ideas. An obvious example is Popper’s non-authoritarian stance in epistemology and politics, where it would be helpful to have an explanation of the logic of Popper’s arguments against the demand for decisive justification of theories and the political counterpart of this stance, namely his critique of all doctrines of unlimited political power. In the political domain this led to his suggestion that the fundamental problem in democratic politics is not "who shall rule" but instead "how can we design institutions to ensure that even incompetent rulers cannot do too much damage?".

Another concern is the neglect of a number of people who have applied and developed Popper’s ideas in interesting and important ways. These include Bartley on rationality and the limits of criticism, Jarvie on the application of objective knowledge to the task of explanation in the social sciences (Concepts and Society. Routledge, 1972) and Munz on evolutionary epistemology as an alternative to the "mirror" theories of positivism and the "lamp" theories of Wittgenstein and Rorty (Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge: Popper or Wittgenstein? Routledge, 1985). Also missing from the bibliography is the special "Popper" edition of ETC.: A Review of General Semantics (Fall 1985, Vol 42, No 3) with contributions inter alia from Petersen on Popper’s psychology and Burgess on some practical aspects of piecemeal social engineering.

In addition to noting those omissions (and some other neglected opportunities) I would like to make two main points in this review. First, more attention to Bartley’s development of Popper’s ideas might relieve some of the tensions in Popper’s epistemology and in the project of critical rationalism generally. Second, following Shearmur (The Political Thought of Karl Popper. Routledge, 1996) I will suggest that Popper’s social philosophy can be located close to the classical or market liberalism of Hayek.

Stokes refers to one article by Bartley but not to any of those more ambitious pieces where he attempted to explain Popper’s achievement in emancipating rationalism from the dogmatic or authoritarian framework where it was traditionally located. The seminal paper, for Bartley, was Popper’s "On the sources of knowledge and ignorance" reprinted in Conjectures and Refutations (Routledge, 1963) which identified the authoritarian structure which was shared by epistemology and political theory. Inspired by this insight, and by Popper’s non-authoritarian response to it, Bartley attempted to broaden and generalise Popper’s views on rationality and criticism. The most useful references for this aspect of Bartley’s work are the appendices to the revised edition of The Retreat to Commitment (Open Court, 1984) and the third in his series of review articles in Philosophia ("The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Part III: Rationality, Criticism and Logic. Philosophia, 1982).

Bartley attempted to explain Popper’s rejoinder to the pressures of justificationism", that is, the traditional quest for justified beliefs, a stance which promotes dogmatism and cramps free trade in criticism. Thus Popper’s broader project was to replace the justificationist or "true belief" mode of discourse with a "critical preference" mode, where positions can held tentatively and changed in the light of new evidence and arguments. According to Bartley, in this expanded field of criticism (foreshadowed by Popper) the test of evidence was just one of several forms of criticism that could be applied to scientific theories and the falsifiability criterion was not so central to the philosophy of science as previously thought. ("Theories of Demarcation between Science and Metaphysics", in Problems in the Philosophy of Science, ed Lakatos and Musgrave, North Holland,1968). This paper was not well received by Popper and the two did not speak on friendly terms for over a decade. Another conclusion that follows from the non-justificationist stance was that there is no need to rush to judgement on a theory, or indeed a research program. There is no arbitrary limit to criticism, and no need to take a dogmatic stand at some point to avoid the infinite regress that can ensue if a critic (like a nagging child) insists on justification for every assumption and every argument that is raised to support an assumption.

Applying this to some of the tensions in Popper’s work that were noted above. On the Popperian justification of dogmatism to sustain an infant theory or research program, there is no need for dogmatism, merely patience to live with uncertainty while more development occurs. Similarly with basic statements, where Popper was forced to resort to some uncomfortable statements about "decisions" and arbitrary stopping points, Bartley showed that this kind of talk was not required if the pressure of belief and justification are removed (ibid, 1982). On the Duhem problem, to ascertain whether it is the hypothesis under test or some other theoretical assumption that has been falsified by the evidence, again there is a need for patience while further experimentation and theoretical development proceed. It may be noted that the Duhem problem brought out the worst in Popper who attempted to depict Duhem as a conventionalist and quite failed to indicate the close affinity of their views concerning both the nature of the problem and its possible solution.

