In “Popper, Otto Selz and the Rise of Evolutionary Epistemology” by Michel ter Hark argues that many of Popper’s ideas about evolutionary epistemology were inspired by the writings of the psychologist Otto Selz. Far from being a later add on evolutionary epistemology was important in Popper’s philosophy from the start. Also, despite Popper’s claims that he came up with some of his ideas as early as 1919, he was still an inductivist as late as 1928. Who is Otto Selz? I hear you cry. He was a psychologist who proposed not only that people and animals decide what to do by trying out ideas and rejecting them if they don’t work out, but also said that science works that way. Popper’s contribution was to use these ideas to come up with a new epistemology. Michel ter Hark explains all this much better than I just did with lots of quotes and historical context, and if you want to know about it you should read the book.
A quick critical comment: on p. 152, ter Hark argues that Popper’s epistemology rests on his psychology rather than the other way around. I am not convinced that this is true, for if all I had was the theory that people do in fact create knowledge through conjectures and criticism, I could still say “but really they ought to create knowledge by induction.” But if I have a logical argument to the effect that this is impossible I can no longer make that argument. So it seems to me that having good psychology is dependent on having good epistemology rather than the other way around.
Something good about the book: Chapter 6 prompted me to have another look at “The Self and Its Brain” (co-written with neuroscientist John Eccles) in which Popper allegedly endorsed Cartesian dualism according to philosophical legend. Actually, his position is a lot less clear than that, not least because he states at the start of the book that he is not offering an ontology, and also because in Section 48 he explicitly trashes Descartes’ theory of mind. Popper sometimes endorses a dualist position as when he critically discusses Ryle’s book “The Concept of Mind”, saying that if Ryle disagrees with the two worlds theory (the physical and mental worlds) presumably the three worlds theory is even worse, but he is not a Cartesian dualist. (Popper’s three worlds are the physical world, the world of mental states and the world of objective knowledge.) As ter Hark points out, the question of the merits and problems of Popper’s philosophy of mind should be re-examined.
“Popper, Otto Selz and the Rise of Evolutionary Epistemology” by Michel ter Hark is historically interesting and philosophically provocative.