From the Dismal Science to Critical Rationalism

BY JEREMY SHEARMUR.

1. To the L.S.E. and Popperian Philosophy.

I went to the L.S.E. in 1966, to read for a B.Sc. (Econ).  I went there at the suggestion of my school’s careers master, I suspect because he thought that economics would be a good choice, as I was taking history, chemistry and mathematics at ‘A level’.  While this gave all the right pointers, it was actually highly misleading.  For what I liked about chemistry was that there were lots of interesting things to explore, but then – with the periodic table, and then the structure of the atom – one had a real feel for there being an underlying structure which explained things.  I already started to feel, however, that when one moved onto more advanced physical chemistry, the clarity of all this started to dissolve into technical formalisms.  (It is not, I would stress, that I did not appreciate greater knowledge; it was just that the pay-off in terms of understanding the world was not made sufficiently clear.)  I also found that, while I did mathematics (and took a ‘foundations of mathematics’ course at the L.S.E.), I never found that there was more to mathematics than techniques.  Indeed, no more than various kinds of techniques that seemed totally unrelated to one another, and which one seemed simply to have to learn to manipulate, without anything making any sense, until one happened to stumble upon the right answer.  (The one exception was Cartesian geometry: why, oh why, I felt, once this had been discovered, did anyone still bother with teaching people regular ‘triangles in the sand’ geometry?)

At any rate, I went to the L.S.E.  After spending several years in boarding school, I was delighted to be able to move back home, and to commute to the L.S.E by underground.  When I first went there, I recall that my main interest – other than in matters academic – was in trying (unsuccessfully) to find out how to get a locker.  On the academic front, I had, as a first-year student doing the B.Sc. (Econ), to take courses in economics, political science, history and also two other subjects.  I there chose the foundations of mathematics, and also logic.  I was exceptionally lucky in all this.  Economics itself was stultifyingly dull.  It was taught as a Kuhnian-style normal science, using Lipsey’s and Samuelson’s huge but miserable textbooks.  In retrospect, it seemed to me that it was so dull because we were not introduced to contending explanatory theories and their evaluation.  History and political science were both interesting.  The foundations of mathematics were just more isolated techniques.  But what – weirdly – was interesting, was a course in logic.

Had this course been taught in the way in which logic usually is, I would have dropped it as soon as I could (as I did, later, an MA course which was taught in the usual way).  But rather than logic being taught simply as formulae being written on a board, we were given instead, by Alan Musgrave (as I understand it, following a pattern developed by Popper), a fascinating historical introduction to the subject.  We were told a bit about Aristotelian and then Stoic logic.  (Although we were – to my frustration then, and my intellectual horror now – taught not what they actually did, but in modern English, but instead, a kind of reconstruction of their ideas in modern terms.  This exhibited something that I find strange: the tendency of logicians to treat modern logic as if it disclosed the structure of the universe,1 rather than simply being a set of conventions which are useful to us in our pursuit of truth.)  We were then led on to propositional and predicate logic, and were taken – in a simplified way – through a simple version of Gödel’s Proof: I still recall with affection reading Nagel and Newman’s book about it.2

But what about Popper?  Well, we were encouraged also to read his Logic of Scientific Discovery, and I recall standing up in the reading room in the old library at the L.S.E. which housed statistics and philosophy, and reading the first part of the book – which I found one of the most fascinating things that I had ever come across in my life.  Luckily, I was able to read only the first part of the book – I say luckily, just because after some fascinating (but over-compressed) philosophical material, Popper moves into more technical material, the background to which – the problem-situation that he is addressing, and the competing theories – is never properly explained.3

This reading, however, left a very positive impression on me, and I found that the work in philosophy was the most interesting thing that I was studying: I decided to take the ‘special subject philosophy’ within the B.Sc. (Econ) degree, and thus, in effect, a philosophy degree within a structure which also included economics and political science.  I am struck, when looking back at my time at the L.S.E., by the fact that Popper’s approach to philosophy was at the center of the course, but the Department was characterised by lively debates about it, rather than its uncritical acceptance.  I went on to take an M.Sc. (Logic and scientific method), although I was able to avoid doing logic.  I enjoyed the degree very much, not least history of science, philosophy of social science, and history of modern philosophy.  The L.S.E. was an interesting place, as we had lectures from Watkins, Gellner and Lakatos, as well as a memorable course from Feyerabend.4  In addition, we could attend seminars by Larry Laudan at University College, and I personally took courses in the Oakeshottian political science department.  I studied Hobbes with Minogue, Hegel with Kedourie, and also attended Oakeshott’s seminar for graduate students approaching the history of political thought.5

