Karl Popper, 1902--1994

14 Apr 2003 14:00

Austrian-English philosopher, dead, alas, just as I began these notebooks.

Popper was primarily a philosopher of science; his system, that of "conjectures and refutations," of falsification, was elegant, coherent, and basically right-headed. Similar to that of such earlier methodologists as William Whewell and Claude Bernard (as Popper was among the first to admit), it was one of only three which, in this century, actual scientists have bothered to pay attention to, and easily the best of them, both in its intellectual quality and its effects. (The other two were the system of Kuhn, who set out to turn Popper upside down; and Machian positivism and its descendants, including the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, who Popper hung out with, but on many important points disagreed with. Positivism was restrictive but, aside from encouraging the behaviorists, mostly harmless; the latter, through no fault of Kuhn's own, has led to no good at all. --- Of course, many scientists have been forced to pay attention to dialectical materialism, but on purely prudential, not intellectual, grounds; that doesn't count.) Even now, querying scientists about what they're up to is very likely to provoke more or less Popperian responses. That said, there are enough problems with it that I, for one, can't really accept it, and there are very few proper Popperians left among professional philosophers of science.

On the other hand, his critism of such pretenders to scientific status as Marxism, the "sociology of knowledge" and, especially, psychoanalysis doesn't rely on the dodgy parts of his methodology, and is spot-on. His political philosophy is pretty much my credo. In part, but only in part, this is because for two months when I was sixteen I had nothing to read but The Open Society and Its Enemies. (Why is it that the Other Side has much better writers than we do, e.g., Plato and Machiavelli? --- OK, that's a bit unfair to Machiavelli.) Popper was a democrat, an egalitarian and a humanitarian, but with a decided and very characteristic twist. Usually democracy is justified on some such grounds as "the sovereignty of the people" or the like, but Popper rejected that altogether. The problem of politics is not Who should rule? but How can we correct mistakes of policy without violence?; not How can we make people good or happy? but How can we minimize avoidable suffering?; not What is the best state? but What can we do now to make things better? The virtues of democracy is that, of all known systems, it is the one where policy can be reformed most peacefully and most rationally, and the one which is least likely to inflict or condone needless or unequal suffering. As for the virtues of piece-meal social engineering and reform over the construction of Utopias and revolutions, one would think they'd speak for themselves after the twentieth century; but no. Popper is often, with Hayek, associated with a return to classical liberalism, or rather a certain caricature of it which sees no role for any social institutions but markets and a minimal nightwatchman state to enforce property rights. I think this is a gross misunderstanding, and that his actual, sound, political theory is quite compatible with the best traditions of social democracy; I would be happy to call myself a Left Popperian, if I thought anyone would get it.

See also Evolutionary epistemology; Ernest Gellner; Prophecy; Social Engineering