Archives For Karl Popper

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham, j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Ry Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3RK

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-SolvingBecause of its length, we have split his response into two parts. This is the second.

Problem-Solving Dialogue

Benton holds that Popper’s philosophy of science cannot meaningfully lead to a social and political conception of problem-solving given the latter’s difference from experimental activity in a laboratory. Social policy changes cannot be analogous to a critical problem-solving dialogue in science where a conjecture is refuted and a new theory then sought, because what constitutes a refutation and indeed what constitutes a problem are deeply normative and complex matters. Furthermore, in practice, policy-implementation is more like “utopian social engineering” than “piecemeal social engineering” because policies are imposed to fit with party political ideological commitments, with scant regard for their problematic consequences (Benton 2017, 63). Benton then argues that I am caught in a catch-22 when the reforms a more dialogic democracy could bring about require an institutional context which presumes the existence of a dialogic democracy that does not exist. How can dialogic democracy work when the conditions for it do not exist and if the conditions for it existed there would be no need to call for it?

To this, I argue here that there has to be a divergence in politics between mainstream politics and radical politics. Horizontal dialogue between groups of lay agents could entail pressure to limit harm from the state by, for example, mobilising against “austerity”-driven welfare cuts that are killing people, but ultimately people will need to remove the state and capitalism. The conditions for people to this can develop from existing problems concerning poverty and exploitation. Consciousness can be raised by different groups in dialogue with each other realising the problems they face stem from systemic issues and are not discrete anomalies in an otherwise functional and legitimate social order.

This does not map directly onto a falsificationist experimental method. It does though correspond to a dialogue that rejects authoritative sources, including public intellectuals seeking the types of reforms Sassower envisages, and which uses criticism to replace the prevailing justifications of the existing order. Such justifications would appeal to human nature, “pragmatism” (there can be no change) and neoliberal-individualist “justice” for the “hard working individual”, which defines human nature to fit the market which is actually constructed to fit corporate interests, with wealth distribution to the richest 1% being masked from lay knowledge.

Bacevic argues that while she is more sympathetic to the anarchism Chis and I espouse, she would prioritise liberal democracy over epistemic democracy, because of a concern with right-wing populism (2017, 52). Prioritising a plurality of voices is fine unless fascists then use it to spread hate and gain power. The debate has to be policed to fit within a liberal-democratic institutional and normative framework. Bacevic’s concern is well-placed and she is aware that obviously the epistemic-dialogic freedoms according under liberal democracy, despite being less extensive than those proposed for an epistemic democracy, can still facilitate the development of aggressively nationalistic and right-wing views.

Shadows of Max Weber

To suggest a way of dealing with this I will turn to Kemp’s response to the book. Kemp notes how I address Reed’s concern about problem-solving being an attempt to engage in a technocratic endeavour by arguing that for Popper all knowledge is mediated by social conventions and so admitting that problem-solving in social and politics matters is conceptually mediated does not take us far from Popper’s conception of science. Indeed, while some see Popper as a technocrat and positivist others, like Newton-Smith (1981) and Stove (2007 [1998]), see Popper as an “irrationalist”, because he argued that scientific decisions are influenced by social conventions: we decide to accept evidence A as a falsification for theory B because of convention C, rather than because raw reality falsifies theory B.

Kemp (2017, 27-28) also correctly notes a change in what problem-solving can mean when I move from the original article to the rest of the book. Originally I used the term in an interchangeable way with “adaptation”, which could imply that a problem had a definitive and objective solution waiting to be found, but then change to use problem-solving in such as way as to also imply it is as much about ‘problematizing’ as problems, which allows for a more open-ended approach. To see problem-solving in terms of conceptually mediated problematizing means the debate can always focus on the terms of reference used to define and try to solve problems, and the reasons why some definitions are chosen over others.

Kemp, following Max Weber, then raises the issue that a commitment to a particular definition or framing of a problem which stems from a normative commitment may entail a potentially debate-stopping dogmatism that is beyond reason. For Weber, values where wholly subjective and so beyond rational dialogue, with definitions of problems therefore benign beyond rational dialogue. Kemp argues that such a view need not be adhered to (because people can be open to rational debate about values) but notes it does raise an important question concerning how to find a balance between imposing framings on others (Rortian humiliation) or just submitting to others’ framings (2017, 31). This resonates with Bacevic’s concern about epistemic dialogue entailing the suppression of voices if the far right were able to gain traction in an unpoliced dialogic sphere. To deal with this balancing act, Kemp suggests basing a “non-impositional dialogue” on the search for anomalies, with “solutions” to problems being “coherence-expanding reconstructions” (2017, 32).

One way this could be engaged with, I would argue, is to undermine the claims by neoliberals about increasing individual freedom and neoconservatives about bolstering national power and security by showing how neoliberalism serves corporations and now neoconservatism has a contempt for ordinary people and serves elite interests through war and economic colonialism. In pursuing this, one could explore the funding of the Henry Jackson Society and publicise how members of this, including Michael Gove (a Tory MP) and Gisela Stuart (a former Labour MP), sway politics in a way that is driven by a commitment to a ‘think thank’ most people have not heard of, and which is committed to pursuing elite interests.

To return to Bacevic’s concern, I would say that policing dialogue to accept liberal democracy may be more of a problem than she realises because the terms of reference offered by some elite groups may be designed to smuggle in radically right-wing policies and ideas, without people being aware of this. Brexit, for example, was presented as offering a way to protect the NHS by putting £350 million a week from the EU into the NHS, but not only was this denied immediately after the referendum, but many Brexit supporting politicians want a ‘hard Brexit’, to reduce public services and create a deregulated low (corporate) tax haven for transnational capital. An elitist policy was pursued by populist means.

When it comes to the problem of right wing populism being unregulated with a more unpoliced epistemic democratic approach, the response could be that the supporters of the right could be engaged in slow dialogue to illustrate the anomalies and inconsistencies in their positions and differences in interests between the elite and the lay audience meant to support them. Obviously, that would not be easy but it is not an impossible task. The alternative may be that the neoliberal and neoconservative right shift the terms of reference, or political “common sense”, with increasingly right-wing – including nationalistic and xenophobic – ideas dominating the political mainstream within a liberal democratic framework.

On a related note, I wrote a piece for the SERRC (Cruickshank 2017) which argued that elites were trying to naturalise hierarchy and get people to see others as “things”, with critical pedagogy offering one way to tackle this.

Image by ydant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Conceptions of Deliberative Democracy

Vernon drew a useful contrast between epistemically conceived politics and an interest-based politics (2017, 5-6). Popper developed a “subjectless” epistemology for science, whereby the focus is on ideas being publicly tested, rather than the authority of the idea-holder. The political application of this broadly fits within the ambit of deliberative democracy, where the focus is on competition between ideas and not between interest-driven persons (2017, 5). Rorty, by contrast with Popper, did focus on interests, Vernon argues. Although Rorty recognised some role for cultural and identity politics to increase our sense of “we”’, it ended in the fetishism of theory, when change comes from large scale collective organisation serving an set of interests, such as trades unions (2017, 6). While Vernon thinks Rorty is stronger than Popper in recognising the role of interests in motivating agency and progressive change, he does criticise Rorty for trying to posit what I would term a meta-interest, in the form of patriotism, preferring Popper’s open society, to any notion of a closed “we”.

For while Rorty wants to expand our sense of we, patriotism, even a liberal minded patriotism, defines interests in a zero-sum way ultimately, with “our” interests being different from “theirs”. In the age of Brexit, the Trojan Horse hoax and Trump, I would argue that Rorty’s pragmatic bounding of an inclusive we along the national boundary is dangerous and potentially reactionary. Rorty’s sense of we could exacerbate the problem of a dialogue policed to conform to liberal democratic tenets actually being subverted by elite interests pursuing very right-wing politics with a liberal-democratic veneer. Nationalism is a potent and fictitious sense of identity and one that is very effective in serving elite interests via populist rhetoric.

Vernon also notes that Rorty is stronger on the argument about the need to recognise others as worthy of respect. This means recognising others as “like-us” by increasing our sense of solidarity and doing what we can to decrease socially acceptable sadisms. In a subject-less epistemic democracy there can be no basis for such respect and the only focus is on the best argument defeated and displacing the inferior argument. Assuming there were universally agreed criteria for such assessments to be affected, the problem would still remain that arguments stem from persons and persons as persons deserve respect. A vote may decide an outcome but behind that outcome lie people with views different from the outcome and they will not turn into cognitive and emotional tabula rasa with a vote wiping away previous convictions.

Vernon is correct to argue that we need some notion of interests shaping politics, to recognise that even if some see politics as the “free market of ideas”, such as Popper with his conception of science as perfected liberal democracy and Sassower with his account of public intellectuals as “gadflies” serving a public hungry for better ideas, interests shape the formation of policies and the formation of arguments. One does not have to be a determinist to hold that interests will play a role in argument, deliberation and acceptance of policies and ideas. This was implicit in my arguments about people using horizontal dialogue to reject the elite – the elite pursue their interests which run counter to those of the majority.

Vernon is also correct to argue against the subjectless approach to democratic dialogue. This is why I argued for slow dialogue in place of Popper’s speedy dialogue. To be ethical for Popper is to improve oneself as fast as possible to run away from any hint of dogmatism, but this is a very individualistic and detached ethical position, which is odd coming from someone who advocates a subjectless epistemology – “epistemology without a knowing subject” (Popper, 1972).

In knowledge we are shaped by conventions such that falsifications are mediated by conventions, but ethics unlike knowledge remains a radically individualist endeavour. In contrast to speedy dialogue, slow dialogue allows for the engagement with those who have very different views and, as my position did not see voting as the closure of a dialogue, this can allow for slow but significant change over time. In other words, slow dialogue presumes a level of respect to motivate it in the first place, and political dialogue is not terminated when policy decisions are made, because it concerns lay agents who see their interests are not directly aligned with the state. In talking with others about problems, policies could be discussed, but no policy would be a definitive solution to a technocratic problem.

Before considering Benesch’s criticism of my arguments about the speed of dialogues I will note that while Vernon states that he is not aware of any list of suffering-reduction achievements noted by Popper, unlike Rorty who does furnish such a list, Popper does actually give us a list of suffering-reduction points to address. These are in the essay The History of our Time in Conjectures and Refutations (1963). Popper’s list of points cites: poverty, unemployment, sickness and pain, penal cruelty, religious and racial discrimination, rigid class differences, slavery, war and lack of educational opportunities (1963, 370).

Engaging Collaboration

Benesch takes issue with my criticism of Popper for replacing justificationist speedy dialogues with critical speedy dialogues. He argues that: Popper carefully considered texts before replying; that critical dialogue in science and politics was a slow process of piecemeal change; and that Lakatos’ claims to correct Popper were erroneous because Popper spoke of metaphysical research programmes, which would be slow to change and which pre-empted Lakatos’s argument about research programmes and naïve and sophisticated falsificationism (2017, 50-51).

In response to this I argue the following. The issue for Popper was not so much the “preparation time” but the nature of argument and dialogue itself: how much time one spent preparing an argument was, like the origin of an argument, not relevant for Popper, given what Vernon called the “subjectless” epistemology, which saw ideas, detached from people, in competition with each other. A quick defeat of an idea in an ideational permanent revolution would speed us along with epistemic and ethical progress. The latter is of course problematic, given that ethics pertains to a subject unlike ideas. The impersonal clashing of ideas would improve the subject who let this happen without using dogmatism to corrupt this competition between sui generis abstractions.

On the second point Benesch argues that “[t]he collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often entail the ‘slow piecemeal ideational change’ that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected’ (2017, 51). When discussing with Kuhn, Popper (1970) argued that we are prisoners of the conceptual framework but we can break out of this at any time, albeit into a “bigger and roomier one”. Kuhn was correct to hold that we always see the world via a conceptual scheme but incorrect to hold that this took a long time to change because we could “break out of this at any time” for Popper. In other words, progress turned on critical speedy dialogue with any recognition of ideas having traction taking us towards dogmatism and relativism. However, when Popper discusses political debate he may seem implicitly to endorse a slow conception of dialogue. Popper argues that:

It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine which to understand what he [sic] intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he [sic] only hopes for the mutual fertilization of opinions and the consequent growth of ideas. Even where we solve a problem to universal satisfaction, we create, in solve it, many new problems over which we are bound to disagree. This is not to be regretted (1963, 352).

This may entail a critical slow dialogue because it would take time to understand those with different views and understanding would have to be worked at – one would need to work to get towards what Gadamer (2013 [1975]) called a “fusion of horizons”. If this is accepted then I think it points to a tension in Popper’s work between an ethical reaction to dogmatism which linked ethics to speed and a later position which focused more on dialogue being about understanding others’ terms of reference in a condition where there was no universal normative language. This may also lead to a tension between the subjectless epistemology mentioned by Vernon and a more embodied epistemology.

As regards the comment about Lakatos, I would say that Popper’s metaphysical research programmes were removed from scientific experiment unlike the core of the research programme for Lakatos. For Popper, metaphysical research programmes could provide inspiration for testable hypotheses, but were, from a strictly scientific point of view, irrelevant, because the origin of testable ideas was irrelevant; whereas for Lakatos, the core of a research programme would eventually be falsified. Metaphysical research programmes were, in effect, thus removed from critical dialogue, whereas a research programme for Lakatos was subject to slow change through critical dialogue changing the auxiliary hypotheses until the core needed changing eventually.

