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Many regard this as Popper's Magnum Opus. The famous chemist Wachtershauser said that this is a "gem" and that it liberated him from a sterile accounting view of science; Frank Tipler, the famous cosmologist regards this as the most important book this century. See the preface to the 1st English edition, as there is a marvelous demolition of linguistic philosophy, which was rife in England at the time. This is the book that swept away any lingering suspicion that one could have "pure observation reports" or "sense data" untainted by theory. The book contains a major treatment of probability.
`One of the most important documents of the twentieth century.' - Sir Peter Medawar, New Scientist.
In one majestic and systematic attack, psychologism, naturalism, inductionism, and logical positivism are swept away and replaced by a set of methodological rules called Falsificationism. Falsificationism is the idea that science advances by unjustified, exaggerated guesses followed by unstinting criticism. Only hypotheses capable of clashing with observation reports are allowed to count as scientific. "Gold is soluble in hydrochloric acid" is scientific (though false); "Some homeopathic medicine does work" is, taken on its own, unscientific (though possibly true). The first is scientific because we can eliminate it if it is false; the second is unscientific because even if it were false we could not get rid of it by confronting it with an observation report that contradicted it. Unfalsifiable theories are like the computer programs with no uninstall option that just clog up the computers precious storage space. Falsifiable theories, on the other hand, enhance our control over error while expanding the richness of what we can say about the world.
Any "positive support"for theories is unobtainable and superfluous; all we can do is eliminate error - and even this is hypothetical, though often successful. This idea is elaborated with an orchestration suggestive of someone who loves great music. (Popper loved Mozart and Bach, and took great pleasure in composing his own music.) The common idea that Popper neglected to consider whether Falsificationism itself is falsifiable is already scotched here. You can falsify a description, but not a rule of method as such (though obviously a rule can be criticized in other ways). The notion that science offers proof is now only advanced by popular treatments of science on TV and in (many) newspapers - most journalists (with a few important exceptions) are sadly completely devoid of theoretical knowledge: a side-effect of overspecializing on the immediate moment. But then, anyone can improve.
A major attack on wholesale (or revolutionary, utopian) social engineering (National Socialist, Marxist or otherwise), and a proposal for "piecemeal social engineering". Mindful of our fallibility, ignorance and the ubiquitous unintended results of our plans, Popper prescribes piecemeal reform because we can better monitor and eliminate our mistakes in the small; he proscribes revolutionary reform because we can neither easily monitor the society-wide ramifications nor reverse our leaps. Popper's adventurism in science and conservatism in politics (in the abstract sense) issue from the same aim: to enhance our control over our fallible forays into the unknown. Popper contrasts historical prophecy and scientific prediction, arguing that the prediction of social events is severely limited by the impact on society of unforeseeable new knowledge. This argument is elaborated and refined in The Open Universe, (see below).
`Probably the only book published this year which will outlive this century.' - Arthur Koestler.
"a work of first-class importance which ought to be widely read for its masterly criticism of the enemies of democracy, ancient and modern. Popper's attack on Plato, while unorthodox, is in my opinion thoroughly justified. His analysis of Hegel is deadly. Marx is dissected with equal acumen, and given his due share of responsibility for modern misfortunes. The book is a vigorous and profound defence of democracy, timely, very interesting, and very well written". - Bertrand Russell
In the Open Society Popper illustrates the points he made in The Poverty of Historicism. But it is much more than illustration. The work has controversial criticisms of the works of Plato, Hegel, and Marx, especially their historicist and totalitarian doctrines. Historicism is a loosely connected set of ideas about change. Roughly, historicism asserts that the world consists of processes not things, and is always in flux, but even so, there are laws of historical development that describe the stages we must pass through. It was Heraclitus who said "you cannot step into the same river twice, for new waters are constantly flowing in". Popper traces historicism from Hesiod, through his influence on Heraclitus's theory of change, and how the theories of Plato, Aristotle and Parmenides can all be seen as attempts to solve the problem of change that Heraclitus discovered. Magee in his book,(Confessions of a Philosopher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997) reports that many classical scholars missed the profound insights with which this book overflows because they were preoccupied by the niceties of translation of ancient texts. Popper shows how deeply metaphysical ideas work themselves out in social and political ideologies - philosophical presuppositions that, whether recognized or not, form the framework of many modern conflicts and debates.
