Archives For Karl Popper

Author Information: Claus-Christian Carbon, University of Bamberg, ccc@experimental-psychology.com

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “A Conspiracy Theory is Not a Theory About a Conspiracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 22-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yb

See also:

  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Expertise and Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology 32, no. 3 (2018), 196-208.

The power, creation, imagery, and proliferation of conspiracy theories are fascinating avenues to explore in the construction of public knowledge and the manipulation of the public for nefarious purposes. Their role in constituting our pop cultural imaginary and as central images in political propaganda are fertile ground for research.
Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The simplest and most natural definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. Although this definition seems appealing due to its simplicity and straightforwardness, the problem is that most narratives about conspiracies do not fulfill the necessary requirements of being a theory. In everyday speech, mere descriptions, explanations, or even beliefs are often termed as “theories”—such repeated usage of this technical term is not useful in the context of scientific activities.

Here, a theory does not aim to explain one specific event in time, e.g. the moon landing of 1969 or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but aims at explaining a phenomenon on a very general level; e.g. that things with mass as such gravitate toward one another—independently of the specific natures of such entities. Such an epistemological status is rarely achieved by conspiracy theories, especially the ones about specific events in time. Even more general claims that so-called chemtrails (i.e. long-lasting condensation trails) are initiated by omnipotent organizations across the planet, across time zones and altitudes, is at most a hypothesis – a rather narrow one – that specifically addresses one phenomenon but lacks the capability to make predictions about other phenomena.

Narratives that Shape Our Minds

So-called conspiracy theories have had a great impact on human history, on the social interaction between groups, the attitude towards minorities, and the trust in state institutions. There is very good reason to include “conspiracy theories” into the canon of influential narratives and so it is just logical to direct a lot of scientific effort into explaining and understand how they operate, how people believe in them and how humans pile up knowledge on the basis of these narratives.

A short view on publications registered by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science documents 605 records with “conspiracy theories” as the topic (effective date 7 May 2018). These contributions were mostly covered by psychological (n=91) and political (n=70) science articles, with a steep increase in recent years from about 2013 on, probably due to a special issue (“Research Topic”) in the journal Frontiers of Psychology organized in the years 2012 and 2013 by Viren Swami and Christopher Charles French.

As we have repeatedly argued (e.g., Raab, Carbon, & Muth, 2017), conspiracy theories are a very common phenomenon. Most people believe in at least some of them (Goertzel, 1994), which already indicates that believers in them do not belong to a minority group, but that it is more or less the conditio humana to include such narratives in the everyday belief system.

So first of all, we can state that most of such beliefs are neither pathological nor rare (see Raab, Ortlieb, Guthmann, Auer, & Carbon, 2013), but are largely caused by “good”[1] narratives triggered by context factors (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) such as a distrusted society. The wide acceptance of many conspiracy theories can further explained by adaptation effects that bias the standard beliefs (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon, 2013). This view is not undisputed, as many authors identify specific pathological personality traits such as paranoia (Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont, 2008; Pipes, 1997) which cause, enable or at least proliferate the belief in conspiracy theories.

In fact, in science we mostly encounter the pathological and pejorative view on conspiracy theories and their believers. This negative connotation, and hence the prejudice toward conspiracy theories, makes it hard to solidly test the stated facts, ideas or relationships proposed by such explanatory structures (Rankin, 2017). As especially conspiracy theories of so-called “type I” – where authorities (“the system”) are blamed of conspiracies (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter, 2007)—, such a prejudice can potentially jeopardize the democratic system (Bale, 2007).

Some of the conspiracies which are described in conspiracy theories that are taking place at top state levels could indeed be threatening people’s freedom, democracy and even people’s lives, especially if they turned out to be “true” (e.g. the case of the whistleblower and previously alleged conspiracist Edward Snowden, see Van Puyvelde, Coulthart, & Hossain, 2017).

Understanding What a Theory Genuinely Is

In the present paper, I will focus on another, yet highly important, point which is hardly addressed at all: Is the term “conspiracy theories” an adequate term at all? In fact, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory being a “theory about a conspiracy” (Dentith, 2014, p.30) is indeed the simplest and seemingly most straightforward definition of “conspiracy theory”. Although appealing and allegedly logical, the term conspiracy theory as such is ill-defined. Actually a “conspiracy theory” refers to a narrative which attributes an event to a group of conspirators. As such it is clear that it is justified to associate such a narrative with the term “conspiracy”, but does a conspiracy theory has the epistemological status of a theory?

The simplest definition of a “theory” is that it represents a bundle of hypotheses which can explain a wide range of phenomena. Theories have to integrate the contained hypotheses is a concise, coherent, and systematic way. They have to go beyond the mere piling up of several statements or unlinked hypotheses. The application of theories allows events or entities which are not explicitly described in the sum of the hypotheses to be generalized and hence to be predicted.

For instance, one of the most influential physical theories, the theory of special relativity (German original description “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), contains two hypotheses (Einstein, 1905) on whose basis in addition to already existing theories, we can predict important issues which are not explicitly stated in the theory. Most are well aware that mass and energy are equivalent. Whether we are analyzing the energy of a tossed ball or a static car, we can use the very same theory. Whether the ball is red or whether it is a blue ball thrown by Napoleon Bonaparte does not matter—we just need to refer to the mass of the ball, in fact we are only interested in the mass as such; the ball does not play a role anymore. Other theories show similar predictive power: for instance, they can predict (more or less precisely) events in the future, the location of various types of material in a magnetic field or the trajectory of objects of different speed due to gravitational power.

Most conspiracy theories, however, refer to one single historical event. Looking through the “most enduring conspiracy theories” compiled in 2009 by TIME magazine on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is instantly clear that they have explanatory power for just the specific events on which they are based, e.g. the “JFK assassination” in 1963, the “9/11 cover-up” in 2001, the “moon landings were faked” idea from 1969 or the “Paul is dead” storyline about Paul McCartney’s alleged secret death in 1966. In fact, such theories are just singular explanations, mostly ignoring counter-facts, alternative explanations and already given replies (Votsis, 2004).

But what, then, is the epistemological status of such narratives? Clearly, they aim to explain – and sometimes the explanations are indeed compelling, even coherent. What they mostly cannot demonstrate, though, is the ability to predict other events in other contexts. If these narratives belong to this class of explanatory stories, we should be less liberal in calling them “theories”. Unfortunately, it was Karl Popper himself who coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s (Popper, 1949)—the same Popper who was advocating very strict criteria for scientific theories and in so became one of the most influential philosophers of science (Suppe, 1977). This imprecise terminology diluted the genuine meaning of (scientific) theories.

Stay Rigorous

From a language pragmatics perspective, it seems odd to abandon the term conspiracy theory as it is a widely introduced and frequently used term in everyday language around the globe. Substitutions like conspiracy narratives, conspiracy stories or conspiracy explanations would fit much better, but acceptance of such terms might be quite low. Nevertheless, we should at least bear in mind that most narratives of this kind cannot qualify as theories and so cannot lead to a wider research program; although their contents and implications are often far-reaching, potentially important for society and hence, in some cases, also worthy of checking.

