Finding Oneself by Trial and Error

BY DANNY FREDERICK († ).

In my final year at Christopher Wren Comprehensive School in Shepherd’s Bush, London, I became a Marxist. I studied numerous works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their commentators and critics. When I decided to go to university, I picked the London School of Economics (LSE) because it had the reputation at that time of being the most radical of the British colleges. In October 1974, I started at LSE in the politics (‘Government’) department. However, the Marxist works in which I had taken most interest were those on philosophy, written by Engels, Lenin and numerous commentators. As a consequence, I had developed a general interest in philosophical questions. After a few weeks at LSE I switched to the philosophy department. There I was introduced to works on logic and philosophy of science, including those of the philosopher Karl Popper.

Popper’s philosophical views were in stark contrast to the epistemological and metaphysical views of the Marxists. For the latter, people are products of their circumstances, people’s ideas and theories are reflections or products of the material world, and scientific knowledge is derived in a passive way from observation, which is in turn regarded as a passive reception of data. In contrast, Popper insists that the mind is active and creative. We do not derive theories from observations, we use our imaginations to invent them; then, if we are scientific, we test our theories by looking for things that are inconsistent with them. That looking is not simply observation; it is often a matter of thinking up experimental tests. Also, when we observe the result of a test we are not observing passively, we are interpreting what is happening in the light of a theory we hold, possibly, but not necessarily, the very theory we are testing. Further, there is no such thing as induction, no way of confirming a theory: even the most successful theory may be refuted the next time we test it; but we do have ways of rating one theory as currently better than another, depending on how well it has stood up to criticism and testing so far.

At first that sounded mad to me. I spent the whole of my first year trying to find fault with Popper’s ideas and arguments. But it was a losing battle. Bit by bit I came to acknowledge that Popper was right. A week or so into in my second year I read Appendix *x of Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and that brought the process to an end: I rejected Marxist ‘dialectical materialism’ and I became a Popperian ‘critical rationalist.’ Despite that, I was still a Marxist in political matters. But, as a consequence of my critical engagement with Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations and Objective Knowledge, I was steadily revising or eschewing the remaining parts of my Marxist outlook. At Easter of my second year at LSE I gave up Marxism. It is notable that at that time I had not read either The Open Society and its Enemies or The Poverty of Historicism. I read those a little while after leaving LSE and they provided further reasons for eschewing Marxism.

The philosophy department at LSE was an intellectually stimulating environment. Students were encouraged to find their own path. Unorthodox views were open to consideration. But one had to be prepared to defend one’s views with argument. And critical arguments were supplied abundantly by the staff and other students. Open minds were fostered. There were, however, two problems. First, the department had a narrow focus. The main interests of the staff were in logic and the philosophy of science. Topics from the history of philosophy and from metaphysics were covered; but only sufficiently to give the student an overview of the traditional problems. In my third year, I had a girlfriend who was studying philosophy at Bedford College (in Regent’s Park). She was reading material on the theory of action, modal metaphysics, the philosophy of language, and functionalist theories of mind, all of which I found very interesting, but at LSE no attention was given to such topics. Second, the general view among the staff at the LSE philosophy department was that Popper’s work in the philosophy of science had been superseded by that of Imre Lakatos. As I had not read Popper’s Open Society while at the LSE, I viewed Popper as a philosopher of science; and as Popper’s Postscript was still unpublished (until the 1980s), the claim that Lakatos had superseded Popper in the philosophy of science had at least some plausibility. Consequently, I left LSE and went on to postgraduate study holding the view that I had no more to learn from Popper.

In 1979, a personal crisis led eventually to me abandoning my postgraduate studies, returning to London and working as a barman in the public house of which my dad had recently become the manager. But philosophy would not leave me alone. From 1981, I gradually got back into academic study. I obtained an M. Phil. from Birkbeck and I got a job teaching philosophy at King’s College London in 1987. It had been my ambition to be a university teacher since shortly after I started at the LSE. But having obtained it, I no longer wanted it. One problem was that I did not much enjoy teaching. What I did enjoy was researching and writing. A more serious problem was that I had become disillusioned with the subject. The range of philosophical topics studied in most universities was much greater than that studied at the LSE, but the way in which the topics were studied was very restrictive. There was an orthodoxy that went unchallenged that was an amalgam of positivism and ordinary language philosophy, both of which are jejune. Attempts to think outside of those limits were at least frowned upon and usually scorned. And efforts to think inside them required the patience to deal in trivia and the willingness to address spurious problems that were merely artefacts of the theories that constituted the orthodoxy. I found the activity stultifyingly soul-destroying. I turned my back on academic philosophy and pursued a career in management and accounting.