Benesch also criticises me for incorrectly attributing to what I called “the optimistic Popper” a belief in majoritarianism or “popular sovereignty” as Popper called it, where the majority qua majority are justified politically and ethically (2017, 53). Perhaps I could have been clearer when I discussed this in the book (pp. 109-110), but I did not regard the optimistic Popper as holding to a majoritarian view. I argued that the optimistic Popper, like Dewey, would see democracy as an “ethical way of life” where there was always an on-going dialogue, which was not closed off by any formal process such as voting. The argument about the Towel of Babel indicates such an outlook.

By contrast, the pessimistic Popper wanted to restrict democratic engagement the infrequent formal act of voting and prohibit coalition governments and proportional representation. Falsification was to be applied to politics by a decisive vote on a party’s claim to have succeeded in implementing useful policies. Politics for this Popper was to be a monologic affair.

Benesch makes a number of highly critical points about the chapter by Sassower and Jensen. I will not presume to speak on their behalf.

Shearmur, and Bacevic, both note that the notion of a unified public sphere has been criticised, with Nancy Fraser, for example taking Habermas to task on this. I agree with these points. The public sphere is not a sphere of abstract individuals seeking purely cognitive epistemic engagement, but is rather a sphere where different groups have different interests.

Shearmur also makes the important point that Popper’s friendship with Hayek did not translate into political agreement, given Popper’s “social democratic” leanings. Shearmur proceeds to criticise Popper’s concept of piecemeal social engineering by arguing that there is more role for the authority of specialist knowledge than Popper permits (2017, 11-12). Given the usual critical reading of Popper as an elitist technocratic (see the chapter by Reed in the book, and Benton’s review), it is strange to see an argument for what is in effect a shift from a more engaged democratic position to a more elitist one. Shearmur mentions the ghost of Plato (2017, 12), but given his critical appreciation of Hayek it may well be the ghost of Walter Lippmann that is at work here, with lay agents being seen a priori as too fickle and ignorant to engage in meaningful political debate. That is surely an essentialist dogmatism we can use Popper to reject.

Contact details: j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

References

Archer, Margaret. Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

Benesch, Philip. The Viennese Socrates: Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012.

Benesch, Philip. “What’s Left of Popper?”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 50-61.

Benton, Ted. “Realism and Social Science: Some Comments on Roy Bhaskar’s ‘The Possibility of Naturalism’”, Radical Philosophy 27 (1981): 13-21.

Benton, Ted. “Some Comments on Cruickshank’s and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 10 (2017): 60-65.

Bhaskar, Roy. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso, 1997 (1975).

Bhaskar, Roy. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. 3rd edition. London: Routledge, 1998 (1979).

Cruickshank, Justin. “The Usefulness of Fallibilism: A Popperian Critique of Critical Realism”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 37 (3) (2007): 263–288

Cruickshank, Justin. “Knowing Social Reality: A Critique of Bhaskar and Archer’s attempt to derive a Social Ontology from Lay Knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40 (4) (2010): 579-602.

Cruickshank, Justin. “Meritocracy and Reification”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 5 (2017): 4-19.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Bloomsbury, 2013 (1975).

Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity, 1984

Gunn, Richard. “Marxism and Philosophy: A Critique of Critical Realism.” Capital and Class 37 (1988): 87 – 116.

Hacohen, Malachi H. Karl Popper. The Formative Years 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto, 1981.

Kemp, Stephen. “On Popper, Problems and Problem-Solving: A Review of Cruickshank and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 27-34.

Magill, Kevin. “Against Critical Realism.” Capital and Class 54 (1994): 113 – 136.

Newton-Smith, W.H. The Rationality of Science. London: Routledge, 1981.

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth in Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1963.

Popper, Karl, R. “Normal Science and its Dangers.” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 51-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Popper, Karl, R. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Reed, Isaac, A. “Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power.” In Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology, Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, 69-79. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

Rifkin, Jeremy. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014.

Shearmur, Jeremy. “Popper, Social Epistemology and Dialogue”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 1-12.

Stove, David. Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. London: Transaction, 2007 (1998).

Vernon, Richard. “Evanescent and Embedded Agents”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 4-10.

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham, j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers, and includes both parts. Shortlinks: Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Ry Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3RK

In this piece, Justin Cruickshank of the University of Birmingham responds to recent critiques published at the Reply Collective of his recent book, Democratic Problem-Solving. Because of its length, we have split his article in two parts. This is the first.

From Bhaskar’s Neo-Marxist Critical Realism to Popper’s Problem-Solving

In contrast with Benesch, who argued in The Viennese Socrates that Popper’s work supported a progressive politics, Benton seems to adhere to a popular reading of Popper as a Cold War ideologue who championed a technocratic approach to maintaining the status quo in contrast to any progressive democratic politics. Although Benton does not refer to Popper as a positivist, what comes across as his reading of Popper as a dogmatic liberal espousing a technocratic politics broadly fits the reading of Popper as a positivist, if one uses the contemporary definition of positivism which sees it as more encompassing than logical positivism.

For Benton, Popper, if he did not fetishise science, did at least have a naïve conception of it as an objective fact-grinding tool that could also be applied to politics, with there being no recognition of the systemic problems within liberal capitalism. Structural criticism would be prohibited and in its place reforms to make the social order function more efficiently would be sought. Popper, as Reed (2017) as well as Benton, feared, would see change in terms of an engineer tinkering with a machine whose purpose was not to be questioned and whose problems could not be recognised. Benton thus finds it odd that Sassower (in some chapters) sought a radical reformist politics based on Popper and that I (/ Chis and I) argued for an anarchist politics based on Popper.

It will be useful to make four points here. The first is that Hacohen’s (2000) book ‘Karl Popper: The Formative Years 1902-1945. Politics And Philosophy In Interwar Vienna’ undermines the case that Popper was a dogmatic Cold War liberal, at least in his early and mid-writing career (later I think he clearly did become more socially conservative). Hacohen’s case is that the Popper who wrote The Poverty of Historicism presented it post hoc as a critique of ‘totalitarianism’, in the form of Stalinist Communism and fascism, but it was written as an engagement with interwar socialist debates and it rejected the liberal belief in a defining human essence, in the form of a competitive human nature. Indeed, the Open Society also rejected the liberal capitalist idea that capitalism is ‘justified’ by being in accord with human nature.

The second is that in the book I made a point about the reception context and how a received reading of Popper became established due to the social and political context, which failed to recognise all the potential in his work. This led me to distinguish a critical and more optimistic Popper from a more pessimistic Popper. Benton does not engage with the arguments about the possibilities offered by the critical Popper and uses the received reading of Popper to reject him and be incredulous at his use by myself (and possibly others too) to support a radical political position. The position I (/ Chis and I) develop goes well beyond what Popper’s intentions were but the case was not to excavate the essence of the real author but to see what potential there was in some of his work to develop ideas in a particular way.

Part of this meant drawing on Popper’s rejection of appeals to authority in knowledge and Benton charges me with treating Popper as an authority. That is odd given that the approach to Popper is critical and that positions are not cut to fit a constructed Popper ‘essence’. Thus, after recognising how readings can gain traction, and how dialogue has to engage with affective and normative commitments, I criticise Popper for conceptualising dialogue in a speedy way and draw upon Gadamer to suggest the need to see dialogue as a slow process. There was not the space to develop the work on Gadamer but only to suggest it.

The reason for this, which brings me to the third point, and which I think Benton may lose sight of, is that the book was not written as a normal monograph planned to move through steps to reach a conclusion, but was an open-ended dialogue which developed initially in the SERRC. The chapters were then re-written to add more sources and more detailed argument (with the Brexit chapter being written especially for the book because that happened after the SERRC exchanges), which may give the impression of a more ‘traditional’ book, but it was still following the lines of the original SERRC debate. I wrote the article on Popper and Rorty because I was interested in challenging conventional readings of their work and then the SERRC debate lead to the argument for open dialogue being extended to a range of political matters. Popper’s argument against authority in knowledge always remained important, as did the focus on disrupting a narrow and often incorrect received wisdom about Popper, but had it been written as a traditional book, it other sources would have complemented Popper.

Fourth, the argument sought to develop a framework for open dialogue, which could include a wide variety of positions, including, for me, Marxist positions. The case was not to use a Cold War liberal technocrat to ban Marxism and espouse anarchism. Rather, it was to use Popper’s work on authority and criticism to develop a position on open dialogue that could include many voices. The anarchist position (influenced by Peter Kropotkin and Colin Ward) would be that traditions of mutual aid are important (with traditions thus not necessarily being regressive blocks on progress – a point Gadamer can be used to develop). These traditions ought not to be hermetic but rather they ought to motivate large scale collective pressure for major progressive change and this would come from, to use one of Rorty’s favourite terms, a ‘horizontal’ dialogue, between different communities of people facing different and similar problems.

Examples of problems here, mentioned in the book, would be the housing crisis in the UK, the insecurity caused by the gig economy creating a middle-class precariat as well as a working class precariat, and the ethno-nationalist racism legitimised by the Brexit campaign and the Trojan Horse hoax. If one appeals to sources of authoritative knowledge then there can be no horizontal dialogue because one group would seek to legislate on what others’ ought to think and no intellectually progressive dialogue because events and data would be cut to fit a pre-existing epistemic, ontological, methodological, etc., commitment. The problem with Popper was though that he ended up fetishizing change and seeing ethics as a process of constantly negating one’s beliefs, which would actually entail philosophical scepticism and political apathy.

Thoughts on Critical Realism

As may be clear from Benton’s reply, he is a realist, so part of his discussion at least is motivated by a concern to defend realism and specifically, the neo-Marxist “critical realism” developed by Roy Bhaskar. I will now outline critical realism and say why I moved from this to Popper, using Popper to reject critical realism as a form of debate-stopping methodological essentialism, in articles in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

Bhaskar (1997 [1975], 1998 [1979]) argued for an anti-positivist naturalism, meaning he argued for the unity of the natural and social sciences, in terms of methodology, in a way that differed from positivist naturalism. Bhaskar argued that positivism committed the “epistemic fallacy” of reducing ontological questions about being into epistemological questions about how we know being. To overcome this we needed, he argued, to see science as developing knowledge in accord with ontological assumptions that in some way correspond to reality.

Whereas positivism, for him, was based on implicitly assuming that reality was a “closed system” constituted by invariant empirical regularities, given its commitment to an empiricist theory of knowledge which stressed the role of direct observation, science was successful because it recognised that there are no such invariant regularities and presumed instead that reality is a “stratified open system”. This means assuming that causal laws that are unobservable in themselves interact in contingent ways to produce the changing empirical effects we can see. When it came to the social sciences, the problem was that there were no shared ontological assumptions about what social reality is. Therefore, Bhaskar had to legislate on what this may be and did this by rejecting structuralist determinism and methodological individualism which he held could not account for the social context conditioning agency, to link structure and agency. Social reality was constituted by structural emergent properties that conditioned but did not determine agency.

Bhaskar (1998) noted that social structures were different from natural structures insofar as the former could be changed by human agency but went on to draw upon the ‘structuration theory’ developed by Giddens (1995 [1984]) which ended up “solving”’ the structure-agency problem by redefining it as a problem of agency. For Giddens, and by extension, Bhaskar, structures were “virtual” because they only existed in agents’ heads as ‘memory traces’ until agents chose to act upon them – or “instantiate” them. Margaret Archer (1995) then sought to rescue Bhaskar from himself by rejecting Giddens and saying that Bhaskar’s argument could be saved by saying that structures were emergent properties that were dependent on agency in the past tense. That is, structures emerged from agents’ actions in the past and then become emergent properties that could condition agency and which were thus irreducible to agency.

For Archer, individualism was an ontological position influenced by empiricism (because we can only see individuals) and this raises the awkward problem that Bhaskar would seem to be influenced by a philosophy he sought to reject. Archer tries to avoid this by defining the problem in terms of Giddens’ theory not being a form of individualism but a position that committed what she called “central conflation”, meaning the mutual conflation of structure into agency and agency into structure. This does not seem a tenable or meaningful definition of the problem though, given that structures have no existence separate from agents, and so it more accurate to say Bhaskar’s use of Giddens committed him to a form of individualism, as Benton (1981) actually argued.

Critical realism has proved increasingly popular in social science, with social scientists keen to avoid positivism (often defined very broadly to include any quantitative research), interpretivistic and post-structuralist relativism, and individualism in the form of rational choice theory, using critical realism to explain events in terms of structure and agency. Critical realism became an orthodoxy for those unsatisfied with the extant orthodoxies.

Image by Let Ideas Compete via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

To Be Fallible

The problem I had with critical realism was that it was not critical but a type of dogmatic formalism (Cruickshank 2007, 2010). Despite holding that knowledge was fallible, the ontology was removed from critical revision based on empirical research and empirical research was cut to fit the concepts of structure and agency. The concepts of structure and agency were read into the data and then the data was taken to support the ontology used to explain it. Critical realism, I argued, thus begged the question. I found Popper useful here because while I did not agree with his treatment of Marxism, his critique of “methodological essentialism” and the search for justification via authoritative sources of knowledge was relevant here. The ontological commitment was treated as an authoritative source with the essence of social reality (namely structure and agency) being taken as justified with all observed events then being regarded as “verifications” of the prior ontological / essentialist commitment.

