[lit-ideas] The continued mistreatment of Karl Popper by academics

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 22 Nov 2011 15:48:20 +0000 (GMT)

Is there any philosopher of Popper’s standing who has had
his work so poorly treated by academic philosophers, either by their 
it or writing as if in ignorance of it? What steps might improve this (frankly
disgraceful) situation? These questions surface from time to time and a recent
look at the The Shorter Routledge
Encyclopedia of Philosophy [‘Routledge’,
2005] provokes them again.
It has been severally remarked that Popper was wont to
complain about the misrepresentation of his ideas, or that they were criticised
with clearly invalid arguments. Bryan Magee gives a useful, personal account of
this in the chapter, ‘Popper’, in his Confessions
of a Philosopher: by turns wishing Popper would stop going on in this vein
when they spoke, and then being more sympathetic as he realised how justified
was the complaint. Magee seeks to explain why Popper is even more prone to
misrepresentation that most philosophers – the answer, aside from the usual 
of academic incompetence, being that Popper’s philosophical approach is much
more radically different to that of traditional philosophy than it might appear.
The Routledge entry on Popper
finishes on a similar theme [see below]. It is high time academics in their 
fields of philosophy both dealt with Popper’s work where relevant and dealt
with it competently.
The Shorter Routledge
Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on ‘Popper’ notes – “Yet, he insisted, his
ideas are systematically misunderstood and misrepresented; this led him to
devote uncommon energy to issues of interpretation and commentary on his own
work.” [p.820]. I suspect Popper would want to reply to the second part along
lines he did elsewhere: while he did from time to time engage in issues of
“interpretation and commentary on his own work”, he hoped a fair view would be
that he only gave such issues as much attention as they merited while he
pursued further work. In my own view, a less prodigious thinker could have had
an eminent academic career if they had concentrated all their intellectual life
on issues “of interpretation and commentary” on only one of his own works – 
like The
Open Society and Its Enemies or The
Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper found he generally had better things
to do. 
The Routledge entry even ends on this note: “He… exemplified the values he 
intellectual seriousness, personal responsibility and…doing justice to ideas
regardless of their temporary embodiment. The failure of much critical
commentary to meet these standards lies behind his complaint of 
But there are also other reasons. If Popper is correct, not only is much in the
traditional way of doing philosophy misdirected, but even the questions are
wrongly put. Any attempt to map Popper’s ideas into traditionally oriented
discussions risks misrepresentation. The frequent practice of reconstructing
Popper’s philosophy timelessly, plucking materials from works published as far
apart as fifty years, flies in the face of his emphasis on the structuring role
of problems and problem-situations in all intellectual activity, particularly
inquiry. To do justice to the originality and creativity of his work,
scholarship needs in the first instance to respect its intellectual context of
production.” Unfortunately, as indicated below, these salutary words are not
heeded by other contributors to Routledge.
And their failures, in my view, betray a greater lack of competence than is
suggested by putting them down to their ignorance of the “intellectual context
of production”: they betray ignorance of what Popper has clearly said.
This issue of Popper being misrepresented goes back to his
earliest published work. An early example is Popper’s relation to Logical
Positivism. Popper’s philosophy of science, which in fact contained the main
arguments that led to the demise of Logical Positivism, was wrongly assimilated
to this school - for example by A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic - with 
‘falsifiability’ being wrongly
seen merely as a slight twist on the ‘verificationist criterion of sense’. 
once expressed the difference between his views and Popper’s by saying that in
his view the difference was – and
gestured with two fingers only slightly apart; whereas for Popper the
difference was – and gestured with
his arms wide apart. Carnap was right that they differed about the extent to
which they differed: but Popper was right that the differences were great not
slight. From the POV of Logical Positivists (and those who approached Popper
through the lens of logical positivism) Popper’s The Logic of Scientific 
Discovery was misinterpreted as proposing,
in effect, a falsificationist criterion of meaning; and the difference between
falsificationism and verificationism was further minimised by alleging
(falsely) that falsificationism was dependent on some sort of underlying 
[e.g. that we can only falsify when
we can verify the falsifying counter-example (whereas Popper explains that we
accept a counter-example because of its falsifiability, not because it is ever 
logically verified)]. This kind of
misrepresentation may have been understandable enough in the 1930s and even
1950s, but we find it still in the 2000s in Routledge. 
There the assimilation is reflected in the entry on ‘Logical
Positivism’, where the fact that Popper’s work was the most important and
devastating critique of this position is not mentioned at all, and where this
fact could hardly be inferred from the two references to Popper: (1) “Although
not officially members…the Austrian philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl
Popper were, at least for a time, closely associated with logical positivism”;
(2) “Although Neurath’s thoroughly intersubjective ‘physicalistic’ language
(where, as Karl Popper emphasised especially, every sentence is revisable) was