But what about Popper?  He lived in Penn, not far from High Wycombe, and came in to teach on Tuesdays.  He gave a lecture to undergraduate students – which was widely-attended – and in the afternoon, gave a two-hour seminar (which I was able to get permission to attend).  The lectures were something of a mix: in one marvelous lecture series, he gave us a brilliant reconstruction of the cosmological ideas of the pre-Socratics.  But in another lecture, he adopted the terrible technique of just asking us for questions, rather than presenting interesting and challenging content.  Popper made quite an impression – but he was a kindly but somewhat remote figure, not least because a big fuss was made, when he was lecturing, of clearing the room of tobacco smoke (to which he was allergic), and of recording the lecture.  The seminars were interesting, but as an undergraduate I was somewhat over-awed by the senior people presenting material, and by the gladiatorial style of the discussion.6

The result of all this was that I had a ‘Popperian’ education in philosophy, but largely not from Popper.  I was also well-aware that there were interesting alternatives (for example, as presented in Oakeshott’s seminar), not so interesting ones (as was disclosed by reading around in contemporary philosophy), and lively challenges to Popper’s ideas, as presented through the lectures of Lakatos and Feyerabend.  In addition, there was endless, hard-hitting informal discussion in the Department’s seminar room.  (I have written about this in my ‘Editorial Introduction’ to Larry Briskman’s A Sceptical Theory of Scientific Inquiry.7)  What is perhaps worth noting, is that until the issues introduced by Feyerabend and Lakatos came onto the scene, which served also to highlight questions posed by a reading of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions from a Popperian perspective, Popperian critical rationalism was taught by way of a kind of dialogue with logical empiricism.  John Watkins’ work on a Popperian response to Hempel’s paradoxes of confirmation was very much in this vein.8  Further, one of my undergraduate tutors was Helena Cronin, and a guide that she produced for B.Sc. Economics Part 1 Introduction to Scientific Method’, Study Notes and Book Lists for the Guidance of External Students offers a most useful picture of how Popperian ideas were presented and understood at that time.

When I finished my M.Sc., I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D.  But I was also conscious that the job market was precarious, and felt that it would be a good idea to have some other way of earning a living.  I decided to pursue a career in university librarianship, and worked for almost a year as a ‘Graduate Apprentice’ at Durham University Library.  During that period, I was in touch with my old friend from the L.S.E, Larry Briskman, and when an academic job in philosophy came up, he urged me to apply.  I wrote to John Watkins.  He said that a reference from him was not likely to be very useful in the department in question (he may just have been tactful), but that Popper’s assistant was leaving, and wondered – given my background at the L.S.E., and my work in a university library – if I would be interested.  The answer was yes: it was, for me, a bit as if a young Catholic had been asked if he wanted to work as personal assistant to the Pope!

2. Popper’s Assistant

I worked for Popper from 1971 until 1979.  It was a full-time position, initially as a ‘research assistant’, and subsequently a faculty-level position as ‘research officer’.  I worked in an office at the L.S.E.: my day would start by calling Popper at about 9.15 a.m., once he had had the chance to work through his mail.  He would typically give me a list of material that he wished to consult, various tasks to do, and would often then dictate corrections to papers that he was writing, or, later on, outline to me ideas on which he was working.  To get a feel for the job, one needs to think back to how things operated at that time.  This was before the time of personal computers (to say nothing of the internet).  Popper wrote his work by hand, on a particular kind of foolscap-sized paper.  His wife would then type up a first draft of his work, which he would correct; sometimes this process was reiterated several times.  I would visit him in Penn once or twice a week.  I would take with me mail which had arrived for him at the L.S.E.  I would take books and photocopies of articles.  And I would take with me copies of his papers which had been retyped by his part-time secretary at the L.S.E., and which he would then endlessly revise and re-write.  (When he was younger, he used to give lectures – including significant public lectures – just from a few notes.  While I was working with him, he would prepare public lectures meticulously; but there would typically be extensive revision of these up to the last moment, and often he would produce several entirely different lectures: these are to be found in the Popper Archive at the Hoover Institution.)

The task of obtaining material was an interesting one.  The L.S.E. has a large library.  But Popper’s interests – and the material to which he was alerted by way of citations in papers that people sent him, to Penn – were vast, and ranged across such areas as classical Greek philosophy, through to contemporary biological and physical science.  Some of the material could be requested by inter-library loan.  But in other cases, especially if it was needed quickly, I would need to go to a variety of libraries in London.  These included the British Library, University College London, Senate House, and the Patent Office.  Today, it is very easy to identify material, and also to locate it.  Then it was much more difficult.  Computer-based catalogues were a novelty that was only just starting to be introduced, and identifying material meant using published British Library, and various National Union catalogues, and published records of journal articles which had come out in different particular years.

