What is CR?

I like to think of CR (critical rationalism) as a kind of evolving philosophical tradition concerning how we should approach knowledge. It is the Socratic method only with a little bit of modern awareness. While most philosophical traditions regard knowledge as something that has to be certain and justified, CR takes the view that we don’t have ultimate answers, but knowledge is nevertheless possible. Truth is an endless quest.

The modern founder of critical rationalism was Karl Popper. Popper pointed out we can never justify anything, we merely criticize and weed out bad ideas and work with what’s left. Popper’s initial emphasis was on empirical science, where he solved the problem of induction, something that had been haunting philosophers and scientists for centuries. The problem of induction is this. No matter how many times we’ve seen an apple fall to the ground after we’ve dropped it, do we have any way to prove the same thing will happen next time we drop it. The answer is no. What Popper pointed out is that you can never justify any scientific theory, but you can falsify it. If I were to claim that all swans were white, one black swan would falsify my theory. In this way, science moves forward by weeding out bad theories, so to speak.

Popper said that science moves forward through a method of conjecture and refutation. While Popper was primarily interested in science, he often commented on political problems as well. Popper liked to emphasize the need for an open society, a society where people can speak out and criticize. After all, if science progresses through refutations, criticizing becomes essential. We need to speak out and therefore we need the freedom to do so. Popper was against any form of government that didn’t give people the chance to speak out. Popper’s thinking could probably best be summed up in this quote, “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”

Popper worked hard to expand his ideas, and so have several other people. CR should not be viewed as one man’s philosophy, but as a growing philosophical tradition. One in which several people have contributed and are still contributing. One notable person was William Warren Bartley, III. Bartley worked towards expanding the idea of critical rationalism to cover all areas of knowledge, not just empirical science. Bartley felt that while in almost all areas of knowledge we seek justification, we should instead seek criticism. While nothing can ever be justified in any ultimate sense, certainly we can see error and weed it out. This is true whether we are dealing with empirical science and perhaps even knowledge of what is ethical. An important part of Bartley’s thinking could probably best be summed up in this quote, “How can our intellectual life and institutions, our tradition, and even our etiquette, sensibility, manners and customs, and behavior patterns, be arranged so as to expose our beliefs, conjectures, ideologies, policies, positions, programs, sources of ideas, traditions, and the like, to optimum criticism, so as at once to counteract and eliminate as much intellectual error as possible, and also so as to contribute to and insure the fertility of the intellectual econiche: to create an environment in which not only negative criticism but also positive creation of ideas, and the development of rationality, are truly inspired.”

Neither Bartley or Popper have exhaustively explored the full potential of the CR philosophical tradition. Indeed, there are unlimited possibilities. While CR often emphasizes criticism, it also encourages new approaches and creative thinking. We need to come up with as many new ideas as we can, then let the process of criticism weed out the less workable ones. As CR accepts that the truth is out there and we are working towards it, it is actually a very optimistic philosophical tradition. Perhaps the most optimistic among the big three philosophical traditions. What are the big three traditions. Let me give you a quick summary.

One, dogmatism. Decide that you are privy to ultimate truth and then just follow that truth no matter what. Does such an attitude contribute to fanaticism? Perhaps.

Two, pessimism. Decide that truth is impossible, relative, random, meaningless. Just do whatever you want because nothing matters anyway. Does such an attitude contribute to random violence? Perhaps.

Three, critical rationalism, the truth is out there, but no one has a monopoly on it, so let’s work together to try and get a little closer to it. Does such an attitude contribute to progress and mutual respect? More than likely.

If you’d like more details than this then that’s what this blog is for, please look around and explore.

—Matt Dioguardi, blog administrator

11 Responses to What is CR?

  1. adagio says:

    Matt…where is your article on Theories of Rationality?

  2. I have been looking at the limits of human consciousness and how much we really can know. It seems I stumbled onto a field of thought that I was working with on my own. I have heard of Popper before but not really delved into his writings, which I plan to do so after looking through the CR blog here. Thanks a bunch.

  3. Courtenay Isherwood says:

    Fabulous summary and website. Love it( with critical love of course!)

    Living in Christchurch NZ I did a bit of research on Popper’s time at Canterbury Univeristy during the war years, I was meant to do a Masters history thesis on his contributions to NZs education system ( which was significant) but finished with a half baked philosophy thesis on Popper and the Social Sciences, will finish it one day. Thanks for the site.

  4. Tinette says:

    Dear Matt,

    I am from South Africa and currently studying Education. One of my subjects is Theoretical Frameworks, the book Rethinking our world. My question that I need to focus on for my exam, is about Critical Rationalism, one question that really bothers me and I can’t seem to find an answer on is, Four main ideas of Critical Rationalism and it’s application to the classroom. Is there any way you can help me with those four main ideas, please!!

    Tinette

  5. Matt says:

    Tinette,

    Might I suggest you join our the critical rationalism group on Facebook and post your question there?