Although Bhaskar hoped his work would offer a scientific Marxism based on realism, able to link structure and agency, unlike Althusser’s claim that structuralist Marxism was scientific and unlike the positivist conception of science, his work received significant criticism from Marxists (see for instance Gunn 1988 and Magill 1994). A major concern was the undialectical nature of Bhaskar’s ontology, which separated the categories of structure and agency from each other and from substantive-empirical processes, to create a meta-theory developed in abstraction from the processes it sought to explain. Rather than develop categories from the complexity of reality, seeing their interpenetration, two generic abstractions were developed and then imposed on reality, in an undialectical – or even undialogic – way.

To be sure, Popper sought to police dialogue, erroneously in my view, but his argument that the recognition of fallibilism had to entail the use of criticism to change views dialogically, with there being no appeal to authoritative sources of knowledge (such as the authority of the senses with empiricism or methodological essentialist commitments with critical realism), was of key importance. When social science fetishizes the origins of knowledge to justify a claim or delegitimise it with ideology-critique or post-structuralist critique of discourse, it becomes a form of clericalism that detaches knowledge from substantive problems. Critical realism exemplified this far more than Popper, despite his (unPopperian) attempts to police dialogue, as, ironically, the Marxist critique of Bhaskar illustrated.

Popper sought to police dialogue using problematic dualisms and Benton I think does the same. He offers us just realism and irrealism (2017, 61), with latter being problematic because it lacked “a robust recognition of the autonomy and independent causal powers of other people, institutions, material objects, organic beings and so on” and because it erroneously, for him, took any reference to reality to entail anti-democratic and authoritarian views. Benton does not clearly distinguish between Bhaskar’s critical realism and metaphysical realism. Popper argued for metaphysical realism but Bhaskar shied away from it.

Metaphysical realism is just the claim that reality exists independently of us. It seems a common-sense position but it entails a sceptical rejoinder because reality is defined as that which always exceeds our knowledge of it. Benton holds that my position, in accepting this criticism of metaphysical realism, is irrationalist as well as irrealist because someone else can confirm the existence of objects once someone else leaves a room (2017, 61). Here Benton is following what Popper called the Winston Churchill argument for realism (1972, 42-44) but, as Popper, who was himself a metaphysical realism argued, this “does not prove realism” (1972, 43-44. Emphasis on original).

The problem with the Churchill-Benton argument for realism is that as reality is defined, for metaphysical realists, as that which is independent of us, there can be no appeal to shared experiential knowledge to prove the existence of a reality that is separate from our (shared or lone) ideas of it. Moreover, Benton is guilty here of what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy, because he is defining reality in terms of others’ accounts of their knowledge of it (and knowledge arrived at from experience). Now critical realism is defined by Bhaskar as a form of “conceptual science” because instead of speculating on the nature of ultimate reality it arrives at its ontological assumptions for natural science at least, by deriving them from the implicit assumptions within the “transitive domain” of scientific knowledge. In other words, ontological questions about what reality is are answered by turning to a body of knowledge about reality.

The realist ontology of natural reality thus commits what critical realists regard as the epistemic fallacy. By contrast the ontological claims about social reality are taken to be justified because they overcome structuralist determinism and the inability of agency to account for the context conditioning agency, with the avoidance of these problems then being taken to be the sufficient as well as necessary condition for justification. Such justification obviously rests on a non sequitur. Once the ontological categories are taken to be justified commitments they are then read into empirical events with the latter being taken as verifications of the commitments, which then commits the fallacy of begging the question.

In addition to the problem of begging the question and being an undialectical form of Marxism, critical realism led to formulaic “applications”. Just as must research influenced by post-structuralism “found” all events to be expressions of discourse (with research verifying the prior commitment to the ontology of discourse determinism), so empirical research influenced by critical realism ended up redescribing events in terms of the categories of structure and agency. A rebranding of events using the favoured words (structure and agency) of the new stale orthodoxy was taken to be an explanation.

A Heritage From Gramsci

Benton argued that I had a tendency to caricature the views of my opponents, and then defended Sassower’s arguments on public intellectuals by defending Gramsci, who Sassower cites briefly (2017, 64). I would agree that for Gramsci organic working-class intellectuals are engaged in substantive issues and that they are a wide group because it includes all those engaged in class struggle in their daily lives potentially. I would though raise the question about the term “intellectual” being redundant if it is applied to everyone. One can talk of people having an insight into their conditions and seeking change, but invoking the notion of intellectuals means invoking the notion of an intellectually privileged group. But the argument is not really a semantic one. If Benton wants, following Gramsci, to call everyone an intellectual, then I am happy to talk of a democratic dialogue between academic-intellectuals and lay-intellectuals, rather than academics and lay agents.

The important issue is that a dialogic relationship has to eschew the conception that progress needs an epistemically privileged class, because that ultimately is monologic. And here both Popper and Rorty are correct to note the problems that arise when self-defining intellectual elites seek to legislate for others. It is interesting that Benton avoids engaging with the problems they raise concerning those deemed to be intellectuals, for there are real problems concerning intellectual fashions, dogmatism, elitism and secular-clerical mentality, not to mention the problems with those deemed to be intellects often coming from privileged groups. bell hooks (1981) argued black female intellectuals tended to be marginalised by black male activists and white feminists, meaning that the elitism of the concept is complemented in practice with an elitism of selection concerning who is recognised as an intellectual with a voice permitted to speak in the public sphere.

However, using Gramscian terminology, it is the case that Sassower actually defended the use of “traditional” and not organic intellectuals. Sassower did have an expansive definition to include rappers etc. but did end up narrowing it down to academics with the task of academics as public intellectuals being that of acting as “responsible gadflies”. Academic public intellectuals should be paid for by the US government and US media outlets ought to host them because they would shift the focus, in their printspace and airtime, from celebrity gossip and mud-slinging between politicians to a more intellectual debate about social and political matters. Academic public intellectuals would be better placed to define problems and offer solutions by thinking in a deeper way by being freed from commercial pressure and normative commitments. The pursuit of the truth would guide them and they would float above sectional interests to arrive at the best / objective definition of problems and the best proposal for their solutions.

But as Gramsci argued, no-one, including those positioned as “intellectuals”, can float about social and normative interests. Furthermore, Sassower implicitly treats the state as a neutral body open to the “best argument”, which is reminiscent of the classical pluralist model of the state, and the technocratic notion that problems are objective entities separated from normative commitments and the influence of class etc. This replicated the notion that while there can be a philosophy of knowledge there can only be a sociology of error, for it sees all social and normative influences as corrupting on the pursuit of truth.

Now, in considering why Benton defended Sassower by defending Gramsci, we can note that Benton recorded Sassower’s definition of himself as a Marxist, despite Sassower also calling Marxists ‘rabid’ (and engaging in other polemic against “radicals”). The real issue here though is that while Sassower did envisage, briefly, a post-capitalist society, it was not a post-liberal society and nor was it a society that was based on a redistribution of wealth or a society that abolished class. It was not a socialist or communist society that he had in mind. Sassower drew on Rifkin (2014) to argue that technology may result in the cost of commodities becoming negligible and that with increased use of ICT younger people may prefer access to items over ownership of items.

Image by Fabio Falanga via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sassower also held at one point that neoliberalism was not necessarily negative and that it needed to be assessed on its performance. In other words, the Marxism motivated no commitment to socialism or communism, or changing prior property distribution, but was an (undialectical) form of technological determinism which focused on consumption and not production contra Marxism. His “Marxism” also existed alongside the technocratic view that neoliberalism can be assessed as a potentially positive form of capitalism, in a fashion analogous to a (positivist value-free) experiment. Later Sassower argued against neoliberalism and this commitment to heterogenous positions may be intelligible in terms of a technocratic approach, whereby the search is for the best “objective” solution entails a move from a neutral approach to neoliberalism to a critical approach, and from considering neoliberalism, which claims to liberate the citizen as consumer (not producer-worker) to considering a consumer-focused post-capitalism to liberate the post-capitalist citizen-consumer.

Contact details: j.cruickshank@bham.ac.uk

Continued Here.

References

Archer, Margaret. Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

Benesch, Philip. The Viennese Socrates: Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012.

Benesch, Philip. “What’s Left of Popper?”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 50-61.

Benton, Ted. “Realism and Social Science: Some Comments on Roy Bhaskar’s ‘The Possibility of Naturalism’”, Radical Philosophy 27 (1981): 13-21.

Benton, Ted. “Some Comments on Cruickshank’s and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 10 (2017): 60-65.

Bhaskar, Roy. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso, 1997 (1975).

Bhaskar, Roy. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. 3rd edition. London: Routledge, 1998 (1979).

Cruickshank, Justin. “The Usefulness of Fallibilism: A Popperian Critique of Critical Realism”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 37 (3) (2007): 263–288

Cruickshank, Justin. “Knowing Social Reality: A Critique of Bhaskar and Archer’s attempt to derive a Social Ontology from Lay Knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40 (4) (2010): 579-602.

Cruickshank, Justin. “Meritocracy and Reification”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 5 (2017): 4-19.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Bloomsbury, 2013 (1975).

Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity, 1984

Gunn, Richard. “Marxism and Philosophy: A Critique of Critical Realism.” Capital and Class 37 (1988): 87 – 116.

Hacohen, Malachi H. Karl Popper. The Formative Years 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto, 1981.

Kemp, Stephen. “On Popper, Problems and Problem-Solving: A Review of Cruickshank and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 27-34.

Magill, Kevin. “Against Critical Realism.” Capital and Class 54 (1994): 113 – 136.

Newton-Smith, W.H. The Rationality of Science. London: Routledge, 1981.

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth in Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1963.

Popper, Karl, R. “Normal Science and its Dangers.” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 51-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Popper, Karl, R. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Reed, Isaac, A. “Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power.” In Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology, Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, 69-79. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

Rifkin, Jeremy. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2014.

Shearmur, Jeremy. “Popper, Social Epistemology and Dialogue”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 1-12.

Stove, David. Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. London: Transaction, 2007 (1998).

Vernon, Richard. “Evanescent and Embedded Agents”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 4-10.

Author Information: Richard Vernon, Western University, ravernon@uwo.ca

Vernon, Richard. “Evanescent and Embedded Agents.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 4-10.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3L5

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

Justin Cruickshank’s opening essay, and the further work arising from it by him and others, makes a strong case for the value of label-wariness. Overcoming a binary constructed by the way in which Popper and Rorty have routinely been classified, Cruickshank finds in those two theorists a problem-solving orientation that sets a path for constructive thinking about democracy. Overall, I have the impression that Popper comes out slightly better than Rorty does from bringing them together, in that Rorty still takes justification to be the test of truth-content—hence, justification being (in his view) lacking, his postmodern scepticism—while Popper more radically adopts a nonfalsification test. Rorty, from a Popperian point of view, is a sceptic because he sets the bar of veracity too high: a very common move. But it is not Cruickshank’s purpose to award prizes for comparative merit, nor is it mine in this brief commentary. Rather, I want to draw attention to something of a contrast between Popper and Rorty, not at all in order to undermine Cruickshank’s project, but because the contrast between them seems to me to point towards an important issue in “democratic problem-solving”.

The contrast is one that emerges if we move down from the epistemological level, at which Cruickshank’s essay is generally pitched, to take account of Rorty’s fine-grained politics. Doing so is legitimate, I believe, because—famously—Rorty himself drew a line between the (postmodern) epistemology that attracted him and the kind of political assumptions that he adopted. Postmodern epistemologies, he believed, should stay in the English departments. Political action should be guided by nothing more epistemologically complex or interesting than the reduction of suffering. On this, he wrote (1989, 63), J.S. Mill had said the last word (though to accept that, it should be noted in passing, we would have to equate “harm” with suffering, a move that will of course exasperate careful Mill scholars). In Achieving Our Country (1998a) Rorty gives us a list of suffering-reduction achievements that, he believes, should be remembered and celebrated, and on which progressive movements, he says, should build. I do not know of a similarly detailed list in Popper, whose political views are more abstractly stated, generally as an extrapolation from his philosophy of science (especially in Open Society). This introduces something of an asymmetry into the comparison, but I do not see how to avoid it, except by staying at the epistemological level which, for the reason just given, may be to scant a distinction that Rorty evidently thought to be crucial.

On Popper’s Political Thought

Let me begin with the briefest possible characterization of Popper’s political thought. It too, as it happens, is in one respect J.S. Mill-like, and one might note in passing that the two theorists’ shared admiration for Mill’s On Liberty could provide an interesting starting-point for addressing what they have in common, and where they differ. Mill wrote, “The beliefs that we have the most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded”, continuing “This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being.” That anticipates Popper’s later view that what is distinctive about the procedure of science is that claims are to be formulated in a way that maximizes their vulnerability to refutation, their surviving refutation being the only ground that we have on which to lend credence to claims made. This puts epistemology on a radically foundation-free basis that, Popper claimed, makes many ancient controversies obsolete. Likewise, the process of “discovery” is downplayed in (veridical, as distinct from historical) significance, for how one gets there is of no importance if what matters is what happens when one does get there—what obstacles one then confronts, and whether one then surmounts them or not. (More on this below.) Pursuing this line of thought, Popper goes so far as to describe science as a “subjectless” enterprise (1970, 57) in which all that matters is the force of the better evidence. When a scientific claim is refuted, then, Popper declares (perhaps over-) dramatically, “The believer perishes together with his false beliefs” (1972, 122). The believer has only the status of a vehicle.

