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Review for Philosophy of Science by Noretta Koertge


Karl R. Popper, The Myth of the Framework: In Defence of Science and Rationality (Edited by M.A. Notturno). New York: Routledge (1994). Pp. xiii + 229.
Philosophers of science who found Popper's recent books that are based on manuscripts for the long-awaited "Post-script" disappointingly redundant or tendentious would be mistaken to expect the same from Myth of the Framework. The nine essays collected here, dating from 1958-73 with a 1993 preface, show Popper at the height of his philosophical powers. These short papers are beautifully written--almost all were first delivered as public lectures--and the editor tells us Sir Karl revised them repeatedly, always in an effort to "simplify his expression" and "make his ideas more accessible" (p. 210). Thus they are ideally suited for beginning philosophy students. Furthermore, the themes which unify these pieces In Defence of Science and Rationality speak very directly to conflicts and debates within the academy and larger intellectual community today.

The myth which Popper criticizes can be summed in one sentence: "A rational and fruitful discussion is impossible unless the participants share a common framework of basic assumptions..." (p. 34) He argues that all too often the belief in the futility of rational discussion between those who radically disagree has undermined the unity of mankind and increased the likelihood of violence and war. Popper readily admits that discussions are more pleasant when participants have overlapping views, but he shows how even confrontations across an "unbridgeable gulf" can be fruitful, in that both parties may learn a great deal even when they do not reach agreement. He then gives examples of fruitful culture clashes in the history of Western civilization and criticizes alleged instances of radical incommensurability such as Whorf's accounts of Hopi verbs.

But although shared intellectual frameworks are not necessary for dialogue, Popper grants that there may indeed be attitudes which are preconditions for discussion, "such as a wish to get to, or nearer to, the truth, and a willingness to share problems or to understand the aims and the problems of somebody else." (p. 35) It would seem, however, that we might now end up with a new problem which would stymie dialogue: Let us accept Popper's argument that incommensurability of conceptual frameworks poses no logical barrier to fruitful discussion--we can always break out of the structural rules of our own system. But what if our debating partners are not willing to try? What if they do not share the attitudes toward critical inquiry which Popper calls a pre-condition for rational discussion? Might not an incommensurability of values or attitudes be an even bigger obstacle to peaceful social intercourse than the difficulties alluded to in the myth of the framework?

Popper does not confront this problem directly, but I can imagine he might respond as follows: All of our empirical judgments are tentative and appraisals of other people's attitudes are exceedingly fallible. Therefore, we are usually well-advised to be optimistic about the possibility of fruitful dialogue. This does not, mean, however, that we must endure everything. We need not read the works of people who promote the cult of incomprehensibility although we may still talk to them about the importance of clarity, a tactic Popper used in his debates with the Frankfurt school (Chapter 3). And in the face of violent or aggressive acts, Popper does not advocate unconditional pacifism (cf. his criticism of unilateral disarmament, pp. 108-109).
Popper's essays frequently allude to the importance of non-dogmatic attitudes and open institutions for both the growth of knowledge and the conduct of civic affairs. Moral articles of faith are also required: "... a faith in peace, in humanity, in tolerance, in modesty, in trying to learn from one's mistakes; and in the possibilities of critical discussion." (p. xiii) Previously I had not fully appreciated the strong moral flavor of Popper's writings on epistemology and methodology. Here he makes explicit the intimate connections between the epistemic doctrine of fallibility and the moral virtues of humility and tolerance. And his injunctions to state conjectures clearly, to test them severely, to separate the criticism of an idea from personal attacks on its proponents, and to publicly modify positions in the light of critical discussion are now presented as general moral maxims, although scientists have a special professional obligation to follow them assiduously.

Given the subtitle of this book, In Defence of Science and Rationality, one might expect Popper's ideas to fall squarely in line with those who would defend the academy against the forces of political correctness. And indeed Popper's indictments of the obscure writing style of German neo-Kantians can be redirected towards today's French--and American--postmodernists. His critique of the Marxist thesis of class-bound science can easily be used to fault those who claim that gender and/or race are major components of scientific systems. His analyses of the roots of relativism and his repudiation of intellectual fads are still quite timely today. Furthermore, he clearly views modern science and the striving for human freedom as the greatest of human achievements and also believes the tradition of critical rationalism that made science and democracy possible had a unique beginning--he calls it "the Greek miracle".

But this book also provides provocative challenges to anyone who would defend the status quo. Popper calls on scientists to assume more moral responsibility for technological applications: "[A scientist] should consider it one of his special responsibilities to foresee as far as possible the unintended consequences of his work and to draw attention, from the very beginning, to those which we should strive to avoid." (p. 129) He deplores obeisance to the authority of experts and the equation of increased specialization with increased understanding (p. ix). He characterizes Bacon as "the spiritual father of modern science, not because of his philosophy of science and his theory of induction, but because he became the founder and prophet of a rationalist church--a kind of anti-church." (p. 195) And Bacon's formula 'knowledge is power', originally, as Popper puts it, "an attempt to advertise knowledge" (p. 194), all too often led to the idea that power was something better than knowledge and that power was good in itself. Popper also warns us that the unchecked growth of Big Science endangers great science (p. 23, p. 72).

But although Popper's sharp criticisms of scientism may provide quotable quotes for contemporary sociologists of scientific knowledge and cultural theorists, his ideal for scientific inquiry is diametrically opposed to theirs. For once again in these essays Popper endorses the regulative principles of truth, realism, understanding, and explanatory power. He forcibly argues that although science is indeed theory-laden, a sharp distinction can and must be drawn between scientific theories and ideologies of all kinds.

During his lifetime, Popper's ideas were more widely discussed in Great Britain, the Commonwealth, Germany and Latin America than in the United States. (At this writing, Conjectures and Refutations, his classic work in philosophy of science, is out of print in America.) Yet during the Arkansas trial concerning the constitutionality of a law which would require the teaching of Creationism in biology classes, it was Popper's simple demarcation criterion that best illuminated the deficiencies in Creation "science". Today there are new ideological threats to the integrity of science education and scientific inquiry--some adversaries of science even speak of "the science wars". The simple philosophical exposition of critical rationalism found in these essays may once again be pressed into service.