The Myth of the Framework

The Myth of the Framework is an essay Popper wrote that was published in the book of the same title. The point of the essay is that relativists tend to set excessively high standards for making progress. I would add that this is not just a problem for relativists: it is is a very widespread and extremely damaging obstacle to intellectual and moral progress. The idea that some people are not worth debating is particularly damaging.

First I’ll briefly describe the content of the essay. Everybody should read it. I’d recommend reading it before you see my summary. Relativists tend to say that people need to agree on a lot of stuff to make progress. If people don’t agree with one another a lot they will just talk past one another. If two people are close to agreeing, they may find it pleasant to talk to one another. They might even come to agree so much on the matter they are debating that they can’t find any difference of opinion. However, most of the time that doesn’t happen. People have a discussion and leave the discussion without convincing one another. However, when a good discussion winds up the participants are left wanting to re-examine their ideas and at a minimum they will want to find better ways to put their ideas across. This is progress. The people in that debate will have found that some tactics don’t work for persuading people. Sometimes a person might feel a bit bad about something he said in a debate and take steps avoid it in future. Sometimes a person will get angry and write something he shouldn’t have written and then he should look at why he got angry and try to avoid it in the future. or he might have made an argument from authority: you haven’t done X and I have, so you can’t improve my knowledge of X. This is such a bad argument: it’s authoritarian and inductivist. Popper also points out that requiring people to agree on terminology before starting a discussion is a bad idea. Languages contain knowledge about how the world works. For example, our current number system is better than the Roman number system because multiplication is a lot easier and so on. So if you require people to agree on terminology, you’re requiring that they agree on substantive matters where they might have a real disagreement.

Now some commentary: many people have very high standards for what counts as agreement when trying to decide how to cooperate with somebody. Suppose, for whatever reason, that Bill wants to cooperate with Bob on watching a film together. At first, Bob wants to go out to the cinema, but Bill is depressed and doesn’t want to go outside. They might decide that it’s better to stay in and watch a DVD. They might have different reasons for wanting to stay in. For example, Bob might not have seen the DVD film, but he’s heard it’s really good and he wants to watch it, and besides, cinema popcorn is ridiculously expensive. Bob doesn’t have to agree that being depressed is a good reason not to go outside. All that has to happen for them to cooperate on watching the film is that they agree that watching the DVD is better than going to the cinema. If you have higher standards for solving a problem than that, many problems will begin to look far more intractable than they are.

Now of course, there are occasions on which you might want to do X with somebody but disagree with why they want to do X. You might want to have a debate about the reason for X later, but you don’t have to have that debate to do X, or to agree that X is right. One context in which this arises is the following: suppose you’re having a debate with somebody and he pulls some really crappy debating tactic, like an ad hominem argument. Now you should say ‘that ad hominem argument is bad’ and explain why. You shouldn’t refuse to debate with somebody jut because they use ad hominem, for all you know nobody has bothered to explain why it’s bad.

There are some people who see the point of argument solely as winning points and are willing to play dirty to do it. You might decide not to debate with a person like that because you don’t know how to get them to debate honestly. But that’s not because progress is impossible in that instance, it’s just because you don’t know how to make progress in that instance. If you could change that person’s mind about the point of debating and get him to argue honestly that would be worth doing. So it’s not the case that the person isn’t worth debating, it’s just that you don’t want to do it because you don’t know how to get something good out of the debate.

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30 Responses to The Myth of the Framework

  1. Rafe says:

    One of the essential first steps is to get over the personal obsession with winning arguments. So X and Y just have to agree on watching the DVD instead of getting into an argument about whether it is a very good film or why it is silly to be concerned about the cost of popcorn.

  2. Elliot says:

    > The point of the essay is that relativists tend to set excessively high standards for making progress.

    What? The essay says you don’t have to share a framework to learn from each other.

  3. Alan Forrester says:

    Karl Popper, ‘The Myth of the Framework’, p. 33:

    “In this paper I discuss the problem of relativism. It is my claim that behind it lies what I call ‘The Myth of the Framework’.”

  4. Nate O says:


    Forgive me if I make a significant mistake — I haven’t had my morning coffee; however, I think this brings up a conversation Elliot and I had some time ago: there might be some tension between Popper’s criticism of the myth of the frameworks and his refusal to address people that will resort to violence in order to solve their problems.

    Some frameworks may have insulating structures that prevent even the beginnings of a critical discussion (the Nazi that said to Popper “I don’t talk; I shoot!” immediately comes to mind). Some people may employ nonviolent, but just as effective, methods of cutting off or severing debate, either before it has begun, or whenever it reaches a point that a criticism is brought up against some deeply-held belief (threatening to strike someone, running away, hands over the ears.

    My question: is the willingness to listen to others a requirement? Must both individuals come to the conversation with open (but critical!) ears?

  5. Elliot says:


    Yes. But bear in mind that sometimes people act hostile or say they are closed minded, but in fact are partly open minded — the relevant issue is their internal mental processes.

    “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth.” (OSE v2 p238)

    If one doesn’t make an effort (which in general requires willingness to make an effort), then in general one doesn’t learn.

