On Popper and hayek
Jeremy Sheamur interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Jeremy Sheamur broods on Karl Popper and the difference between the young Popper and the old, on the post-modernism of Popper, on why Popper is not a Cold War intellectual, on Popper and Habermas, on realism in the social sciences, on Ernest Gellner, on the decline of the public intellectual, on the complexities of Hayek,on public choice theory and Hayek, on Hayek’s relationship with Thatcher, Reagan and the neo-Cons, on Popper’s and Lakatos’s influence and on the non-relationship between Hayek and Nozick. This one ploughs two depths!
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Jeremy Sheamur: I went to the L.S.E. at the suggestion of our careers master at school. I had – without knowing what would be involved – planned to specialize in the economics of industry and trade within the B.Sc. (Econ) degree. In the first year, one had to study five subjects: economics, political science, history and two others. I took ‘foundations of mathematics’ and also logic. Logic was taught by Alan Musgrave, but in a distinctive manner: rather than just as something technical, we were introduced to the history of various problems and issues in the philosophy of logic and mathematics as forming the historical context to the development of the ideas with which we were dealing, and only in this context to technical material. We were encouraged to read Nagel and Newman’s Goedel’s Proof, and also Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery. This course was the most interesting material which I came across in my first year; by contrast, economics was taught as what I’d now identify as a Kuhnian normal science, was dull, and I found the multiplier – introduced as if it was an analytical result, rather than an empirical claim – unintelligible. Accordingly, I studied philosophy. If logic had been taught as it is usually done, I would probably have studied history.
I should also add that the character of the small Department of Logic and Scientific Method, and of philosophy at the L.S.E. was really important. The Department which was centered around critical interchanges about Popper’s approach to philosophy. Criticism flowed thick and fast in Popper’s seminar and in lectures: I still have a vivid memory of Lakatos’s lectures (compare the transcript of later lectures in For and Against Method), and of the memorable lectures delivered by Feyerabend, which Lakatos heckled by writing critical commentary on the chalk board behind him. There were the exchanges between students – undergraduates and graduates – in the seminar room. And there was also the very different approach to philosophy of Gellner and of Oakeshott (whose graduate seminar I was able to attend).
3:AM: You’re an ex student of Karl Popper and you worked with him for a time. You draw a distinction between the early Popper and the older Popper in terms of the degrees to which he was a positivist. You say he was never a Positivist but he was closer to being one in the Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism than in his later works. Can you say something about this distinction and why you suggest it’s important.
JS: I attended Popper’s lectures and, subsequently, with permission, while still an undergraduate, his graduate seminar. I subsequently returned to the L.S.E. and worked with him for eight years as his assistant.
What I had in mind in the material to which you refer, is the following.
First, Popper was never a positivist, if this is understood in terms of an updating of Humean empiricism in the light of formal logic. The reason why Popper was not a positivist in this sense, is twofold. On the one side, he was sympathetic to the biological interpretation of experience in some of Mach’s work, and the work of Selz and Jennings, he personally undertook work in psychology, and was impressed by the work of Karl Bühler and Oswald Külpe. All this made him critical of empiricist inductivism as a theory of human psychology. By contrast, he stressed the role of anticipations, conjectures and theoretical predispositions. The production of interpretations of the world was, in his view, triggered causally, but its content was a matter of pre-formed anticipation of what is there, which was then subjected to selective checking. On the other, Popper worked critically through issues in Kant, and in Fries and Leonard Nelson (he was involved in all this in extensive discussions with Julius Kraft, a follower of Nelson). While Popper was not a Kantian, various themes from his engagement with this work influenced his views, and served to distance him from, say, the ideas of Carnap. He was also hostile to all attempts to criticize claims by calling them ‘meaningless’.
