Karl Popper on Kant and a priori ideas

The problem ‘Which comes first, the hypothesis (H) or the observation (O),’ is soluble; as in the problem, ‘Which comes first, the hen (H) or the egg (O)’. The reply to the latter is, ‘An earlier kind of egg’; to the former, ‘An earlier kind of hypothesis’. It is quite true that any particular hypothesis we choose will have been preceded by observations — the observations, for example, which it is designed to explain. But these observations, in their turn, presupposed the adoption of a frame of reference: a frame of expectations: a frame of theories. If they were significant, if they created a need for explanation and thus gave rise to the invention of a hypothesis, it was because they could not be explained within the old theoretical framework, the old horizon of expectations. There is no danger here of an infinite regress. Going back to more and more primitive theories and myths we shall in the end find unconscious, inborn expectations.

The theory of inborn ideas is absurd, I think; but every organism has inborn reactions or responses; and among them, responses adapted to impending events. These responses we may describe as ‘expectations’ without implying that these ‘expectations’ are conscious. The new-born baby ‘expects’, in this sense, to be fed (and, one could even argue, to be protected and loved). In view of the close relation between expectation and knowledge we may even speak in quite a reasonable sense of (‘inborn knowledge’. This ‘knowledge’ is not, however, valid a priori; an inborn expectation, no matter how strong and specific, may be mistaken. The newborn child may be abandoned, and starve.)

Thus we are born with expectations; with ‘knowledge’ which, although not valid a priori, is psychologically or genetically a priori, i.e. prior to all observational experience. One of the most important of these expectations is the expectation of finding a regularity. It is connected with an inborn propensity to look out for regularities, or with a need to find regularities, as we may see from the pleasure of the child who satisfied this need.

This ‘instinctive’ expectation of finding regularities, which is psychologically a priori, corresponds very closely to the ‘law of causality’ which Kant believed to be part of our mental outfit and to be a priori valid. One might thus be inclined to say that Kant failed to distinguish between psychologically a priori ways of thinking or responding and a priori valid beliefs. But I do not think that his mistake was quite as crude as that. For the expectation of finding regularities is not only psychologically a prior, but also logically a priori: it is logically prior to all observation experience, for it is prior to any recognition of similarities, as we have seen; and all observation involves the recognition of similarities (or dissimilarities). But in spite of being logically a priori in this sense the expectation is not valid a priori. For it may fail: we can easily construct an environment (it would be a lethal one) which, compared with our ordinary environment, is so chaotic that we completely fail to find regularities . . . .

Thus Kant’s reply to Hume came near to being right; for the distinction between an a priori valid expectation and one which is both genetically and logically prior to observation, but not a priori valid, is really somewhat subtle. But Kant proved too much. In trying to show how knowledge is possible, he proposed a theory which had the unavoidable consequence that our quest for knowledge must necessarily succeed, which is clearly mistaken. When Kant said "Our intellect does not draw its laws from nature but imposes its laws upon nature", he was right. But in thinking that these laws are necessarily true, or that we necessarily succeed in imposing them upon nature, he was wrong. Nature very often resists quite successfully, forcing us to discard our laws as refuted; but if we live we may try again.

Kant believed that Newton’s dynamics was a priori valid (See his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, published between the first and the second editions of the Critique of Pure Reason.) But if, as he thought, we can explain the validity of Newton’s theory by the fact that our intellect imposes its laws upon nature, it follows, I think, that our intellect must succeed in this; which makes it hard to understand why a priori knowledge such as Newton’s should be so hard to come by.

From, Conjectures and Refutations, pages 47-48

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My full name is Matt Dioguardi. I have been interested in critical rationalism for about 10 years. I am the administrator of this blog, if you have an questions or problems please let me know.
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2 Responses to Karl Popper on Kant and a priori ideas

  1. I have derived a lot from reading Popper.
    Malachi Hacohen’s intellectual biography was the last serious effort I made to grapple with KP thinking. I read it in 2010.
    I never quite bottom out Popper’s interpretation of Kant. In Conjectures and Refutations”, Popper claims that Kant’s a priori deductions (I think primarily of Kant’s transcendental deduction of the categories) derived a “mental outfit” which “contrary to [Kant’s] intentions” could not fail to make Newton’s discovery. Popper proposes that then the problem (for Kant) would be how it was that Newton’s discovery was not made sooner. Popper uses the fact of the coming into being of Einstein’s physical theory, showing Newton’s theory to be not true knowledge, as a basis for arguing that true knowledge is not attainable.
    Popper’s assessment of Kant, in particular his portrayal of Kant’s work as primarily an attempt to answer the question “How is natural science possible?”, is disputed. What us your view of Popper’s account. Do you believe Popper is right to identify the circularity in Kant’s transcendental deduction alluded to in Conjectures and Refutations?

  2. Pingback: Why does Popper think there are no a priori synthetic statements? | CL-UAT

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