Contact details: ccc@experimental-psychology.com

References

Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45-60. doi:10.1080/00313220601118751

Dentith, M. R. X. (2014). The philosophy of conspiracy theories. New York: Palgrave.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper [On the electrodynamics of moving bodies]. Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 17, 891-921.

Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742.

Grzesiak-Feldman, M., & Ejsmont, A. (2008). Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Arabs, Germans and russians in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports, 102(3), 884.

Pipes, D. (1997). Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Popper, K. R. (1949). Prediction and prophecy and their significance for social theory. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy, Amsterdam.

Raab, M. H., Auer, N., Ortlieb, S. A., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). The Sarrazin effect: The presence of absurd statements in conspiracy theories makes canonical information less plausible. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(453), 1-8.

Raab, M. H., Carbon, C. C., & Muth, C. (2017). Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie [In the beginning, there was the conspiracy theory]. Berlin: Springer.

Raab, M. H., Ortlieb, S. A., Guthmann, K., Auer, N., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). Thirty shades of truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(406).

Rankin, J. E. (2017). The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony: A critical discourse analysis. (PhD), Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). Conspiracy accounts as intergroup theories: Challenging dominant understandings of social power and political legitimacy. Political Psychology. doi:10.1111/pops.12015

Suppe, F. (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Van Puyvelde, D., Coulthart, S., & Hossain, M. S. (2017). Beyond the buzzword: Big data and national security decision-making. International Affairs, 93(6), 1397-1416. doi:10.1093/ia/iix184

Votsis, I. (2004). The epistemological status of scientific theories: An investigation of the structural realist account. (PhD), London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Retrieved from Z:\PAPER\Votsis2004.pdf

Wagner-Egger, P., & Bangerter, A. (2007). The truth lies elsewhere: Correlates of belief in conspiracy theories. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale-International Review of Social Psychology, 20(4), 31-61.

[1] It is important to stress that a “good narrative” in this context means “an appealing story” in which people are interested; by no means does the author want to allow confusion by suggesting the meaning as being “positive”, “proper”, “adequate” or “true”.

Author Information: Stephen Turner, University of South Florida, turner@usf.edu

Turner, Stephen. “Fuller’s roter Faden.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 25-29.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WX

Art by William Blake, depicting the creation of reality.
Image via AJC1 via Flickr / Creative Commons

The Germans have a notion of “research intention,” by which they mean the underlying aim of an author’s work as revealed over its whole trajectory. Francis Remedios and Val Dusek have provided, if not an account itself, the material for an account of Steve Fuller’s research intention, or as they put it the “thread” that runs through his work.

These “intentions” are not something that is apparent to the authors themselves, which is part of the point: at the start of their intellectual journey they are working out a path which leads they know not where, but which can be seen as a path with an identifiable beginning and end retrospectively. We are now at a point where we can say something about this path in the case of Fuller. We can also see the ways in which various Leitmotifs, corollaries, and persistent themes fit with the basic research intention, and see why Fuller pursued different topics at different times.

A Continuity of Many Changes

The ur-source for Fuller’s thought is his first book, Social Epistemology. On the surface, this book seems alien to the later work, so much so that one can think of Fuller as having a turn. But seen in terms of an underlying research intention, and indeed in Fuller’s own self-explications included in this text, this is not the case: the later work is a natural development, almost an entailment, of the earlier work, properly understood.

The core of the earlier work was the idea of constructing a genuine epistemology, in the sense of a kind of normative account of scientific knowledge, out of “social” considerations and especially social constructivism, which at the time was considered to be either descriptive or anti-epistemological, or both. For Fuller, this goal meant that the normative content would at least include, or be dominated by, the “social” part of epistemology, considerations of the norms of a community, norms which could be changed, which is to say made into a matter of “policy.”

This leap to community policies leads directly to a set of considerations that are corollaries to Fuller’s long-term project. We need an account of what the “policy” options are, and a way to choose between them. Fuller was trained at a time when there was a lingering controversy over this topic: the conflict between Kuhn and the Popperians. Kuhn represented a kind of consensus driven authoritarianism. For him it was right and necessary for science to be organized around ungroundable premises that enabled science to be turned into puzzle-solving, rather than insoluble disputes over fundamentals. These occurred, and produced new ungroundable consensual premises, at the rare moments of scientific revolutions.

Progress was possible through these revolutions, but our normal notions of progress were suspended during the revolutions and applied only to the normal puzzle-solving phase of science. Popperianism, on the contrary, ascribed progress to a process of conjecture and refutation in which ever broader theories developed to account for the failures of previous conjectures, in an unending process.

Kuhnianism, in the lens of Fuller’s project in Social Epistemology, was itself a kind of normative epistemology, which said “don’t dispute fundamentals until the sad day comes when one must.” Fuller’s instincts were always with Popper on this point: authoritarian consensus has no place in science for either of them. But Fuller provided a tertium quid, which had the effect of upending the whole conflict. He took over the idea of the social construction of reality and gave it a normative and collective or policy interpretation. We make knowledge. There is no knowledge that we do not create.

The creation is a “social” activity, as the social constructivists claimed. But this social itself needed to be governed by a sense of responsibility for these acts of creation, and because they were social, this meant by a “policy.” What this policy should be was not clear: no one had connected the notion of construction to the notion of responsibility in this way. But it was a clear implication of the idea of knowledge as a product of making. Making implies a responsibility for the consequences of making.

Dangers of Acknowledging Our Making

This was a step that few people were willing to take. Traditional epistemology was passive. Theory choice was choice between the theories that were presented to the passive chooser. The choices could be made on purely epistemic grounds. There was no consideration of responsibility, because the choices were an end point, a matter of scientific aesthetics, with no further consequences. Fuller, as Remedios and Dusek point out, rejects this passivity, a rejection that grows directly out of his appropriation of constructivism.

From a “making” or active epistemic perspective, Kuhnianism is an abdication of responsibility, and a policy of passivity. But Fuller also sees that overcoming the passivity Kuhn describes as the normal state of science, requires an alternative policy, which enables the knowledge that is in fact “made” but which is presented as given, to be challenged. This is a condition of acknowledging responsibility for what is made.

There is, however, an oddity in talking about responsibility in relation to collective knowledge producing, which arises because we don’t know in advance where the project of knowledge production will lead. I think of this on analogy to the debate between Malthus and Marx. If one accepts the static assumptions of Malthus, his predictions are valid: Marx made the productivist argument that with every newborn mouth came two hands. He would have been better to argue that with every mouth came a knowledge making brain, because improvements in food production technology enabled the support of much larger populations, more technology, and so forth—something Malthus did not consider and indeed could not have. That knowledge was in the future.