    Here is the link:
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/criticalrationalism/

    As far as Critical Rationalism and education, I recommend anything by Henry J. Perkinson. In particular, read _Teachers Without Goals, Students Without Purposes_.

    Personally, I’ve never thought of critical rationalism as something to be summed up via four main ideas.

  6. conny says:

    pls am also struggling with my assigment about 4 main ideas of critical rationalism in the classroom

  7. Andrew Crawshaw says:

    Oh, Bruce, you got there first with the Joanna Swann book!

    I looked up Popper on this: http://eepat.net/doku.php?id=popper_and_philosophy_of_education

    And found reference to it. The writer of that article, John Halliday, also has a book out called Markets, Managers, and Theory in Education, which might also interest you.

  8. Khaled Bizri says:

    The mere assumption by Popper that rational thought leads to a ‘final truth’ reflect the poverty of his scientific outlook and indeed his reasoning!

    Out knowledge of the external world is an iterative process and never-ending process which science never claimed, and philosophy, save for idealists and neo-idealists.

    The very statement he makes about rational thought is in itself a contradiction of itself, with Russell and his paradox in mind.

    Yes, we assume that all swans are white, until we discover that they are not. A proposition by itself is not a proof. Sense data is the final arbiter.

    But that hides behind it an almost religious conviction of the absolute validity of our model of the external world, which is a workable model until it is modified be more data.

    In that Mr. Popper is obviously unawares of the history of science, let alone the philosophy of science and scientism, although the emergence of a new dimension, time, to our universe is probably as old as he is, and the manner with which such an addition was made is precisely because we did find a “black swan” which amended our rational model.

    But this is only an aspect of his rejection of determinism even when all needed data is in hand, as in suggesting that one plus one is not two, bringing us to the wild life of medieval mysticism, striking out many centuries of validation of rational conclusions under the conditions and in the circumstances in which a proposition is made.

    In a sense, this is the most closed system one could encounter, in which the fact that is so open and random makes it totally shuttered to reason.

    Critical rationalism is only a part of the pseudo-philosophical wanderings of Mr. Popper, derived from extremely rigid and closed-vision which probably helped him in his political and polemical effusion to please a particular section of society, he calls it the “Open Society,” when it is as closed for reason and as we see in the state of development Homo sapiens, still in a “predatory” mode, as Einstein marvelously labelled.

  9. Matt says:

    Khaled Bizri:

    The mere assumption by Popper that rational thought leads to a ‘final truth’ reflect the poverty of his scientific outlook and indeed his reasoning!

    Popper doesn’t refer to a “final truth”, truth is an unended quest. That was the name of his autobiography.

    Out knowledge of the external world is an iterative process and never-ending process which science never claimed, and philosophy, save for idealists and neo-idealists.

    The grammar of this sentence is such that it can’t be understood who is making the initial claim. Moreover, it’s not at all clear what’s intended via the use of the word “iterative.”

    The very statement he makes about rational thought is in itself a contradiction of itself, with Russell and his paradox in mind.

    Popper never states that rational thought is a contradiction. So there’s no argument here.

    Yes, we assume that all swans are white, until we discover that they are not. A proposition by itself is not a proof. Sense data is the final arbiter.

    But that hides behind it an almost religious conviction of the absolute validity of our model of the external world, which is a workable model until it is modified be more data.

    In that Mr. Popper is obviously unawares of the history of science, let alone the philosophy of science and scientism, although the emergence of a new dimension, time, to our universe is probably as old as he is, and the manner with which such an addition was made is precisely because we did find a “black swan” which amended our rational model.

    Popper never talks about “absolute validity”. Nor does he attempt to base his ideas about falsifiability on the history of science. So again, there’s no argument here.

    Essentially, you are making stuff up, alleging Popper stated it, and then attempting to refute him. But nothing you’ve stated has anything to do with what Popper actually stated.

    But this is only an aspect of his rejection of determinism even when all needed data is in hand, as in suggesting that one plus one is not two, bringing us to the wild life of medieval mysticism, striking out many centuries of validation of rational conclusions under the conditions and in the circumstances in which a proposition is made.

    Popper in no way suggests that “one plus one is not two”. You’re confusing an issue of logic with a claim about empirical content. Your criticism amounts to a confusion and a misreading.

    In a sense, this is the most closed system one could encounter, in which the fact that is so open and random makes it totally shuttered to reason.

    Critical rationalism is only a part of the pseudo-philosophical wanderings of Mr. Popper, derived from extremely rigid and closed-vision which probably helped him in his political and polemical effusion to please a particular section of society, he calls it the “Open Society,” when it is as closed for reason and as we see in the state of development Homo sapiens, still in a “predatory” mode, as Einstein marvelously labelled.

    This is all vague and ad hominem. If you want to comment here, you actually need to refer to claims Popper has made. Don’t simply make stuff up and then attempt to criticize it. That wastes people’s time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

please answer (required): * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.