    I don’t know what you mean about Popper’s “refusal to address”. He did address the issue of violence.

  6. Elliot says:


    Which page is the “excessively high standards” bit on?

    Relativism gets little attention in the essay. It’s focussed on the myth. Don’t you agree?

    I think you are using your quote to argue that relativism is behind the myth and so any essay about the myth is about relativism too, so we’re both right about what the essay is about. But you didn’t write any explanation so I’m not really sure. Was that your intent?

  7. Nate O says:


    Ah, forgive me: still haven’t had coffee. By “refusal to address” I meant Popper’s ‘commitment’ to nonviolence (one thing set him apart from Bartley; I’m thinking of Artigas’ “Ethical Roots of Karl Popper’s Epistemology”) on condition that he was in a critical dialogue with others that were also committed to nonviolence.

    It’s my understanding of Popper, although I could be wrong, that he wasn’t willing to engage in a critical discussion with people who were willing to resort to solving problems through violence.

  8. Nate O says:

    Oops. I meant ‘Elliot’ when I said ‘Alan’.

  9. Elliot says:


    I’m not sure what your point, criticism, or disagreement is.

  10. Nate O says:


    You said “I don’t know what you mean about Popper’s ‘refusal to address’ He did address the issue of violence.”

    It was my attempt at clarification of my language: Popper addressed the problem of violence; Popper wasn’t interested in addressing violent people.

  11. Elliot says:

    Is it bad not to attend a gun fight? Sounds dangerous.

    Certainly violent people were welcome to read Popper’s books. What’s the problem?

  12. Nate O says:


    (1) Violent people are more than welcome to read what they wish; we’re addressing the conditions necessary for a critical discussion.

    (2) I think ethical problems are primary and epistemological problems are secondary, especially within a social context. Here’s a nice paper that reflects why I think this is the case.

  13. Elliot says:

    I still don’t know what you’re getting at. Are you saying that

    1) Popper wouldn’t exchange emails with a violent person who was interested in discussing


    2) He should

    If so, I reply that I doubt (1) is the case, but also whether he would or should depends on what sort of violent person.

    I don’t know how your ethical vs epistemological comment ties into the discussion. I can’t say I agree with it because, as I see it, most of what we know about ethics is from epistemology (e.g. it’s immoral to live in a way that won’t learn better if it’s mistaken).

    I’ll take a look at that paper later.

  14. Nate O says:


    Thank goodness for the invention of the Internet, since it provides a buffer between individuals who might resort to violence when provoked!

    However, as it’s happened in the past, if someone that intends to do harm invests enough time and energy, they can find all sorts of information about people they disagree with on the internet.

    I think bringing up ethics is important (now and in our previous conversation), for while we may not require an agreement on epistemological points in order to have a productive discussion, presently I think we do require some kind of attitude in order to proceed.

    In other words, one week I’m a critical rationalist and the next I’m a comprehensively critical rationalist. 😉

  15. Elliot says:

    OK. So you, Popper, and me are agreed that people do not learn unless they make an effort (not necessarily consciously or intentionally). They need some kind of attitude of trying to learn. Is that it? I agreed to that earlier in this conversation too and I’m not sure what the purpose of your comments now is.

  16. Nate O says:


    Your statements in this comment section (apparently) contradict statements in our last conversation to the effect that knowledge was sufficient for change. I might be misunderstanding of the thrust of your previous comments. Just clarifying.

    Oh, and I hope you enjoy the paper when you get around to reading it. It provides a very interesting interpretation of Popper.

  17. Elliot says:

    Knowledge is sufficient for change, both b/c:

    1) If you have appropriate knowledge you will have an appropriate attitude

    2) If I have appropriate knowledge, I can use it to persuade you of a better attitude. Even if you don’t want to learn about X now, I can take advantage of your interest in something else and persuade you by going through a chain of issues to relate your interests to X.

    While (2) is always *possible*, it is often hard in practice (b/c I *don’t know* how to do it quickly and efficiently), and I may well be better off engaging with better and more appreciative people instead of trying to create the knowledge to help you. It’s not my responsibility to help people who aren’t interested and make things difficult, but that’s a different issue than whether it would be possible if I knew enough.

    It’s also important to note, in the context of problem solving, that there is a presumption in the concept of a “problem” that we want to solve it. If I don’t want to change something then that means I don’t regard it as a problem.

    So if I say something like, “I can solve my problems, with sufficient knowledge” there are no difficulties in that statement about whether I’ll be willing or not. (There are still various possible issues like finding it painful to think about a subject even though I would be willing without the pain. That lends itself to solving the pain first, by knowledge, then the issue, by knowledge.)

  18. Nate O says:


    There may be some minor issues with it, but I’m still trying to work it out. I might be mistaken, though. Thanks for the succinct clarification!

  19. Nate O says:


    One issue, I think, might be with your characterization of ‘knowledge’. Would this be (1) states of subjective belief, as traditionally understood, or (2) Popper’s objective knowledge? If it’s the first, then I think your argument stands, but it’s rather empty.

