This is a new chapter in the Guide to The Open Society to cover the 1962 addendum on Facts, Standards and Truth: A Further Critique of Relativism
This essay is the result of intensive discussion with William W. Bartley following Bartley’s efforts to improve on the “critical rationalism” of Chapter 24 which he thought allowed too much to the element of “faith” in reason. Bartley’s inspiration for this project was Popper’s lecture “On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance” which he heard when Popper read it to the British Academy in 1960. It was published as the Introduction to Conjectures and Refutations.
Popper considered that the main philosophical malady at the time was intellectual and moral relativism or scepticism in its corrosive form (as opposed to the “critical rationalist” form of scepticism which is simple willingness to subject all ideas to criticism). He defined relativism as
(a) the claim that the choice between competing theories is arbitrary, because
(b) either there is no such thing as objective truth, or
(c) even if there is, there is no way to make a rational choice between rival theories.
Popper thought that these objections could be overcome with the help of Tarski’s theory of truth and his own non-authoritarian theory of knowledge. He briefly explained how Tarski retrieved the theory of truth as a regulative principle, not a terminus of inquiry based on a criterion of truth.
The problem of criteria and sources of knowledge
He argued that we do not need a criterion of truth, or the meaning of a word, in order to conduct our investigations and our arguments and he noted the insoluble problems that arise from the assumption that there is (or should be) a criterion of truth( in the final or foundational sense). He explained the importance of fallibillism in the quest for knowledge, the idea of getting nearer the truth and the importance of a particular form of absolutism, that is, the idea of absolute error or falsehood.
He returned to the issue of sources of knowledge to emphasise that there are several sources (starting with tradition, the state of knowledge that we first encounter) but none can be regarded as an authority. The critical approach to tradition and all forms of knowledge creates the problem of decisions that are required about the best or the most appropriate theory or policy proposal. The point is to maintain a tentative attitude towards decisions.
This line of thought applies to social and political problems. Popper considered that the intellectual climate at the time was corrupted by widespread relativism and nihilism, possibly related to the decline of authoritarian religion. He considered that the position adopted by many intellectuals was based on very poor reasoning, suggesting that they did not so much reject reason as much as they failed to use reason effectively. He was confident that the non-authoritarian theory of knowledge and critical rationalism provided an antidote to their condition, even if it might appear at first sight too abstract and sophisticated to replace religion.
“that may be true . But we must not underrate the power of the intellect and the intellectuals. It was the intellectuals – the second-hand dealers in ideas as Hayek calls them – who spread relativism, nihilism and intellectual despair. There is no reason why some intellectuals should not eventually succeed in spreading the good news that the nihilistic ado was indeed about nothing.”
Propositions and proposals
He touched on the point made in the chapter on moral standards (“Nature and Convention”) to refer to the dualism of facts and decisions as a dualism of propositions and standards or proposals. The reason for the change was to remind us that both propositions and proposals are open to rational discussion. At the same time an important difference remains:
“For the proposal to adopt a policy or standard, its discussion, and the decision to adopt it, may be said to create this policy or standard [such as a set of traffic rules]. On the other hand, the proposal of a hypothesis, its discussion, and the decision to adopt it [as a tentative critical preference] does not, in the same sense, create a fact.”
That means that there is a decisive asymmetry between standards and facts and another asymmetry is that standards pertain to facts and facts are evaluated by standards; and these relation cannot be turned around.
“Whenever we are faced with a fact – and more especially, with a fact which we may be able to change – we can ask whether or not it complies with certain standards. It is important to realize that this is very far from being the same as asking whether we like it…Moreover, our likes and dislikes are facts which can be evaluated like any other facts”.
Powerful likes and dislikes for people, sporting teams, political parties and policies can persist for a long time after the original motive has been forgotten and the like or dislike has ceased to have any rhyme or reason.
Experience and Intuition as Sources of Knowledge
This is closely related to the issue of criteria and authorities for knowledge and moral insights. We can appeal to experimental and observational evidence in discussion of theories and proposals but the data of experience are theory-based and do not provide any kind of foundation for beliefs. Evidence that supports well-tested theories may very well appear to be compelling and indeed much of our knowledge can be (indeed has to be) regarded as unproblematic for the time being. Popper compared the situation in knowledge about moral and ethical standards where people have sought some basis that might be as sound and compelling as empirical evidence in science.
“Philosophers have looked for the authoritative sources of this knowledge, and they found in the main two: (1) feelings of pleasure and pain, or a moral sense or a moral intuition for what is right or wrong (analogous to perception in the epistemology of factual knowledge) or (2) a source called ‘practical reason’ (analogous to ‘pure reason’, or to a faculty of ‘intellectual intuition’ in the epistemology of factual knowledge). And quarrels continually raged over the question whether all, or only some, of these authoritative sources of moral knowledge existed”.
Popper denied that there are moral authorities, any more than scientific authorities, and he denied that we need any such definite frame of reference for our critical deliberations on moral and ethical issues.
On the question of how we learn about standards? First by imitation, usually learning that they are fixed or given, then my a more deliberate process of trial and error as we try to learn from mistakes in our actions and our policies. Of course we have something like an intuition of right and wrong and there is a philosophical school of “intuitionism” which teaches that we have a faculty of intuition which enables us to see the truth.
“Anti-intuitionists have usually denied the existence of this source of knowledge while asserting, as a rule the existence of some other source such as sense perception. My view is that both parties are mistaken, for two reasons. First, I assert that there exists something like an intellectual intuition wyich makes us feel, most convincingly, that we see the truth (a point denied by the opponents of intuitionism). Secondly, I assert that this intellectual intuition, though in a way indispensable, often leads us astray in the most dangerous manner”.
Of course the answer is to adopt a tentative view on standards and scientific theories, and to be prepared to reconsider them in the light of problems and objections.
Finally Popper addressed the objection that his views, at the end of the day are still relativist or subjectivist because they do not establish any absolute moral standards. To which Popper replied that for practical purposes it would not help to have some absolute standard to support our own position because opponents could simply refuse to accept out absolute standard in favour of their own.
“Only one who is prepared to take these things seriously and to learn about them will be impressed by ethical (or any other) arguments. You cannot force anybody by arguments to take arguments seriously, or to respect his own reason”.