The debacle of philosophy in the 20th century

Can philosophy progress, or is there an eternal  dialogue on fundamentals that just keeps the issues in play without resolving any of them and moving on, like the successful natural sciences?  Unlike the progress of science,  there are signs of decline in philosophy judging from some of the schools of thought that achieved great prestige in the 20th century.

This situation could be seen as a comedy or a farce, but it should be seen as a tragedy because ideas have consequences and bad ideas are likely to have bad consequences. Some examples are Heidegger’s phenomenology, Sartre’s existentialism, Wittgenstein in both his early and later stages and the logical positivists/empiricists

On the bright side

Of course there are alternatives to the bad philosophers and a some  good philosophy may be done by people who have a notional allegiance to some of the defective movements such as “linguistic philosophy” inspired by Wittgenstein in his second phase.

Phillip Kitcher is reviving the science and practice-oriented philosophy of the pragmatists (Peirce and Dewey) and there are the critical rationalists.

I have taken out most of the post because I want to use some of it for a magazine. It will be substantially different but there is some overlap and I don’t want to prejudice their policy of publishing original work.

Posted in epistemology | 1 Comment

Topics and themes

Planning a paper version of  Reason and Imagination  I have made some minor improvements and Bruce made a major suggestion, to have a new Introduction to spell out the six themes that I have used to introduce the guides and Misreading Popper.

This reminds me of some wise words from C Wright Mills on the treatment of themes and topics in writing a book. He talked about  themes and topics (a distinction which he attributed to a great editor, Lambert Davis).  A topic is a subject which might be treated in a chapter of the book. The order of chapters brings up the issue of themes.

“A theme is an idea, usually of some signal trend, some master conception, or a key distinction, like rationality and reason, for example. In working out the construction of a book, when you come to realise the two or three, or as the case may be, the six or seven themes, then you will know that you are on top of the job. ”

These themes will keep turning up in connection with the different topics, they may appear to be repetitious, they may at first be confused and poorly formulated.

“What you must do is sort them out and state them in a general way as clearly and briefly as you can…cross classify them with the full range of the topics…At some point all the themes should appear together, in relation to one another…maybe at the beginning of the book, certainly near the end…It is easier to write about this than to do it, for it is usully not so mechanical a matter as it may appear…Sometimes you may find that a book does not really have any themes. It is just a string of topics, surrounded of course by methodological introductions to methodolgy, and theoretical introductions to theory. These are indeed quite indispensable to the writing of books by men without ideas. And so is lack of intelligibility”.

So in addition to the introduction to the six themes (1) conjectural knowledge, (2) objective knowledge, (3) no obsession with terms,  (4) the social turn (‘rules of the game’), (5) revival of metaphysics and (6)  significance of evolution I will need to look at each paper to see if it will help to identify how one or more of the themes occur in that chapter.

Or maybe the Introduction can flag the way the themes are related to particular topics in each chapter.


Posted in epistemology | Leave a comment

Papineau on Popper

A student who is studying Popper in London  sent this paper by David Papineau for comment.

His immediate task is to write a paper on induction so I will not dwell on other matters except to suggest that Popper deserves some credit for writing one of the great books of political philosophy in the 20th century and also his “three world” theory is exciting and fertile.

It will help to get clear about the several things which travel under the label of induction.

1. Inductive discovery of  regularities (sometimes unhelpfully called laws), like the sun rises every morning in the east.

2. The (subjective) belief that the sun will rise every morning in the east.

3. Inductive proof of the law or the belief, by observing the sun rising in the east.

4. The shift to probabilities after Hume’s critique has been taken on board and people accept that you can’t actually have inductive proof. So inductive logic becomes the matter of putting probability values on theories (not to be confused with the probability of events or the probability values assigned in statistical analysis  to indicate the probability that the result could have come about by accident rather than a genuine causal relationship).

