In my more modest moments I like to think I am helpful in facilitating discussions because I am always willing to take a contrary point of view, and explore an argument for an opposite viewpoint. Setting such inappropriate modesty to one side, I suspect it might be more than that – and worse than that – because I think I have a natural tendency to hear an argument or a proposition, and immediately want to disagree. As a tactic in discussion groups, it is probably acceptable, and it certainly helps upset, confront, or at least discourage the easy acceptance of conventional views. More generally, I have learnt in everyday conversation it is usually a good idea to keep my responses muted, and at least listen to what another person is saying before I jump in and start offering contradictions. A good idea, but not one I always follow.
Why do I have this tendency? In part I can blame it on Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, whose views had a major impact on the way I behave. Karl Popper was Viennese, from a Jewish background, but brought up in what he called a “decidedly bookish” Lutheran background. He spent the first 35 years of his life in Vienna, during which time he had a brief flirtation with Marxism. However, as the Nazis grew in power, he knew he had to leave, and in 1937 emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he was appointed lecturer in philosophy the University of New Zealand. He moved to the UK after the Second World War, and was appointed professor of logic and scientific method at the LSE (the London School of Economics). Apart from a brief period back in Austria, he remained in the UK until his death in 1994.
I first read Popper’s work at university. If I had explored his thinking as it developed, I would have begun with The Open Society and its Enemies (hereafter I’ll just call it The Open Society). However, my reading started with The Logic of Scientific Discovery. It had been published in 1959, and The Open Society in1954. These dates are for the publications in English, however, and the Logic of Scientific Discovery was first been published in German in 1934. Perhaps all these dates are irrelevant, but I want to begin where I began, although, much later in life, I realised The Open Society was much closer to my own interests.
The Logic of Scientific Discovery made one major and powerful argument. Popper claimed that science can never prove a theory, indeed that theories are inherently unprovable. Rather, theories should be tested by seeking to disprove them: a theory remains ‘accepted’ as long as no-one has been able to disprove it through experiments or observations (and he did make it clear it had to be a serious disproof, not what he called a ‘non-reproducible single observation’). That, as they say, put the cat among the pigeons, and his approach has been subject to continuing criticism. It undermines the usual thinking about a scientific theory.
In the ‘standard’ approach, a theory is developed (based on empirical observations or experiments), and from that theory a number of consequences are identified. These are then tested, and if found to be consistent with expectations with the theory, then it has been proved valid. This was the basis which led to Arthur Eddington and a team of astronomers setting out to observe the effect of the sun’s gravity on the alignment of stars, with two expeditions, to Principe, off the coast of west Africa, and Sobral in norther Brazil. The observations confirmed Einstein’s theory, very precisely, and so the General Theory of Relativity was proved correct. However, from Popper’s perspective, the theory was not proved, but it hadn’t been falsified.
Was this an academic assertion ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing’ or something more serious. Popper argued scientific theories are abstract in nature, and can be tested only indirectly, by reference to their implications. He also held that scientific theory, and human knowledge generally, is irreducibly conjectural or hypothetical, and is generated by the creative imagination to solve problems that have arisen. In some ways this links to Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions, with his proposal that scientific theories are accepted over time by convention, and it is only when there are a number of exceptions that an existing theory has to be replaced by one that also explains those anomalies. In both cases, scientific theory is seen as just that, both provisional and an abstraction, always likely to be superseded by a better one.
I’m not competent to get into all the hot arguments about Popper’s views, but I am persuaded of two key points. One is that theories are always provisional and tentative, and that science advances by developing new theories that explain more than the one which was superseded. I am also persuaded of the power of ‘falsifiability’. I like the idea that we accept a theory until such point that a scientists shows it can be disproved. To me, those two key points fit together. Popper isn’t seen as important today as he was fifty years ago, and that is largely because disproving a theory in practice is far more complex than the idea in theory.
Despite this, and perhaps unfortunately, reading Popper encouraged me to look for contrary indications. Here I am, many years later, still listening to ideas and proposals, and seeking evidence to disprove or contradict them. It’s not a path to make you loved by people, but rather one to encourage others to see you as disagreeable. My dad didn’t help. In astronomy, his real love, Fred Hoyle, was a leading cosmologist who was famous for coming up with alternative theories, and seemed to take a delight in challenging the mainstream. His views were infectious.
It got worse at university, where my tutor, Edmund Leach, had made his career by challenging the orthodoxies in social anthropology. His two most famous empirically based books, Political Systems of Highland Burma and Pul Eliya,. However, these were not the structural-functional studies that had dominated the field at the time, depicting a society like some kind of well-integrated machine, in which people were mere transient occupants of roles. For Leach, politics in the Kachin was about concepts, as much as about identifiable formal groups, and kinship in Ceylon provided a framework for talking about rights in land and water, rather than biology.
How does this relate to Thomas Kuhn, and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions? Thomas Kuhn was another philosopher of science, an American, thinking and publishing around the same time as Popper. If Popper had challenged the truth of science, Kuhn had a rather different perspective, distinguishing between periods when a particular set of theories and scientific principles constituted a ‘paradigm’, and the task of science was slow but steady progress, adding to facts and theories within the paradigm, and those moments when a scientific ‘revolution’ took place, and the old paradigm is replaced by a new one. The driver in this was anomalies, either in terms of empirical data or in theories. These anomalies creating puzzles over things that didn’t fit, that are accepted for a while until a new framework is developed which scoops up all these anomalies and provides a better, more encompassing overall framework. The famous example was that of the Copernican Revolution, which pushed aside the former, complex and increasingly fanciful theories and models underlying the Ptolemaic System, and replaced with a new, simpler, more powerful and complete model to explain planetary movements.
