Good books about Popper and CR (draft)

Approaching the completion of my next book Misreading Popper, the obvious question came to mind:  “So these are all the bad books about Popper, but what are the good ones”?

The format of the book at present has an opening chapter on Popper’s career and books, followed by a scan of the six themes and the ten leading standard errors.  That provides a platform to indicate where commentators have gone astray, (1) by missing the themes (or disagreeing with them) and (2) committing one or more of the standard errors (and maybe others as well).

Clearly it is desirable to give some credit to people who wrote good books, and it is also important to provide short cuts to Popper’s ideas for people who cannot reasonably be expected to sit down and immediately read the whole of his published work or even a fraction of it.

So I will start to do an annotated bibliography as a step up from a bare list without the amount of work required for a full essay on the good books of Popper’s pupils and followers and other commentators.   Some people must have done some of this, my mind has gone blank for the moment and this is a project where other people can help with suggestions and reminders.

Basic introductions:  Bryan Magee (Fontana Popper), Colin Simkin, Roger James, bits of Medawar.

More than basic: Magee (Confessions of a Philosopher), Notturno, Agassi (rejected encyclopaedia piece)

The fundamentals of CR and non-justificationism: David Miller, Bartley, Agassi.

Objectivism and World 3. Jarvie (Concepts and Society), Watkins?  Musgrave.

Social/Institutional turn and rules of the game: Jarvie, Agassi

Rationality: Agassi, Jarvie, Bartely

Metaphysics: Agassi (in Bunge  and other sources)

Biology and Evolution:   Bartley, Munz, Radnitzky, Wachterhauser, Watkins

Politics: Shearmur

Economics: Agassi, Boland, Wong, Caldwell

Psychology: Eccles,  Berkson and Wettersten.

History:  Munz

Collections of papers: Bunge (1964) Levinson (1982), a full edition of the journal etc, the Vienna papers and the Prague papers

On Line: The Popper Web   etc

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Some thoughts triggered from David Miller’s “Do We Reason When We Think We Reason, or Do We Think?” (2005)

Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations” was published in 1963. There is much instruction in the title. After contemplating David Miller’s “Do We Reason When We Think We Reason, or Do We Think?” one might playfully muse with another subtitle for the 1963 work, “Creative Thinking and Reason”, instructive in that it picks up on Miller’s point that intelligent thinking is not necessarily logical thinking.

That the source of our ideas is intuition, conjecture, guessing is one of Popper’s core themes. Our guesses may be true but we cannot prove them to be such. Reason is the test of logic, as in an example of the modus tollens :

If the hypothesis is true, such and such will eventuate
Such and such does not eventuate
Therefore the hypothesis is not true

On Page 52 of “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”.

Lest one be dashed that there are no good reasons (but only the act of reason), it can be looked at as a liberation. We are creative, life is creative, our ideas are like mutations that surprise us and have surprising outcomes. The role of reason is not to invent but rather to put a brake on uncritical acceptance of the products of our creativity, thence we might create anew, and by reason perhaps be saved from potential pitfalls. One says “perhaps”, because despite the mythology that has been invented around Popper as a naive falsificationist, he was not thus. Even the falsification of a hypothesis is a decision.

Our thinking, even if it uses heuristics, is conjectural, we may believe our guesses are fine guesses but reason lies in criticism. In common parlance, and often in academic parlance, the word “reasoning” is used interchangeably with “thinking”. This overlooks imagination as the source of fresh ideas, which can subsequently be subjected to the blowtorch of reason. Through reason we may prefer one theory over another but there are no criteria (good reasons) for claiming that we have grasped unchallengeable or even probable truth.

David Miller’s paper, “Do We Reason When We Think We Reason, or Do We Think?” (2005), ends with the following: “The misconceptions about argumentation that I have criticized arise from a single source; from the thought that intelligent thinking means logical thinking. This is false. Most of the time, problem solvers that we are, we think creatively or speculatively or, if you like, intuitively. Although the exercise of reason is inevitably postponed in this way, it is not cancelled. Glaser (quoted above), and Dewey before him, though too sanguine about the power of evidence and positive argument, rightly insisted that the rational thinker should be ready to submit all guesses to remorseless criticism, and to reject the failures. It cannot be denied that a complex sequence of interlocked blind guesses and cruel rejections may look much like directed thought, just as Darwinian evolution simulates orthogenesis or design. But we must not be hoodwinked into thinking that it is reasoning, or anything else that we know, that drives us forward to what is unknown. What reasoning does is pull us back. Our guesses are not random, of course, but informed; which means only that they are guesses informed by earlier guesses. We who have noses follow our noses (and other organisms follow homologous organs), but we do not see beyond our noses. However richly our guesses are informed by what is known, they know not (are blind to) what is not known. Campbell (1974, p. 422) puts it well: ‘ In going beyond what is already known, one cannot but go blindly. If one can go wisely, this indicates already achieved wisdom of some general sort.’”