After eighteen years in management consultancy and accountancy, having just turned fifty-one, I had made enough money to stop working. I went to live on the Isle of Wight to spend my time reading novels and taking walks along the beaches or over the downs. But philosophy would not leave me alone. I was soon buying and reading philosophy books, then writing down my thoughts, and then writing articles for publication. I began by working on the types of problem with which I had been concerned at the time when I abandoned the subject in 1988. However, when I learned that Popper’s Postscript had been published, in three volumes back in the 1980s, I bought a copy. That revitalised me. The interesting discussion, early in Realism and the Aim of Science, in which William Bartley is mentioned, prompted me to buy The Retreat to Commitment and to understand for the first time the full scope of Popper’s critical rationalism. It is not just a theory of science, it is applicable across the full range of enquiry.

One enquiry in which I had been somewhat unsuccessfully engaged for almost forty years was that of understanding myself. I seemed always to have been, in some way or another, at odds with the world, or at odds with myself. I suffered a succession of personal crises after each of which I made substantial changes, sometimes very radical ones, to my mode of life. But, while a new mode of life was always started with hope, and while it often seemed that, this time, it would be successful, things had always eventually turned sour, causing me great dissatisfaction and sometimes another personal crisis. The kinds of life that I tried, but which failed to fulfil me, included: revolutionary, party animal, drunkard, husband (common law), barman, hermit, unskilled manual worker, tough guy, university teacher, administrator, binge drinker, management consultant, management accountant.

In light of my reconnection with Popper’s critical rationalism, from around 2008, I could see in my personal history a pattern of conjecture and refutation. Each time I tried a new mode of life, I was making a conjecture about the kind of life that would fulfil me and I was testing that conjecture by trying to live that kind of life. Every conjecture I had made had until then been refuted (by a personal crisis or a less destructive level of dissatisfaction). After each refutation I tried out another conjecture. Unfortunately, because I had not been explicitly aware that I had been engaged in conjecture and refutation, I had not analysed the refutations to try to discover why the particular mode of life in question did not fulfil me. Had I done that, I may have made discoveries about my nature that would have guided me in selecting future conjectures for trial. I might then have discovered myself more quickly and achieved a fulfilling life much sooner. As it was, it was only by undertaking a review of my life, after my rediscovery of Popper, trying to understand the successes and failures of my successive modes of life that, at the age of fifty-five, I finally came to understand who I am and what sort of life I need for fulfilment.

I say a lot more about discovering oneself through conjecture and criticism (trial and error) in my book, Freedom, Indeterminism, and Fallibilism (Cham: Springer, Palgrave Macmillan).


danny-frederickDanny Frederick(†)

Yeovil, Somerset, England, UKContributor

Danny Frederick was brought up in the old Notting Hill slums (long since demolished) and then a council estate in Shepherd’s Bush. He studied philosophy at the London School of Economics, where he first encountered the work of Karl Popper. He did postgraduate work in philosophy at Lancaster University and at Birkbeck College London. He also taught philosophy at King’s College London. He then worked for eighteen years in administration, management, and accountancy. He resigned from his job in 2006, having made sufficient money, and found himself gradually drawn back into academic philosophy, particularly the works of Popper and philosophers influenced by Popper.

Since November 2009 he has had forty-eight articles published, or accepted for publication, in peer-reviewed academic journals and books. Many of the articles expound or develop Popper’s work and apply Popper’s approach to questions in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics. Danny’s first book, Freedom, Indeterminism, and Fallibilism, was published in 2020 in the Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism series. His second book, Against the Philosophical Tide: Essays in Popperian Critical Rationalism, was also published in 2020.  Visit Danny’s profile at independent.academia.edu to learn more about his work.

Danny(†) can be contacted at dannyfrederick77@gmail.com.

2 comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing. Popper worked in a very similar way for me. Trial and error. Conjecture & Refutations. You described how I engaged with Karl Popper’s texts.

    Like

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