It is not difficult to see important parallels with a certain kind of (idealized) politics, though once again we must note that Popper’s politics is more abstractly sketched than Rorty’s, and make allowance for that. It would be the politics of a liberal-democratic state, liberal in the sense that every conjecture, however arrived at, is given space, and democratic in the sense that every conjecture must face opposition and possible refutation in a public forum. That this picture obviously idealizes the actual practices of Western states, in Popper’s time and in ours, no doubt provokes the “Cold War warrior” label. But there is no reason to suppose that theorists who idealize aren’t aware of the ways in which reality falls short, and of the need to correct that. Nor should it be assumed that because Popper aligned himself with one side it was the choice of side that motivated his argument, not the reverse.

In any event, it isn’t the Cold-War-warrior issue that I want to raise in order to pursue a contrast with Rorty (who by the way would have been happy to have been called a Cold War warrior!). Rather, it is the “subjectless” character that Popper attributes to science and, by his own extrapolation, to liberal politics. If it has a political exemplar, it would be some version of deliberative democracy, in which, likewise, the competition of ideas tends to displace the conflict among persons. Theorists of deliberative democracy distinguish their view from the familiar pluralist or market view of politics as the clash of interests or preferences.

According to deliberative democrats, we come to the forum not with interests or preferences that demand satisfaction, but with a willingness to expose our initial views to public critique and to change them if that is where the argument goes (Gutmann and Thompson, 1996). It might be a bit over-dramatic, again, to call such a view of politics “subjectless”—because, after all, the contested proposals do have to be put forward and defended by human subjects, no doubt with conviction—but that term applies in the sense that the political process is conceived of, basically, and to the extent that it is valuable, as a collision among ideas rather than as a conflict among persons (or groups of people). What matters is not the fact that I (or we) hold one belief and that you hold another, and that the beliefs get some standing from the fact that you and I respectively hold them, but that from a regulative point of view one of us holds a belief that may turn out to be less vulnerable to refutation.

It is here that a major fault-line appears between Popper’s politics—or at least the direction in which Popper’s politics would ideally seem to go—and the approach that Rorty adopts in his political thought. For in a “subjectless” politics agents could in principle be evanescent, while in Rorty’s favoured politics agents are institutionalized and act out of a strong sense of their own continuing identity and, often, their own interest too.

Rorty and Collective Agency

What is missing in the era of identity politics, Rorty believed, is the contribution of strong collective agency inspired by the sense of having an ongoing presence in public life. The paradigm case is, of course, the labor union, the mainstay, for perhaps a century, of progressive politics. Rorty emphasizes that unions were also, often, bastions of various kinds of exclusiveness: here he applauds the work of what he calls the “cultural left” in bringing to light once-obscured forms of oppression. But without the institutionalized support of millions of working people the egalitarian project of the left is perhaps fatally weakened. In good part, of course, this is because in the labor movement the egalitarian project was firmly linked to the advancement of workers’ socioeconomic interest: and it may be in that regard that Popper’s science-politics analogy most clearly loses its grip.

From a motivational point of view, the sense of justified self-interest is very different from the admirably ego-free model of disinterest that Popper admired. And the failure of an attempt to advance one’s interest is rarely taken as a reason to quit as opposed to a reason to renew the effort if one can. “Politics is about interests” (Shapiro 1999) is a provocative over-generalization, but to the extent that Rorty emphasizes the place of interest adopts it he moves the discussion onto a terrain that an epistemically-conceived politics may neglect. Immediately after the Trump election, many commentators saw uncanny prescience in Rorty’s prediction that by abandoning the defence of the economically deprived, the Democratic party ran the risk of losing them to a demagogue who would exploit their resentments. Left out of the distributive paradigm, as it came to be termed, they then had to suffer being left out of the recognition paradigm too, and took their revenge on “recognition’s” supposed beneficiaries.

But it is not the element of “interest” alone that distinguishes Rorty’s view. He also wrote about the role of universities, for example, making large claims for their political importance (1998a, 50). He did not much stress the role of churches, but surely he should have, given the role of (for example) black churches in the civil rights movement, or, in the previous century, the role of English churches in the abolition of the slave trade (Appiah 2010). But whether we are thinking about economic or intellectual or spiritual motivation, the general point is that Rorty’s political world is peopled by decidedly non-evanescent actors. It is essential to effective politics, he believes, that there should be groups with long-term commitments and a sense of their continuing identity and purpose so that defeats can be absorbed and the struggle can continue.

Among the many powerful objections to neoliberalism by Cruickshank and others in Democratic Problem-Solving, this theme of Rorty’s points to a special reason for concern. It is characteristic of neoliberalism not only to close off macropolitical alternatives but also to infect institutions with a market ethos, so that their distinctive internal character is flattened, and they cease to be available as potential agents of political dissent, of the sort that Rorty regarded as essential to critical politics.

Institutions, such as trades unions, to use Rorty’s most recurrent example, come into being because groups of people have life-experiences in common, and once in being they create further life-experiences that their members share, and value. Here I want to go back to Popper’s epistemically powerful distinction between discovery and justification. Despite its scientific importance, it fits uncomfortably in politics because the process of discovering one’s political orientation is not easily left behind, embedded as it is in one’s life circumstances; and perhaps it should not be left behind, even. If it is as an agricultural labourer or a hand-loom weaver in 19th-century Britain, or a suffragette, or a member of a black evangelical church in the southern US in the civil rights era, or a journalist facing oppression in Erdogan’s Turkey, it is exactly one’s experience of coming to dissent from the status quo that needs to be made known to others. It is that experience that gives both content and moral weight to the claims arising from it. It is not after all an objection to your becoming an anti-poverty activist that you have yourself experienced poverty—as though your personal narrative of discovery somehow undermined the value of your political commitments.

The worry here may be, of course, that once we let in agent-relative considerations in this way then we open the door to relativism—thus undermining the validity of critique. That worry seems overdrawn. Let us take the case of poverty — the example is John Horton’s (2010). Suppose I am acutely aware of the effects of dire poverty because of my childhood experience; let’s say I can’t forget what it was like to go to school hungry. So, when I look at the society around me the consequences of poverty are salient to me in a way that other issues, let’s say environmental issues, or animal welfare issues, are not. That doesn’t mean I live in a different moral world from the environmentalist or the animal welfare advocate. Nor does it mean that in order to share political space with them I have to share their personal narratives of discovery or adapt my priorities to theirs. We can communicate and sympathize with others whose outlooks embody what we may term different moral gradients, or different basic views about what most compellingly demands to be surmounted.

Circumventing Democracy

There is a converse worry, which is that if we delegitimize agent-relative reasons then we will end up treating democracy as an obstacle to be somehow circumvented or directed. If only agent-neutral reasons count, and we can discover them, why bother counting heads? That question of course has an ancient and distinguished precursor in Plato, who regarded democracy as a distraction from truth-seeking, akin to a drunken pleasure cruise. I do not see how one can dissent from Plato’s caricature unless we find a place in democracy for the public value of giving weight to personal experience.

It’s a hard job to explain why it is of public value that citizens should believe that their personal or group narratives should shape policies that all citizens are compelled to accept, whether they accept these narratives or not. There is an information-sharing model, which seems to be the best interpretation of Aristotle’s case for including a democratic element in the constitution. There is a common experience model, that led Bentham to believe that broadly-based majorities would share sufficiently common interests to deny support to self-interested elites. Neither seems satisfactory across the board. Perhaps the best one can do is to say that the case can’t be grounded in anything other than one based on civic respect. Epistemology, in the last resort, may have less to do with it.

But a conclusion of that kind may be seriously question-begging, given the ambiguities of “respect.” Those ambiguities come to light in, especially, the politics of intercultural relations, where, it has been pointed out, “respect” may mean simply taking you as you are, and refraining from any sort of evaluation from my point of view, or, alternatively, it may mean responding attentively to what you have to say and giving my candid opinion so that we can advance, through mutual critique, to something that we can share — I don’t take you seriously unless I criticize you (Jones 1990). I take it that the latter interpretation is closer to Popperian politics—we should engage in argument in a common endeavour to discover who is right, in the sense of being demonstrably less vulnerable to the evidence that we turn up together. But if important political actors are, as Rorty believed, institutionally embedded, then they are putting not just their proposals but their identity on the line, and surely we can understand that they may demand or expect respect in the former interpretation: take us for who are. We are not willing to “perish” even if we lose, because we matter.

But why should we give in to that demand or expectation? Because the model of epistemic competition, attractive though it is in terms of furthering the normative aims of democracy, contains no institutional means of closure. A democratic means of closure is a majority vote. But a majority vote doesn’t represent the epistemic outcome of the debate that precedes it. It represents the majority’s view of the epistemic outcome of the debate that preceded it, and for the minority that continues to dissent that view has no more epistemic weight than their own. What can make it weighty is a procedural consideration that needs a justification of another kind.

Winners and Losers in the Debate?

I began by saying that I wasn’t going to award prizes, but I’m sure I’ve given the impression that I think Rorty wins and Popper loses. If so that is unfortunate because I really have no stake in either of them winning or losing. I think their juxtaposition is enormously valuable, though, in focussing our attention on a fundamental problem in the theory of democracy. We don’t believe in democracy for no reason at all. We believe in it because, as noted above, it has implicit normative ends—it advances freedom and equality in some combination and interpretation of those contested terms. But what it does, as a process as distinct from a normative ideal, is reflect the balance of considerations as they strike nonideal people, whether responding to those considerations happens to advance freedom and equality or not. And that is itself a (respect-based) normative constraint, not just a fact of life.

Where this dilemma may become especially clear is, I think, in the context in which the largest version of Rorty’s theory of embeddedness emerges: he speaks of achieving our country. What we are to do must express some interpretation of what our country antecedently stands for, not some unembedded cosmopolitan principle. Whereas Popper wrote long before political theorists began to take an interest in issues of global justice, Rorty can hardly have been unaware of the efforts by political theorists to confront what we believe we owe to one another, as conationals, with the interests of outsiders. Indeed, he suggested that, although we feel loyalty to those with whom we are embedded, we can come to an idea of “a larger loyalty”—that is, a global one—and thus come to acknowledge obligations to people outside our own society (1998b). And surely we can. But why should we? Here, I believe, the argumentative pendulum swings back in Popper’s favour, though likely in a way that Popper himself may not have anticipated.

Rorty’s belief that political movements must align with and draw upon some version of patriotism is of course open to critique from an overtly cosmopolitan point of view (e.g. Nussbaum 1996, 4). But it is also at odds with his own recognition of powerful institutional identities within the patria. Suppose I am a member of a Canadian labour organization, or a Canadian feminist advocacy group, or a Canadian evangelical church, or a Canadian indigenous rights movement, it hardly follows either that I must prioritize my Canadian identity over any of those sub-identities, or that in advocacy for my cause I must favour rhetoric drawn from specifically Canadian narratives. “Achieving our nation” might be somewhere on my list but there is no reason to place it at the top. My allies and points of reference may well be transnational ones (Erskine 2008), and so Rorty’s embrace of patriotism puts something of a straitjacket on the pluralism that he also endorses. Here the vision of an open society, that is, one that is not precommitted to some collective goal or value, is more conducive to the democratic idea. In that respect, Popper’s view more successfully challenges the givenness of agent’s assumed identities.

References

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, New York: Norton, 2010.

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Erskine, Toni. Embedded Cosmopolitanism: Duties to Strangers and Enemies in a World of ‘Dislocated Communities’, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Gutmann, Amy and Dennis Thompson. Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Horton, John. “Reasonable Disagreement.” In Multiculturalism and Moral Conflict, edited by Maria Dimova-Cookson and Peter M.R, Stirk, 58-74. London: Routledge, 2010.

Jones, Peter. “Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie,” British Journal of Political Science 20 (1990): 415-37.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” In For Love of Country, edited by Joshua Cohen, 3-20. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Popper, Karl. “Normal Science and Its Dangers,” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 51-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Popper, Karl.Objective Knowledge, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998a.

Rorty, Richard. “Justice as a Larger Loyalty.” In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, 45-58. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998b.

Shapiro, Ian. “Enough of Deliberation: Politics is about Interests and Power.” In Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, edited by Stephen Macedo, 28-38. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Author Information: Philip Benesch, Lebanon Valley College, benesch@lvc.edu

Benesch, Philip. “What’s Left of Popper?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 50-61.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3JX

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Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving, Dialogues in Social Epistemology (Rowman & Littlefield, London, 2017) touches upon the continuing relevance of Popperian approaches to progressive social reform and political action. Yet, though it touches upon Popperian approaches, the sweep of these dialogues is both refreshingly broader and irritatingly cloudier. I have some criticisms of the distinct contributions made by Cruickshank and by Sassower.

Cruickshank, Rorty, and Dialogue

The exchanges that compose this book begin with Cruickshank’s bold exploration of uncharted commonalities in the work of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty. He finds common ground in their anti-essentialism, commitment to piecemeal social change, and anti-authoritarianism. Yet this last is somewhat subverted by Rorty’s admiration of Heidegger, despite his unrepudiated pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic stance, as Sassower reminds Cruickshank, first gently (30), then less subtly (47-49).

Rorty complimented Popper for doing “a good job” in noting the philosophical precursors of modern totalitarianism, but Rorty chose not to criticize great philosophers, such as Heidegger, when only part of their work supported such morally and politically despicable outcomes (Rorty 1988, 33; Fuller 2004, chapter 16). I do not see where Cruickshank acknowledges or comments upon this element in Rorty’s philosophical work or the challenge it must offer to Cruickshank’s quest for Popper-Rorty synergies of help to a revitalized anti-statist Left.