One of Popper's main contributions to Political theory is to switch the problem from Plato's question "Who should rule?" to "How do we arrange our institutions to prevent rulers (whether individuals or majorities) doing too much damage?".
Incidentally, even though Popper labeled Marx as one of the enemies, Popper is graciously eulogistic of Marx's method. For example, Popper is most approving of Marx's focus on the systematic unintended results of intended action, upholding the autonomy of sociology - it is individuals who act, but their interaction cannot be reduced to psychological laws. For example, the laws of supply and demand are not derivable from psychology (alone). We could also say that the evolution of money or the Internet provides two more nice examples. The footnotes are as interesting as the main text. Popper regarded this book as his "war effort", and it should be commended for its presumption that rational argument is essential in the battle against the theories that lie behind irrationalism and dangerous social and political movements.To Order
"The Essays and lectures of which this book is composed are variations upon one very simple theme - the thesis that we can learn from our mistakes. They develop a theory of knowledge and of its growth. It is a theory of reason that assigns to rational arguments the modest and yet important role of criticizing our often mistaken attempts to solve our problems...Though it stresses our fallibility it does not resign itself to skepticism, for it also stresses the fact that knowledge can grow, and that science can progress - just because we can learn from our mistakes." - Karl Popper, Preface to 1st Edition, penned in 1962.
Popper reinforced this in the Preface to the 2nd Edition, penned in 1965:
"It is part of my thesis that all our knowledge grows only through the correcting of our mistakes."
In the same preface Popper makes the point that not only knowledge, but our system of aims itself can grow through a similar process of trial and error. I think it follows that life is a series of experiments: we try on (consciously or unconsciously) different values, lifestyles and ways for size, rejecting those that fail to satisfy the aims that we are using provisionally as a criterion. These criteria themselves can be subject to processes of trial and error-elimination - a higher level selection. The book applies this principle across a wide range of problems, from politics to the mind-body problem.To Order
The book defends an objective theory of knowledge against the tradition, traceable back to Aristotle, of seeing knowledge as a subjective state of a human being, and scientific knowledge as a specially secure sort of belief. Scientific knowledge, Popper argues, is an abstract product of our minds that is detachable from and criticizable independently of its creator. My favorite metaphor for objective knowledge is a new SAAB car engine. A theory embodying scientific knowledge is like a new engine placed on the table for other SAAB designers and technicians to criticise, tweak and adjust. Once created, it can be worked on, improved or rejected, even if the designer is unknown or is no longer with us. (N.B. a scientific theory, Popper would insist, is not only an instrument, but is also either true or false.)
Popper makes major use of his theory of three domains: World 1 (the world of physical objects and processes), World 2 (our psychological states), and World 3 (the world of abstract products of the mind that are not reducible to our psychology). Examples of World 3 objects are numbers, theories, designs, works of art, institutions, Web authoring programs, SAAB engines. Many reviewers have been distracted by the fact that some things belong to more than one of these domains. But the interesting question is not whether these are exclusive domains, but how they interact with one another and whether this thesis solves the problems it addresses. Popper conjectures that it is only through World 2 that World 3 objects can influence World 1.
An intellectual autobiography spanning Popper's life from his early youth up to about 1970. It provides a delightful and comprehensive introduction to Popper's work, without sacrificing any depth or detail. Besides being an absorbing exposition of his World 3 creations, Popper also talks about his personal attitude and feelings about music and about various particular and general social problems he has encountered in his life. Like The Open Society and its Enemies, the footnotes to Unended Quest are substantial and worth a serious read.To Order
A joint effort of Popper and Eccles to produce what they describe as a modest theory of interactionism, consisting of two parts. In Part I Popper surveys the philosophical background and criticises rival theories. In Part II Eccles provides a synopsis of the then current knowledge of brain function and anatomy, and propounds a neurological theory underpinning the interaction of the mind and the brain. The theory has some counterintuitive predictions that suggest interesting experiments. The final section consists of a fascinating dialogue between Popper and Eccles. I especially enjoyed Popper's demolition of materialism, drawing on the history of science, including the field theories of Boscovich, Leibnitz, and Faraday and Maxwell.
In this connection, Popper also attacks the pervasive assumption that it is impossible or methodologically unsound to explain one sort of domain (or type of "substance") in terms of another. If the mind and body are radically different types of thing, it is said, then one cannot explain the other. This criticism was leveled at Descartes's dualism, and is still used today (see John Searle's otherwise excellent book, The Mystery of Consciousness, 1997, Granta Books: London. and my review in New Scientist).This is obviously wrong. The best explanations we have relate very different types of process or thing. For example, in physics, light is explained by relating it to the very different phenomena of magnetism and electricity. It was once thought that the moon and an apple are very different things: but Newton disabused us of this parochialism, showing that they both obeyed the same laws.