5. The assertion that induction means the belief that there are regularities in the world, so the future will be like the past, as long as the laws or regularities persist. This has got nothing to do with discovery, or testing, or probabilities and it tends to be the last resort of inductivists when the  other forms of induction are criticized.  It is better described as a metaphysical theory about the world.

After various critiques of the CERTAINTY of scientific knowledge and induction were accepted, the core of the program of inductivism became the quest for inductive probabilities.  In recent decades it seems that Carnap’s quest for objective probabilities had been given up and the core these days is Bayesian subjectivism


In paragraph 5 he wrote “Popper’s philosophy of science centres on his rejection of inductive reasoning. This is the kind of reasoning by which we judge that some hitherto observed pattern will continue to hold good in the future“.

That is induction of the fifth type identified above – the belief in regularities in the world.  Did Popper reject the idea that there are regularities in the word? For him the theoretical or generalizing sciences were all about the quest for (true) laws of nature, that is regularities (or propensities) for systems to behave in particular ways.

That is a metaphysical idea about the way the world works in general, it has nothing to say about the methodology of science or epistemology (how we learn and test our ideas).

Moving on to para 7 we find explicit criticism of Popper’s strategy of conjectures and refutations because it “can only deliver negative knowledge. It shows certain scientific theories are false, but it never shows that any theory is true”.



Papineau mocks Popper by producing two examples of theories – that cigarettes cause lung cancer and matter is made of atoms. What sort of theories are these?  Not all smokers contract lung cancer, so clearly the proposition that cigarettes cause lung cancer is not a universal law. Similarly, atoms are very complex phenomena and they might well be explained in terms of force fields, not the  little billiard balls  of classical atomic theory.

The causes of lung cancer and the structure of matter are much more complex than the picture painted by Papineau, there are many conjectural elements and more work remains to be done. The theory of conjectural knowledge is not demolished by reference to cigarettes causing cancer and the atomic theory of matter.

Moving on to para 11 and 12 Papineau attacks Popper’s demarcation of scientific propositions on the basis of testability. He did not take account of the historical problem situation that created the issue of demarcation: that was the aim of the logical positivist to eliminate metaphysics using the demarcation principle of  VERIFICATION and also the hallmark of science was THE METHOD OF INDUCTION, BASED ON EMPIRICAL DATA, EVIDENCE OR SENSE EXPERIENCE.

Popper argued that the principle of verification could not work (eventually that turned out to be undeniable despite major efforts by the positivists and logical empiricists to use it) and neither would inductive logic to either PROVE  theories to be true or to make them PROBABLE  (with a numerical p  value).

Note that we are  talking about general, explanatory theories that explain how things work, not just statements about things that exist like black swans or atoms.

Popper suggested that to should use evidence to test our theories (because we cannot verify them) and this proposal has two advantages over the positivists.

1. It makes us check to see whether evidence can be brought to bear in the argument that we are having. It may be that the theory at stake is in principle not testable, that does not mean that it is meaningless or trivial, it just means that criticism has to proceed using criteria other than evidence.

2. It liberated the positivists from the quest to eliminate metaphysics  (by making it meaningless) by finding an empirical criterion of meaning.  But they did not want to be liberated and so wasted some decades until nowadays metaphysics has made a comeback to the point where Popper’s theory of metaphysical research programs may be taken seriously.

Papineau went on to write (para 12) that Popper could not say that physics is less speculative than astrology because he cannot claim that atomic theory  is firmly established by a large amount of evidence (as the inductivists claim). And so Popper “is stuck with the non-problem of explaining why some speculations are better than others”.

That is not difficult: we favour theories that are  better tested, that explain more, that predict more accurately, that lead to fertile research programs.



Posted in epistemology | 2 Comments

Popper Symposium featuring Notturno on Hayek

There will be a Popper Symposium in Pennsylvania, September 16-18, 2014.

