Colin McGinn on Popper

Colin McGinn is a British-born philosopher now at the Uni of Miami. He has written many books and has some stature as a public intellectual who is capable of debating a wide range of issues. A decade  ago he wrote a long review of a cluster of Popper-related books for the New York Review of Books.

This would have reached a very large pool of people who take ideas seriously, discuss them, use them, and spread them.  What is accepted in this cohort of people would be the conventional wisdom of the educated liberal elite in the US and beyond.

The review contains an  interesting mixture of  praise and misunderstanding.  He wrote that Popper was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, especially due to his admirers outside the profession, such as  Helmut Schmidt of Germany, Medawar and Gombrich.

He noted that his initial philosophical impetus came from the Vienna Circle  and he wrote that Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic  took the ideas of the Circle to  the English-speaking world in 1946. In fact that was the second of many editions, following the first which appeared in 1936. It was also the book that introduced the misleading “Popper Legend” (that Popper was a positivist) to the English-speaking world, a mistake that Ayer did not correct when the book was repeatedly reprinted.

McGinn approved of two central Popperian doctrines: first, that theories are creative products of the human mind, not derived in a mechanical way from observations and , second, that criticism is vitally important in the scientific enterprise. But he claimed that Popper exaggerated those insights and produced a distorted picture of scientific practice.

He insisted that Popper was closer to the positivists than he was prepared to admit.

He defended induction because it is deeply embedded in science and common sense.

He claimed that Popper was himself committed to inductive verification.

He disputed the notion of conjectural knowledge, because “some of science is as solid as the plainest statement of fact, such as that London is the capital of England.”

Etc.  A frustrating piece!


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9 Responses to Colin McGinn on Popper

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    Strange. I had never heard of Colin McGinn until today, and then I independantly stumble upon him here and in the space of an hour.

  2. Rafe says:

    This happens occasionally, it may be sheer coincidence or it may be that the name attracted no attention in the past, then it registers for some reason, like the association with Popper or some other issue of interest, then the name is noticed whenever it appears after that.

  3. Michael Kennedy says:

    McGinn has written a very readable article and is initially quite generous to Popper. His criticisms, or supposed criticisms, need to be taken seriously. At one point he scoffs at the idea of falsification as just one conjecture versus another. Well, I suppose it is. But the first conjecture is a generalization whilst the second is a singular observation. It may as he suggests have to be verified, but this verificatio (so called) is not an inductive inference but an inter-subjective agreement. McgGinn hankers after certainty whereas Popper deplores the quest for certainty. And when McGinn chides Popper for not followimg up on other Humean scepticisms besides induction he seems to forget tgat these are all non-empirical. Even if Popper may favour realism and non-determinis, that does not stop him from being sceptical, albeit it in an optimistic fashion.
    There is a lot more to be said in reply to McGinn, but this will do for a start.

  4. Rafe says:

    Yes, after a promising start he lapses into some of the standard errors, demonstrating how academics can spend a whole career without meeting someone who can provide a straight feed on Popper.

  5. Michael Kennedy says:

    There seem to be somrthing like 20 separate criticisms of Popper in McGinn’s article. Here are two of them:

    1. McGinn complains about Popper’s ‘’wholesale rejection of induction as a type of reasonable inference’’.
    Popper’s so-called ‘‘wholesale’’ objection to induction concerns (a) the proposal that induction is the principal method of science, and (b) that an inference of the form ‘All observed X are Y, therefore all X, always and everywhere, are Y’ is logically invalid. He has written to the effect that inducted generalizations are acceptable provided they are tested. And it must be admitted that generalizations across species are common in biology. But it is difficult to see how causal explanations or conditional theories can be obtained through induction. And when NcGinn claims that induction can be ‘‘reasonable’’ he can hardly pretend that it is logical. although he could say that it is ‘‘natural’’. For it is perfectly natural in many situations to assume that the future will be like the past. This kind of assumption is part of what Popper calls our ‘horizon of expectations’. But it is not induction. We assume, for example, that the floor will still be there when we det out of bed, and that the cornflakes will be where we left them. But these assumptions, however natural o ‘reasonable; are not inductions. They are often unconscious, and they do not involve an enumeration of all our previous experiences. One would expect an inductivist to at least know what induction is.