In my days pursuing science, Kuhn was as influential in my thinking as Popper. Whatever I thought, the pair managed to entrance and scandalise many scientists. To argue that scientific theories couldn’t be proved, or to suggest that science worked with a set of overarching paradigms, these were radical ideas. Look for evidence to disprove a theory, look for anomalies in the explanatory framework, it all made good sense to me. Nor were the two arguments incompatible: anomalies were disproofs, falsification was the same as identifying data and predictions that didn’t fit. Great thinkers stepped outside of the framework, and ‘rethought’.
If that input into my conceptual framework was well embedded by the time I had finished my undergraduate studies, I had failed to notice that Popper had much more to offer. Looking back, why didn’t I pay attention to his views on historicism in The Open Society and its Enemies? A personal failing, but also an aspect of higher education in the UK. British universities provided a narrow approach to learning, certainly back in the 1960s and 1970s. Study was focussed within a narrow field, and, critically, there were few course and few places that offered what in the US constituted a ‘liberal education’ as part of an undergraduate program.
As I have often commented, I got a rude shock about this when I began tutoring in social anthropology. Brian was one of my earliest students. He had arrived from UC Berkeley, older than I was, and had decided to complete a second degree, in social anthropology, after studying economics. As Edmund Leach had done, I began by suggesting a topic for him to explore, and was ready to identify some articles and a question that might be the basis for his first essay. I picked a conventional area to begin with, and talked about African political systems. Brian looked up. “What about Plato’s theories of government, in The Republic?” I can still remember that first embarrassed moment when I realised I didn’t know about Plato, The Republic, even more so when I listened to the next comments he made. I recovered, and got him to tell me his answer to his question, but there I was, with an excellent degree, horribly ignorant.
When I read more, philosophy, political economy, politics, and history, I started filling in parts of the educational program my school and undergraduate programs had missed. At some point, I found more of the ideas Popper had developed. A key concern was with historicism, the theory that social and cultural phenomena are determined by history, and even that historical events are governed by laws. He was not amused. Rather he argued that historicism is based on unsound beliefs and assumptions concerning the nature of scientific laws and prediction. His view was deceptively simple. Since knowledge is a key factor driving the evolution of human history, and since “no society can predict, scientifically, its own future states of knowledge”, it was clearly the case there can be no predictive science of human history. However, his concern was not just about logic, as the preface to The Poverty of Historicism makes clear. He had seen the belief history develops according to knowable laws was one of the principal assumption underlying totalitarianism. Popper knew about dictatorships.
If The Logic of Scientific Discovery was to attack the views and beliefs of some scientists by emphasising the provision and unprovable status of scientific theories, his much later book, The Open Society and its Enemies was less controversial, offering a detailed and clear defence of democracy. Popper had witnessed various kinds of totalitarianism by the time his book was published in 1945, and seen the effects of communism and fascism. It is strange, and a little unsettling, to be reviewing his comments from 75 years ago, as we see democracy in trouble around the globe, and the USA, never especially democratic, teetering on the edge of a collapse into authoritarian, populist rule.
The Open Society remains true to Popper’s view of the world. He saw his task at to assert values that we should want to live by, such as respect for one another, tolerance and democracy. Central to a liberal agenda was the need to address those philosophies that control, constrain and dictate. In this vein, The Open Society begins with a critique of Plato (the first volume is called The Spell of Plato). He demonstrates how Plato ignored the views of Socrates as he grew older, abandoning a commitment of humanitarian principles, and instead advocated a rigid political system, a stepping stone towards totalitarianism. Popper suggests Plato was a victim of his environment, an aristocrat, living in a world with slavery and rigid social strata, and probably rather excited about a state where philosophers ruled, Plato as the exemplar of philosopher kings! Sadly, whatever the reasons that led to his views, The Republic was an influential treatise.
Popper liked to argue. After praising Plato for his insights, and criticising him for his solutions, The Open Society moves on to more recent writers. One of those he examined was Hegel, mainly because he saw him as another encouraging totalitarianism in the 20th Century. He quoted to another philosopher and ‘friend’ of Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, on Hegel’s influence:
“Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of a whole generation.”
Well, that was clear!
Once a Marxist himself, Karl Marx was another enemy of the open society Popper examined. While he noted that Marx cared about the oppressed, the victims of capitalist economies, he did praise his commentaries on economic, sociological, and historical issues. However, Popper saw Marx as falling into the trap of historicism, and rejected the whole class struggle enterprise as one that would (and did) lead to a totalitarian state.
Did I say it was a little unsettling to be reading Popper in the aftermath of the Trump years? In talking about government, he observed, “power has to be distributed so that not too much is in one hand”. Perhaps even more apposite today was his comment, “Democracy is a great experiment, no-one can foresee the complications”. In fact, The Open Society and The Logic of Scientific Discovery both argue against certainty and the predictive power of theories and expectations: in his own words, “always something will go awry that cannot be anticipated”. That’s tough dictum to live by, but good advice that I pass on to management students. I still keep to that doctrine of falsifiability: don’t accept a theory as true, but rather spend some time to work hard at seeing if it can be disproved. It’s a good approach to counteract inadequate theories. It also helps identify false news and expose lazy thinking. Falsifiability matters.