However, in Popper’s earlier writings, one might say that he had the view that only a limited range of things could be assessed rationally: mathematical and other formal claims; empirical claims and methodological claims (which were, themselves, to be assessed in the light of aims for science which were seen as a matter of choice: it is striking, say, that Popper takes the contrast between his own scientific realism and a conventionalist view of science as a matter for decision, but argues that it then has methodological implications). In Die beiden Grundprobleme, he was hostile to metaphysics, and favoured re-interpreting metaphysical ideas as methodological proposals. It seems fairly clear that he was conscious of holding metaphysical views (such as his views about the aims of science), but of not having a theory as to how they could be rationally assessed. All this seems to me to influence Popper’s approach to moral and political issues in The Open Society and in contemporary material. Popper was a passionate ethical individualist, and concerned about individual judgements of conscience. But there is, it seems to me, a strong strand of decisionism – like that about the aims of science – about the character of ethical and political judgements. There are hints of ethical realism in some of his comments; but the book also contains ideas which seem at odds with this. All that one might say is that the decisionism is qualified by what he says about ‘the rational attitude’, with stress on the idea that we might be able to learn if we admit our own fallibility, and that we might learn from rational discussion with others.
Popper’s views about these matters changed. Exactly when is difficult to discern, as the ideas were set out in his Postscript. This was planned to appear in 1954 (it was planned as being called ‘Postscript: After Twenty Years’, and he would take the date of publication of The Logic of Scientific Discovery as 1934: one might take the mark of the true Popperian as being that one referred to its publication as 1934 – when it appeared – rather than 1935, which was what was printed in the book). Just when Popper developed the ideas that appeared in it, would be a topic for detailed historical research. However, this contained a theory about how one could appraise metaphysical ideas, seen as solutions to problems. It also contained his theory of ‘metaphysical research programmes’, which contained not only his account of the way in which the development of science has been influenced by metaphysical ideas, but also his own positive proposals for a way in which science might be developed in line with a propensity-based viewpoint. Some of this material came out in dribs and drabs; Popper’s own published work(cf. various essays collected in his Conjectures and Refutations), and the work of colleagues of his who had access to the proofs, and this also led to complications concerning who was responsible for which of the ideas.
All this opened up the possibility of extending Popper’s ‘critical rationalist’ approach to all subject-matter. This in some ways occurred; but Popper himself was less than wholehearted about it. In pre-postscript material (such as his ‘Indeterminism in Quantum Physics and in Classical Physics’ of 1950), Popper, while raising issues about metaphysical determinism and indeterminism, focuses on the discussion of issues raised by scientific theories. This, in terms of an attitude, seemed to me to stay with him. Even in his later material on ‘world 3’, he regularly disavowed doing ‘ontology’, and what he said about its status was not clear-cut (e.g. as to whether he was raising issues which he thought constituted metaphysical arguments against the possibility of reduction, or simply – following his injunction to fluff up Plato’s beard prior to attempting reductions – trying to explain what the problems were that successful reductions would have to overcome). In addition, he was critical of the enterprise of theology, and seemed to be very reluctant to get into issues about ethical theory or metaethics. There is a sense in which some of his sensibilities about such matters seemed to me to resemble those of Wittgenstein.
By contrast to this, on my view the kind of approach which Popper developed could be used fruitfully in respect of all subject-matter, and that the kind of historical-based analysis of how theoretical ideas have fared through developing problem-situations, could be a powerful critical tool in all fields, not least philosophy, and which contrasts with the style of argument that one finds in ‘analytical’ philosophy. Imre Lakatos showed the kind of thing that might be done, in his critical, historically-based assessment of Carnap’s philosophical ideas in ‘Changes in the Problem of Inductive Logic’, and he offered possibly the best general account of such a (Popperian) approach in an unpublished paper, a later version of which became his very different ‘Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’, in which, in the end, appraisal depended on just empirical progress.
3:AM: You suggest that Popper’s views in The Open Society are pretty close to being post-modernist. You explain this connection in terms of his rejection of historical teleology. You’re sympathetic with his rejection of historical teleology but not post modernism – so what makes Popper a post-modernist?