    2. McGinn claims that Popper is ‘‘committed to ‘‘inductive verification’’

    This astonishing assertion raises the question of what is meant by “inductive verification”, given that inductive inference is logically invalid and unable to ensure verity. McGinn appears to be using ‘”inductive’ here as a rhetorical synonym for empirical, so that all that is implied is that Popper needs (is committed to?) verification of singular test statements. To use McGinn’s example it is a matter of checking the blackness of swans. And as s for repeated experiments, they are attempted falsifications of (a) the theory, and (b) the previous test. Verification is a matter of assent – inter-subjective agreement – and has nothing whatever to do with induction.

  6. Rafe says:

    Many times over the years on different groups I have listed four, or five or six forms of induction that are regularly cited in criticism of Popper. We can readily accept that most of those kinds of “induction” happen, like the induction that the floor will not collapse under our feet in the morning. This is based on an assumption that the building is sound but of course somewhere in the world every day the floor collapses under some person’s feet for a variety of reasons, rot, termite damage, earthquake, overloaded and unsafe building etc. Similarly we assume that our plane will not crash, our luggage will be there to collect from the carousel etc etc.

    The kind of induction that Popper implacably opposed was the LOGIC of inductive probability: that in lieu of the aim of complete certainty (verification) there is a way to attach some measure of a degree of certainty, credibility, or whatever term you want to use.

    All the other kinds of “induction” that are supposed to be involved in observation, forming conjectures, the existence of regularities in the universe etc have no logic about them. If people want to use the term induction in connection with these things I suppose it does not really matter unless they think they are refuting Popper’s views on inductive logic.

  7. Michael Kennedy says:

    Hello Rafe
    Yes, I would say that Popper attacked two kinds of induction. The first was the Humean induction of ‘constant conjunctions’ leading (invalidly) to a generalization or presumed universal law. This one started with observations. The second one was probabilistic confirmation which started with a theory or hypothesis – derived in various ways – and to which a probability is attached which is related to its degree of confirmation. Popper’s best argument against this one is at the end of Chapter 2 of ‘Objective Knowledge’ where he
    points out that if you want to attach probabilities to well confirmed hypotheses you must give them probabilities of more than 0.5. So if you have two mutually inconsistent theories which are well confirmed, and then ask what is the probability of EITHER one OR the other the answer must be greater than one – which is absurd. He is applying the same rule as when throwing a die we ask what is the probability of EITHER a 2 OR a 3 – the answer is additive: 1/6 plus 1/6. So whatever is meant by probability applied to confirmation it is not the probability of the standard calculus. It is a subjective degree pf belief and varies from person to person.

    My reading of McGinn suggests that his version of induction was Humean and he even states that the problem here is one of finding a new non-question-begging premise which will validate induction. Popper has pointed out that such a premise would itself have to be established as true, and this would be impossible. But I guess that this is how many philosophers see the problem of induction, and so declare that the problem has never been solved. Popper’s problem of induction is one of reconciling the invalidity of induction with the authority of experience, and this of course is done by proposing hypotheses and testing them against experience and experiment.

  8. Rafe says:

    Thanks Michael,

    This situation calls for what Bartley called “a check on the problem”. What is the background to the situation where the positivists (a) see a problem of induction and (b) demand a particular kind of solution, which appears to be unobtainable (c) press on with that program anyway, despite (d) science does just fine without it?

    The idea of the check on the problem came from re-reading a paper that Ian Jarvie wrote for a Bartley memorial volume that did not happen. It is on Ian’s website and I have permission to include it in a collection of my papers on Bartley.

    Later today (or this week) I will do a post on Ian’s website and some of the important papers there. This is a worry, I just checked my page of CR resources and I can’t see Ian’s site, dreadful, will have to fix this week.

    In the meantime

    That was interesting, I had to get on line as a moderator and approve my own comment:) I guess its ok.

  9. Colin McGinn is overrated as a philosopher. He lacks the strength of character to properly engage with Popper’s work. I suspect he would be one of the early deaths if civilization were to collapse. In his autobiography he boasts that when he was a poor student, unable to pay the electric bill, to keep warm he and his friends wore a coat at all the times. A philosopher with any gumption would make a fire! I know this is ad hominem, but pardon my irritation with this man. He is a superficial careerist who knows how to go along with the in crowd.

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