David Miller’s list of publications can be viewed and a number, including the above paper, can be downloaded from

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Congratulations to Stanley Wong and his helpers

A review of Stanley Wong, Foundations of Paul Samuelson’s Revealed Preference Theory: A Study by the  Method of Rational Reconstruction. Routledge, 1978 and 2006.

This little classic first appeared in 1978 and it is very fortunate that it has been reprinted in 2006 and is now available at a more affordable price for kindle. There are many people to thank for this book, starting with Stanley Wong himself, clearly a gifted and dedicated scholar, and too clever to persist with his first career as an academic economist! The intellectual influence which makes the book especially important came from Karl Popper by way of his student Joe Agassi and his student Larry Boland who became Wong’s teacher and one of his thesis supervisors. Others with a hand in the supervision were Joan Robinson (for a very short time) and Geoffrey Harcourt. Amartya Sen was helpful during the writing and played a decisive role when he strongly advised Routledge to publish the book while others in the profession were rejecting Wong’s attempt to publish papers based on the work.

Philip Mirowski wrote a generous introduction to the second edition although he discounted the contribution of Popper’s ideas which he wrote were safely confined to the footnotes for the most part. The book is subtitled “A study by the method of rational reconstruction”, which is the methodological equivalent of Popper’s “situational analysis” for the explanation of events in the social sciences. The book has six chapters; starting with a chapter on “understanding and criticism” which is quite likely the clearest account in the literature of Popper’s approach to problem-solving and critical analysis of ideas. Wong explained that the “situational constraints of a theoretical problem situation are in the following categories:

(a) an appraisal of theories relevant to the pursuit of the theoretical aims;

(b) the general theory or theoretical framework of which the theory under study is an integral part;

(c) the epistemological theory of the theorist;

(d) the methodological theory of the theorist;

(e) the metaphysical doctrines of the theorist.

After spelling out the method he then proceeded to the problem situation in economics regarding the theory of demand (supply and demand) as it evolved in recent times, leading up to Paul Samuelson’s project from the 1930s to 1950. He wanted to revolutionise the methods of economics by putting the theory of consumer preferences on a proper scientific basis by eliminating all non-empirical references in the theory. In his opinion, and most others, he succeeded in that venture and received the Nobel Prize in economics for his contribution to the methods of economics.

Wong argued that he did not succeed, a view that Mirowski shared although, as Mirowski noted, the economics profession in general and Samuelson in particular proceeded as though nothing had happened. I cannot offer a verdict on the arguments in economics but I have no hesitation in describing Wong’s interpretation and demonstration of Popperian analysis as a paradigm of exposition.

A person would have to be tone deaf to the music of ideas to refrain from giving this truly beautiful piece of work a standing ovation.

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One of my aims is to trace connections between the CR program (and especially the six Popperian themes) and the programs of other scholars.  Among those at work  now, there are connections with Philip Kitcher that will be interesting to pursue, also Barry Smith.

Among those who have passed on, Collingwood is a fascinating thinker. People may recall the Revivalist series on my website, the fifth in the series was to focus on Edmund Wilson and R G Collingwood but my wife became too busy with her own writing and painting to do the work. In her life time I was not allowed to tamper with the website!

This is a piece that I wrote to provide a preliminary sketch of Collingwood’s program.

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Melvyn Bragg talks philosophy and the Sosa program

A couple of things, first the strange world of Ordinary Language Philosophy, a discussion with Melvyn Bragg on his program In Our Time, which is a marvellous resource for every kind of intellectaul interest!

But what a beautiful image of the ordinary language philosophers! Playing war games.

Curiously, at Oxford, I knew Peter Strawson very well, even though I did not read philosophy… His mind was so clear about everything. And again, which seems to be a characteristic among the better academics, very generous to those who clearly wanted to know something but knew nothing. I don’t know whether this is relevant, but he used to play war games with his friend John Carswell. These consisted of putting little lead soldiers (or maybe pseudo-lead) in Napoleonic and Wellingtonian formations (there were other battles they re-fought as well), in suitably scouted-out terrain and with their own rules, setting out to replay the battles but allowing themselves the game room (is this the Wittgenstein element?) to do variations on the theme. I remember seeing these two distinguished, cheerful men in an area of sand dunes, replacing and replacing these tiny soldiers, some on horseback, some beside cannons, some as infantry, as they were prepared to wade through hours of intense concentration on battles fought long ago. It sounds like something out of Sterne.

It is very relevant. This man, whose mind was so clear about everything, and applied it in his career to following the dead end of Wittgenstein Mark II played with lead soldiers in his spare time. Karl Popper in his spare time in New Zealand during WW2 spent his spare time writing a critique of the damaging ideas propagated from Plato onward which resulted in the totalitarian systems of the 20th century. Compare and contrast.