JS: What I had in mind, particularly, when I referred to commonalities between Popper’s approach and postmodernism related to what he had to say about historical interpretation. In this, people are seen as bringing their value-orientations to the choice of what they will write about, when writing history. Clearly, in one sense this is correct: someone may have particular values, and may single out what is illuminated by these when approaching history. However, this picture seems to me too close for comfort to Weberian ideas about value orientation in the social sciences, and the neo-Kantian-influenced view that there are simply individual actions and that it is the task of the historian to bring values to pick out some rather than others. My view, in contrast to this, is that while individual action plays a key role, it gives rise to consequences, typically unintended, which form structures which then constrain us as agents. These structures depend in their origin and for their continuation on human actions; but in many cases what they depend on are things which are not likely to change. Accordingly, in my view, structural (rather than teleological) themes in Marxism are here important. (Although it is worth bearing in mind that similar ideas may be found in Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and in what Nozick said in his critical remarks about ‘methodological individualism’, when he referred to ‘filter mechanisms’, so it is not an approach that is tied to a particular political orientation.)
My objection to Popper’s approach (although he does say that some historical interpretations are more like testable theories), and to Postmodernism, is that it loses sight of what I might call this action-dependent realism, something that I’d see as playing a key role in both history and social science. If emphasis is not placed on this, we seem to me to lose sight of the various kinds of systematic constraints that there are upon our actions. This, in turn, seems to me to risk that we end up in a view which I have heard Richard Rorty espouse, in which, in the face of social problems, what is needed is just Charles Dickens-style changes of heart. In The Political Thought of Karl Popper, I argued that just as in respect to the natural sciences Popper had been willing to embrace a realist view which he identified as ‘modified essentialism’, so he should have taken the same kind of approach in respect of the social sciences. If he had done that, he would then have needed to modify some of the criticisms of essentialism, in The Open Society.
3:AM: The Open Society and The Poverty of Historicism were both written at a time when the cold war orientated much thinking in the social sciences. Do you think Popper saw himself as a Cold War intellectual and so was he deliberately writing to oppose Marxist intellectuals of the left at the time? Or was he driven just by the ideas, following them wherever they led him?
JS: I would disagree with this as a reading of Popper. His Open Society and Poverty of Historicism were written in New Zealand during the Second World War, and were critical reflections on his experience of inter-war politics in Vienna, and the lessons that he thought should be learned from that, for what took place after the Second World War. His engagement with Marxism was strongly influenced by his critical reactions to the influence of Marxism on Austrian politics. While – as his ‘The Theory of Totalitarianism” (1946), now in After the Open Society makes clear – his critical treatment of Plato was conducted in part because he came to the conclusion that the kind of reaction to social change which he found in Hitler, was also to be found in Plato’s work.
Popper was drawn into disagreement with Soviet philosophers after the Second World War, e.g. by way of their critical reaction to his ‘Utopia and Violence’. In addition, it is clear that, after the Second World War, he became concerned about totalitarianism. In this context, he was particularly exercised to try to make sure that a split did not develop between liberals and non-totalitarian socialists. When he was invited to the initial meeting of what would become Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, he urged Hayek to invite various socialists to take part, for fear that Hayek’s existing plans for the society would enhance the risk of such a split. (Hayek himself was at the time concerned about the risk of a split, but between conservatives – notably, among German opponents of National Socialism – and liberals, and I suspect that he and Popper may have been at cross-purposes over this.) Popper’s own political views were open to interpretation – both Bryan Magee and Malachi Hacohen consider The Open Society as containing a program for the democratic left, while Hayek thought that there were strong commonalities between his approach and Popper’s (although regretting some continuing influence of Popper’s early socialism). It was clear, though, that Popper was not a market-oriented liberal of Hayek’s kind.
All this would, on the face of it, have made him an obvious candidate for being a Cold War intellectual. However, he did not, for example, participate in the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (something to which Hayek, when he attended a meeting, did not find himself sympathetic, because it did not share his view of freedom). One might have expected that Popper would have been sympathetic to their views, but I can only speculate why he was not involved: was it, perhaps, a result of his intellectual disagreements with Michael Polanyi who played a leading role in the group in England; was it a product of Popper’s allergy to cigarette smoke, or of his at times prickly personal relations with other academics?
Popper, in fact, wrote a paper (only published in After the Open Society), about his view of the Cold War, and also, in a broadcast to Russia (also first published in After the Open Society), gave an indication of what his approach would look like. It is interesting, in the sense that, while he is clearly sceptical about the commitment of Russian leaders to Marxism, he thought that one had to treat the intellectual ideas which they espoused seriously.