The twentieth anniversary of Karl Popper’s death (September 17, 1994) provides a fitting occasion to reflect on Popper’s contributions to many fields of inquiry …

A session of the symposium will be devoted to the recent work of Dr. Mark Notturno regarding differences between Popper and Hayek …

The symposium will take place on the campus of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania …

Here is the link:

This should be interesting. I’ve alway thought there is a lot of possible synergy to be generated between the ideas of Hayek and Popper via their methodological individualism, their theories of knowledge, their institutional approach toward society, and their interest in extended orders.

A good example of this might be Larry Boland’s paper that explores the limits of equilibrium models starting with comments by Hayek and supplementing them with Popper’s ideas about the growth of knowledge:
Equilibrium process vs. equilibrium attainment (pdf).

However, it seems that the Notturno aspect of this symposium will mainly be focused on arguing Hayek had “propensities toward scientism and economism.” There will also be criticism presented of Hayek’s ideas as far as they concern democracy and the rule of law.

If you are interested in attending the symposium, there is still time to submit a paper. Please follow the link and check out the details.

Posted in epistemology | 4 Comments

More Thoughts on Critical Preference

Karl Popper held that the effort of reaching a preference of one theory against others is the key to escaping the trap of the logical error of induction. This position is not a late appendage but is clearly stated for the English-speaking world in “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” (1959), the translated version of “Logik der Forschung” (1934). In Paul Arthur Schilpp’s “Philosophy of Karl Popper” (1974) Volume 2 Popper replies to his critics and gives credit for the fine-tuning of his comments to his associate David Miller. On Page 52 of his own book “Critical Rationalism a Restatement and Defence” (1994), Miller states: “There are no such things as good reasons; that is, sufficient or even partly sufficient favourable (or positive) reasons for accepting a hypothesis rather than rejecting it, or for rejecting it rather than accepting it, or for implementing a policy, or for not doing so”. Miller seems to be addressing reasons that are not critical preferences.

Thomas Stearn Eliot’s much quoted paragraph from “Four Quartets”, “Little Gidding” (1942), echoes my experience when reading Popper:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

The quest for certainty in 20th and now 21st century philosophy is unfortunately given an epistemic significance that fills volume after volume but leads to no escape from Hume’s problem of induction nor Kant’s problem of demarcation. Relegating Popper to footnotes or comfortable low rungs in textbook chapter organization does not help this quest and, even worse, the strawman naive-falsificationist legend of Popper actually hinders it.

The extract, below, from “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” highlights Popper’s understanding of the problem of the empirical basis in that acceptance of evidence (basic statements) is the result of human decisions, agreements. Science is a human activity, indeed a communal activity. What decides the fate of a theory is decisions not on aesthetic considerations such as how simple (Occam’s Razor) the theory is worded but decisions on what basic statements are to be accepted for attempted rebuttal of theories. The value of simplicity is to improve testability. One must also differentiate between existential trends e.g. statistical samples of events and so-called probability of hypotheses. Popper rejects the latter.
In the 1963 essay “Models Instruments and Truth”, included in the anthology”The Myth of the Framework” (1994) Popper is critical of the ridiculous phrase “truth is relative”. This phrase confuses the choice we make relative to competing theories’ perceived closeness to truth with TRUTH, unsullied by our opinions and efforts. No matter how well we test our theories they may still not be fair reflections of reality.

In the “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” (1959 orig., ninth impression July 1977, Hutchinson & Co, London), Page 108 – Section 30, “Theory and Experiment” Popper states:

“It may now be possible for us to answer the question: How and why do we accept one theory in preference to others?

The preference is certainly not due to anything like an experiential justification of the statements composing the theory; it is not due to a logical reduction of the theory to experience. We choose the theory which best holds its own in competition with other theories; the one which, by natural selection, proves itself the fittest to survive. This will be the one which not only has hitherto stood up to the severest tests, but the one which is also testable in the most rigorous way. A theory is a tool which we test by applying it, and which we judge as to its fitness by the results of its applications.

