My 5-year Popperversary (A Personal Digression on Karl Popper)

Today marks five years since I first encountered Karl Popper, and I thought I’d “share”. While first-person narrative is of little importance on matters of thought, I nevertheless felt it worthwhile to document how I discovered him (I’m fortunate to know) and some general, highly subjective thoughts on my early encounter with his ideas, as they’ve had a tremendous influence on my own. I won’t attempt to outline Popper’s thought, both because this has been done elsewhere, and because as it is, this post will mean much less to those unfamiliar with him (though you’re more than welcome to dive in).


Prelude: Philosopher, Period

Among the still small group who have ever heard of him, Karl Popper is almost always categorized under “Philosophy of Science”. Intuitively, this seems to mean that unless one is tremendously interested in (hard) science and/or scientists, Popper has little to nothing to offer. This couldn’t be further from the truth, yet this label has managed to stick despite pretty straightforward counter-evidence: His most popular book (The Open Society and Its Enemies) has comparatively little to say on “Philosophy of Science”; one would think this would have tipped people off. The truth is that while Popper did have a lifelong interest in the methods of the sciences “proper”, he realized very early on that they have tremendous implications throughout – and cutting across – virtually all fields of intellectual human endeavor, not least ethics, logic, epistemology, the meaning of disagreement among human beings, tradition and religion, philosophy of history, metaphysics, political science, the arts, hard sciences and, crucially, virtually all (non-vacuous) philosophy. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he has what to contribute for anyone who’s ever disagreed with anyone on anything. So, though words don’t decide any issue of substance (as Popper was fond of pointing out), the very categorization under “philosophy of science” has kept him from where he ought to be – Philosopher, writ large. Whichever field one is in, certainly wherever one touches on methodology or philosophy-of, he ought to come up.

Popper’s [thought is a] brilliant synthesis of subjectivism and objectivism, conventionalism and absolutism, consensus and logical certainty, scientific tradition and revolutionary change, corroboration and falsification.

Malachi Hacohen, Karl Popper – The Formative Years, p. 529.

Now to how I encountered him.

Surmountable Clashing Paradigms?

During the 2nd half of the 2000’s, I’d developed an appreciation for the quarterly Journal “Azure” (1996-2011), published by the Shalem Center (now Shalem College and Press). While I largely disagreed with many of the writers – most were quite far to my right politically, and observant Jews where I am not – the articles often devoted considerable space to voicing the opposing positions before attempting to confute them, an intellectual generosity I greatly appreciated. Where much public discussion seemed to be primarily concerned with debate-winning, and erecting all forms of straw men to tear down, in Azure it wasn’t uncommon to find an article going out of its way to outline the best possible arguments for the “opposition”1. This was genuinely refreshing; entirely besides the question of whether I agreed with their outlooks or conclusions.

It was through interest in Azure that I came across a blog post by Shalem Center’s founder Yoram Hazony, “Israel Through European Eyes“. In it, Hazony argues at length that Israel’s attempts to defend its actions and positions in the court of world opinion are doomed to fail vis-a-vis the Europeans. Presenting Thomas Kuhn‘s influential notion of (incommensurable) paradigms within science, Hazony then claims that this is indeed the case between Israel and Europe – the former as a paradigm of the nation-state, the latter firmly post-nationalist. Having heard of Kuhn off and on, here was the first time I had encountered any direct utilization of his ideas, which at the time seemed to make a lot of sense.

However, the tail end of the article had a surprise in store. Having spent nearly the entirety of the 6,500 word piece outlining the direct conflict between these two alleged paradigms, Hazony, two paragraphs from the end asks, “What can be done?”. This intuitively jarred with me. If Israel and Europe are indeed locked in incommensurable paradigms, the only possible answer to Hazony’s question should be, “Nothing”. Yet Hazony seemed to imply that, though paradigm shifts are a long-term game, usually the result of the “old guard” dying off, there are nevertheless steps that can be taken to help bridge the gap – indicating that clashing paradigms can still meaningfully communicate. In researching Kuhn with this point in the back of my mind, I discovered (likely via Wikipedia) that one Karl Popper had been critical of Kuhn’s view, along lines broadly similar to my own thoughts on this. His was another name I’d come across here and there, but of the two his approach began to seem more sound.

The Strand is Picked Up – at The Strand

Months later, on April 7th, 2011 – I know this thanks to an email I sent the next day – I walked into The Strand, the (somewhat legendary) book store in New York City. Popper’s name had been percolating for a while at that point, and through some online research it seemed like the book for me to buy was his 1934 classic of scientific methodology, The Logic of Scientific Discovery. However, the store only had his Conjectures and Refutations. I remember deliberating if I should take the chance with an unknown book by an as yet unknown quantity, especially since my knowledge in the field was pretty limited as it was, and this was by all accounts a hefty tome. A quick skim convinced me to pick it up after all. (I’ve since wondered what might have happened had I opted to hold out for the (considerably more technical) L.Sc.D instead…) So C&R it was, and the rest is history.

First Impressions

C&R initially made my head hurt. I remember really having to force myself through the first pages of its (terrific) opener – a 1960 lecture of his, “On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance” – but then, somewhere around section V, the lecture took an intellectual liftoff that sustained right through to its end. I was hooked. There was an astonishing amount of “meat”. After almost every page – sometimes after individual paragraphs – I’d have to put the book down and really think about (the implications of) what I’d just read. Not because it was obtuse or high-minded – not at all; Popper was far and away the clearest philosopher I’d ever attempted to read – but because there was just so much there.