Steve Fuller has argued that “a sign of our non-Popperian times is that the most natural way to interpret the idea of ‘social epistemology’ is in terms of a consensus-seeking approach to inquiry, not, as Popper himself did, a set of mutually critical agents” (Fuller 2001, 343). I believe that Cruickshank would dismiss this as a binary by which he will not be bound, and would accuse Popperians of legislating the scope of inquiry and policing the boundaries of dialogue (42).

Cruickshank then sets forth his own division between “speedy” and “slow” dialogues and hands out speeding tickets to those who infringe his legislative schema. In this way, we are cautioned not to criticize certain positions as dogmatic or irrational, and those positions are returned to the dialogue (from which they were not excluded), and granted delaying privileges (which they have always retained). Cruickshank would not call this a consensus-seeking approach, he has avoided that term; he prefers we call it critical slow dialogue.

In his second contribution (chapter 3) to the present dialogue in social epistemology, Cruickshank proposes that while Popper correctly rejected “justificationist speedy dialogue” he incorrectly embraced the “critical speedy dialogue” of permanent revolution in science. Popper was incorrect because “[p]eople may be emotionally, ethically and politically committed to their ideas” (36). Yet, contrary to Cruickshank’s portrait, Popper, outside the confines of his seminar, appears to have more typically pursued slow dialogue, favoring slow reading and slow writing, he took pains to revise his papers, hoping for clarity and concision, so that they might be understood in plain English (not his first tongue). He recognized that neither reason nor science were self-sufficient but were entangled with the commitments Cruickshank identifies.

According to Cruickshank:

Admitting that criticism may take a long time to effect ideational change opens up the possibility of slippage ‘backwards’ and for Popper that would put science and democracy at risk. In place of slow piecemeal ideational change there had to be a utopia of hyper-rational and instrumental machine-like agents changing their ideas very quickly (42).

Yet, the core of both Popper’s epistemology and his political philosophy is a fallibilist attitude of reasonableness—that “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth” (Popper 1945/1966, v.2., 225, sentence italicized in the original; he emphasized that this should be regarded as his moral credo, Popper 1994, xii). The collaborative effort of which Popper speaks will most often involve the “slow piecemeal ideational change” that Cruickshank incorrectly claims Popper rejected. Typically, each of us hold ideas that are partly wrong and partly right. Of course, there may on other occasions be fairly rapid ideational change, as when one’s entire “horizon of expectations” is shattered by an event and requires replacement (see Popper’s 1948 paper on bucket and searchlight epistemologies, now appended to Popper 1972/1979; see my comments, Benesch 2012, 101, 109 and notes).  And yes, of course, there is always the possibility “of slippage ‘backwards’”—nothing is inevitable and, short of death, nothing is established with finality; political and intellectual gains won in one era may be lost in another.

All one can do is craft institutions, traditions, and methods that may provide minimal safeguards, but the future very much depends on the loosely-associated individuals and their decisions. It seems to me that Popper’s attitude of reasonableness strictly prescribes neither a speedy nor a slow dialogue, but it does require a good-faith argument between individuals seeking to identify their errors and “get nearer to the truth” (never, of course, likely to attain certainty or absolute truth).

In his first contribution, Cruickshank credits Lakatos, not Popper, with both the distinction of auxiliary hypotheses from core hypotheses and with the conception of research programs (15). In his third contribution Cruickshank tells us that “[T]he history of science does not conform to… Popper’s methodological prescription…” (85). We should think (slowly) about that statement: history does not conform to one’s prescriptions. One’s prescriptions are presumably for future action not past action; surely one should learn from the mistakes or inefficiencies of the past in order to avoid repeating them; one’s prescriptions may draw certain favorable examples from the past, but one would not expect a philosopher to prescribe conformity with the past per se.

The reading of Popper by Cruickshank is remarkably distorted but it has become standard fare for those who credit Lakatos rather than Popper with the concept of research programs in science. From the 1950s Popper referred to these as metaphysical research programs—they were the motivators of particular scientific inquiries but these programs were not themselves scientifically-tested nor were any empirically-testable as a whole. Metaphysical programs may well persist, and change to these may be typically, although not invariably, slow. “They are… much harder to criticize than [scientific] theories—and much easier to retain uncritically” (Popper 1982b, 32).

Contrary to Cruickshank’s claims (43-44), Popper’s approach to dialogue between metaphysical positions is hardly “speedy” although it is critical. In the Open Society, declaring that in the “conflict between idealism and materialism my sympathies are with Marx” (Popper 1945/1966, v2, 110), Popper explicitly endorsed Marx’s practical-critical humanism as a dualistic revision of materialism. Twenty-five years later, while advancing pluralism as a viable alternative to either idealism or materialism, Popper noted that “if forced to choose between any subjectivist or personalist view of human knowledge and the materialist or physicalist view I have just tried to sketch, I should choose the latter; but this is emphatically not the alternative.” (Popper 1972/1979, 296). Popper’s 1948 essay, “Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition” (now in Conjectures and Refutations), his response to Michael Oakeshott, may offer further understanding of his approach to ideational change, as may his discussion of culture clash in The Open Society and Its Enemies, and in The Myth of the Framework.

Popper strove to avoid giving unnecessary offense to religious or other identities. He did not infantilize or coddle his interlocutors. He prescribed that we distinguish each theorist from his/her theories, so that one’s ideas might be criticized and discarded if found to be more erroneous or less enlightening than a rival idea with which it is being compared. As a result of the externalization of our ideas, our ideas might be treated as “objective” or exosomatic knowledge, with identified errors critically reviewed and set aside from current discussion.

Popper, in his Darwinian phase, referred to this as “error elimination.” He proposed that, in a critical discussion, rather than we being martyrs to our ideas, our hypotheses should die in our stead.  Popper’s poetic formulation makes an important point but we should not take poetry literally: hypotheses have no death. No ideas are ever eliminated from the Popperian “world 3” archive of exosomatic knowledge—so long as at least some of the artifacts in which they are encoded remain.

I prefer Sassower’s alternative descriptor, “displaced”— certain ideas are displaced from our current inter-subjective critical discussion but remain retrievable from the exosomatic archive. As Sassower eloquently argues, “This means that the entire history of ideas remains alive, however dormant or forgotten here and there, until vestiges of it are rediscovered or found useful for explaining a new constellation of ideas or principles” (243)— my only quibble with Sassower’s point is that ideas are no more alive than they are dead; we should avoid biologicizing our ideas). All of these points are consistent with Popper’s earlier formulation (which was limited to science) that there can be no conclusive falsifications. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, he had clearly stated his view that “no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced” (Popper 1959/1980, section 9, 50—this statement was in the 1934 original; in 1959 he added text and a footnote emphasizing the point; see also appendix X.17, 440) [“experiments are never conclusive; and they must in turn be testable by further experiments”] and section 30, 109-111).

“Critical speedy dialogue, contra Popper, is not possible, and the alternative to critical slow dialogue is justificationist speedy dialogue” (108) repeats Cruickshank in chapter 9, his fourth contribution to this dialogue. The assertion is rapidly followed by Cruickshank’s claim that Popper moved from an optimistic approach to politics (his attitude up to at least the late-1960s)—in which political experts might be held accountable by ordinary, un-deferential and active critical citizens—to a more pessimistic and technocratic approach, in which citizen participation is limited to post-hoc evaluation of policy and political performance at regularly scheduled elections. Cruickshank is wrong to claim that Popper’s opposition to either majoritarian or Rousseauian conceptions of democratic politics were features only of his later “pessimistic” phase (110). Popper consistently viewed democracy as a system for checking power, and for removing rulers disfavored by the majority (quite different from majority rule). Cruickshank appears to share Popper’s aversion to push-button plebiscitary democracy but bemoans what he sees in the later Popper: a tendency to entrust, between elections, decision-making to a technocratic, ideologically-neutral political elite (more on this last point at the end of the next section).

Cruickshank may be able to offer an interesting and innovative interpretation of the chronology of Popper’s politics if he could show that the later political pessimism resulted from disillusionment with critical dialogue and a consequent resort to justificationist speedy dialogue. Indeed, Cruickshank approaches this view, noting a paternalism in the late Popperian conception where “the political elite would become the authoritative source of ethical justification, with their technocratic status allowing them to enact moral regulation of lay agents and the construction of a pseudo-consumer sovereignty” (112). If Cruickshank were to flesh out this aspect of his theory, it may offer a fertile contribution to Popper scholarship.

Frankly, I prefer the Popper of the politically-optimistic critical (variable-speed) dialogue, the intellectual revolutionary who retained faith in the Enlightenment project of universal human emancipation. Abandoning Marx’s historicism while preserving his practical-critical activism, Popper understood that men make their own history, albeit constrained by material conditions and error-impregnated traditions. There may be no laws of historical development other than those humanity sets itself, and a foreseen outcome to history might become inexorable or inevitable only if unconstrained by material circumstance or sufficient counter-vailing will. The future is open, it depends very largely upon ourselves, upon decisions we make within the bounds of our technology. It depends on our publicly declared aims and purposes, and on the rules, standards, and agreements we establish to regulate and coordinate our various activities.

Sassower, Demarcation, and Rationalism

Popper’s work is avowedly a contribution to normative philosophy, more broadly it is a contribution to efforts to improve humanity’s “plastic controls”—that is to say, our mutual self-regulation according to our standards and aims. He was a critic of bad or harmful metaphysics but Popper was not an enemy of metaphysics, least of all a disparager of that which may be irreducible to or inexplicable by physics (as Sassower notes, 243). While recognizing that praxis was both a spur and a bridle to our speculation (Popper 1957/1960, 56; Popper 1972/79, 311, 263), Popper praised the many metaphysical programs that have informed, guided and ennobled human activity. His methodological prescriptions for science may be analogous to those he offers for politics but they are never identical. Ethics regulates both activities, but there is no scientific basis for ethics and we had better eschew an ethics governed by political considerations.

How then are we to make sense of Raphael Sassower and Seif Jensen’s chapter (chapter 8) on Popper and the demarcation of science from metaphysics?  For this discussion they critically expropriate Popper’s reflection on the tercentenary of Britain’s revolution of 1688. Sassower and Jensen write:

Popper consistently demonstrates this attitude towards our reception and proliferation of scientific knowledge claims in his 1988 apologia of a democratic two-party system; his ‘Day of Judgement’ essentially amounts to a falsifiable test. Democracy ought to be testable, in theory as well as in practice. Solving this problem (of the conditions under which democracy works most effectively) for Popper means changing the ‘old problem’ of ‘who should rule?’—which is unscientific because it cannot be falsified—to one that approximates the criterion of falsifiability as closely as possible within the political-scientific sphere. We concede that Popper does set an absolute standard by declaring ‘that … a rule of law that enables us to get rid of a government. No majority, however large, ought to be qualified to abandon this rule of law’ (Popper 1988). Setting aside this absolutist thinking which we attribute to the trauma of war, Popper merely points out that a two-party model has yet to be falsified under certain conditions, while the others, according to Popper, have (96-97).

Popper did no such thing. Note that in the above passage the references to falsification are not part of the Popper statements directly quoted by Sassower and Jensen; rather these references are interpolated as if summarizing unquoted elements in Popper’s 1988 essay. But Popper does not make ANY reference to the concept of falsification (nor to science) in the 1988 essay (compare with Popper 1988/2012). The General Election “day of judgement” is not, could not be, and is not by Popper intended as an opportunity for empirical disconfirmation of a scientifically tested hypothesis. Sassower and Jensen want Popper to say this, have the preconception that Popper would say this if asked, and therefore creatively interpolate with wish-fulfilling abandon.

There is much more where this came from. The chapter on the demarcation problem is marked by a postmodernist warping. The Popper that emerges from this mangling is a post-Adorno, post-Lakatos caricature of a half-positivist, semi-sophisticated-falsificationist, with a fuddy-duddy or naïve-conservative affection for western democracy. Sassower and Jensen tell us that

For Popper’s cohorts, science could offer what the nation-state failed to offer: freedom and equality, knowledge and certainty… The new utopia would be a utopia surrogate; it would be Popperian … this revised scientific project offered demarcation criteria only as a first step toward a more nuanced method of conjectures and refutations that culminates at most with putative truths (92).

Are Sassower and Jensen saying that Popper’s “science” aspired to offer the “certainty” the nation-state failed to offer or that his “nuanced method” sought to attain “putative truths”—rather than pursue the identification of error in our theories so that we may better describe and explain reality (perhaps here “putative truths” is used as a synonym for such tentative theories)? Outrageously ignoring (temporarily) Popper’s commitments to critical rationalism, humanitarianism, and the open society, Sassower and Jensen mutate Popper into Bacon “free to engage problem solving and criticism from a neutral perspective…” (94). In the midst of curtseying to Foucault and Lyotard, Sassower and Jensen take from Agassi’s mouth what they ought to have heard as sung from Popper’s tonsils—that to hold the view that science is ‘in flux’ “is also to argue that society is in flux, so much so that it deserves to be reassessed continuously” (101). Indeed, that is what the “openness” of the open society refers to.

Without sidetracking to Sassower’s interest in public intellectuals, we may proceed directly to his last substantive contribution to the present book. In chapter 19, quoting Popper’s view that “No decision about aims can be established by purely rational or scientific means”, Sassower then comments,

This line is presented more or less as statement of fact without it being open to critical discussion or dispute. Is there a way to argue rationally about aims? Don’t policy makers do this all the time when they offer alternative aims…We routinely use ‘scientific means’ to calculate the options we wish to set as aims for our community… It’s true that ‘its aims, at least, must be given before the social scientist can begin …’ But aren’t we here following Popper’s own methodological nominalist approach … (233-234).