Popper further elaborates his theory of Worlds 1, 2 & 3. None of the outstanding theorists of the mind-body problem have in any way helped us to understand how abstract products like theories, numbers and the logical relationships within and between theories can make a difference to the physical world. The suggestion that you are able to read this now independently of the existence of scientific and mathematical theories and reasoning strikes me as outrageous. Yet philosophers such as Searle, Dennett, Gerald Edelman, etc., make this very suggestion through their complete neglect of this factor and of Popper's pioneering exploration of the role of abstract entities and relations.
The Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery was written mainly during the years 1951-56, at the time when Logik Der Forschung was being translated into English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery. The different volumes were originally intended as a series of appendixes to The Logic of Scientific Discovery, where Popper would expand, correct and develop its ideas. But one group of appendices grew into a work far exceeding The Logic of Scientific Discovery, so it was decided to publish these as a separate work called Postscript: After 20 years. But no sooner had the text been set in typed galley proofs in 1956-57, when the project came to a halt because Popper had to have operations on both of his eyes. When he had recovered, Popper did do a great deal of work on the book, but other projects took over (completely after 1962) and the Postscript lay unpublished for decades. (Fortunately, at least some of Popper's associates and students had access to it.) The three volumes can be read separately, but bear in mind that they form a connected series of arguments. Each volume attacks one or another of the subjectivist or idealist approaches to knowledge.
In this volume Popper attacks Inductivism, the chief source of subjectivism and idealism (the world is my dream). His attack spans four stages: logical, methodological, epistemological, and metaphysical. Popper develops his theory of falsificationism, dealing with many misinterpretations. He makes it clear that he had always distinguished between the purely logical sense of falsifiability (which defines his demarcation criterion) and the methodological impossibility of obtaining a definitive or conclusive falsification. The former is based on a logical relationship between the theory and basic statements (statements contradicting the theory and describing observable things). Each generation of students "discovers" that Popper's criterion is not applicable because one cannot conclusively refute any theory. But Popper's point was that we must decide in advance which states of affairs (basic statements) we would accept as refutations of our theory. If I claim that all swans are white, I must be able to describe at least one circumstance which contradicts the theory and under which I would abandon my claim.
Look out for this travesty of Popper's analysis: "You cannot prove a theory, but you can disprove it". (This is important because even Popper, when speaking roughly of his method, used the word "disprove". See page 192 of Conjectures and Refutations.) This travesty allows superficial critics to say "but to disprove a theory is simply to prove its contradictory; and if we can prove then we can be certain, but Popper told us that we cannot eliminate uncertainty, and thus Popper fails to escape the problem of uncertainty."
This common mistake confuses demonstration and derivation. Proof is a matter of demonstration (as in mathematics), but refutation is a matter of accepting a basic statement and rejecting the truth of the theory it contradicts. If I accept "This swan here is black", then I am obliged to reject "All swans are white". Because from "This swan here is black" I can derive "Not all swans are white". But I have not proved that not all swans are white, that this must be true. In a proof, we discard the assumptions that helped us to get to the conclusion. This is quite clear in proof by reductio ad absurdum. In a reductio ad absurdum we start by assuming the opposite of what we wish to prove. That is, we assume it is false. We then try to infer an absurdity (contradiction) from this, and if we do, we then conclude that the assumption must be true. But in a refutation our rejection of a theory ("All swans are white") depends on our maintaining the truth of the basic statement ("This swan here is black"). In a refutation we hold on to the assumptions of our derivation. (Of course, the derivations involved in science are much more complex than in the swan example, but the point stands. But see Jack Cohen's paper in The Critical Rationalist.)
Popper develops a theory of probability. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery Popper had criticized the subjectivist interpretation of probability using the frequency interpretation. In this volume, he elaborates a new interpretation called the propensity interpretation.