He also – though this does not, in my view, always show Popper at his best – engaged with various critics of Western societies, including the Frankfurt School. My recollection of a conversation with him, is that he wrote his opening piece in what, in the end, became The Positivist Dispute in the Social Sciences collection, in a way which had a ‘dialectical’ feel to it. When I was working with him, I recall his requesting that I obtain for him various writings by members of the Frankfurt School, and I recall in particular, him briefly discussing some of Horkheimer’s work with me. He was, earlier, involved in an interview, in which questions were put to him and (separately) Marcuse; the collection was subsequently published in German as a book, while a revised English version of Popper’s contribution was published in Encounter.
In The Political Thought of Karl Popper, I argued that there were, in fact, important commonalities between Popper’s approach and that of Habermas. Clearly, I have in mind, here, Habermas’s later writings (and also The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). These in part take further – e.g. in his critical engagement with Foucault – issues which in my view it would have been good if Popperians had pursued. In part, though, I think that Habermas’s work is important for raising issues about the inter-relationship between institutions and knowledge. This is something to which Popper had an aversion – although, as Ian Jarvie has argued in his The Republic of Science, one might usefully interpret Popper’s ideas as a social theory of science (I had myself suggested that one might make use of such a view in, for example, explaining how members of religious sects maintain views which are, prima facie, false).
Other important issues here, relate to the character of the ‘public sphere’, and exchanges which may take place within it. Here, Habermas’s Structural Transformation seemed to me most suggestive. However, I have argued – making use of historical material which takes issue with J. Z. Young’s use of 19c generalist periodicals and exchanges within them about natural theology as an example – that even at that time, the public sphere was much more fragmented than Habermas (and, implicitly, Kant and Mill) supposed. This, I suggest, means that we need to consider how an appropriate forum for such purposes might be constructed. (I suggested, in this context, something that took off from the role of Life Peers in the British House of Lords.)
This issue, in turn, connects back with Habermas, and with ideas about ‘deliberative democracy’ which have been inspired by his work. Here, I already suggested in The Political Thought of Karl Popper that Habermas’s approach was over-optimistic about the role that public reason might play. It is worth noting, in this context, Popper’s arguments that it is only on very limited matters (the ‘empirical basis’, and his negative agenda for public policy) that we might expect argument to reach consensual agreement. Popper stressed the importance of dialogue, and of the likely fruitfulness of attempts to learn from people whose views and approaches were very different from ours. But while Popper stressed its importance, and that learning might, indeed, take place, and was critical of what he called ‘the myth of the framework’, he at the same time argued that we should be modest about what we could expect such exchanges to lead to. By contrast with this, Habermasian and ‘deliberative democracy’ approaches seem utopian in their expectations about dialogue – and thus to be likely to lead to grave disappointments.
One further issue which arises here, concerns Popper’s picture of an Open Society itself. The problem concerns the kind of learning by way of critical feedback, which Popper favours. The ideal seems to me important. But, on the face of it, there are massive problems about how it would work: it is, to say the least, a far cry from how politics functions currently, to say nothing of what we know about the behaviour of the public service (compare, here, the still-useful survey of theoretical approaches in James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy). If people are attracted to a Popperian program here, much work, it seems to me, needs to be done as to how institutions might function in the manner that Popper’s account requires. (This, indeed, was one of the reasons why, in The Political Thought of Karl Popper, I argued that Popper’s ideas about learning in a social context stood a better chance of working if seen as relating to private, commercial activity, rather than to the activities of government.).
Popper continued his concerns with political issues into his advanced old age. He was critical of proportional representation for weakening political accountability to voters. He thought that the key reform in Russia would be the introduction of a Western-style legal system, with legal officers getting appropriate training overseas. While, right at the end of his life, he expressed concerns about the way in which television might be de-sensitizing people – especially children – to suffering, and suggested a possible licensing system for those involved in the production of programs, to address this.
3:AM: You criticize several of his positions – you take issue with his pragmatic approach to social science and his anti-essentialism and you suggest that it is possible to integrate Kantian inter-subjectivity derived objectivity much more systematically than he does – are you arguing for a realism in the social sciences?
