This is the text of a long paper that Ian Jarvie drafted for a memorial volume of papers for Bill Bartley who died in 1990, aged only 55. The plan did not proceed. Too many people like myself put together drafts but did not complete them.
The paper focusses on the problem-orientation of the Popper school, with special reference to Bartley and others such as Joe Agassi and a historian of ideas called Popkin (no relation!).The emphasis on problems had an interesting result for young Alan Chalmers when he first arrived at Sydney University. Alan was a fringe Popperian and he picked up the idea that the most important thing was to find out what a scholar was working on. So when he met academic colleagues in the pub or at a party he would say, “What is your problem?”. That did not usually elicit the response that he was looking for, so he had to adopt a more tactful approach.
Problemstellung is a central though as yet underdeveloped topic within the Popperian approach to philosophy, and one about which Bartley and I wholly agreed, an agreement shared with a small and select group, most of them Popperians. What we shared was an outlook that those of us close to Popper learned from the horse’s mouth when the horse had not written very much about it. The outlook centred on the idea that rational inquiry began from, and ended with, one’s being possessed by interesting problems. Popper trained us by example to develop a nose for problems, one able to distinguish between genuine ones and pseudo-ones, between interesting ones and trivial ones, discriminations which turned on a sensitivity to history, to the logic of debate, to the implications of ideas, in sum, to what we called the problem-situation.
Talk of and concern with ‘problems’ was central to the Popperian school and distinguished its members sharply from other philosophers. Of course, the notion of ‘problems’ is widely bandied about by other philosophers in a manner that fails to distinguish problems from questions and both from contradictions and almost never refers to any rational criteria for importance or ranking. Russell’s admirable The Problems of Philosophy, for example, addresses a question (viz. “Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?”) and does not map this to a problem, and ranks questions as worthy of discussion solely by whether he “thought it possible to say something positive and constructive”. Not only the role but also the nature of problems were conceived of differently by Popperians.