An Introdution to Karl Popper

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Reply Thu 9 Apr, 2009 03:31 pm
Karl Popper

Sir Karl Popper is certainly among the most influential philosophers of science in the twentieth century, as well as his important critique of Marxism and his extensive work on social and political philosophy. Though Poppers work is not without criticism and his reputation in the history of philosophy is still under much consideration.

Life
Popper was born in Vienna (then in Austria-Hungary) in 1902. Although he was a son of well to do Doctor of law, Popper witnessed poverty and political upheaval first hand. This lead him to pursue social work, seeing Popper work in a clinic for neglected children which was operated by the Freudian Alfred Adler, the time working at the clinic defiantly had a profound affect on the young Popper. It certainly had an effect on his views of what distinguished science from other activities such as psychoanalysis.

In 1919 the socially aware Popper became a socialist and then a communist becoming a member of the Social Democratic Party of Austria which at the time fully adopted Marxist ideology, but following the deaths of students and workers at the hands of the police during protests some of Popper's communist friends argued that the deaths were a help to the cause, Popper had radically different view's about the value of human life and the ends of political action. The experience helped lead to his rejection of communism and an eventual critique of Marxism in the second Volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In 1925 Popper obtained a primary school teaching diploma. In 1928 Popper earned a PhD with a thesis on the nature of methods in Psychology and in 1929 also complicated qualifications which allowed him to teach both Maths and Physics in secondary school. Popper also attracted the eye of several members of the Vienna Circle becoming friends with some of the members of the Circle sharing the high esteem that they held science within. Though Popper became critical of the tenets of Logical Positivism, he was especially hostile toward the work of Wittgenstein which alienated Moritz Schlick and may have been one of the reasons why he was never invited into the circle. In 1934 Popper published he is first book The Logic of Scientific Discovery. The book was widely read and lead him to be invited to lecture at both universities in the United States and in the UK.

Though both of Poppers parents who where of Jewish origin had converted to Lutheranism in the hope of successfully blending into Viennese society, with Popper also being baptised in his parents new faith, he was still regarded Jewish by the Nazi's this lead Popper with much help form his British colleagues to leave Vienna for University College, Christchurch, New Zealand where obtained a post teaching Philosophy. After the end of World War 2 he took up a post at the London School of Economics retiring from academic life in 1969. Popper died in 1994 and after cremation his ashes where taken to Vienna where they are buried to this day.

Philosophy of Science
The not very original starting point of Popper's philosophy of science was the reminder a statement could have been verified by observations millions of times but one single observation contrary to the statement would be enough to call it all into question. A very basic statement such as 'All swans are white' based on large pools of sense observation would be falsified the first time we encountered a black swan. Another example would be the statement that water boils at 100 Celsius this statement though useful for most purposes, when water is observed in closed vessels or at higher altitudes the boiling point of water increases and the statement has to be modified to read 'water boils at 100 Celsius in open vessels at sea level'. We have to work out why the differences occur and reformulate the original formula for wider range of phenomena, in this case it would involve working out a formula which will link the boiling point of water with air pressure and other variables.

Both of the previous examples are non-theoretical examples. The theoretical example that had impressed Popper occurred during the 1919 eclipse where an observation was made which confirmed Einstein's theory on the curvature of light and contradicted Newton's theory which had been verified for 200 years. Popper challenged the traditional view of Scientific progress he contended that the majority of progress depended on scientists coming across things that contradicted theory's and then beginning the search to why it contradicted the theory which led scientists to either then modify or abandon the old theory. Instead of looking for examples that would verify the theory one should actively look for examples that would falsify the theory.

The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty Of Historicism
The Open Society and it's Enemies was one of Popper's war works produced during the time period he spent in Christchurch, New Zealand and appeared in two volumes, first being Published by Routledge in 1945. In the two volume work Popper built on his critique of historicism which first appeared in his 1936 paper The Poverty of Historicism which wasn't published until 1957 after the The Open Society and it's Enemies had been in circulation for a significant period of time. In The Poverty of Historicism Popper defined historicism as "an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim.". The criticisms that Popper outlined in The Poverty of Historicism are then reiterated in The Open Society and play an important role in his criticism of Plato, Hegel and Marx who he describes an Enemies of the open society. One of the key criticisms brought to bear against Historicism is that human history is a singular unique and it is wrong to outline Social law from the study of historical trends "a statement asserting the existence of a trend at a certain time and place would be a singular historical statement and not a universal law." With Popper arguing in the second volume that Hegel and Marx are the parents of modern 20th Century totalitarianism.