JS: I’d have three comments about this. The first, and most simple, is that I would indeed favour a realist approach in the social sciences, but one of the character that I described briefly in response to one of your earlier questions. I also argued, however, that Popper himself should be open to it, as it has commonalities with the realism – which he even referred to as ‘modified essentialism’ – that he favoured in respect of the natural sciences.
Second, Popper’s approach to the ‘empirical basis’ seems to me to take off from a particular aspect of Kantian ideas. In this, Popper takes that against which we test theories to be an open-ended inter-subjective consensus as to what is the case. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, he took this to be about publicly available objects, such as pointer-readings in a laboratory. But in the course of his contributions to The Self and Its Brain, he also described – in ways which harked back to his own early work in psychology, and the approach of the Würzburg School – how one might use such an approach in respect of introspective reports (i.e. on optical illusions). There is also a parallel between this, and Popper’s treatment of the agenda for public policy as being generated by something not dissimilar to a ‘political’ consensus on things which it is agreed should be remedied. Popper’s approach emphasizes that we’d need to concentrate on things that are negative, such as suffering and injustice, rather than our ideals; he also allows for some possibilities for argument between, and correction of, different moral views. (I.e. his approach is not a purely ‘political’ one in the Rawlsian sense.)
I have suggested, somewhat speculatively, that if we combine all this with Popper’s stress on the Kantian theme of the ‘rational unity of mankind’ (the idea that we might receive pertinent critical feedback from anyone), one might have the basis of an argument for the importance of the autonomy of each individual, because this is needed for the appraisal of factual and indeed normative claims. (There is an echo here of an argument in Mill’s Subjection of Women.) This, if it worked – there seem to me some problems about it – would suggest a line of argument for individual autonomy, based on epistemological considerations. I am certainly not wishing to claim that this is an idea to be found in Popper, or which, indeed, he would have liked very much. (He had, as I have indicated earlier, a dislike of pretentious ideas and meta-ethical speculation.) On the other hand, it seems to me that the values that Popper espouses in The Open Society appear in a somewhat ad hoc manner, and that it is not clear what suggestions he is making as to how one might argue with someone who disagrees about them. Indeed, in many respects one might see Popper’s Open Society as directed at people who are, at heart, rationalistic humanitarian democrats, who he thinks have been seduced away from such views by mistaken intellectual theories. I’d have thought that, if one takes a view based on Popper’s later work, then one could hope for more possibilities of argument, here.
3:AM: Ernest Gellner thought that in his later works – in particular the book he did with Eccles went back on his real contribution to philosophy of science by withdrawing his falsificationism thesis. And he also thought Popper’s approach didn’t acknowledge the difference between modernity and pre-modernity which thinkers like Weber and Marx placed at the centre of their enquiries. (He said the same of Kuhn’s approach to scientific change). Was he right?
JS:I had not heard of this comment by Gellner on The Self and Its Brain, but (as you have mentioned to me) he makes a similar charge in his ‘Positivism versus Hegelianism’ in Relativism and the Social Sciences. It would take me too long to engage with that piece; let me here simply make two comments about Gellner, one positive and the other negative.
The positive one, is that in my personal view Gellner was right in suggesting that one needed to take a more particularistic, and historicized, view of the material with which Popper was dealing. To put it another way, it is striking that Popper, who was highly critical of essentialism, might be said to have taken an essentialistic view of the figures with whom he dealt. I.e. the Open Society, and threats to it, and the kind of reaction which these might produce, are treated almost as universals which manifest themselves in different times and places. The same might be said about ‘essentialism’ and ‘historicism’. This is not to say that there may not be intellectual issues which recur, and important parallels that it is useful to draw. But it seems to me problematic to treat issues from one era as the key to what is happening in another. I personally – though this would require the acceptance of the kind of approach to the philosophy of social science for which I have argued above – would favour a view which dealt with matters historically, but which would have room for ideas such as that of ‘commercial society’, while noting its different historical transformations, and paying attention, also, the changing intellectual ideas across history. (Popper’s discussion of the idea of our living in an ‘abstract society’, and of the psychological tensions to which this gives rise, surely cries out for interpretation in historical terms.) I am also very open to the idea that it would be useful to offer a more specific theory about what characterizes scientific knowledge; one which deals both with epistemological and institutional issues.