But what of working with Popper himself?  He was a very kind man, who brought one immediately into the middle of whatever he was working on.  He was, however, also obsessive.  His only concern was really his work, and when he was well into his 70s, he would sometimes work all night if he was dealing with a difficult and absorbing problem.  He had an incredible range of knowledge – not just on the vast range of subjects on which he had published, but also on such matters as the history of phenomenology.  His obsessiveness, however, also ran to minute details of punctuation – the amount of time spent on making small revisions to this beggars belief.  He also seemed to me, sometimes, to have very fixed ideas on which it was difficult to make any impression (or when one did, it was a matter of his responding to one’s expressed concern, rather than to the merit of the intellectual issues being raised).  Yet on the other hand, it was striking just how receptive he was when David Miller produced a criticism of his work on verisimilitude.9

I will not discuss further, here, my time with Popper – other than to say that it made a huge impression on me, in terms of Popper’s knowledge, dedication and attractive personality, and also because of the influence that he exercised over my views.  Let me turn, in a final and all-too-brief section, to the latter.  I will, as I have done elsewhere, paint these with a very broad brush.

3. My Attitude towards Critical Rationalism

I am, very much, a Popperian in my approach to philosophy.  But it is the late Popper who has been most influential.  By this, I mean that it is the Popper whose views are characterised by a non-justificationist approach, who accepts the openness of metaphysical – and more generally philosophical – ideas to criticism, whose work most impresses me.  This, it seems to me, means that one needs to simply discard what one might call the neo-positivist attitudes, and preoccupation with technical approaches where they are not strictly needed, which pervades much of his earlier work – and, indeed, which pervaded the spirit of ‘critical rationalism’ up to the time that I studied it at the L.S.E.

One can start by seeing science – and our knowledge generally – as a human, social phenomenon, in which inter-subjectivity plays a key role.  There is an important role to be played by technical work, when we are tackling technical problems.  But logic is a world 3 phenomenon, which we have developed as an important tool for reflecting critically on, and appraising, what we are doing.  If we put logic, formalization and technical nit-picking back in its proper box, this will enable us to reflect on wider issues which were opened up in The Logic of Scientific Discovery but were not pursued there.  This includes the role of ‘methodological rules’ (which, I have suggested elsewhere, may be understood in partly sociological terms10).  This would, at once, get rid of the artificial division between critical rationalism and sociological approaches to knowledge, but would allow us to pursue the latter with a Popperian concern for critical appraisal and the improvement of our institutions.  This would mean, further, that it would enable critical rationalists to enter into the critical appraisal – because of their methodological and epistemological consequences – of the way in which the academic world has been bureaucratized and commercialized.

Second, it would allow for a critical rationalist approach to embrace the full range of human knowledge – to move from being a small corner of the history and philosophy of science, into informed engagement with all aspects of philosophy (which was done in some of Watkins’ earlier work, and also by the early Feyerabend).  More generally it could properly embrace the full range of the social sciences and the humanities (where it was often Ernest Gellner who at least attempted some of the work that seemed to me, urgently, to need to be done).

Third, I would say that my work on Hayek led me to what I think are important correctives that are needed to aspects of Popper’s political and social theory.  Popper’s ideas about methodological individualism and situational logic, while important, sit uneasily between rational choice theory and Max Weber.11  They need, desperately, to be explored in detail in relation to what has actually taken place in the various social sciences.  Jarvie’s The Revolution in Anthropology12 is, to my knowledge, the only work which was ever done by critical rationalists, by way of critical engagement with the substance of work in the social sciences.  But as a critical rationalist approach leads to the rejection of the idea that epistemology is a self-contained meta-discipline, it was this kind of substantive engagement with which we should have been concerned (as Popper himself was in natural science).  To a degree, Lakatos-inspired critical historical studies led people (such as Latsis13) back there, but the usefulness of such work was vitiated by Lakatos’s view that he had revealed, like a latter-day Hegel, the cunning of reason in history.  Perhaps the key issue is that Popper’s ‘modified essentialism’ needed also to be extended to the social sciences.  Our actions give rise to all kinds of human products, with unintended social consequences.  These produce structures which have autonomous characteristics of their own (as do world 3 objects), and they then interact with us (and in ways that pose problems for some aspects of Popper’s approach of ‘piecemeal social engineering’).  This is not to say that any kind of historical teleology runs through history, or that the fantasies of various ‘structuralists’ and ‘post-structuralists’ are correct.  But there are problems there which need to be investigated, and with which simply the repetition of mantras about methodological individualism and situational logic, have only the most modest of contributions to make.  At the same time, fields such as ‘futurology’ have sprung up, and there is a huge growth industry making use of statistical approaches in the social sciences, which urgently stand in need of critical attention from critical rationalists with the proper technical equipment.