The alternative that Popper outlines in The Open Society instead of historicism is what he calls "piecemeal social engineering" which consists of making small and reversible changes to made to the various institutions which are in place within the society allowing us to observe and see what can be learnt from these changes. Popper argues due to the unpredictability of the future an effect of larger changes may be random and untraceable. By making smaller changes we are able too make limited but falsifiable statements about the effect of Social actions.

The book received praise from several important figures such as Hayek the Austrian Economist and Political Philosopher who was partly responsible for bringing Popper to lecture at LSE after World War 2. Though this work was not without criticism with certain Philosophers feeling that Popper was misrepresenting the Philosophers that he critiqued as 'the enemies of the open society'.

Influence
Popper has had serious and significant influence on the Philosophy of Science with Popper's falsification being widely debated with a lengthy list of criticisms being levelled at it from various sources. The same can be said for Popper's social philosophy, it undoubtedly had influence but also received considerably criticism. It may too early to determine what lasting influence Popper will have on Philosophy, but one thing is certain that he produced a body of intellectual work which is worth serious study.
 
Theaetetus
 
Reply Thu 9 Apr, 2009 03:51 pm
@RDanneskjld,
Thanks for another wonderful introduction! I am not a fan of Popper's work in the history of philosophy considering that he obviously did not read the Republic by Plato carefully. He failed to notice that from the end of Book II and into Book VI, the look into the guardian state was a diversion from the original point of the dialogue--what causes happiness in old age (which they decided was justice)? Thanks to Popper and some of his other contemporaries Plato is demonized and many people continue to perpetuate this false idea that Plato endorsed the guardian state.

On the other hand, from what I have seen of Popper's work in the philosophy of science it is rather interesting, and worthy of study.
 
Victor Eremita
 
Reply Thu 9 Apr, 2009 03:57 pm
@RDanneskjld,
Bravo Great Intro! I liked Popper until I read Kuhn and Feyerabend. Now Popper's phil of science does nothing for me. LOL

I have yet to read the Open Society though.
 
Theaetetus
 
Reply Thu 9 Apr, 2009 04:03 pm
@RDanneskjld,
Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was the most boring and dry book I have ever read--although the first and last page or two of each chapter are definitely worth reading.
 
Victor Eremita
 
Reply Thu 9 Apr, 2009 04:09 pm
@RDanneskjld,
SSR was great, it's dry yes, but together with The Copernican Revolution, Kuhn is da man of philosophy of science. Feyerabend is good for bringing humanity back to science.

Here's Popper's best line (probably paraphrased can't remember the exact line): "It is morally wrong to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers".
 
kitty cat00
 
Reply Sun 19 Apr, 2009 05:08 am
@Victor Eremita,
Hi Guys,

Well, as a philosophy novice I quite like Popper's ideas about what real science is... although i can tell from all of your responses that I have a lot of other reading to do!! Basically just wanted to ask.. what is Popper's view on science that does not come from a theory, and is just exploratory? Obviously you can't falsify it as the author doesn't say either way what they expect, but does he still consider this to not be science. I can't find anywhere that says about exploratory science... any help would be appreciated thanks!! :brickwall: lol!
 
nameless
 
Reply Sun 19 Apr, 2009 04:02 pm
@RDanneskjld,
An interesting read;
Notes on Popper’s Conjectures & Refutations
 
RDanneskjld
 
Reply Sun 19 Apr, 2009 05:32 pm
@kitty cat00,
kitty_cat00 wrote:
Hi Guys,

Well, as a philosophy novice I quite like Popper's ideas about what real science is... although i can tell from all of your responses that I have a lot of other reading to do!! Basically just wanted to ask.. what is Popper's view on science that does not come from a theory, and is just exploratory? Obviously you can't falsify it as the author doesn't say either way what they expect, but does he still consider this to not be science. I can't find anywhere that says about exploratory science... any help would be appreciated thanks!!