The negative comment, is that it seems to me that there is something problematic about Gellner’s approach, from Words and Things onwards. It is that he was attracted to something that would play the critical social role that positivism seemed to promise, but that he did not face the intellectual problems that the espousal of the specific ideas that he favoured would involve. I.e. he liked the critical edge of positivism, and thought that Oxford-style ordinary language philosophy was complacently conservative. But as far as I know he never addressed the intellectual problems of the sensationalist, first person perspective that features in the views which he wished to defend. His relationship with Popper was, it seemed to me, complex. He liked the cutting edge of Popper’s epistemological ideas, but did not – as far as I can tell – really concern himself with the details of Popper’s perspective (and fully appreciate the way in which, at a certain level, Popper’s philosophy shared its inter-subjective approach with Oxford philosophy, but in a manner which was highly critical). In my view, the kind of widening of Popper’s perspective which may be found in Popper’s later work serves not to blunt its critical abilities, but to widen them, so that it can be extended to cover a much wider range of material. It does not allow quite the bull at a gate approach to which Gellner was attracted; but that seems to me an improvement not a weakness. Oddly, Gellner’s own The Psychoanalytic Movement seemed to me a sketch of exactly the kind of critical-historical treatment that one would expect, from someone using the wider interpretation of Popper’s ideas.
3:AM: Popper was what you call a ‘public intellectual.’ You worry that this role has largely disappeared because of specialization. This mirrors the debate between Arnold Toynbee and Popper who disliked Toynbee’s ideas about the ‘division of intellectual labour’ . Why do you think this is worrying? Surely having experts speaking only to their expertise is better than non-specialists commenting on issues far from their knowledge base?
JS: Max Weber is supposed at one point to have said, when asked what his ‘field’ was; ‘I am not a donkey, I don’t have a field!’ The issue, however, merits a slightly longer answer, not least as it seems to me of the greatest importance.
We might, here, contrast the division of labour in a market economy, and intellectual division of labour. In a market economy, prices, and profit, are there to guide people as to what, in broad terms, they should be doing in order to meet at least the expressed needs of others, and to coordinate their activities with those of other people. In the intellectual sphere, it is not clear that there is anything that plays a comparable role. There are a range of mechanisms which offer guidance, from the judgement of journal referees and editors, to those who sit on panels awarding prizes, grants and scholarships, to, God help us, those who are concerned with work on academic citations, and those who think that bureaucrats can sensibly lay down research priorities. In addition, there are all the issues posed by academic log-rolling, people’s promotion of their protégées, etc. But there would seem to be no reason to suppose that all of this is self-coordinating in a way that makes any overall sense. In 1767, Le Mercier de la Rivere claimed that ‘the world goes by itself’. We are typically somewhat sceptical about such a claim, even equipped with theories about how equilibrating mechanisms work in economics. The ideas that a similar claim might be defended concerning the intellectual world, should I believe simply produce derision.
There are, in particular, three kinds of problems. The first is that there is a strong tendency towards normal science; something that draws people towards detailed puzzle-solving of a technical character. In the case of Popper’s work, it is striking that a major source of engagement was not with his major philosophical ideas, but concerning the technical notion of verisimilitude. The underlying problem, here, was: is there a way in which we may compare two false theories, and make sense of the idea that one might be closer to the truth than the other. Popper thought that he could offer a technical resolution of this problem; David Miller, very importantly, showed that it did not work. But there was then a flurry of work on the technical issues which, as far as I can see, usually did not refer back to the underlying problem at all. This seems to me typical. Second, there is the problem of ‘degenerative problem shifts’ – i.e. of intellectual moves which, while creating all kinds of detailed opportunities for puzzle-solving, in fact are problematic in the light of the kinds of historical shifts which are involved. (I.e. detailed puzzle-solving can still go on, with almost endless opportunities for the diligent, even when the overall character of the intellectual moves that are being made is degenerative: marking an intellectual retreat from what people initially set out to do.) Third, there are all kinds of problems posed by the academic division of labour, related to the fact that people in one area may well be working on the basis of ideas which – unbeknown to them – are being undermined by those working in other fields. Just because academic work takes place, increasingly, in silos, between which there is no real communication, the result may be a terrible waste of effort.