Fuller’s alternative grasps this point: utilitarian considerations from present static assumptions can’t provide a basis for thinking about responsibility or policy. We need to let knowledge production proceed regardless of what we think are the consequences, which is necessarily thinking based on static assumptions about knowledge itself. Put differently, we need to value knowledge in itself, because our future is itself made through the making of knowledge.

“Making” or “constructing” is more than a cute metaphor. Fuller shows that there is a tradition in science itself of thinking about design, both in the sense of making new things as a form of discovery, and in the sense of reverse engineering that which exists in order to see how it works. This leads him to the controversial waters of intelligent design, in which the world itself is understood as, at least potentially, the product of design. It also takes us to some metaphysics about humans, human agency, and the social character of human agency.

One can separate some of these considerations from Fuller’s larger project, but they are natural concomitants, and they resolve some basic issues with the original project. The project of constructivism requires a philosophical anthropology. Fuller provides this with an account of the special character of human agency: as knowledge maker humans are God-like or participating in the mind of God. If there is a God, a super-agent, it will also be a maker and knowledge maker, not in the passive but in the active sense. In participating in the mind of God, we participate in this making.

“Shall We Not Ourselves Have to Become Gods?”

This picture has further implications: if we are already God-like in this respect, we can remake ourselves in God-like ways. To renounce these powers is as much of a choice as using them. But it is difficult for the renouncers to draw a line on what to renounce. Just transhumanism? Or race-related research? Or what else? Fuller rejects renunciation of the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of making the world. The issue is the same as the issue between Marx and Malthus. The renouncers base their renunciation on static models. They estimate risks on the basis of what is and what is known now. But these are both things that we can change. This is why Fuller proposes a “pro-actionary” rather than a precautionary stance and supports underwriting risk-taking in the pursuit of scientific advance.

There is, however, a problem with the “social” and policy aspect of scientific advance. On the one hand, science benefits humankind. On the other, it is an elite, even a form of Gnosticism. Fuller’s democratic impulse resists this. But his desire for the full use of human power implies a special role for scientists in remaking humanity and making the decisions that go into this project. This takes us right back to the original impulse for social epistemology: the creation of policy for the creation of knowledge.

This project is inevitably confronted with the Malthus problem: we have to make decisions about the future now, on the basis of static assumptions we have no real alternative to. At best we can hint at future possibilities which will be revealed by future science, and hope that they will work out. As Remedios and Dusek note, Fuller is consistently on the side of expanding human knowledge and power, for risk-taking, and is optimistic about the world that would be created through these powers. He is also highly sensitive to the problem of static assumptions: our utilities will not be the utilities of the creatures of the future we create through science.

What Fuller has done is to create a full-fledged alternative to the conventional wisdom about the science society relation and the present way of handling risk. The standard view is represented by Philip Kitcher: it wishes to guide knowledge in ways that reflect the values we should have, which includes the suppression of certain kinds of knowledge by scientists acting paternalistically on behalf of society.

This is a rigidly Malthusian way of thinking: the values (in this case a particular kind of egalitarianism that doesn’t include epistemic equality with scientists) are fixed, the scientists ideas of the negative consequences of something like research on “racial” differences are taken to be valid, and policy should be made in accordance with the same suppression of knowledge. Risk aversion, especially in response to certain values, becomes the guiding “policy” of science.

Fuller’s alternative preserves some basic intuitions: that science advances by risk taking, and by sometimes failing, in the manner of Popper’s conjectures and refutations. This requires the management of science, but management that ensures openness in science, supports innovation, and now and then supports concerted efforts to challenge consensuses. It also requires us to bracket our static assumptions about values, limits, risks, and so forth, not so much to ignore these things but to relativize them to the present, so that we can leave open the future. The conventional view trades heavily on the problem of values, and the potential conflicts between epistemic values and other kinds of values. Fuller sees this as a problem of thinking in terms of the present: in the long run these conflicts vanish.

This end point explains some of the apparent oddities of Fuller’s enthusiasms and dislikes. He prefers the Logical Positivists to the model-oriented philosophy of science of the present: laws are genuinely universal; models are built by assuming present knowledge and share the problems with Malthus. He is skeptical about science done to support policy, for the same reason. And he is skeptical about ecologism as well, which is deeply committed to acting on static assumptions.

The Rewards of the Test

Fuller’s work stands the test of reflexivity: he is as committed to challenging consensuses and taking risks as he exhorts others to be. And for the most part, it works: it is an old Popperian point that only through comparison with strong alternatives that a theory can be tested; otherwise it will simply pile up inductive support, blind to what it is failing to account for. But as Fuller would note, there is another issue of reflexivity here, and it comes at the level of the organization of knowledge. To have conjectures and refutations one must have partners who respond. In the consensus driven world of professional philosophy today, this does not happen. And that is a tragedy. It also makes Fuller’s point: that the community of inquirers needs to be managed.

It is also a tragedy that there are not more Fullers. Constructing a comprehensive response to major issues and carrying it through many topics and many related issues, as people like John Dewey once did, is an arduous task, but a rewarding one. It is a mark of how much the “professionalization” of philosophy has done to alter the way philosophers think and write. This is a topic that is too large for a book review, but it is one that deserves serious reflection. Fuller raises the question by looking at science as a public good and asking how a university should be organized to maximize its value. Perhaps this makes sense for science, given that science is a money loser for universities, but at the same time its main claim on the public purse. For philosophy, we need to ask different questions. Perhaps the much talked about crisis of the humanities will bring about such a conversation. If it does, it is thinking like Fuller’s that will spark the discussion.

Contact details: turner@usf.edu

References

Remedios, Francis X., and Val Dusek. Knowing Humanity in the Social World. The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WS

See also:

Image by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Moti Mizrahi has been defending something he calls ‘weak scientism’ against Christopher Brown in a series of exchanges in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. His animus seems to be against philosophy in particular though he asserts that other disciplines in the humanities do not produce knowledge either. He also shows remarkable candor in admitting that it all comes down to money: money spent on philosophy would be better spent on the sciences because scientific knowledge is better qualitatively (i.e. because it makes true predictions) and quantitatively (scientists pump out more stuff than philosophers). (11)

Measuring Success

As he tells us: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.” (Mizrahi; 7). Furthermore: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge- in the form of scholarly publications-than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact)” (7)

The relevance of this latter claim seems to me unclear: surely by a quantitative measure, Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat.[1] A German professor once told me that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone! I will not, however, spend time scratching my head over what seems a tangential point. The quantity of work produced in the sciences would be of little significance were it not valuable by some other measure. No one would think commercials great works of art on the grounds that there are so many of them.

Then again some concerned by the problem of over-specialization might view the sheer quantity of scientific research as a problem not an advantage.  I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind.