True to his argumentative (though careful) style, Popper gives Thomas Kuhn a good drubbing in the Introduction. Kuhn misinterpreted Popper's criterion of demarcation as a description of the history of science. In fact, the criterion is based on a logical analysis of the relationships between theories and test statements. Kuhn thought that the actual behaviour of scientists could refute a logical criterion and undermine a methodological proposal for what scientists ought to do based on this logical criterion. Kuhn claims (page 70 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1972.) that history shows that no scientists used Popper's method and it is thus undermined. Even if Kuhn were right about the history of science, the fact that no one has used a method in no way shows it is not the best method. On the other hand Popper supplies plenty of examples that conform to his proposal.
I would like to make a point which I guess is along Popper's lines. It would seem that in Kuhn's eyes the collective of scientists is an ultimate authority: what they do is what you should do, and vice versa. This is not what Kuhn explicitly says, but it does follow from what he does say. There is no room for the sceptic to say "well, I do respect your work, but perhaps you are wrong in your methods". But there should be room for anyone to criticise scientists, even if he is in a minority. After all, it is logically possible that the whole of science is wrong. If we forget the fallibility of scientists (even as a whole) we open the door to the emergence of an unimpeachable scientific elite and technocracy. The healthy communication and give and take between scientific specialists and nonspecialists that we often do enjoy would break down. This is the danger of the popular approach to science in philosophy called Naturalism, for which Kuhn is partly responsible, which asserts that we can only study science in terms of what scientists actually do. Along with its sociological companions, it is one of the most spineless, shallow perspectives on science.
Popularizations of science ought to stop using the flippant phrase "scientific proof", for this only reinforces Kuhn's canonization of science. I do not think that this is an unwarranted concern. We must uphold the heroic conception of science, but we must also maintain that no one is above or outside criticism from any source. It is one of the aims of Karl Popper Forums to help scientists keep in touch with non-scientific-specialists and specialists in other fields through the medium of philosophical discussion. Philosophical discussion takes place on a level field and can help to correct any misunderstanding between scientists and others.To Order
This work contains the most important and sustained treatment of determinism. Popper distinguishes between metaphysical and scientific determinism. Scientific determinism is the view that
"...any event can be rationally predicted, with any desired degree of precision, if we are given a sufficiently precise description of past events, together with all the laws of nature."
Metaphysical determinism is the view that the future is as unchangeable as the past. Metaphysical determinism is a weak implication of scientific determinism that is untestable. No matter how regular and unchangeable the world appeared, there could always be an island of changeability somewhere in, say, a distant galaxy. It is, therefore, against scientific determinism that Popper's argument is directed, because if scientific determinism falls, metaphysical determinism falls with it. He argues that not even classical physics obliges us to accept a deterministic world. The most fascinating argument for me is the argument for the impossibility of self-prediction, which is elaborated at a satisfyingly very abstract (but still very clear) level.To Order
Popper reviews the history of quantum physics from a staunchly realist position. Popper's view is that quantum theory has been misinterpreted, and this has led us into paradoxes (such as that light consists of both particles and waves). These paradoxes arise because of a faulty understanding of the calculus of probability, which forms an important part of quantum theory. The prevalent understanding of probability is that it is a measure of our degree of belief or of our knowledge/ignorance. Popper opposes his own objective propensity interpretation of probability to this subjective view. He even proposes an experiment to test the idea that knowledge alone can effect the outcome of a quantum experiment. As in Objective Knowledge, Popper is trying valiantly and with powerful weaponry to oust the subject from physics.To Order
The Two Fundamental Problems of the Theory of KnowledgeKarl Popper. Routledge (November 26, 2008)
Editors: Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner.
(May 14, 2008.)
In this long-awaited volume, Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner bring to light Popper's most important unpublished and uncollected writings from the time of The Open Society until his death in 1994. After The Open Society: Selected Social and Political Writings reveals the development of Popper's political and philosophical thought during and after the Second World War, from his early socialism through to the radical humanitarianism of The Open Society. The papers in this collection, many of which are available here for the first time, demonstrate the clarity and pertinence of Popper's thinking on such topics as religion, history, Plato and Aristotle, while revealing a lifetime of unwavering political commitment. After The Open Society illuminates the thought of one of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers and is essential reading for anyone interested in the recent course of philosophy, politics, history and society.