All this is exemplified in political science. I was struck, when I used to attend the meetings of APSA in the US, that many different theoretical perspectives were represented, each of which typically would have had serious problems to raise about the work of others. Rather than issues being raised, and progress made towards their resolution, everyone instead operated as if under a gentleman’s agreement (which was also participated in by feminists!), on the basis of which each group gathered together, and presented pieces of normal science to one another which, in due course, were published either in specialist journals relating to the different groups in question, or an a kind of ‘Buggins’ turn’ basis, in journals which cover a range of such approaches. Something similar is now increasingly the case in philosophy.
In this context, the fact that – as the later work of Popper has stressed – we can explicate and critically discuss such issues, can play a really important role. In addition, the kind of historically-based appraisal of how theoretical approaches are faring over time, in relation both to theoretical problem-solving, and to making (where this is appropriate) empirical progress, is vital. But this kind of criticism is not part of the day-to-day activities of normal scientists (especially if they need to compare what they are doing with the work of those in another paradigm). While it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain funding for such work, or even to publish it in a journal for which someone will obtain any kind of academic recognition. Indeed, it is worth, in this context, recalling the way in which new intellectual movements typically have to start up: the cases of both academic feminism and public choice theory, offer models in which people started off engaged in what was effectively home publishing, or publishing in low-prestige academic journals. Today, any Head of School who had a concern for the well-being of a newly appointed lecturer would say to them: don’t do that, publish, instead, good pieces of normal science of a kind in which the leading journals will be interested. That is the path to academic success; they will, typically, not add: and intellectual stagnation!
What I am arguing for here, is not the abandonment of detailed work. Rather – to take up an idea of Popper’s – what I am suggesting we need is to subject such work to a kind of ‘plastic control’, consisting of discussion of the rationale of such work, and of the extent to which progress is or is not being made, concerning the problem-situations with which people are dealing. In my view, two tasks are needed here. (Nicholas Maxwell has, here, had many important things to say, although I am not fully in agreement with his approach.) The first is the clear explication of what such a system of appraisal amounts to, intellectually. Here, there are suggestions in Popper’s own work – e.g. in his discussion of ‘metaphysical research programmes’. The best treatment, however, was I think given in a paper by Lakatos which was never published – because, as he worked on it further, he changed his views, and produced, instead, his ‘methodology of scientific research programmes’, which was concerned in the end with the appraisal of research programmes in terms of the empirical success of the work to which they led. (I am currently writing on these issues.) The second suggestion would be that all scientific work should start with a brief statement of the problem-situation that the paper is addressing, and of how the paper contributes to that situation. (One could see the approach as taking further Sir Peter Medawar’s ‘Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud’.) If this were done, it would then open up these ideas to critical appraisal; and as an orientation towards such ideas would then become the concern of every contributor to knowledge, it would mean that such critical discussion would not become ghettoized.
The problems of the public sphere seem to me even more pressing. As Russell Jacoby argued in his The Last Intellectuals, even those who wish to address the public sphere, typically find that the incentives facing them lead them to normal science instead, while normal scientists are often able to address only their academic peers, not the interested public. We do find, it is true, people who fill the gap: T.V. pundits, self-publicists, and people employed to push a particular line by politically-orientated think tanks. The problem is that the style – and quality – of such discourse is very poor; something that matters, when we face serious issues that affect human well-being. To put this another way, effective policy debate depends on issues being presented clearly and in a manner which is accessible in principle to the interested citizen. (We might here need a revival of Lancelot Hogben’s interesting program of trying to make the kind of knowledge which citizens themselves would need for such purposes more readily accessible to them.) We also need there to be channels of some sort through which citizens can voice contributions, raise questions, and so on. All this – as I have suggested earlier – poses some interesting problems of institutional design. But the whole attempt becomes hopeless, if the public intellectual – and the level of discourse in which such intellectuals are engaged – disappears, leaving us only with ‘normal scientists’.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 21st, 2014.