    If we entertain certain beliefs in World 2 (I know the sentence “the cat in on the mat” is true), we will act on them (I will behave as if there is a cat on the mat). Rather uninformative. However, if it’s the second, then there is a problem: objective knowledge resides in World 3; it’s never believed in.

    I think you need to make this distinction clearer. Not to say that your argument is wrong, only that I think it muddies the waters.

  20. Elliot says:

    Knowledge is Popper’s objective knowledge, not JTB or any kind of belief.

    I don’t see the problem. I talked about having knowledge not believing knowledge.

  21. Nate O says:

    Thanks for clarifying again.

    If we’re not talking about World 2 subjective states but World 3 theories (both scientific and behavioral; by that I mean how best to argue against an individual in a specific social situation), then I don’t see how the statement “If you have appropriate knowledge [World 3] you will have an appropriate attitude [World 2 dispositions]” is true.

    That is, unless we extend World 3 knowledge to apply to our own World 2 attitudes.

  22. Elliot says:

    Because morality is objective, if you understand enough you will choose true attitudes (and with enough knowledge, you will know how to change your psychology, ways of thinking, interests, preferences, etc).

  23. Alan Forrester says:


    “I think you are using your quote to argue that relativism is behind the myth and so any essay about the myth is about relativism too, so we’re both right about what the essay is about. But you didn’t write any explanation so I’m not really sure. Was that your intent?”


    “Which page is the “excessively high standards” bit on?”

    On p. 33, Popper writes: “The proponents of relativism put before us standards that are unrealistically high.”

    “Relativism gets little attention in the essay. It’s focussed on the myth. Don’t you agree?”

    Relativism seems to get quite a lot of attention. In Section I, he states that he’s writing the essay to counter relativism. Sections VIII – XIV are about relativism explicitly, which take up 15 pages out of about 29 pages, together with Section I that’s 16 out of 29 pages where relativism is explicitly discussed. The myth is discussed mainly as a counter to relativism, although it has implications beyond that.

  24. Nate O says:


    “Because morality is objective …”

    This is quite controversial on its own.

    ” …if you understand enough you will choose true attitudes …”

    This is especially controversial for Popperians. Are you using some kind of externalist theory of justification here?

  25. Elliot says:

    Most of what I post is controversial. Who cares? That does not stop it from being true.

    I don’t see anything particularly controversial for Popperians to accept that if you know a moral truth (e.g. that one *should* have a particular attitude) that you will (attempt to) live by it.

    I am not (intentionally) using any sort of justification.

  26. Nate O says:


    I don’t mind if you’re being controversial. That said, ” …if you understand enough you will choose true attitudes …” appears to be a justificationist stance. If you understand enough you might choose true attitudes, but you might not. The same could be said about picking attitudes at random.

    The link, as I see it, between understanding and the truth is squarely within the externalist camp: while we may not have any sort of known justifications for preferring some theories over others, nevertheless they are true theories.


    By ‘controversial’ I meant that on its own it’s a very contentious issue with all sorts of nuance, different meanings, etc. Care to tell me why you think morality is objective? You could also send me a link to something you’ve written previously, or a link to a paper by someone that’s written on the subject if you don’t want to repeat yourself.

  27. Elliot says:

    If you understand enough about X, and X is true, why wouldn’t you choose X? I don’t see any “might” here; why might you not choose X?

    Morality is a big topic. But Popper thought it was objective (The World of Parmenides addendum 2 to ch 2). Is that not enough for you? All my other statements rest on Popper being right about various things too. And morality being objective is closely related to realism, to epistemology being objective, to the possibility of learning anything at all about morality, and other Popperian ideas. It’s hard to accept much of Popper but reject it.

  28. Elliot says:

    I read the first 8 sections so far. One thing I’m not seeing is a clear thesis. Could you clarify the intended take-away of the essay? If there is one.

    A few comments:

    > Zanotti holds that Popper is right in epistemology. He adds that Popper’s epistemology requires some kind of foundation

    But Popper’s epistemology says we do not need and cannot have foundations. So to believe we need a foundation is to hold Popper is *wrong* in epistemology, not right.

    > According to the vast majority of authors, Zanotti included, Popper’s central epistemological thesis can be labeled as “conjecturalism” as he concludes that all scientific knowledge is conjectural.

    All knowledge, not just all scientific knowledge.

    The essay says something like “ethical factors are more important to Popper’s epistemology than logical ones”. I don’t really see the point of categorizing and deciding which category is more important. Both have a role to play. I also didn’t agree with his categorization of various epistemological ideas as ethical which he did not argue for — though I wouldn’t mind to accept they are both epistemological and ethical and move on. Epistemology and morality have deep connections and the important thing is to understand them not to figure out what to call them.

    I don’t see the purpose or truth of the pro-certainty comments in section 5. There are vague statements about how there’s different kinds of certainty but there is no clear statement of what he means and why it’s true.

    This Popper quote is great and makes pretty clear that Popper thought that morality is objective: “The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles; while in fact the search of truth presupposes ethics”. (Popper means presupposes objective ethics, and Popper does think we can search for objective truth. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.)

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