There is so much more that could be said.  But there is no space.  I must, however, conclude with one final point.  It is that, in addition to following the later Popper’s approach to metaphysics (see chapter 8, part 2 of Conjectures and Refutations), we should extend it to religion, repudiating completely Popper’s own non-cognitivist approach to this.  At the same time, I think that we should also embrace – and strengthen – Popper’s cognitivist approach to ethics in his Addendum ‘Facts, Standards and Truth’ to The Open Society.  But we would then need to face the scientific and metaphysical problems of holding such views.  All told, we should proudly follow Popper, but reject completely the quasi-positivist concerns about what can be said or rationally appraised that haunt so much of his work.  Critical rationalists need to engage, critically, with the entire sphere of human activity.  But at the same time, we need to temper the expansion of a Popperian approach from the small corner to which it has all-too-often confined itself, with the need to make sure that our own views are properly open to critical appraisal.

Footnotes.
[1] It is as if analytical philosophy is still haunted by the ghost of Russell’s logical atomism.
[2] Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman, Gödel’s Proof (New York: New York University Press, 1960).
[3] For my view of which, see ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’, in J. Shand (ed.), Central Works of Philosophy: Volume 4: The Twentieth Century: Moore to Popper, Chesham, Bucks: Acumen, January 2006, pp. 262-86.
[4] Alan Gillies has given an account of his recollection of one of these lectures in his Lakatos, Popper, and Feyerabend: Some Personal Reminiscences
[5] It was at that time conducted by way of readings and discussion led by Oakeshott (but sometimes by other people); subsequently some of the material appeared in Oakeshott’s On History, Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.
[6] I have, however, a recollection of an engaging talk from George Gamow, during the course of which he mentioned the impression made on him by his having shared a men’s urinal with two Nobel prize winners in physics!
[7] See Larry Briskman, A Sceptical Theory of Scientific Inquiry: Problems and Their Progress, Leiden etc: Brill, 2020; my ‘Editorial Introduction’ is available at here.
[8] See J. W. N. Watkins, ’Between Analytic and Empirical’, Philosophy 33, 1957, pp. 112-31, and ‘Confirmation, Paradox and Positivism’, in M. Bunge (ed.) The Critical Approach in Science and Philosophy, New York: The Free Press, 1964, pp. 92-115.
[9] See for example (and for references) David Miller, ‘Truth, Truthlikeness, Approximate Truth’, in his Critical Rationalism, Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1994, pp. 195-217.
[10] See ‘Popper, Objectification and the Problem of the Public Sphere’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 46, 2016, pp. 392-411.
[11] ‘Popper’s Influence on the Social Sciences’, in Lee McIntyre and Alex Rosenberg (eds), The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Social Science, London etc: Routledge, 2017, pp. 55-64.
[12]  Ian Jarvie, The Revolution in Anthropology, London: Routledge, 1964.
[13] See Spiro Latsis, ‘Situational Determinism in Economics’, The British journal for the philosophy of science 23, 1972, pp.207-245, and ‘A Research Programme in Economics’, in Spiro Latsis (ed.) Method and Appraisal in Economics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 3-41.


IMG_7707Jeremy Shearmur

Dumfries, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland, UK – Contributor

Jeremy Shearmur was educated at the London School of Economics, where he also worked as Popper’s assistant.  He subsequently taught philosophy at Edinburgh, political theory at Manchester, and was Director of Studies at the Centre for Policy Studies in London.  He then worked as a Research Associate Professor at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, and subsequently taught political theory and then philosophy at the Australian National University.  He is now retired from the ANU as an Emeritus Fellow and is living in Dumfries in Scotland, where he is still very much engaged in academic work.  He has published Hayek and After and The Political Thought of Karl Popper, jointly edited several volumes including Popper’s After the Open Society and The Cambridge Companion to Popper, and many papers on philosophy, the history of political thought and the history of economics. His edition of Larry Briskman’s A Sceptical Theory of Scientific Inquiry: Problems and their Progress came out with Brill in 2020, and his edition of Hayek’s Law, Legislation of Liberty is due out with the University of Chicago Press in 2021.

Jeremy can be reached at Jeremy.Shearmur@anu.edu.au

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