clearly preferable…”. We might think from this that Popper was a minor figure
on the fringes who merely did some ‘explication’ of the work of the movement’s
leaders:- not the person who assembled the main arguments that led Logical
Positivism to become as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes (as the
historian John Passmore put it).
A similar wrongful assimilation is implied in the entry on "Scientific Method" 
where we read, “Philosophers in the first half of the
twentieth century, especially the Vienna Circle and Karl Popper, sought to
analyse science and to reconstruct scientific reasoning using the new symbolic
logic or the new theory of probability (see Vienna Circle). They continued the
investigation into theory confirmation…” But Popper continued no such
investigation, having argued that in the logic of scientific theory it is
falsifiability not confirmation that is vital; nor did his argument and
analysis crucially depend on “the new symbolic logic or the new theory of 
but on a logical analysis of propositions and their logical relations. That
part of the entry also contains its only other reference to Popper: “Popper
concluded that the defining feature of the empirical methods of science is that
statements are always subject to falsification by new data.” But this simple 
claim is false and conceals
a host of misunderstandings. While it is true that Popper does think that
scientific “statements are always subject to falsification by new data”, he
does not argue that this is why they
are scientific – rather they are scientific because
they are falsifiable as they stand and irrespective
of what “new data” might be obtained; nor is this their “defining feature”
in the usual philosophical sense of a ‘conceptual analysis’, but a normative 
and logic-based proposal;
and that normative and logic-based ‘criterion’ proves more complex in its
application than the term “always”, as used above, implies:- for even a
statement that is scientific may then be ‘immunised’ against falsification by
“new data” (in Popper’s analysis such a statement may, broadly, be taken as
‘scientific’ up to the point it is so ‘immunised’). 
Aside from not getting even its simple claims right, there
is the question of ‘editorialising’ in this lengthy entry. The impression of
Popper’s significance that one might gain from this lengthy entry on
‘Scientific Method’ is very different from that of Magee’s account (Magee would
say Popper is incomparably the greatest
philosopher of science there has ever been), or a Nobel Prize Winning scientist
like Medawar, who has said there is nothing more to science than its method and
there is no more to its method than Popper taught. [This last claim is somewhat
hyperbolic as Popper has not said all that can rightly be said about scientific 
method, nor sought to; but Medawar
may be taken to convey bluntly that Popper’s work is nevertheless the locus 
classicus for understanding
scientific method properly]. It is therefore perhaps no surprise, however
disappointing, to find that the Routledge entry on ‘Scientific Method’ points 
us to a further entry on ‘Inductive
Inference’ – but none to a non-inductive or anti-inductive view of ‘scientific
method’ such as Poppers’.
When we turn to that entry and related entries how does
Popper fare? There is a short entry on “Induction, Epistemic Issues In”.
Popper, or any anti- or  non-inductivist approach to these issues, is
not even mentioned. That entry refers us to two others: “Confirmation Theory”
and “Inductive Inference”. In neither entry is Popper, or any anti- or  
non-inductivist approach to these issues, even
mentioned. What is going on? Either the authors do not properly know Popper’s
or others’ anti-inductivist work [which indicates their incompetence] or they
think it not worth mentioning. But, unless the state of the argument is such
that no anti- or non-inductivist approach to these issues is tenable, this is
an outrageous piece of editorialising by omission and cannot be viewed as 
How does Popper fare elsewhere in Routledge? 
There is an entry on “Dualism” that does not mention
Popper’s defence of dualism in non-Cartesian terms. Instead the author deploys
a host of uncritical assumptions that are overturned in Popper’s TSAIB. The 
author’s general and
uncritical assumption is that dualism ought to be assessed in its Cartesian
form. There is uncritical talk of both “physical substances” and “mental
substances”. There is uncritical use of “purely physical” to glibly extend
beyond the realm of physics to “biological phenomena”, though this skates over
the crucial point that if  “biological
phenomena” cannot be explained purely in terms of their physics then, in a
crucial sense, they cannot be explained in terms that are “purely physical”.
There is the uncritical assumption that “Mental causation of bodily events
would conflict with the principle of the conservation of energy”, and no
mention of thinkers like Popper who explain why this is not so for the 
There is the uncritical assumption that dualist-interactionism faces an
egregious problem of causation between
physical and mental events, as against Popper’s view that even a
monist-physicalism faces equally insoluble problems of causation as between
different kinds of physical entities. This uncritical and almost blind faith in
modern physics (as a kind of metaphysical prophet, and as if that physics were
not at all problematic philosophically in addition to its scientific problems
being far from fully resolved), underpins the complacent conclusion, “Because
dualism conflicts with the scientific consensus that at bottom everything is
physical, it receives little endorsement today.” This view is oblivious to the
lack of consensus within science, and that any such “consensus” is anyway
properly described as metaphysical not “scientific”, as whether “at bottom
everything is physical” is not answerable by empirical testing and so not
answerable in a “scientific” way.
That’s enough for now.


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