by David Miller (Jan 2006)
If there has been some modest advance, since Karl Popper's death in 1994, in the general understanding of his critical rationalist theory of knowledge and philosophy of science, there is still widespread resistance both to it and to the recognition of the magnitude of his contribution. Popper long ago diagnosed the logical problems of traditional enlightenment rationalism (as did some irrationalists), but instead of pretending that they are readily solved or embracing irrational defeatism (as do postmodernists), he provided a cogent and liberating rationalist alternative. This book promotes, defends, criticizes, and refines this alternative. David Miller is the foremost exponent of the purist critical rationalist doctrine and here presents his mature views, discussing the role that logic and argument play in the growth of knowledge, criticizing the common understanding of argument as an instrument of justification, persuasion or discovery and instead advocating the critical rationalist view that only criticism matters. Miller patiently and thoroughly undoes the damage done by those writers who attack critical rationalism by invoking the sterile mythology of induction and justification that it seeks to sweep away. In addition, his new material on the debate on verisimilitude is essential reading for all working in this field.
by Troels Eggers Hansen (Dec 31, 2006)
Popper develops his latest ideas on the objective interpretation of probability and quantum phenomena, creating a new cosmology/metaphysics in which the whole of physical reality can be seen as brought about by sets of propensities, or real (but "unrealised") potentials. The propensities are like fluid fields of forces. The future is undetermined in the sense that the present consists of many propensities that, in the present, remain in the balance. Therefore, even though the future is undetermined it is not formless: its structure at the present is described by describing the set of present propensities. Each of these propensities has an objective weighting that can be associated with a probability measure that it will be realized. The weighting characterize each (individual) propensity, but they cannot be measured other than by observing the effect of a propensity over a sequence of events.
Here Popper upsets the superficial view that he despised metaphysics, finds an appropriate metaphysics for his method of falsifiability, allows for non-physical things like theories and plans to influence the physical world, and relegates the frequency interpretation of probability to the measurement of objective propensities. As usual, and unlike many other writers on metaphysics, Popper is eminently clear and unpretentious. Here is a person who wants to be profound *and* to be understood.
This unique collection of essays, published together for the first time reveals Karl Popper's engagement with Presocratic philosophy and the enlightenment he experienced in his reading of Parmenides. Karl Popper was inspired to write about Presocratic philosophy for two reasons: to illustrate the notion that all history is the history of problem situations and to show the contributions of early Greek philosophers in the context of European philosophy and humanism
The problems covered by this book cover the beginnings of scientific speculation in classical Greece, the emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th Century, figures of the Enlightenement such as Voltaire and Kant, and the role of self-criticism in the arts. The main theme is the struggle - present in all organisms - to improve the world. Darwin taught us that adpatation is universal. He also said that organisms are passive in this process. Popper emphasises the many ways in which organisms actively change their own environments and thus the selection pressures upon them. The best example of such active intervention in evolution (even before the obvious recent genetic manipulation) is the effect of human language and institutions.
I found the most delectable piece on offer is chapter 6 "Against Big Words", in which - among other things - some members of the Frankfurt School, especially Habermas and Adorno, are shown (in my opinion) to be pretentious obscurantists. High sounding sentences, seemingly replete with deep information, from Adorno and Hamermas are given straightforward translations and the effect is revealing to say the least. (It almost makes me feel ashamed to have adored the Frankfurt School as a teenager.) For example:
|Quotation of Adorno from Habermas's Essay:||Popper's Translation:|
|"Social totality does not lead any
life of its own over and above that
which unites and of which it is, itself, composed."
|"Society consists of social
This chapter is subtitled "A letter not originally intended for publication." Much misunderstanding surrounds the dispute between Popper and the Frankfurt School. As Popper explains in the important Preface to this chapter, he felt obliged to publish the letter to correct misquotations.To Order
Contains both penetrating observations on the biological/evolutionary origins of our knowledge and charming, forceful, impassioned, and highly critical commentary on all current politicians. When I was at University, a common superficial criticism of Popper was that he stood for the Status Quo of Western Democracies. But this book shows that, while defending democracy and the rule of law (as the least bad solution to the problem of peaceful order), he is by no stretch of the imagination a mere defender or darling sychophant of the powers that be. This makes for an engaging read.
Offcial book description:"All Life is Problem Solving provides a provocative selection of Popper's writings on his main preoccupations during the last twenty-five years of his life. The book consists of fifteen pieces--lectures, seminar contributions, radio broadcasts and magazine articles--spanning the years 1958 to 1993, and never published in English before. The collection elucidates Popper's interest in the origins of Germanic language and culture, illuminates his process of working out key formulations in his theory of science and indicates his view of the state of the world at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. This volume of Sir Karl Popper's work presents important statements of not only his philosophical beliefs, but his views of the modern world."To Order