Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Interesting Article on Karl Popper

I am now making my way through several back issues of Critical Review, the journal edited by Jeffrey Friedman. I just finished reading a very good article on Karl Popper written by Fred Eidlin. I have never heard of him before, but it is clear that he understands Popper, although his interpretation of Popper's work differs from my own. I know that there are some readers on here who are similarly interested in Popper, so I thought I would discuss the areas in which I believe my views on Popper differ from those of Eidlin.

1.) Eidlin spends most of the early part of the essay talking about Popper's failure in effecting a paradigm shift within the sciences. He believes this is because Popper was misunderstood (more on this later). Here is Eidlin:

"Outside the advanced natural sciences, however, there is seldom anything analogous to a crucial experiment that would tip the scales in favor of a new paradigm. Hence, in the "softer" disciplines it is far more difficult to upset dominant approaches by means of evidence or rational argument. The emergence, survival, and death of traditions of inquiry in these fields have a great deal to do with such factors as reputation, personalities, and the politics of academic professions."

Eidlin concludes by arguing that Popper's "personality" is responsible for his failure in establishing a "Popperian" school. Now just some thoughts on the quoted passage. Is it true that it is more difficult to effect a paradigm shift in the social sciences than in the natural sciences? One would have to argue, inter alia, that (1) the natural sciences operate by means of "crucial experiments"; (2) the natural sciences are not subject to "academic politics"; and (3) paradigm shifts do not occur in the social sciences (e.g. postmodern literary criticism in English departments?).

2.) Now the author connects this discussion to his conclusion, which is quite controversial. Eidlin argues basically that Popper has been misunderstood chiefly because his key followers have failed to consistently follow Popper's own philosophy. He writes:

"Popperians, no less than their adversaries, can be (and have been) dogmatic, insensible to falsification, and prone to identify themselves personally with their theories. This suggests that there may be a utopian aspect to Popperian norms. ... If we reflect on Popperian norms, it becomes clear how difficult they are to practice."

Now it may be true that falsificationism is difficult to practice, but have his key followers also failed to practice them consistently? Do Popperians avoid criticism and the discovery of mistakes in the explication of their own philosophy?

3.) I really enjoyed Eidlin's discussion of Popper's political philosophy. The author agrees with Bryan Magee (who wrote an excellent book on Popper) that Popper's political philosophy is a theory of "democratic socialism." He does this by arguing that in criticizing Marx and Plato, Popper was actually trying to improve their work, rather than "undermining" it. Now this was not my reading of The Open Society and its Enemies. It was quite clear to me that Popper selected Plato and Marx for criticism because he rejected their theories, not because he wanted to improve them. In fact, in the preface to the first volume, Popper writes that he has chosen to focus on Plato because of his positive reputation. Why "improve" a theory that is already revered? Popper, I believe, was trying instead to "raze it to the ground."

But Eidlin is not concerned with this. He takes it for granted that Popper was trying to improve the theories of Plato and Marx, and then uses this interpretation to attack conservatives who sympathize with Popper's work. Eidlin argues that Popper followed Marx in viewing economic freedom as unjust and inhumane. Eidlin writes:

"It is also a philosophy requiring that we do something to bring about a better society, and that we not rely upon something outside ourselves (whether the 'invisible hand' of the market or the 'inexorable laws of history') to do it for us. ... Even violent means may be permissible in the pursuit of just ends provided that sufficient consideration has been given to such questions as the liklihood that these means will actually lead to the expected ends."

I would have never thought that such an interpretation of Popper's political work would be possible. It has been some time since I read his Open Society, but I remember it as being the most sophisticated defense of a free and "open" society available.

It seems to come down to the interpretation of "piecemeal engineering." Now Eidlin wants to use this theory to positively implement "democratically socialist" policies. The problem I have with this argument is that it smacks too much of "utopian engineering." For Popper, the point never was to "make society better," but to "remove evils." This is more consistent with his falsificationist approach. A writer (I can't remember who) once used the example of public schooling: Our goal should not be to build the best school we can, but rather to improve the schools that are currently worst off. That is what "piecemeal engineering" is all about as I see it.

Anyway, this was an excellent paper. I would encourage anyone else interested in Popper to read it.


Fred Eidlin "Karl Popper, 1902-1994: Radical Fallibilism, Political Theory, and Democracy, Critical Review 10, no. 1 (winter 1996): 135-153.


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  2. In case anyone is interested, I develop this interpretation of Popper further in three other articles: "The Radical-Revolutionary Strain in Popper's Social and Political Theory" "Ethical Problems of Imperfect Knowledge in the Policy Sciences" and "Popper's Social-Democratic Politics and Free-Market Liberalism" Criticism is welcome. Fred Eidlin