Moving on to Popper’s thoughts on politics and the social sciences, as noted above, Stokes has missed a golden opportunity to explore numerous implications and applications of Popper’s ideas. Munz (1985) speculated that the non-justificationist shift offers the possibility of a cultural advance past the point where social and cultural bonding is based on shared bodies of knowledge and behaviours which are exempt from criticism. He suggested that a threshhold has been crossed so it is conceivable to establish societies which do not depend entirely on adherence to any particular belief system and its rituals. This might be described as a truly multicultural society where some aspects of its evolution can be regulated by rational/critical discussion in a way that was not possible hitherto. He conceded that progress in this direction is far from inevitable, and it could easily be thwarted by the proliferation of self-contained and exclusive sub-cultures, a process that may be aided and abetted by the triumph of "lamp" theories of knowledge, of the Kuhn/Rorty variety, over the "mirror" theories of positivism. The "third way" is offfered by the Popperian line of non-justificationist, evolutionary epistemology. This is stirring stuff, and no doubt in need of criticism, but there is no hint of it in this book.

Stokes picked up Popper’s comments on the authoritarian strand in the traditional epistemologies, and he noted Popper’s concern at some of the likely political consequences, notably fanaticism and intolerance. However he did not attempt to unpack the institutional consequences of Popper’s critique of sovereignty, or of Popper’s critique of the Platonic notion that individualism and altruism are inevitably opposing tendencies. A revised view on sovereignty along with some development of Popper’s critical views on self determination for various religious, cultural or racial groups would appear to offer an avenue to deal with the problem of dissident minorities, short of attempts to redraw the boundaries of nation states, war and genocide. Plato’s views on individualism and altruism have been a longstanding impediment to rational discussion of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. There is now a body of evidence to support Popper’s "altruistic individualist" position and this could introduce a major advance in discussion of fairness in the allocation of welfare benefits (Bowles and Gintis.

Moving on to the issue of Popper’s liberalism. Colleagues such as Bryan Magee (a sometime Labor MP) insist that Popper should be read as an old fashioned social democrat who would support massive public programs in health, education and welfare. However, as Stokes noted, Popper perceived a danger to freedom from any activities undertaken by the state, beyond policing the rules of the game in social life. Despite the risk that freedoms may be prejudiced by injudicious state interference, Popper still insisted that the state should take steps control economic power to protect the poor and the weak. The activities that he had in mind would include insurance against unemployment and public spending to even out fluctuations of the business cycle to maintain employment. However he parted company with the strong form of the Marxism, commenting that the phenomena of ‘exploitation’ which Marx observed might not be attributed to the mechanism of perfectly market competition, but to other factors such as low productivity and rigidity of markets (Open Society volume 2, Routledge, 1962, page 176).

Perhaps if Popper had pursued this insight he might have come to the position of those who suggest that it is at least arguable that conditions for most workers were improved by industrialisation, despite the fulminations and misrepresentations of Tory conservatives who found that their rents and privileges were threatened by free trade. Shearmur has hinted at the possibility that the world 3 consequences of some of Popper’s ideas might place him much closer to the free market position of Hayek than is generally supposed. This is despite the evidence provided by Shearmur that Popper’s world 2 (subjective) thoughts still recoiled from the possible dangers of market forces and privatisation. Shearmur’s work offers a new direction in a little-investigated area of Popper’s thought and Stokes has regrettably had little to say to illuminate any of the questions opened up in this area.

Given the many controversial aspects of Popper’s thought, most people will find plenty to disagree with, both in the primary works and in Stokes’s interpretation of them. In case the comments above appear ungenerous I had better close by saying that it is gratifying to note that Stokes has been prepared to put so much time and effort into the work of a thinker who is not widely regarded in philosophical circles as a living influence or a significant force. Those who beg to differ will be pleased that Stokes has kept Popper’s ideas "in play", at least for the time being.

IndexFull IndexPopper papers

Geoffrey Stokes, Popper: Philosophy, Politics and Scientific Method. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1998.
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