He says this is so “in certain relevant aspects”. (10) I’m not sure what he means by this hedge. What makes an aspect relevant in this context? I will proceed though on the assumption that whatever these relevant aspects are they make for an over-all context independent superiority of science over non-science.[2]

Of course, were I a practitioner of the hermeneutic of suspicion I would point out the glaring conflict of interest in Mr. Mizrahi making these claims from the fastness of a technical institute. If someone pops up claiming that only half the university really earns its keep it is a little bit suspect (if not surprising exactly) when that half of the university happens to the very one in which he resides. I might also point out the colonialist and sexist implications of his account, which is so contrived to conveniently exclude all sorts of ‘others’ from the circle of knowledge. Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?

However, as Mr. Mizrahi seems unlikely to be overly impressed by such an analysis I will stick to something simpler.[3] Does science alone produce knowledge or do other epistemic forms produce knowledge as well? This is the question of whether ‘strong scientism’ is correct. Secondly, if strong scientism is not correct does weak scientism offer a more defensible alternative or does it suffer from the same drawbacks? Accordingly, I will refute strong scientism and then show that weak scientism is vulnerable to precisely the same objections.

Politicized Words and Politicizing Ideas

There are dangers to antagonizing philosophers. We may not be pulling in the big grants, true , but we can do a great deal of damage regardless  for when the ‘scientistic class’ is not accusing philosophy of being useless and ineffectual it is accusing it of corrupting the entire world with its po-mo nonsense.[4] This is because one of the functions of philosophy is the skeptical or critical one. When scientists go on about verification and falsification or claim the principle of induction can be justified by induction philosophers perform the Socratic function of puncturing their hubris. Thus, one of the functions of philosophy is deflationary.

A philosopher of science who makes himself unpopular with scientists by raising questions the scientist is unequipped to answer and has no time for anyway is only doing her job. I think this is a case in point. Since Descartes at least we been fascinated by the idea of the great epistemic purge. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there claiming to be knowledge that we need to light a great bonfire and burn all of it. This bonfire might be Cartesian doubt. It might be ‘scientific method’. Either way all the ‘pretend’ knowledge is burned off leaving the useful core. This may well be a worthwhile endeavour and in the time of Descartes it surely was.

However, I suspect this tradition has created a misleading impression. The real problem is not that we have too little knowledge but too much: as a phenomenologist might say it is a saturated phenomenon. Knowledge is all around us so that like bats our eyes are blinded by the sun. This is why I find the idea that only scientists produce knowledge the very definition of an ivory tower notion that has no basis in experience. To show this let me make a list of the kinds of non-scientific knowledge people have.

As we shall see, the problem is not making this list long but keeping it short. I offer this list to create an overwhelming presumption that strong scientism at very least is not true (I shall then argue that weak scientism is in no better a case).  This procedure may not be decisive in itself but I do think it puts the ball in the court of the ‘strong scientist’ who must show that all the things I (and most everybody else) call knowledge are in fact something else.

What is more, the ‘strong scientist’ must do this without violating the criterion of strong scientism itself: he cannot avail himself of any but scientific arguments. Moreover, he must show that science itself meets the criterion of knowledge he sets out which is not an easy task given such well known difficulties as the problem of induction. At any rate, prima facie, there seems overwhelming empirical evidence that strong scientism is incorrect: a claim so extraordinary should have an unusually strong justification, to paraphrase Hume. Let’s see if the ‘strong scientist’ can produce one.

Making a Problem of “Results”

To begin, I should point out is that there are bodies of knowledge that produce ‘results’ not through scientific method but through analysis and application to cases. Two prominent examples would be Law and Music Theory, practitioners of which use an established body of theory to solve problems like whether Trinity Western should have a law school or how Scriabin invented the ‘Prometheus chord’. What sense of ‘know’ can we appeal to in order to show that my daughter, who is a music theory student, does not ‘know’ that the Prometheus chord was derived from the over-tone series?

Secondly, there is knowledge about the past that historians uncover through the interpretation of primary documents and other evidence. In what sense do we not ‘know’ that the Weimar Republic fell? This claim is even more remarkable given there are sciences that deal with the past, like Paleontology, which ‘interpret’ signs such as fossils or tools in a manner much more like historians (there is hermeneutic judgment in science which functions no differently than hermeneutic judgment elsewhere).

Thirdly, there is first person knowledge which is direct. “Did that hurt?” asks the doctor because without accepting first-person reportage he cannot proceed with treatment. This is a kind of knowledge without which we could not even do science so that if Strong scientism wants to deny this is knowledge science itself will be the primary victim. Again science can go nowhere without direct factual knowledge (the strip turned green when I put it in water) that is not produced by science but which science itself rests upon.

What about know how? Craftsmen and engineers know all kinds of things by accumulated experience. They know how a shoe is made or what makes for good beer. They also built the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What are we to make of disciplines like mathematics, geometry or logic? What about ethical or aesthetic or critical judgments? In what sense does a translator not ‘know’ Japanese? Does anyone really think literature scholars don’t ‘know’ anything about the texts they discuss even on a factual level? What scientific justification does the claim “Marlowe did not write King Lear’ have or even require?  And while we are at it may well be that philosophers do not know much but they do know things like ‘logical positivism fails its own criterion of meaning’ or ‘Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone’. [5]

It could well be that in regarding all the above as instances of knowledge I am missing something fundamental. If so I wish someone would point it out to me. Let’s take a hypothetical knower, Jill: Jill knows she is feeling cold, knows how to repair watches, knows why the Weimar Republic fell, knows how to speak Portuguese, knows there are 114 Surahs in the Quran, knows how Beethoven transformed the sonata form, has extensive topographical knowledge of places she has travelled, prefers the plays of Shakespeare to those of Thomas Preston, can identify Barbara as valid syllogism, considers racial prejudice indefensible, understands how attorney client privilege applies to the Stormy Daniels affair, can tell an stone age arrowhead from a rock, can comment on the philology of Hebrew, can understand Euclid’s proofs, is engaged in correcting the received text of Finnegans Wake , can explain the Quine/Duhem thesis and its relevance to the question of falsification, has written a commentary on Kant’s third critique and on top of all this is performing experiments in chemistry.

Strong scientism may be correct that only the last endeavour constitutes Jill’s ‘knowledge’ but on what grounds can it defeat what to me looks like the overwhelming presumption that Jill is not just a Chemist who wastes her time at hobbies but a genuine polymath who knows many things in many fields along with all the ordinary knowledge all humans possess?

Problems of Both the Strong and the Weak

The ‘strong scientist’ has surprisingly few options here. Will he point out that science makes true predictions? So have craftsmen for millennia. Further, many of these forms of knowledge do not need to make true predictions: I don’t need to test the hypothesis that there 114 Surahs in the Quran because I know already having checked.[6] Is science more certain of its conclusions? According to the post-Popper consensus at least, scientific statements are always tentative and revisable and in any case first person knowledge so surpasses it in certainty that some of it is arguably infallible. Is science more instrumentally successful?