This no doubt sounds like a bit of a chore – and I don’t consider myself especially gifted in the sustained-mental-effort department – but like the best teachers, reading Popper made you want to think about this stuff. (In all the secondary literature I’ve read on him, only Agassi and Miller have pointed this out). His honest excitement for the material was contagious. Here was someone who had combined a hundred stray thoughts I had had myself, and many more, into a coherent whole – though nothing like the “I have the answers” style that had irked me in earlier forays into other philosophers. Indeed, he was providing the first, and still to my mind the best answer as to why the search for these answers should, and can, be a lifelong goal; why the inevitable failure to procure “final” answers doesn’t make the search itself futile (or pie-in-the-sky). Previous answers by other thinkers generally had either authoritarian views (“take it from me”-style bare assertions, often with covert or overt religious overtones), or puffy linguistic chimera that had nothing going for them, beyond impressing people who consider impressing people a goal worth pursuing (with similarly religious overtones…).

Taking Arguments Seriously

Popper rightly stressed the independent content of arguments, separate from sociological and psychological considerations. However, the choice to take arguments seriously – to be rational – is essentially a matter of attitude. And this was certainly the case with me: Reading Popper, I identified a kindred spirit in terms of approach. I always had a natural inclination to take arguments seriously2. Going back to an early age, those who knew me well knew that a surefire way to get under my skin was to offer some outrageous argument; they could then basically sit back and watch me go… Moving into adulthood, and amid a veritable sea of ridiculous arguments (made exponentially more accessible via the internet), I took a logical turn, typical of the smart alecks. (You know these people, “That’s fallacious!”) Then came the numerous volumes read on “critical thinking” etc. Yet adherents of these views seemed to all endorse it out of a purely psychological thirst for certainty. As time went on, I felt – without quite articulating it to myself – that while these methods can certainly improve argumentation (or, if you must, “thought”), they don’t determine outcomes on any particular issue – certainly not with certainty. That this isn’t obvious was particularly noticeable when arguing with certain kinds of people (here’s looking at you, majority of libertarians online!) who clung very closely to logical maneuvers but seemed to treat unwarranted conclusions as necessary truths.

Popper’s thinking finally set in order the tenuous relationship I had grappled with between induction3 and deduction4. The former was a mirage, and had erroneously been tightly coupled with “experience”. The latter was far more solid – as popper often writes, everything is theory-impregnated – but without criticizability would forever remain dogma, with no way to distinguish true dogmas from the many, destructively false ones.

Ideas Over Words

Popper abhorred language games, and on those rare occasions in print where he appears to lose his temper (in a fantastic display of supreme wit with barely-disguised contempt), it was usually directed at “intellectuals” who couch whatever wares they’re peddling in highfalutin empty verbiage. In academia, a surefire sign of intellectual noteworthiness was the contribution of a particular word to our intellectual arsenal (such as Kuhn’s various “paradigm”-related paradigms…). Without detracting from the very real importance a new concept (and thus corresponding word) might have, in the minds of your average student and casual fan of “critical thinking” etc, Popper has undergone the same process: he’s the “falsifiability” guy5. That’s the heuristic6. And yet – and this is no coincidence – while Popper’s contributions use some recurring terminology (fallibilism, three worlds, truth, theory-ladeness, objective vs. subjective knowledge, etc.) they are rarely encapsulated in a word, but rather firmly nestled in the realm of exploring ideas and their implications, such as the concept above of taking arguments seriously. (Almost everything contained in the previous pair of parentheses has little value as a label alone.)

Final Note: Truth

From the get-go, one impression of mine regarding Popper has stuck: his uncompromising interest in truth. This is not at all the “Truth” of many philosophers throughout the ages, since he early on understood we couldn’t be certain we’d hit it even if we had. He wasn’t interested in erecting Spinozean elaborate systems of the world (ostensibly based on bullet-proof logic), nor laborious Aristotelian scholasticism. He wasn’t claiming the only matters of any interest are “human” truths, ostensibly reached via plumbing the depths of human psyche or sociology (a-la existentialist and 20th century French philosophers), nor interested in verbal sparring (a-la the sophists). He wasn’t nominating measurement, or “experience” for sole truth-candidacy (a-la the Empiricists), nor sanctifying deductive Cartesian certainty; certainty was in fact a major part of the problem. Rather, in refuting every one of the schools above (and others) while keeping their grains of truth, Popper left a more pliable, fruitful weave of ideas for us all to work with. His negativist philosophy – the idea that the critical addition to our knowledge happens when a theory is refuted, rather than when it’s offered – is the mark of genuine interest in truth. And with his thought the tense, yet interwoven, relationship between the two parts of this blog’s name – facts, and opinions – receives its proper treatment.

So, here’s to you, Karl!

  1. Those familiar with him will recognize in this a decidedly Popperian bent. As he put later in his career: “Criticism [..] is the lifeblood of all rational thought. But we should criticize any theory always in its best and strongest form; if possible, repairing tacitly all its minor mistakes and concentrating on the great, leading, and simplifying ideas. Otherwise we shall be led into the swamp of scholasticism – of clever questions and answers which have a tendency of multiplying endlessly [..].” – Karl Popper, “Replies to my Critics”, from “The Philosophy of Karl Popper” vol. 2 (1971), p. 977.
  2. though admittedly, I still often lack the patience for the complete kind of follow-through many good arguments deserve.
  3. deducing from trials, or particulars, to what-is-the-case; as an economics major I had firmly espoused this earlier on, and retain a strong (though critical) affinity for “the data”.
  4. drilling down from generals, or theory, to what-is-the-case; which took the lead later on with me.
  5. or “principle of falsifiability”, etc.
  6. and as such oversimplified and misunderstood again and again. It’s almost always attacked as a criteria of truth which, as Popper made clear many times, isn’t at all the case.

2 thoughts on “My 5-year Popperversary (A Personal Digression on Karl Popper)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s