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
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.