Craftsmen and hunters kept the species alive for millennia before science even existed in difficult circumstances under which no science would have been possible. What is more some craft knowledge remains instrumentally superior to science to this day: no baseball player chooses a physicist over a batting coach.[7] At any rate success is relative to one’s aims and lawyers successfully produce legal arguments just as philologists successfully solve problems of Homeric grammar.

Now as Aristotle would say science does have the advantage over craft of being explanatory but is explanation unique to science? No; because hermeneutic practices in history, literature, classics and so on also produce explanations of the meaning of things like documents and if the ‘strong scientist’ wants to say that these explanations are tentative and changing (abductions as it were not inductions) then the same is true of a great deal of science. In short, none of the features that supposedly make for the superiority of science are unique to science and some are not even especially exemplified by it. It seems then that there is no criterion by which scientific claims can be shown to be knowledge in a unique and exclusive sense. Until such a criterion is identified it seems to me that my initial presupposition about Jill being a polymath rather than a chemist with distractions stands.   

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizrahi to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to.  Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.” (22)[8] Still, when pushed, he seems content with the position that all the things I mentioned above might count as knowledge in a weaker sense but that scientific knowledge is still better and, presumably, more worthy of grants.

Unfortunately, the exact same objections which tell against strong scientism tell against weak scientism too. It is interesting that at this point Mizrahi employs a kind of knowledge I did not discuss above: to defend weak scientism he appeals to the authority of textbooks! (17) These textbooks tell him that science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions. He then tells us that while other disciplines may also betray these traits they do not do so to the same extent so that any money spent on them would be better spent on science on the maxim of prudence (another knowledge form I did not discuss) that one should seek the most bang for one’s buck.

Mizrahi gains little by this move for the question immediately arises better how and at what? Better in what context? By what standard of value? Just take the example of quantity so favored by Mizrahi. Does science produce more knowledge that anything else? Hardly. As Augustine pointed out I can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of my own existence. (City of God; XI, 26) Indeed, I can do this by reflecting recursively on my knowledge of ANY fact. Similar recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics.

Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has a roughly 3 million-year head start? This does not even count the successful record of problem solving in law, politics, or art.[9] Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist. Science only explains the things it is good at explaining which is no more and no less than one can say of any other discipline. This is why many proponents of scientism tacitly assume that the explanations produced in other disciplines only concern frilly, trivial things that science needn’t bother about anyway.[10]

Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily? What is more, the inductive procedures of science seem relatively useless in the many endeavours that do not involve true prediction but some other method of justification like deduction or direct observation.

Thus, weak scientism seems in no better a case than strong scientism for the same reasons: there is no clearly applicable, context-independent, criterion that shows the superiority the ‘weak scientist’ claims: certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science. As I told someone once (who asserted the superiority of the French language over all others) French is indeed the best language for speaking French in.[11] Science is the best way to do science.

Why Make Science an Ism at All?

Thus, if Mr. Mizrahi wants a thesis to defend it may well be possible to show that science is at least somewhat better on average at certain things than other approaches. He may call that ‘even weaker’ scientism. This would be to admit after all, that science is superior only in ‘certain relevant aspects’ leaving it to be inferred that it is not superior in others and that the ‘superiority’ that science demonstrates in one context, like particle physics, may vanish in another, like film criticism. If that is what ‘scientism’ amounts to then we are all proponents of it and it is hard to escape the impression that a mountain of argument has given birth to a mouse.

What is more, he informs us: “Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation. To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable.” (17) I suppose then it remains open to say that, after all, Joyce scholars ‘test’ their assertions about Ulysses against the text of Ulysses and are to that extent scientists. Perhaps, craftsmen, music theorists, historians and (gasp!) even philosophers, all in their various ways, do likewise: testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines. Perhaps, then, all these endeavors are just iterations of science in which case Mirhazi’s mouse has shrunk to something the size of a pygmy shrew.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Augustine, The City of God. Trans. H. Bettenson. (Penguin Classics, London, 1984)

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no 4 (2018) 7-25.   

Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987) 595-597

[1] Does Mirhazi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.

[2] The qualitative superiority of science must be based on the value of its goals firstly (like curing disease or discovering alien life) and, secondly, its superiority in achieving those goals over all other methods. The discussion surely assumes that the things done by science must be worth doing more than their opposites. The question has of necessity an axiological component in spite of Mizrahi’s claim to the contrary (9). This means the values of science must be commensurable with the values of non-science if we are to say one is better overall than the other. Not only must science be instrumentally superior at answering scientific questions it must answer the questions of other disciplines better than those disciplines. Otherwise one is simply making the innocuous claim that science answers scientific questions better than geometry or rhetoric can. Mizrahi marshals only one example here: he tells us that the social sciences produce more knowledge about friendship than philosophy does. (19) Of course this assumes that philosophers and social scientists are asking the same or at least commensurable questions about friendship but even if I grant this there are still a vast multitude of instances where this is manifestly not the case, where non-scientists can produce better explanations on non-trivial questions than scientists can. I shall note some of these below.

[3] Mr. Mizrahi might consider, though, whether ideological self-critique might, after all, be a useful way of acquiring self-knowledge (which may not be so contemptible an attainment after all).

[4] This is the ‘Schrodinger’ phenomenon where an antagonist makes two contradictory accusations at once. (https://davewebster.org/2018/02/28/schrodingers-snowflake/) For what seems to be the fons et origo of this narrative see Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987).

[5] The underlying question here is one of Platonism vs. Aristotelianism. Strong Scientism argues that there is one paradigmatic form of ‘knowledge in itself’. I argue the Aristotelian position that just as ‘being’ is said in many senses (Metaphysics;9, 992b 15) so there are many analogical forms of knowledge. What all the things I have listed have in common is that each in its own peculiar way supports beliefs by appeals to evidence or other forms of justification. Everyday discourse may be wrong to use the word knowledge for these other forms of justified belief but I think the onus is on the ‘strong scientist’ to show this. Another thing I should point out is that I do not confine the word knowledge to beliefs that are indefeasible: a knower might say “to the best of knowledge” and still be a knower. I say this to head off the problem of skepticism which asks whether the criterion of indefeasible knowledge (whatever it is said to be) is ever actually fulfilled. There are valid responses to this problem but consideration of them would take us far afield.

[6] It is silly to imagine me hypothesizing the various numbers of Surahs the Quran could contain before testing my hypothesis by opening the book. Of course, if Mizrahi wishes, I can always put ordinary factual knowledge in the form of a testable proposition. Open War and Peace and you will find it contains an account of the battle of Borodino. Why is a true prediction of this kind any different than a true prediction in science?

[7] Here in fact we get to the nub of the problem. The ultimate problem with scientism weak or strong is that in the real world different knowledge forms interact with each other constantly. Science advances with the help of craftsmen as with the invention of the telescope. Craftsmen make use of science as when a running coach consults a physician. Archeologists and paleontologists employ abduction or hermeneutic reasoning. Art historians call on chemists while biologists call on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples. In a sense there is no such thing as ‘science’ pure and simple as other knowledge forms are inherent to its own structure (even deductive reasoning, the proper province of logicians, is essential to standard accounts of scientific method). This is one reason why, in fact, there is no one superior knowledge form but rather systematic interdependence of ALL knowledge forms.