I would say that Popper would hold the view the exploratory investigation wasnt Science, as any conclusions that we were to draw from our exploratory investigation's would as this would depend on Induction (we would be verifying something rather than falsifying),which was something that Popper was extemely keen to avoid. Though I cant speak for Popper himself, I believe that this is would be his view.
 
jack phil
 
Reply Tue 11 May, 2010 09:54 pm
@RDanneskjld,
So, the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor into the rich happened in this past decade, sorta like Marx said 'capitalism' would lead towards. One has to wonder about Popper, von Hayek, and Soros... enemies of Plato... patently not 'scientific' though they had people going for a while.

It is curious that Popper traced fascism to Plato. I wonder if he ever read Plato. Because looking the enemies of Plato, one has to recognize totalitarianism is an old vein, not something new. And considering that Plato and Socrates FAILED, and Greece collapsed, one has to wonder even further...

Soros expects the economy to crash, and he is the founder of the 'open society'. Curious. I am reading Wittgenstein's Poker, and there is a mention that Popper's book is sometimes referred to as "The Open Society by One of Its Enemies"

His greatest Hero, Bertie, thought that a one world government should control all the world's arms. Don't believe your lying eyes, these guys are really "anti" totalitarianism.

Its like the Antichrist(Hitler) destroyed his country and family, so he blamed Christ(and Plato) for the advent of the Antichrist.
 
Lumina phil
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 09:25 am
@RDanneskjld,
Hi all!

Popper's theories of scientific explanation are indeed fascinating! Thank you for the great introduction, Ragnar.

I was recently thinking about his notion of "corroboration" in comparison with the Vienna Circle's idea of "confirmation" - as far as I get it, the main difference is that an instance of corroboration might have falsified the given hypothesis (but didn't), whereas this is not true for an instance of confirmation. So which would it be more appropriate to say: that corroborating instances compose a subset of confirming instances, or that the two notions are completely disparate?
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 09:39 am
@Lumina phil,
Lumina;163434 wrote:
Hi all!

Popper's theories of scientific explanation are indeed fascinating! Thank you for the great introduction, Ragnar.

I was recently thinking about his notion of "corroboration" in comparison with the Vienna Circle's idea of "confirmation" - as far as I get it, the main difference is that an instance of corroboration might have falsified the given hypothesis (but didn't), whereas this is not true for an instance of confirmation. So which would it be more appropriate to say: that corroborating instances compose a subset of confirming instances, or that the two notions are completely disparate?


Good. I have always thought that the difference between "corroboration" and, "confirmation" was miniscule (if anything) and that Popper's motive for insisting that theories are corroborated rather than confirmed, had more to do with his peculiar attempt to dissolve the problem of induction, and maintain there really was none, than his thinking there was a real distinction between the two. It was one of those cases when philosophers think that problems with their theory can be solved by the introduction of a new term. No working scientist, I imagine, really thinks that all he is doing is trying to falsify rival theories of his own rather than confirm his own theory. Although, I have to admit, some have given lip-service to this view. the late Peter Medawar (the biology nobelist) for instance.
 
Lumina phil
 
Reply Wed 12 May, 2010 12:10 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;163445 wrote:
No working scientist, I imagine, really thinks that all he is doing is trying to falsify rival theories of his own rather than confirm his own theory.


Thanks for the reply!

1. But a question: isn't Popper's idea that scientists are trying to falsify their own theories (and in failing to do so, are providing corroborating evidence for them), rather than trying to falsify rival theories?

2. I agree with what you said about corroboration and confirmation being basically the same. In every instance which confirms a hypothesis, it is possible that this instance was different and hence disconfirmed the hypothesis (given that the hypothesis is not tautological), and hence this is also a corroborating instance. Is this argument sound? And what other arguments would you use in support of this?

3. And just playing Devil's advocate, how would you build corroborating (rather than confirming) evidence for the statement "All ravens are black"? Observing a thing, which is antecedently known to be a raven, and seeing that it's black should count as corroborating evidence, as the raven might not have been black? (similarly with observing a thing antecedently known to be non-black, and seeing that it is a non-raven). However, how much further corroboration can you come up with for this statement?
 
 

 
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