Yes: Popper did not deny a role to reason or science in aiding the critical evaluation of policy, programs or institutions. Reason clearly may have a major role in critical assessment of our aims and standards. But what Popper also clearly argued was that we could not establish our aims by purely rational or scientific means—he italicized the word “purely” in the hope that it would catch the eye of even a speedy reader.  Popper noted that our reason and science are necessarily entangled with our emotional, ethical and political commitments—the very ones to which Cruickshank referred earlier (36).

Popper held that utopianism and technocratic planning are typically inseparable from an aesthetic commitment to tidiness, to more efficiently organizing the crazy patchwork quilt of our social fabric (Popper 1945/1966, v1, chapter 9). And he described his rationalism as lacking self-sufficiency; it rested on the flimsiest of foundations, an irrational faith in the attitude of reasonableness (Popper 1945/1966, v2, chapter 24, sections 1-3, especially 231, cf. 258). Hence, for Popper, there could be no purely rational or scientific reform of society.

Sassower hopes to reconcile utopianism and a redefined post-rationalist “reasonableness” as the core of his own non-relativistic brand of Popperian postmodernism. It is good to be creative, especially in an otherwise stagnant field, but one would hope to avoid too many distortions of the earlier theory one claims to be refuting or revising and augmenting. In particular, one might note that Popper was not opposed to small-scale, localized utopian experiments (a point perhaps implicitly and belatedly acknowledged by Sassower on 237).

Popper’s objection was to holistic utopian engineering—the project to remake society as a whole, according to the intelligent design of some god-like human oligarchy (e.g. Plato’s philosophers, who were as god-like as it was possible for a human to be [here Popper reads the Republic rather too literally]; or the transformations to be wrought by Lenin’s party of “professional revolutionaries” and by subsequent central planners). Small scale social experimentation (preferably by consenting participants) might be subject to democratic and social scientific criticism, and may yield important insights to citizens keen to scale-up their projects. Of course, we may yet create a god-like artificial intelligence that will coordinate a world-wide communism with more efficiency and liberty than might be achieved through market mechanisms and the public policies of fissiparous polities. Otherwise we may well find holistic central planners to be resistant to criticism by ordinary citizens. If some citizens are inconvenienced by the implementation of utopian policy—and the larger the scale of the bureaucratically-engineered change, the larger the number of citizens likely inconvenienced—the more the central planners are likely to immunize themselves from criticism and to treat critics as improperly motivated or merely ill-informed.

We may observe that Sassower appears to attack Popper from two rather different angles. In chapter 19 he accuses Popper of precluding science and reason from contributing to the setting of ultimate aims but elsewhere he (e.g. chapter 8, as quoted above) and other contributors to the dialogue suspect Popper of preferring technocracy. Of course, these are not mutually-exclusive positions, as a value-neutral technocracy may simply follow preset values or assume that what is systemic to society is natural or otherwise outside the scope of their decision. Popper spent quite a bit of The Open Society and Its Enemies critiquing political leadership by ideologically-neutral experts (e.g., Plato’s philosophers or Mannheim’s intellectuals) and he also disavowed ethical naturalism.

Finally, we may note that Isaac Reed, (chapter 6) also raises important questions regarding Popper’s attitude to scientific work that is antithetical or harmful to an open society. It may be the case that Popper remained a child of the Enlightenment: he believed that the unflinching search for truth will aid universal emancipation.  Yet, Popper also recognized limits to political (and presumably intellectual) toleration, for example: the need for an open society to suppress pro-slavery movements and to fight racism. Broadly, the integrity of a scientist is measured by pre-agreed, institutionalized values. A scientist qua scientist does not set those values, nonetheless that scientist as citizen will do so. The scientists cannot leave their consciences at the laboratory door.

At the height of the Vietnam War Popper demanded a broader granting of conscientious objector status, spoke of the moral responsibilities of scientists (for example, those who might have demanded that the 1945 atomic bombs be used, if used at all, only on uninhabited locations or isolated military targets) and celebrated the post-Nuremberg principle that the “conscience of every human being is the ultimate court of appeal with respect to the question whether a command is…to be resisted.” (Popper 1994, 126). Popper concluded his 1968 essay: “Since the natural scientist has become inextricably involved in the application of science, he too, should consider it one of his special responsibilities to foresee as far as possible the unintended consequences of his work and to draw attention, from the very beginning, to those which we should strive to avoid” (Popper 1994, 129). The old lore about value-free Popperian science might surely now be set to rest.

Historical Method, Realism, and an Agenda for a Post-Popperian Political Philosophy

Reed and Cruickshank have noted the encumbrances imposed on Popperian problem-solving by The Poverty of Historicism. One might have wished that Popper had left that work as a neglected 1944-45 series of articles published in a not widely circulated economics journal. It was his first work written in English (its drafting precedes his 1940 article on dialectics) and it is stodgy and mechanistic in style, with little of the sparkle that shines through The Open Society and Its Enemies. Yet in 1957, hot on the heels of the repressed revolution in Hungary, the CPSU XXth Party Congress, and the ensuing wide-spread disillusionment among Western communists, Popper permitted the minimally-revised republication of the articles as a book printed in English. I conjecture that he wanted to talk with the Left at this critical moment and the Poverty seemed all ready for the purpose. The result was an intense six-year controversy that drew in critics as varied as Herbert Marcuse, Alasdair MacIntyre, and E.H. Carr, helped trigger Popper’s 1961 confrontation with Theodor Adorno, brought forth commentators who interpreted the Poverty as offering a “covering law” H-D model (e.g., in a 1961 conference paper and later publications, Alan Donagan popularized this model as the “Popper-Hempel theory”), and no doubt increased the misperception of Popper by those who were forming the New Left.

The Poverty of Historicism indeed contains some howlers about sociological laws and how these may be similar to laws in natural science and very different from so-called historical laws. But as a good fallibilist, Popper learned from the criticism, so that we find a (not entirely helpful) 1961 revival of his interest in situational logic (a concept he had left largely dormant for the previous 15 years) and a renunciation of sorts, of the use of “laws” in social science (almost no reference to these in Popper’s writings after 1963). His 1963 lecture on “Models, instruments and Truth” is a particularly interesting reformulation of Popper’s position. There he recognized that

[T]he Newtonian method of explaining and predicting singular events by universal laws and initial conditions is hardly ever applicable in the theoretical social sciences…[and] … in the social sciences, tests of a situational analysis can sometimes be provided by historical research” (Popper 1994, 165-166, 170).

The distinction between the social-theoretical and historical sciences, so sharply drawn in the Poverty, seems to be blurred by Popper’s work in the 1960s. Indeed, Popper’s essays on evolutionary epistemology and “objective knowledge” reveal his renewed appreciation for dialectics and his interest in contributing to hermeneutics (see Popper 1972/1979, 162, 167, cf. 296). Yet this came too late for him to have influence on the emergent generations of the Left. He lacked Lakatos’ knack for savvy marketing. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was easily assimilated by a Left that heard echoes of Marxian modes of production in a Kuhnian revolutionary succession of paradigms but that failed to see the resemblance between Marx’s praxeology and the Popperian conceptions of the growth of knowledge and autonomous sociology. Further alienated from the post-Tubingen Western Marxists and the wider academy they influenced, Popper later appears to have accepted the label they had repeatedly applied to him: when asked by Mark Notturno, circa 1992, why he had been spurned by so many academic philosophers, the ninety-year old Popper is reported to have replied “because I am on the right” (Notturno 2000, 166).

Recognition of universal flux led Popper to reject both essentialistic approaches to social science and historicist conceptions of predetermined social development. In the volume under review, Reed, Cruickshank, Chis, and Sassower note the connection between methodological nominalism and political liberalism (pro-free-speech and pro-democracy) in Popper’s philosophy. Yet Popper consistently held a realist, non-instrumentalist and non-relativist philosophical position, normally construed as opposed to nominalism. From the late 1950s, Popper, no doubt in part tongue-in-cheek, described his position as that of a modified essentialist—with the emphasis on the modified. True to his earlier “methodological nominalism,” the label of “methodological nominalist” did not have great value to Popper, what counted was clarity in communication (if only he had been as flexible in his use of the “historicist” label).

According to Popper, we use our terms to attempt to describe a reality that we never fully grasp—our terms, and especially our theories, are “nets cast to catch what we call the ‘world’: to rationalize, to explain, and to master it. We endeavour to make the mesh ever finer and finer” (Popper 1959/1980, 59). The best theories remain “rational nets of our own making, and should not be mistaken for a complete representation of the real world in all its aspects; not even if they are highly successful; not even if they appear to yield excellent approximations to reality” (Popper 1982a, 42-43). The point is to better approximate reality, to set aside theories that appear to be more clearly errant. As a realist and fallibilist, Popper was drawn to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, not for its depiction of philosopher-emancipators nor for its presentation of an attainable and complete enlightenment, but for its portrait of the human condition, of humanity stumbling and groping its way to a piecemeal recognition of illusion and error (Popper 1963/1989, 28, cf. Popper 1994, 52-53, also compare Popper 1972/1979, 344f).

I observe that Popper’s late ontology—a reformulated realism in which “the third world” of exosomatic human knowledge “is autonomous in what may be called its ontological status” (Popper 1972/1979, 161)—was preceded by Popper’s stumbles in the reception context of the republished Poverty of Historicism and by his reimagination both of methodological nominalism and of the prospects of an open society. (In the 1950s, Popper introduced the concept of the abstract society: a supposed deformation of the open society [Popper 1945/1966, v1, 174-175]. Popper’s initial political proposal of misery-minimization and socially-protective interventionism had relied upon concrete encounters between proximately-situated and compassionately-connected citizens. I believe that the prospect of an increasingly abstract society presented a significant problem for Popper’s political philosophy.) Popper’s late ontology did not come out of the blue, as some of his more perplexed commentators have suspected, but out of a discernable problem situation; it was a courageous effort to meet the multiple theoretical challenges with which he had been faced.

I propose that, with some interpretative license, we may develop from Popper’s late ontology a research program in post-Popperian political philosophy. While I do not have the space here to outline my agenda in full, I will conclude with brief notes on the first four of the arguments I have developed in this wider project:

Notes on Argument 1

Popper’s late ontology complements his earlier treatment of the theoretical limitations of Marxism. In The Viennese Socrates, I argued that Popper should be seen as the critical continuer of Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist Marxism. Like Bernstein, Popper exposed the gulf that opened between the scientific pretensions of post-Marx Marxism and the increasing dogmatism of the scientific socialists. He followed almost directly (but largely without acknowledgement) Bernstein’s critique of the prophetic chapter, chapter 25, in Marx’s Capital (Benesch 2012, 46-47), a critique Bernstein had originally advanced in his 1899 book, Evolutionary Socialism. Bernstein was also a precursor to Popper’s criticism of both Marxian historicism and the Marxian attitude to democracy. Yet, prior to the 1960s, Popper had not improved upon a Marx-derived dualism (of course, Marx did not see it as a dualism), a practical-critical humanism.

Notes on Argument 2

The central claims of Popper’s late ontology free the Left from a cramped materialism. I suggest that, while unacknowledged by Popper, his late ontology is a workable and nondeterministic version of historical materialism—recognizing the full compendium of historically-accumulated knowledge as a dynamic and autonomous component in an interactive universe. His pluralist reformulation of materialism, while more elaborate than his earlier mind-body dualism, is still remarkably lean and minimally pretentious. “Objective knowledge,” the exosomatic product of flesh and blood embodied human minds, is said to survive only when embedded in matter (books, computer systems, art, architecture, etc.). The engagement of our minds with previously externalized ideas and theories is said to facilitate the partial autonomy of the mind from the physico-chemical processes of our bodies.

Notes on Argument 3

Each of the three legs of Popperian “autonomous sociology”—antipsychologism, situational logic, and methodological individualism—are fortified. The claims of Popper’s antipsychologism are advanced directly by emphasizing the dependence of subjective knowledge on “objective knowledge” produced by other human beings, as well as on the externalized record of one’s own previous intellectual labor.  Popperian situational logic and methodological individualism both benefit from Popper’s introduction of the concepts of “plastic control” and “downward causation.” The conceptualization of plastic control—our mutual coordination and self-regulation according to standards and aims reached “imperceptibly through lengthy deliberation” (Popper 1972/1979, 231-234)—offers a further refinement of a sociology that is individualistic but not atomistic. The concept of downward causation supplements Popper’s understanding of the ways in which group-membership transforms and augments the behavior and consciousness of associated individuals.

Notes on Argument 4

Popper’s late ontology thickens his earlier historical sociology. In the preface to the 1959 first English edition of the Logic of Scientific Discovery he had already endorsed “the (at present unfashionable) historical method.” (Popper 1959/1980, 16). As noted earlier, Popper’s essays on evolutionary epistemology and “objective knowledge” reveal his renewed appreciation for dialectics and his interest in contributing to hermeneutics (Popper 1972/1979, 162, 167, cf. 296). In the 1960s, as he elaborated his late ontology, he proposed that “if we want to understand history, we must understand ideas and their objective logical (or dialectical) relationships” (Popper 1972/1979, 297).

He refined a conception of the evolution of knowledge and allied this to a reiterated tetradic conceptualization of historical progress (problem 1-theory-criticism-problem 2, etc. etc.—see Popper’s “Pluralist Approach to the Philosophy of History” [lecture, 1967], Popper 1994, 140). An analysis of intellectual change would be an analysis of problem solving in the context of historically-specified traditions and institutions, “For what exist, for the historian, are people in physical, social, mental, and ideological problem situations; people producing ideas by which they try to solve these problems, ideas which they try to grasp, to criticize, to develop” (Popper 1972/1979, 300). Attempts to solve any given problem could be understood only by identifying the relationship of that problem to the matrix of traditions and institutions in which it had arisen.