[8] This is not the only instance of Mizrahi, apparently, trying to use a persuasive definition to win what looks like a mere verbal victory. Of course you can define knowledge as “what the sciences do”, assign another word to “what the humanities do” and go home waving the flag of triumph. But why should any of the rest of take note of such an arbitrary procedure?

[9] Again the problem is that the instrumental success of science rests on the instrumental success of a multitude of other things like the knowledge of bus schedules that gets us to the lab or the social knowledge that allows us to navigate modern institutions. No science tells us how to write a winning grant proposal or informs us that for as longs as Dr. Smith is chief editor of Widgetology the truth about widgets is whatever he says it is. Thus even if we confined the question to the last 50 years it is clear that science cannot claim instrumental superiority over the myriad other anonymous, unmarked processes that make science possible in the first place.

[10] My son, when he was a toddler, ran about the playground proclaiming himself ‘the greatest’. When he failed at any task or challenge he would casually turn to his mother and say “well, the greatest doesn’t do that”! This seems to be the position of many proponents of scientism. If scientists cannot produce good explanations in a field like literature or classics, then it must be that those fields are not really knowledge.

[11] Aristotle made this point ages ago. No inquiry into ethics he tells can have the rigour of geometry any more than the geometer need employ the art of rhetoric. (Nichomachean Ethics; 3, 20,25) Ethics employs phronesis or prudential judgment not logical deduction. Each discipline is answerable to its own internal standards which do not apply outside that discipline. There is, then, no overall ‘super-science’ (like the Platonic dialectic) that embodies a universal method for dealing with all subjects. Aristotle’s world is pluralist, discontinuous and analogical. For this reason, scientists have tended to be Platonists and modern science might be viewed as the revenge of the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition against its wayward pupil. Contemporary philosophy of science, if this author understands it correctly, seems to have restored Aristotelian praxis to the centre of the scientific enterprise. Students of Wittgenstein will no doubt appreciate the point that knowledge comes in as many varieties as games do and there is no more a single account of the first than there is of the second.

Author Information: Sheldon Richmond, Independent Researcher

Richmond, Sheldon. “Philosophy Out in the Cold.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 33-40.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references: Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Wi

Images of the benevolence of the United States Armed Forces.
Image by James Vaughn, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

John McCumber’s book, The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War, exists on four levels at the least. First: on the literal level, the book is about the special case of the UCLA philosophy department. How the philosophers, university administrators, and the State of California, hide away from and at the best, avoid, the McCarthy witch-hunt for communists. Also, on the literal level, the book is about how subliminally, the philosophy department unconsciously absorbs and thereby becomes subject to the ideology of the Red Scare.

(In place of the generic term, “ideology”, McCumber prefers the term paradigm borrowed from T.S. Kuhn, a term that is well known, widely used or misused term of choice when talking about internal pressures on general viewpoints. Also, in place of “ideology”, McCumber prefers the term dispositive, borrowed from Michel Foucault, a term lesser known that includes political-social external intellectual shapers).

Second: on the broader and extended literal level, the UCLA philosophy department case during the 50s and into the 60s is manifested by many if not all philosophy departments in the USA. Third: on a deeper level, just below the surface text of the book, there is an insinuation that Philosophy in America has barely moved away from the ideological iceberg of Cold War American anti-communism.

Fourth: on the deepest level, not at all articulated in the text, but presumed in the book is a commonly held axiom of intellectual life in and out of Academia. The axiom is that America hegemonically or mono-manically wields an ideology that molds all thought. The American ideology is enforced by the power conditions of the American Hegemony or American Empire. Moreover, we won’t fully realize the American ideology until the Empire tumbles—perhaps if the War against the Evil Empire (whichever one it happens to be at the moment) is lost.

(Though the End of X theme is not played in this book, the reality presumed in the book is that America is going strong continually recovering from fumbles, but still scoring touch-down after touch-down in spite of whatever fool happens to be the quarterback.)

An Argument of Classical Rational Choice

The core thesis of the text is concisely stated about mid-way through a very deliberately planned and structured book with three parts, two chapters to each part, balanced by an Introduction and an Epilogue. Not counting the customary Prologue, the book has 8 chapters. This is no accident—the text has the shape of a sine curve. The peak of the sine curve delineates the Rules and Premises of the American Intellect. The curve downward points to an alternative Philosophy existing always on the fringes of American Philosophy (and American Philosophy Departments) imported from Europe, Post-Modernism (often disguised in the updated version of old-fashioned American Pragmatism—found in the intellectually trend-setting works of Rorty. According to McCumber:

When Cold War philosophy became the operating philosophy of the United States, this [operating philosophy] was elevated into a new social gospel. Institutions that help individuals become powerful and wealthy (law schools, business schools) or stay that way (medical schools, hospitals) flourished; other public infra-structure, along with the environment was left to rot. Many of the problems faced by the United States in the early twenty-first century are testimony to the power of Cold War philosophy’s theory of mind. (p.112).

The theory of mind that McCumber refers to is in the philosophical extrapolations that McCumber develops (in the two chapters of Part 2, pp. 71 ff.) largely from the dilemmas of rational choice (in democratic-capitalist society). McCumber’s text concentrates on Kenneth Arrow’s dilemmas of rational choice that micro-economics or welfare economics employs to resolve the problems of wealth redistribution (in democratic-capitalist society).

However, McCumber’s text also fingers the von Neumann/Morgenstern mathematical game-theoretic approach to the dilemmas of rational choice (in democratic-capitalist society). The contextual qualifier of the phrase “in democratic-capitalist society” carries in it the unstated presumption that rational choice theory (RCT for short in the text)—explicitly extrapolated from Arrow’s micro-economics and mathematical game-theory—is the only and best intellectual weapon of defense against the intellectual fifth-column of anti-American communism. The best intellectual weapon is the ideology of a great and free American money-making machine composed of individuals buying (especially on credit) and consuming great quantities of goods—at the cheapest cost and produced at the cheapest cost with the cheapest resources by the cheapest and most efficient means of production.

All this making, selling-buying, consuming ever spinning of the economic-technological-industrial-military wheel turns regardless of down-stream costs to future generations, not only economically with the increasing American debt at all levels, but also environmentally with the increasing down-stream damage to all life and the planet—not merely unintended, but with imposed and willful disregard.