The Sosa Program

Ernest Sosa has a massive track record in writing and editing collections of papers, especially on epistemology. It is practically impossible to find any connection with Popper’s ideas which is a rather strange situation. I commented on this state of affairs in an exchange of comments after a critical review that I wrote.

I am wondering where to go from here, having dipped into many of the books that he edited and some that he wrote, looking for some point of contact between his program and CR.  Any ideas?

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John Wettersten on CR

Not  hot off the press but a very handy survey, including attention to Joe Agassi’s contribution to the discussion of rationality, CR and non-justificationism in the Popper Circle. Have  not read it yet but looking forward….

Picked up off a link from Matt in a Facebook exchange with Charles Dahl.

This looks especially promising!  “Section 9 explains how Popper’s emphasis on the importance of methodological rules in science has led to a critical rationalist sociology of science. The main task of this sociology of science is to examine existing rules and methods as furthering or hindering research.”

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After the Open Society

A summary of some of the contents of a collection of papers compiled by Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner, titled After the Open Society.

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Revised Guides

The Guides are all revised although there has been no signal, that takes over a month after Amazon decides whether the changes are significant enough to be called a revised edition. The date of the last version can be found immediately in front of the ISBN, for example 1410 or 1810 indicating the date in October.

The revisions may help new readers but they add practically  no value for people who are  familiar with CR.

A comment on the order of the papers in the Guide to Objective Knowledge

The Guide does not follow the sequence of the papers in the book. To reflect the title of the book and the most novel and original contents, the five papers on objective knowledge and related themes are treated first, in chronological order. The other papers follow, also in chronological order. This aroused some comments, along the lines that the first two chapters in the book, and especially the chapter on Popper’s solution to the problem  of induction, are fundamentally important and should perhaps be treated first.

Re-reading the two papers  with fresh eyes, it is clear that those two papers support the theme of objective knowledge by explaining some connections between  the problem of induction and the traditional (subjective) theory of knowledge, especially in Hume’s influential  treatment of the issues. I have not changed the order but some additional comments will help to show how some  of the key themes of Popper’s work  are linked in the paper on induction.

Section 13 in the paper on conjectural knowledge is especially helpful. Beyond the Problems of Induction and Demarcation explains how the solution to the problem of induction came to Popper many years after he produced a solution to the problem of demarcation, which was  as early as 1919. He realized that the idea of falsifiability would make a helpful distinction between Einstein’s theory and some parts of Marx, Freud and Adler which were accepted  and propagated uncritically by “true believers”. At the time he thought it was probably only a matter of definition, and not fundamentally important although he found it helpful to get clear about the best way to use evidence.

Later, when he was seriously engaged with the problem of induction, like the positivists around him, the matter of falsifiability assumed new significance, possibly because the positivists were so dedicated to  verification, which  could never  work, and that meant that the quest for justification was  unsustainable.

“I saw that what had to be given up is the quest for justification, in the sense of the justification of the claim that a theory is true.  All theories are hypotheses; all may be overthrown.”

Thanks to the work of Tarski the regulative principle of truth is still sustainable even though the quest for conclusive justification is not.

When he solved the problem of induction and grasped the close connection with the problem of demarcation, he achieved a “problem shift” to a new range of problems and  issues. He became alert to the way that theories can be “immunized” against criticism (with thanks to Hans Albert for the term),  and this raised the issue of the social nature of science and the norms, traditions and conventions of the scientific community, which he touched without elaboration in chapter 23 of The Open Society and the final sections of The Poverty of Historicism.

“Thus I was led to  the idea of methodological rules and of the fundamental importance of a critical approach; that is, of an approach which avoided the policy of immunizing our theories against refutation.”

Then came the idea of applying the critical approach to the test statements of the empirical base, to recognise the conjectural and theoretical nature of observation statements. That led to the recognition that all languages are theory-impregnated which in turn called for a radical revision of empiricism.

“It also made me look upon the critical attitude as characteristic of the rational attitude; and it led me to see the significance of the argumentative (or critical) function of language;  to the idea of deductive logic as the organon of criticism…And it further led me to realize that only a formulated theory (rather than a believed theory) can be objective, and to the idea that it is this formulation or objectivity that makes criticism possible; and so to my theory of a ‘third world’.”

And so in that final section of the final paper (in the sequence of Popper’s papers in this Guide) we are led to the ideas of objective knowledge and the evolutionary link between language and  critical thinking which are spelled out in the first section of  the Guide.


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Some important sites

A heads up on some important sites, prompted by Bruce and his reminder of the Dimitry Sepety site.

Bill Hall in Australia was still producing papers in 2012.

And Barry Smith keeps busy. I wonder if he got tenure?



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Bartley papers

The bibliography prepared by Antoni Diller.

And another list of on-line papers by Bartley.

The Bartley page in the Rathouse.

A large fragment of the Popper biography by Bartley.



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