From a logical point of view, the testing of a theory depends upon basic statements whose acceptance or rejection, in its turn, depends upon our decisions. Thus it is decisions which settle the fate of theories. To this extent my answer to the question, ‘how do we select a theory?’ resembles that given by the conventionalist; and like him I say that this choice is in part determined by considerations of utility. But in spite of this, there is a vast difference between my views and his. For I hold that what characterizes the empirical method is just this: that the convention or decision does not immediately determine our acceptance of universal statements but that, on the contrary, it enters into our acceptance of the singular statements – that is, the basic statements.

For the conventionalist, the acceptance of universal statements is governed by his principle of simplicity: he selects that system which is the simplest. I, by contrast, propose that the first thing to be taken into account should be the severity of tests. (There is a close connection between what I call ‘simplicity’ and the severity of tests; yet my idea of simplicity differs widely from that of the conventionalist; see section 46.) And I hold that what ultimately decides the fate of a theory is the result of a test, i.e. an agreement about basic statements. With the conventionalist I hold that the choice of any particular theory is an act, a practical matter. But for me the choice is decisively influenced by the application of the theory and the acceptance of the basic statements in connection with this application; whereas for the conventionalist, aesthetic motives are decisive.
Thus I differ from the conventionalist in holding that the statements decided by agreement are not universal but singular. And I differ from the positivist in holding that basic statements are not justifiable by our immediate experiences, but are, from the logical point of view, accepted by an act, by a free decision. (From the psychological point of view this may perhaps be a purposeful and well-adapted reaction.)”

For those interested, some further references in his works can be found as follows:

“After the Open Society” (2008), page 10 “Optimist,Pessimist and Pragmatist Views of Scientific Knowledge” (1963)

“The Myth of the Framework” (1994), Models, Instruments and Truth (orig 1963)

“Conjectures and Refutations” (1963), Page 235 – Chapter 10 Truth, Rationality, and the Growth of Knowledge, XIII
Page 248 – XXII

“Objective Knowledge” (1972)
Page 20 – Chapter 1. Conjectural Knowledge, Section 8 Corroboration: The Merits of Improbability

“Realism and the Aim of Science” (1983)
Page 65 – Chapter 1 Induction, Section 4 A Family of Four Problems III
page 71 Chapter 1 Induction, Section 4 A Family of Four Problems VI

“Unended Quest” (1974), standalone printing. Unended Quest is the autobiography included in the two volume Schilpp “The Philosophy of Karl Popper”

P. A. Schilpp, “The Philosophy of Karl Popper” (1974)
Page 1024 + Replies to My Critics -Section 14 The Psychological and Pragmatic Problems of Induction

Posted in epistemology | Leave a comment

Misreading Popper is up

At last the ms has become an ebook.  Misreading Popper.

Popper made an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science and he made a significant mark in several other fields as well, including political philosophy and the theory of rationality. Consequently the main lines of his work should be familiar to all educated people. This is clearly not the case. Ideas matter and the neglect and misunderstanding of Popper’s ideas contribute to the political, social and economic travails of our time.

The commentary on Karl Popper indicates that it is possible to spend a career in many philosophy schools without picking up a straight feed on his ideas. Misreading and misrepresentation of Popper’s work appears to be the norm in the academic literature and in introductory books on philosophy for students and the public.

Of course many of his views are strongly contested but the contest need to be conducted in relation to what he actually wrote because effective criticism has to be based on understanding of the work. It is unfortunate that this needs to be said in a community of scholars, especially since the rise of analytical philosophy was supposed to herald a new dawn of accuracy and precision in philosophical thinking.

The following are examples of very basic errors which turn up regularly in the commentary on Popper, even by scholars of established reputation.

Popper’s demarcation criterion was in competition with the verification principle to establish the boundary between sense and nonsense.

Popper did not take account of the theory-dependence of observations (the Duhem problem).

Science would have come to a halt of scientists took Popper’s ideas seriously.

Popper’s program was derailed by the failure of his formal definition of verisimilitude.