Into this pot of rational choice theory, was blended the philosophy found in Philosophy at UCLA, in specific in the work of the German-Jewish Berlin expat, Hans Reichenbach, especially in Reichenbach’s introductory philosophy textbook, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, 1951. According to McCumber: “In the United States it [Reichenbach’s book] played an enormous role in establishing the various permutations of what would later be called analytical philosophy as the dominant dispositive in most American philosophy departments.” (pp. 56-7)

But what is its—the meld of analytic/scientific philosophy and rational choice theory– “cash-value” (a popular phrase in American vernacular, including the sophisticated academic jargon of both the pragmatist and analytic schools of philosophy)? What is the ultimate content of this meld of “scientific philosophy” or later known as “analytic philosophy” and rational choice theory? How does the meld function as an intellectual weapon of defense against communist ideology (and even today, against all anti-Americanism)? How does the meld act to discretely (or, in the punchy phrasing of McCumber, “stealthily”, form formal/academic philosophy and keep alternative philosophical schools, such as traditional pragmatism, continental philosophy, academic Marxism—as opposed to “vulgar” Marxism–and though not-mentioned in this text, Adorno/Marcuse critical philosophy at the fringes)?

Stealth Influence

Most importantly, in terms of what is taught and published—in the main–how does the meld (of scientific/analytic philosophy and rational choice theory) become adopted by the power structures of academia and even those power-structures in the world outside (as an intellectual superstructure or rationalization) that govern and inhabit politico-economic activity? The content of the meld that has become America’s intellectual defense weapon of choice is concisely articulated again at the very peak of the book’s textual sine curve in the concluding section of Chapter four, in terms of six premises (cited indirectly as under “some famous attacks” by philosophers at the edge of the cold war or post-cold war.)(cf. p. 112).

Summarizing the summary of the 6 premises in terms of 6 phrases, the six dogmas of analytic philosophy are as follows: 1. Unified Reason. 2. Knowledge=Prediction. 3. Prediction=Justified Knowledge vs Discovery/Intuition/Guessing. 4. Reason=Analytic Truth=Formal?Mathematical Logic. 5. Externalities are irrelevant (i.e. History, Culture). 6. Emotion (in argument or intellectual passion) is an Externality.

All the above 6 propositions/dogmas are part of the “stealthiness” of modern American Analytic Philosophy (not just the UCLA of the Cold War) but even today, even though those “dogmas” or in more discrete terminology, “axioms”, of American Cold War Philosophy are under attack by the intellectual descendants of the founders of American Cold War Philosophy (not just at UCLA, but almost everywhere—even outside America). Though today, the intellectual descendants of cold warrior philosophers hack away at the intellectual dogmas of their teachers (or their teachers’s teachers), the practices of stealthiness unconsciously remain in the new analytically dominated platforms for the production and distribution of the intellectual goods of philosophy.

We find out how, in the Epilogue (in the download flow of the sine curve of the text):

With the main enemies [who were the prejudiced and brainwashed general public, and the McCarthyite anti-Red vigilantes in high places] now internal to academia, the elaborate tactics of stealth directed against outsiders . . . hiring one’s own graduate students, publishing in obscure places if at all, and pretending to make hires while actually delaying them—were no longer necessary. Simply ignoring professors outside one’s own field and being ignored by them in return provided sufficient cover. (p.159)

I think it would be only fair at this point of the text, before going onto McCumber’s own intellectual weapon of defense against the now ancient dogmas of analytic philosophy, enunciated in the Epilogue, to allow Reichenbachians a chance to reply (after a few remarks about the context of the reply and a few other replies). In general, to be intellectually fair and honest, the wide condemnation of Philosophy in the America of the 50s also should have its day in the court of Reason in all its varieties. Because there are so many varieties of Reason, it would only be fair to pick up on four courts of hearing—I am not merely referring to the Reason of the pluralism in intellectual life today, but of the overlooked pluralism of intellectual life of the 50s in America.

Undercurrents Against Positivism

I am actually going to pick up on the four schools of anti-logical positivism (or at least those who were friendly and unfriendly critics, and those who just went their own way not bothering to criticize logical positivism but to pursue their own lights regardless of the criticisms of logical positivists.) Furthermore, I will only mention people who were mentioned in this book as part of the mainstream intellectual adherents of the ”operating philosophy” of America.

First, let’s give Wittgenstein a hearing, not the “Whereof you cannot speak, be silent” Wittgenstein, but the so-called later Wittgenstein of his posthumously published works (in the 50s and until very recently). I pick Wittgenstein first because his later philosophy of the 50s is antithetical to the mainstream philosophy of the 50s that became the “operating philosophy” of America. Wittgenstein (and various philosophers who influenced American philosophy but practiced ordinary language philosophy mainly in England, not mentioned in this book) clearly recognized and brought to the light of day the importance of how culture influences thought via language games. The Wittgensteinian dictum of “no private language” and the Wittgensteinian thought experiment of not understanding a lion that could speak, is intended to contextualize the intellectual role of the individual and the thought and language of the individual by focusing on the public nature of language and mind.

McCumber could reply, Wittgensteinians except for Rorty, largely mumbled among themselves, and wrote obscure short articles and books (that were really long articles) and so were stealthily pursuing their own little puzzles hardly known outside their own specializations within philosophy let alone outside philosophy. This goes to prove McCumber’s point: the public quiescence of philosophy allowed the Cold War Ideology to go unchallenged, and Cold War practices of self-censoring what is said in public and who are hired in academia, to go on behind doors closed to outside scrutiny—not only to the scrutiny of the Red Scare mongers, but as well to the scrutiny of independent thinkers wherever they happened to land a job whether in or out of academia.

Second, now let’s give Reichenbach, as a representative and founder of America’s “operating philosophy” in the Cold War, a chance to reply: Naturalism applied to philosophy is no mere extension of science but an answer to the traditional big questions of philosophy—an answer that historically stems from the Pre-Socratics—that were the progenitors of modern rational thought including the sciences of today: cosmology, physics, mathematics, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and economics. Moreover, , though there may be no “logic of discovery”, there is still a social aspect for science—and in the social aspect, there are conventions that evolve with science—and similarly all intellectual disciplines. In other words, there is a social aspect to the methodology of science, in particular to the methodologies for the use of experiment and verification/refutation in science. Whether or not there are higher-level social conventions that govern all intellectual disciplines is open to discussion.

McCumber can reply that he critically discussed Reichenbach’s theory of the social aspect of sciences in the book:

But Reichenbach has a limited view of what this kind of scientific cooperation [society/Republic] amounts to…Scientific collaboration is thus a sort of quantitative amplification, in which many different individuals can pool their intellectual strength because they are all, in principle, doing exactly the same thing. . . . The scientific community, applying reason to observations, is thus not a set of clashing perspectives . . . but a sort of “superperson.” (p.100)

Society reduces to the sum of abstract logical individuals. The product of social interaction in a community of intellectuals equals the thought of the logically constructed idealized individual. Everyone, according to Reichenbach, in an intellectual community, must come up with the same answers as long as the algorithms, of reason are applied to the same data, correctly or uniformly.