References

Benesch, Philip. The Viennese Socrates: Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics, New York, Peter Lang, 2012

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower, editors. Democratic Problem-Solving, Dialogues in Social Epistemology, London, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

Fuller, Steve. “Review: Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna by Malachi Haim Hacohen.” The British Journal for the History of Science, 34, no. 3 (2001): 343-345

Fuller, Steve. Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004

Notturno, Mark. Science and the Open Society: The Future of Karl Popper’s Philosophy, Budapest, Central European University Press, 2000

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies, two volumes, 5thedition (revised), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1945/1966

Popper, Karl. The Poverty of Historicism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2nd edition, 1957/1960

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London, Routledge, 1959/1980

Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 5th edition (revised), London, Routledge, 1963/1989

Popper, Karl. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, second edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1972/1979.

Popper, Karl. The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism, London, Routledge, 1982a

Popper, Karl. Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, London, Routledge, 1982b.

Popper, Karl. Realism and the Aim of Science, London, Routledge, 1983.

Popper, Karl. “On Democracy” [first published as “Popper on Democracy…” in The Economist, 23rd April 1988, 111-119] In Popper: After the Open Society, edited by Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norton Turner, 360-369. London and New York, Routledge, 1988/2012.

Popper, Karl. The Myth of the Framework: In Defense of Science and Rationality, London, Routledge, 1994.

Rorty, Richard “Taking Philosophy Seriously.” The New Republic (April 11, 1988): 31-34.

Author Information: Stephen Kemp, University of Edinburgh, S.kemp@ed.ac.uk

Kemp, Stephen. “On Popper, Problems and Problem-Solving: A Review of Cruickshank and Sassower’s Democratic Problem-Solving.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 27-34.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3DO

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology (2017), edited by Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower, offers a thought-provoking take on a range of issues of dialogue, democracy and reasoning in the social sciences and beyond. Jana Bacevic (2017) has usefully summed up the orientation of the book in her review, and raises important questions about the relationship between epistemic democracy and liberal democracy that I do not, unfortunately, have any worthwhile answers to.

This review focuses instead on issues the book very helpfully raises about the modes of reasoning in natural science, social science and in society more generally. In particular I want to focus on the core notions of ‘problem’ and ‘problem-solving’ that are discussed in this volume, and will do so from a perspective that, as with some of the contributors, is sympathetic to the approach of Popper.[1] I will be reconstructing aspects of the discussion between Cruickshank, Sassower and Isaac Ariel Reed, and then suggesting one way it could be taken forward in relation to the concept of normativity.

Setting Problems

Let me start, then, with the question of ‘problems’ in the natural sciences and beyond. My initial observation would be that in Democratic Problem-Solving there is discussion of at least three ‘settings’ within which problems could be located—one is within the natural sciences, the second is within the ‘research problems’ of the social sciences, and the third is in society more generally. The general thrust of Cruickshank’s analysis is that the idea of problems and problem solving is applicable in all of these domains. In this respect he is following, and developing, the ideas of Popper and also those of John Holmwood, who has defended the importance of the concept of problem-solving for both natural and social scientific analysis (see e.g. Holmwood, 1996).

Of course the term ‘problem’ could be taken in different ways, and it will be useful to consider how Cruickshank uses it in his fascinating chapter ‘Anti-Authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practices’ which sets the agenda for the book. To explore this, let us start with Cruickshank’s account of Popper’s problem-solving epistemology:

For Popper (1963, 1972, 1999), if it is accepted that knowledge is fallible, then it follows that one should always seek out better interpretations and explanations of reality. To do this, existing solutions to problems in ethics, science, politics, and so on, need to be subject to criticism, with new solutions to the problems found then being subjected to criticism and eventually replaced by new solutions, in a never-ending critical dialogue (6).

What comes through in this quote, as I interpret it, is a focus on problematizing as much as on problems. That is to say, the encouragement here is to be oriented to critique and to perpetual overturning—to making things problematic. And this is consistent with Cruickshank’s orientation throughout the book which focuses very much on questions of critique and how one can avoid wrongly foreclosing criticism.[2] It should certainly be noted that Cruickshank does refer to a more specific usage of Popper’s, referring to the latter’s concern with “practical problems in our environment” such that when we resolve problems we have adapted successfully—temporarily—to this environment (6). However, this usage is rarely discussed beyond the core opening chapter, with the general treatment of problem being a sense of ‘something that has been problematized by certain actors’ (to put it in my own words).

What about the idea of a ‘solution’, or ‘problem-solution’? In Popperian terms, a solution could be seen as a successful ‘adaptation’ but, as mentioned, this idea does not receive extensive treatment by Cruickshank (or indeed other authors) in the book. The same is true of the idea that problem-solving has a connection to the pragmatist concern with ‘usefulness’ (7). The implication of that link seems to be that we will have more useful knowledge once a problem is solved, but this is not really taken further. Rather, the idea that is probably most extensively used in the book is the notion that problem-solving has the potential for ‘alleviating harm’ (xiii).

This provides a broad orientation to the debate insofar as much of the ensuing discussion is about the harms of neo-liberalism and how they might be responded to. However, it is doubtful that this could be used to account for what problem-solving in the natural sciences is about, and should probably be seen as one particularly important kind of problem-solving. It could be said, then, that what a problem-solution involves is left fairly vague in the book. In one sense this chimes in with the orientation of the discussion towards criticism and problematizing. Given the overall focus on open-endedness the very idea of a solution could be considered to be potentially suspect. A solution might be taken to imply a resting place, a stopping place, whereas the orientation that Cruickshank is promoting is precisely the opposite, a form of permanent restlessness.

Although problems and problem-solving are treated in this fairly broad, open-ended way by Cruickshank, Reed nevertheless expresses doubts about the value of these concepts in his well-argued chapter ‘Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power’. Reed formulates particular concerns about whether it is justified to take the idea of ‘problem solving’ from the natural sciences and apply it elsewhere. In relation to social scientific knowledge, Reed questions whether the problem-solving framework associated with Popper’s thought will be able to cope with certain features of society such as the ‘looping kinds’ discussed by Ian Hacking or the ‘concept dependence’ discussed by Roy Bhaskar.

In relation to social problems, Reed has even greater concerns. For one thing, he points out that there is a large literature on the construction of ‘social problems’ which identifies the importance of selectiveness and framing in defining what is taken to be a problem in society. For another thing, Reed points out that the sort of scientistic orientation one may associate with Popper’s problem-solving can actually contribute to normatively doubtful social outcomes. That is to say, the invocation of the scientific status of expert judgements, e.g. where a psychiatrist’s expertise is used to characterise a type of individual as problematic in legal deliberations, involves a problematic exercise of authority.

Cruickshank’s response to Reed (‘Criticism vs Dogmatism’) is based on the idea that Popper’s thought can be divided into the dogmatic and the critical. For Cruickshank, the dogmatic Popper was inclined to fetishize aspects of science as exemplifying critical rationality and was not prepared to submit these to critical appraisal themselves. By contrast, the critical Popper would allow criticism free rein, including that directed at science and its existing methods. Cruickshank argues that the critical Popper can usefully address the issues raised regarding the distinctiveness of the social world and the framing of problems. We shall now examine each of these in turn.

In relation to the distinctive features of the social world, Cruickshank contends that whereas the dogmatic Popper might insist that a scientific analysis of the social world must involve the use of hypothetico-deductive reasoning, the critical Popper would allow that methodological tools and arguments are also up for criticism and revision. This would mean that for the critical Popper it could be perfectly appropriate to question the value of hypthetico-deductive reasoning in relation to the social sciences and replace this with other alternatives as appropriate, such as a focus on the qualitative investigation of meaning.

I would like to briefly mention here an alternative response that could be made to Reed’s critique, based in the work of John Holmwood and Alexander Stewart (1991). Their Explanation and Social Theory (1991) is a rich book which discusses many facets of sociological thought, but one of the key arguments is that the idea of a fundamental difference between natural and social science is based on a problematic understanding of the role of meaning and practical activity in each activity. Once this understanding is rejected, there are much greater continuities than notions like ‘concept-dependence’ or the ‘double-hermeneutic’ might suggest. For Holmwood and Stewart, problem-solving can be undertaken perfectly consistently across the social and natural sciences. I do not have space to say more about it here, but the approach of Explanation and Social Theory is certainly worthy of attention.

Normative Framing

Let’s move on, then, to Cruickshank’s response to the issue of social problems and their framing. Cruickshank’s key move is to clarify that his approach to problem-solving is entirely consistent with the idea that problems are normatively framed. Indeed, Popper himself, in his critical mode, admitted this. Cruickshank states that:

…any proper recognition of the role of intersubjective norms entails the need to study how intersubjective norms have, and will, shape what are perceived as problems and what are perceived as solutions (86).

This emphasis on the importance of framing and normativity in relation to problems and solutions also seems to be accepted by Sassower who, in a later chapter, discusses their importance:

The reason to focus on frames of reference has already been fully articulated by sociologists, behavioural economists and psychologists: the way a problem is framed predetermines the range of possibilities for its solution (197).

Thus, Cruickshank’s response to Reed’s challenge is to readily admit that problems and solutions are normatively framed, and Sassower seems to agree with this.[3]

Cruickshank’s responses to Reed allow him to defend the idea that ‘problem-solving’ can be usefully retained across the domains of natural science, social science and wider social life, because it has shed narrowly scientistic connotations, instead being connected with permanent open-ended critique and an up-front (rather than concealed) normative orientation. I find these arguments valuable and persuasive, but it seems to me that the idea of normativity can be analysed further in a way that articulates with, and develops a little further, what a Popperian orientation to problem-solving might entail. This is the approach that I want to follow in the remainder of this review.

A typical sociological concern with normative framing involves an argument that we need to identify cases where this has been concealed and naturalized, with the intention of showing that other framings are possible. And, indeed, this kind of point is explored in Democratic Problem-Solving (e.g. 87). However, a somewhat trickier issue is to then analyse how to decide between one framing and another, once the range of possibilities is before us. One way to treat this—which could be seen as Weberian—is to see the choice of frame as a commitment in some fundamental sense.

On this approach there is no way to assess normative frames, there can be no reasoned argument for one rather than another—rather, one just has to commit to a frame and work on this basis. It’s not obvious to me that any of the participants of this volume accept this view and I would say that there are good reasons for not doing so. After all, if what a person takes to be a problem is a matter of commitment then it’s not at all obvious why anyone else should be moved by it. What is a problem in my framing can be a boon in your framing and there is nowhere further to go in the discussion. This view gets even less appealing if we take it through to the question of problem solutions.  It suggests that even if we share a view of the problem, our normative commitments may operate such that what seems a very good solution to me seems a very bad solution to you with there being no way for reasonable discussion to impact upon the disagreement.

As already mentioned, I don’t see the authors of Democratic Problem-Solving explicitly adopting the ‘commitment’ view of the normative framing of problems and solutions. But is there an alternative expressed? I think Cruickshank does put forward another way of looking at this issue. He states:

The terms used to define problems—which will always be normative with those norms always having traction—will need to be assessed through the democratic co-production of knowledge, taking time, to work with many agents to change values and reframe problems (88-89).

Although there is disagreement between Cruickshank and Sassower in the volume about whether the latter’s views have elements that stifle a democratic orientation, at least in parts of his argument Sassower also seems committed to such a view. He states the following of the Popperian approach:

Perhaps the main lessons from this way of thinking about solving problems are that we should listen as much as we talk, that we should read more than we write and that we should consider global options when choosing local policies (238).

I agree with both writers that the democratic co-production of knowledge is a laudable idea and is valuable to pursue. However, I wonder if it can be usefully supplemented by a further sense of what is involved in debating about problems and problem-solutions. One reason for doing this is to try to think about what engaging with others might involve. After all, even though democratic, open discussion is surely welcome, there is a question of how to engage in this discussion in a way that neither unreasonably imposes on others nor simply submits to their framings. The contributors to this volume clearly all have views about what is problematic and not problematic in contemporary society. Assuming that they are not all speaking for democratic co-produced collectives it could be useful to think about how they formulate what they see as problematic and how that can be related to the views of others.

In a debate with others, how can we think about engaging with different framings without either imposing a perspective or resorting back to the notion that the choice of framings is a matter of commitment? Take for example a topic which is debated in a very interesting way within the volume, neo-liberalism. How can there be a reasonable discussion between a critic of neo-liberalism who sees the problem of people in poverty as one of a failure of the state to intervene sufficiently and an enthusiast for neo-liberalism who sees the problem as the failure of the state to get out of the way and let people look after themselves?

Popperian Problems and Problem-Solving

I want to suggest that there is a broadly Popperian way to expand on the notion of problems and problem-solving which can make a useful contribution to thinking about engagement with those who have different framings to us. To begin with, as Cruickshank points out (13), for Popper and his followers contact with the world is not direct, rather we interact with it through a theory/set of understandings. ‘Framings’ will be a crucial part of these understandings. The question is, then, how to have a reasonable engagement with those who do not start from the same set of understandings/framings as we do.