One of the purposes of this book is to challenge students to read Popper’s books to check whether the teachers and commentators are giving a fair and accurate account of his ideas.

I will not publicize to the world at large until friends have a chance to look and find residual typos and other errors which can be fixed before less friendly readers have a go it at.

Please use the comments to report anything you find, including passages that you think are not clear.



Posted in epistemology | 2 Comments

The Minimum Requirement for an Adequate Critique of Popper

Looking through the misreadings of Popper that are collected in my forthcoming book, the following thoughts occurred about the work required for a good critique. Whether not commentators agree with Popper’s views, if they write about him  they need to read  all of his (relevant) his  books that are or were in print up to the time their manuscript was  completed. Of course academics should have read his journal articles before they appeared in collections.

That means:

  1. Taking account of his work on the logic of testing  as an alternative to the logical positivists/empiricists program of attempted verification which morphed into the quest for “critieria of cognitive meaningfulness” and vindication of inductive probabilities.

2.  Recognizing the challenge that he issued to the quest for justified beliefs by shifting from justification to critical preference and from beliefs to consideration of objective, intersubjective or public scientific knowledge. This move or “turn” from knowledge as justified true belief, to conjectural knowledge needs to acknowledged and tested for its fertility,  its problem-solving power and its capacity to help scientists and other practical people.

3. Describing the “social” or “rules of the game turn” (Jarvie, 2001), which can be seen as a parallel to the later Wittgenstein, and contrast what Popper and Wittgenstein achieved after having that insight.

Random thoughts to develop the “rules” approach.

Rules of democracy, violence, rules not orders, rules of equalitarian justice, the rules of method

Proposals in the context of the protective state in lieu of the contract or historical purpose approach to social organization.

See what this does for scientific practice, rationality, and politics.

If you don’t agree with his ideas then you need to provide criticisms that were not anticipated and answered in The Logic of Scientific Discovery – for example regarding the need for conventions in scientific practice, the problematic nature of adverse evidence, the case for persisting with problematic theories in case they can be improved or otherwise revived.

New criticisms of Popper’s ideas are welcome but recycling refuted criticisms suggests a need for more reading and is unhelpful for students.

Posted in epistemology | 4 Comments

Popper’s view of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory


In Unended Quest  Popper questioned the scientific status of evolutionary theory which he regarded as a metaphysical research program.

Some time later he changed his mind and agreed that aspects of evolutionary theory can be tested and hence it is truly scientific. There was something about this on Wik but I can’t find it.

Can someone point me to the Wik piece or any other source that verifies Popper’s change of mind?

UPDATE Sept 2014.

Can someone point me to the Wik piece or any other source that reports or documents Popper’s change of mind?



Posted in epistemology | 11 Comments

Persisting with a refuted theory

Popper was prepared to allow a little dogmatism to persist with a theory that appeared to be in trouble with anomalies.

Bartley wrote that this did not need to be described in terms of dogmatism, instead we would just accept that the theory was problematic due to the adverse evidence and  we could keep working on it in case the issue could be resolved. The point is to acknowledge the problem.

Actually Popper had that based covered in his interview with Bryan Magee in Modern British Philosophy,  Secker and Warburg, 1971

Magee: What happens if we can’t find a satisfactory successor to the refuted predecessor-theory?

Popper: Then we would, of course, continue to use the old refuted theory until a better theory was found; but we should use it with the knowledge that there was something wrong with it. There would be an open problem, and we should know in advance the minimum conditions which a new theory would have to meet in order to be regarded as an interesting solution to this open problem.

page 72

Posted in epistemology | Leave a comment

Help wanted

Can someone recall the source of this Popperism?

I suggest that much confusion is due to the tendency of attributing to Science (with a capital S) a kind of omniscience and I suggest that this theological view of science ought to be replaced by a more humanistic view, by the realization that science is the work of ordinary humans, groping their way in the dark.



Posted in epistemology | 1 Comment