Third, though not attacked in the book, Bertrand Russell, deserves a voice. Russell is mentioned in the book as an early pre-Cold War victim of anti-atheist religious fundamentalist pressure groups who lobbied for the firing of Russell from UCLA and from his next stop, CCNY. Russell’s case is a proto-version of the later American public witch-hunting of leftist intellectuals. How Russell could speak up goes as follows: Russell’s pioneering efforts provided the foundations in logico-mathematical reasoning for the development of analytic philosophy.

He was much admired by the logical positivists for starting an intellectual revolution in philosophy that turned philosophy from woolly thinking enmeshed in religion, mysticism, idealism, and a discipline without discipline, into a critical enquiry using the latest intellectual techniques available to scientists and mathematicians. Moreover, Russell used these tools of critical enquiry not only to tackle the fundamental philosophical problems where he also constantly revised his theories, but also to tackle the social, political, and ethical issues of the day for a wide audience. Hence, for Russell (unlike most of his followers including Wittgenstein, A.J. Ayer, and Quine) analytic philosophy was used to blast the idols of the day—especially the increasing production, testing, development and storing of nuclear weapons as a “deterrent”.

McCumber’s reply is easy: the exception proves the rule. In most cases, analytic philosophy turned its critical enquiry upon itself and even a-historically treated classical philosophers as either proto-analytic philosophers (when those older views or arguments were endorsed by the analytic school of philosophy) or as muddled, without looking at historical context. The inward approach of most analytic philosophers reveals that their use of analytic philosophy as a “stealth” weapon—to keep undetected from the outside world in the Cold War—is highlighted by contrast with how Russell was brave enough to expose all his intellectual armoury to attack from the outer world. It is not that analytic philosophy is inherently an insider-game, it is that as an insider-game, analytic philosophy, on the one side, avoided trouble from Cold War evangelists; and analytic philosophy as an insider-game, on the other side, played into the hands of the Red Scare avant-garde by not avoiding confrontation with those keen to find a “commie in every corner.”

Fourth, Hayek and Popper are treated as Cold Warriors as if it were both common knowledge and unquestionable truth—and so deserve a chance to set the record straight according to their own lights. Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, though mentioned in the book as anti-communist, which they were, are not mentioned as anti-scientism or anti-unified science.

Both were against the doctrine of applying a singular, supposed universal scientific method to all disciplines including history and economics. Both thought that history had no laws: not material, not natural, not economic, not social. Historical events are contingent and unique; therefore, historical events are not repeatable and so have no “laws” or even “regularities” unlike the natural sciences. Economics assumes a social level not reducible to psychology, hence, the only law of economics is the hypothetical zero-law of rational behaviour in idealized situations, that is used to expose what is unexpected, and therefore treat the unexpected as a problem to be explained, though never completely.

McCumber’s reply is apparently an easy one too: Hayek and Popper adopted “methodological individualism” as an explanation of the social. Hence, the social becomes the abstract individual with identical goals and beliefs. Moreover, Hayek and Popper, though against scientism and the unity of scientific method—across disciplines—were avowed followers of the Enlightenment. Popper advocated “critical rationalism”, a fringe school of philosophy that aims to apply rationality universally in all disciplines. Moreover, Popper, especially does not admit that rationality is culturally, temporally, and disciplinarily relative.

(Popper argues against what he calls the “myth of the framework”, contrary to the cultural relativism held by Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Foucault, Post-Modernism, and apparently McCumber as well: culture permeates but does not totalize all thought, perception, and action; otherwise, liminal, transitional, and fringe thinkers could not occur, and their thoughts and activities would be inconceivable. However, this aside about Popper, it is important to note, does not undercut McCumber’s point that intellectual deviance does actually occur. Moreover, according to McCumber, intellectual deviance is and was insufficient to disturb other than as a nuisance effect, the hegemony of America’s “operating philosophy”—analytic philosophy and its subservience to the McCarthy Effect.)

Conclusion

How then, might the reader of this review ask, does the text under review, answer the question: how can we thoroughly expose and thoroughly debunk whatever elements remain in philosophy from the era of the Cold War? The part of the intellectual iceberg of the American ideology (paradigm/dispositive) of the Cold War that remains is the part out of view—the most hazardous part to enquirers at sail in the ocean of thought (in every field of enquiry, and even in our everyday thinking about everyday matters).

John McCumber outlines in a subsection of the Epilogue, “Reason Beyond Rational Choice”, (pp. 164 ff.) a 5 step program, for overcoming the meld of scientific philosophy and Rational Choice Theory that evolved into modern analytic philosophy. Here is a concise version of a manifesto for a program that appears to comprise both a revision and fusion of good old-fashioned American pragmatism (in the footsteps of Rorty) and Americanized post-modernism.

First, engage in dialectics—people passionately arguing together from different cultural/intellectual outlooks. Second, the aim is not to win, but to gain mutual understanding, and even help each other better articulate their own viewpoints. Third, recognize the historical background for each other’s different outlooks—contextualize outlooks rather than universalize outlooks. Fourth, use no rules or for whatever minimal rules are used, treat them as guidelines to be modified and replaced as the situation demands, and as the dialectics evolve. Fifth, attempt to let a harmonization of outlooks develop without overwhelming or drowning out the different voices.

There are three questions a reader of the book might pose to the author—that are called forth by the very text of the book and inherent in the deepest level of the book. I will state the three questions below that arise from the deep level tacit premise of the book. This tacit premise goes roughly in this way: The individuals in a professional field of an academic institution where independent thinkers are protected by the professional ethics of academic freedom as well as the laws of most democratic countries that guarantee freedom of speech and thought, can be “subjectivized” (in the terminology of McCumber adapted from post-modernist thinkers). “Subjectivization” is the unconscious domination of academic thought that creates a subliminal conformism to a mainstream of one voice in philosophy and becomes absorbed into a monolithic American ideology.

I conclude with the three questions that pop-out of the logic of a situation where an academic mainstream arises and catches those in it unawares; and, where in practice, regardless of theory and regardless of the advocacy of pluralism, members of the non-analytic schools of thought until today are either unemployed, underemployed or marginalized both in academia and in business.

1) How has the God of the Cold War and the iceberg of the American Cold War ideology though exposed, survived the voluminous talks and texts about pluralism, multiculturalism, multi-genderism, diversity…? 2) Or, if the Cold War God is dead, what is the subliminal ideology/paradigm/dispositive that has replaced the Cold War ideology and has in turn captured American life where an evolved analytic, but still analytic roaring mainstream drowns out alternative voices? 3) Is the whole neo-Kuhnian and neo-Foucaultian trend-setting and widely used but vague and metaphorical terminology of paradigm/dispositive, misleading; and so, are there other externalities at work, perhaps those in front of our noses—such as the current economic-techno-social structures that provide a niche for the professionalization of elites that allows those elites to separate themselves from the everyday world; and, create new places of power and control for themselves?

References

McCumber, John. The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

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

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

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

Cruickshank, Justin. “Reflections on Problems, Politics and Knowledge: Replies to the Discussants of Democratic Problem-Solving.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 25-38.

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.

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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

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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

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