This is where the concept of problem is useful, in my view. Within the work of Popper and his followers there is a strong emphasis on the way in which no attempt to understand and frame the world is able to produce a fully consistent account of all known relevant evidence. In other words, there is a strong focus on anomalies, on that which does not fit with a particular framing of the world. Although it would be questionable to argue that this is the only meaning that Popper gives to the idea of a ‘problem’, it is, in my view a core meaning, that is central to The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2005 [1934]) and is also taken up by writers like Lakatos (1970) in analysing the natural sciences and Holmwood (1996) in analysing the social sciences. Furthermore, this can also provide us with one way of thinking about what a ‘problem solution’ involves—the reconstruction of a particular framing/set of understandings of the world to remove an anomaly and produce a more coherent[4] take on the subject-matter. Of course, in keeping with Cruickshank’s remarks about continuous criticism, the removal of an anomaly is not a final resting point for the defender of a framing/set of understandings. There will always be new anomalies to reflect on and wrestle with.

In my view, these Popperian ideas of problems as anomalies and solutions as coherence-expanding reconstructions give us one helpful way of thinking about how to have a critical but non-impositional dialogue with those who frame social (and other) problems in different ways (for further discussion see Kemp, 2012). This is to engage with the framings of others and try to identify what is anomalous from within the way the other is presenting it rather than attempting to simply impose a contrary framing. Taking this further, a participant in the dialogue might also argue that the identified anomaly could be resolved if the person whose views they are critiquing reconstructed their framing in a way that was consistent with the first participant’s own views. To give an example of this kind of approach, a critic of neo-liberalism might argue that poverty cannot be avoided simply by the state getting out of the way because there are countries where the state offers very little if any support and yet there is still grinding poverty. In such an argumentative move, these examples are being presented as an anomaly to the neo-liberal viewpoint. The critic could go on to argue that there have been cases where impoverished groups were supported by the state in a way that actually provided them with the capacity to then look after themselves. This would cast doubt on the opponent’s views and suggest another way to look at the issue.

It would be foolish of me to suggest that any politically engaged actor would be quickly won over by such arguments. In that respect, I find Cruickshank’s concept of ‘critical slow dialogues’ a very persuasive one. As Cruickshank usefully observes:

People may be emotionally, ethically and politically committed to their ideas, as well as under political or institutional pressure to support certain sets of ideas (36).

As such, change may well take time. Of course, dialogues are also two way, and an interlocutor is likely to hit back that the critic’s own position contains anomalies, laying down a—reasonable—challenge that these need to be addressed. In this way, engagements of this kind are two-way and provide challenges to both parties.

Although we cannot expect speedy results, this way of thinking about problems and problem solutions may contribute to understanding how to have a critical engagement without this involving either an under-motivated choice between framings or the imposition of an alternative viewpoint. It is worth noting, I think, that in using the ideas of problem/anomaly and problem-solution in this way I am not denying the normativity of the framings of actors. What I am denying, though, is that normativity involves a commitment that is untouchable by reasoning processes. Normatively-shaped claims generate anomalies which can be critiqued.

This review has surely gone on long enough, so I will just briefly recap the main thrust of it to conclude. The animating issue of the review was how the notions of ‘problems’ and ‘problem-solving’ were addressed and debated within Democratic Problem-Solving. I was sympathetic to Cruickshank’s view that these notions can usefully be applied in the natural sciences, the social sciences and to wider social issues as long as the role of normativity is admitted. However, I argued that the idea of normativity could usefully be further explored to help think through the character of dialogue and criticism. I made some initial arguments in this direction, including the suggestion that connecting problems with the idea of anomalies provides a ground for critical appraisal of normative framings. This allows us to avoid seeing such framings as either commitments outside the realm of reason or impositions on others. I see the arguments made in this review as sketching out a further way to extend the kind of Popperian orientation that Cruickshank and Sassower defend very nicely in Democratic Problem-Solving.

References

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower, eds. Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Holmwood, John. Founding Sociology? Talcott Parsons and the Idea of General Theory, London, Longman, 1996.

Holmwood, John and Alexander Stewart. Explanation and Social Theory, London: Houndmills, 1991.

Kemp, Stephen. ‘Evaluating Interests in Social Science: Beyond Objectivist Evaluation and the Non-judgemental Stance’, Sociology, 46, no. 4 (2012): 664-679

Kemp, Stephen. ‘Transformational Fallibilism and the Development of Understanding’, Social Epistemology, 31, no. 2 (2017): 192-209.

Lakatos, Imre. ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.’, In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 170-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London: Routledge, 2005 [1934].

[1]  Perhaps this sympathy arose, in part, because I grew up in New Zealand ‘of all places’ (Sassower, 28).

[2]  For Cruickshank, criticism can be foreclosed in various ways including the treatment of knowledge as ‘justified’, the invocation of ‘authority’ to support a knowledge-claim, and the presentation of solutions as ‘technocratically’ necessary.

[3]  Insisting that normative framing is made clear is also a way to stop the kind of unproblematized reliance on expertise that Reed discusses drawing on Foucault’s work.

[4] There are some important challenges in spelling out what a more coherent response involves, and I have doubts about the way that Popper and Lakatos deal with this issue. I have a go at an alternative in Kemp (2017).

Author Information: Jana Bacevic, University of Cambridge, jb906@cam.ac.uk

Bacevic, Jana. “Solving the Democratic Problem.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 50-52.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Bl

Please refer to:

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield

It is a testament to the lasting influence of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty that their work continues to provide inspiration for debates concerning the role and purpose of knowledge, democracy, and intellectuals in society. Alternatively, it is a testament to the recurrence of the problem that continues to lurk under the glossy analytical surface or occasional normative consensus of these debates: the impossibility to reconcile the concepts of liberal and epistemic democracy. Essays collected under the title Democratic Problem-Solving (Cruickshank and Sassower 2017) offer grounds for both assumptions, so this is what my review will focus on.

Boundaries of Rational Discussion

Democratic Problem-Solving is a thorough and comprehensive (if at times seemingly meandering) meditation on the implications of Popper’s and Rorty’s ideas for the social nature of knowledge and truth in contemporary Angloamerican context. This context is characterised by combined forces of neoliberalism and populism, growing social inequalities, and what has for a while now been dubbed, perhaps euphemistically, the crisis of democracy. Cruickshank’s (in other contexts almost certainly heretical) opening that questions the tenability of distinctions between Popper and Rorty, then, serves to remind us that both were devoted to the purpose of defining the criteria for and setting the boundaries of rational discussion, seen as the road to problem-solving. Jürgen Habermas, whose name also resonates throughout this volume, elevated communicative rationality to the foundational principle of Western democracies, as the unifying/normalizing ground from which to ensure the participation of the greatest number of members in the public sphere.

Intellectuals were, in this view, positioned as guardians—epistemic police, of sorts—of this discursive space. Popper’s take on epistemic ‘policing’ (see DPS, 42) was to use the standards of scientific inquiry as exemplars for maintaining a high level, and, more importantly, neutrality of public debates. Rorty saw it as the minimal instrument that ensured civility without questioning, or at least without implicitly dismissing, others’ cultural premises, or even ontological assumptions. The assumption they and authors in this volume have in common is that rational dialogue is, indeed, both possible and necessary: possible because standards of rationality were shared across humanity, and necessary because it was the best way to ensure consensus around the basic functioning principles of democracy. This also ensured the pairing of knowledge and politics: by rendering visible the normative (or political) commitments of knowledge claims, sociology of knowledge (as Reed shows) contributed to affirming the link between the epistemic and the political. As Agassi’s syllogism succinctly demonstrates, this link quickly morphed from signifying correlation (knowledge and power are related) to causation (the more knowledge, the more power), suggesting that epistemic democracy was if not a precursor, then certainly a correlate of liberal democracy.

This is why Democratic Problem-Solving cannot avoid running up against the issue of public intellectuals (qua epistemic police), and, obviously, their relationship to ‘Other minds’ (communities being policed). In the current political context, however, to the well-exercised questions Sassower raises such as—

should public intellectuals retain their Socratic gadfly motto and remain on the sidelines, or must they become more organically engaged (Gramsci 2011) in the political affairs of their local communities? Can some academics translate their intellectual capital into a socio-political one? Must they be outrageous or only witty when they do so? Do they see themselves as leaders or rather as critics of the leaders they find around them (149)?

—we might need to add the following: “And what if none of this matters?”

After all, differences in vocabularies of debate matter only if access to it depends on their convergence to a minimal common denominator. The problem for the guardians of public sphere today is not whom to include in these debates and how, but rather what to do when those ‘others’ refuse, metaphorically speaking, to share the same table. Populist right-wing politicians have at their disposal the wealth of ‘alternative’ outlets (Breitbart, Fox News, and increasingly, it seems, even the BBC), not to mention ‘fake news’ or the ubiquitous social media. The public sphere, in this sense, resembles less a (however cacophonous) town hall meeting than a series of disparate village tribunals. Of course, as Fraser (1990) noted, fragmentation of the public sphere has been inherent since its inception within the Western bourgeois liberal order.

The problem, however, is less what happens when other modes of arguing emerge and demand to be recognized, and more what happens when they aspire for redistribution of political power that threatens to overturn the very principles that gave rise to them in the first place. We are used to these terms denoting progressive politics, but there is little that prevents them from being appropriated for more problematic ideologies: after all, a substantial portion of the current conservative critique of the ‘culture of political correctness’, especially on campuses in the US, rests on the argument that ‘alternative’ political ideologies have been ‘repressed’, sometimes justifying this through appeals to the freedom of speech.

Dialogic Knowledge

In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.

For if social studies of science taught us anything, it is that scientific knowledge is, among other things, a culture. An epistemic democracy of the Rortian type would mean that it’s a culture like any other, and thus not automatically entitled to a privileged status among other epistemic cultures, particularly not if its political correlates are weakened—or missing (cf. Hart 2016). Populist politics certainly has no use for critical slow dialogue, but it is increasingly questionable whether it has use for dialogue at all (at the time of writing of this piece, in the period leading up to the 2017 UK General Election, the Prime Minister is refusing to debate the Leader of the Opposition). Sassower’s suggestion that neoliberalism exhibits a penchant for justification may hold a promise, but, as Cruickshank and Chis (among others) show on the example of UK higher education, ‘evidence’ can be adjusted to suit a number of policies, and political actors are all too happy to do that.

Does this mean that we should, as Steve Fuller suggested in another SERRC article (http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx) see in ‘post-truth’ the STS symmetry principle? I am skeptical. After all, judgments of validity are the privilege of those who can still exert a degree of control over access to the debate. In this context, I believe that questions of epistemic democracy, such as who has the right to make authoritative knowledge claims, in what context, and how, need to, at least temporarily, come second in relation to questions of liberal democracy. This is not to be teary-eyed about liberal democracy: if anything, my political positions lie closer to Cruickshank and Chis’ anarchism. But it is the only system that can—hopefully—be preserved without a massive cost in human lives, and perhaps repurposed so as to make them more bearable.

In this sense, I wish the essays in the volume confronted head-on questions such as whether we should defend epistemic democracy (and what versions of it) if its principles are mutually exclusive with liberal democracy, or, conversely, would we uphold liberal democracy if it threatened to suppress epistemic democracy. For the question of standards of public discourse is going to keep coming up, but it may decreasingly have the character of an academic debate, and increasingly concern the possibility to have one at all. This may turn out to be, so to speak, a problem that precedes all other problems. Essays in this volume have opened up important venues for thinking about it, and I look forward to seeing them discussed in the future.

References

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, December 25, 2016. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx

Hart, Randle J. “Is a Rortian Sociology Desirable? Will It Help Us Use Words Like ‘Cruelty’?” Humanity and Society, 40, no. 3 (2016): 229-241.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu; Seif Jensen, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, sjensen4@uccs.edu

Sassower, Raphael and Seif Jensen. “The Problem of Demarcation Isn’t Going Away: On the Legitimation of the Social Sciences in Light of Popper, Cruickshank, and Reed.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 2 (2016): 69-84.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2CT

Editors Note:

    Given the rich and extensive history of this exchange related articles, replies and responses are provided below the references section.[1]

first_light

Image credit: blinking idiot, via flickr

The period between the two World Wars unsettled intellectuals as if they suffered an intellectual trauma. Their belief in reason and rationality, human dignity and tolerance, was shattered; instead, they found themselves in a world permeated by fear and irrationality, where romantic nostalgia vanished, and where Soviet communism deteriorated into totalitarian Statism unseen before. The human spirit—as envisioned by the Enlightenment Movement of the 18th century—was at a loss if not completely lost to the vagaries of an inhumane, cruel, and ugly political realities. European nation-states displayed an increasing thirst for hero-warship and charismatic leaders quenched by Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany, and Generalissimo Franco in Spain.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu

Sassower, Raphael. “Norms and Faith: Comments on the Business of People.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 9 (2015): 1-10.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2fY

Editors Note:

    Given the rich and extensive history of this exchange related articles, replies and responses are provided below the references section. [1]

karl_popper

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As much as Karl Popper’s legacy is strewn with misconceptions about his neoconservative biases and his narrow scientific prejudices in regards to the social science—from his dismissal of Marxism as pseudo-science, psychoanalysis as beyond the pale, and the general explanatory/predictive models of all the social sciences as self-fulfilling prophecies—there is something interesting in his intellectual corpus that deserves rethinking. This is where Justin Cruickshank is in full agreement with my views regarding the value to be distilled, decades later, from Popper’s approach. The Popperian approach has fascinated me for years because of several features that may be reasonably overlooked by his disciples and critics. After listing some of them, I wish to illustrate their significance in the 21st century.  Continue Reading…