Reason and Imagination:
Philosophical Writings on the works of Karl Popper and William Bartley,
Rafe Champion, Sydney, 2000.
Rafe Champion needs no introduction to readers of Policy as a public intellectual, as a powerful writer, and as a proponent of Karl Popper. Champion's range of interests is formidable, from his early work on the hairs on roots of plants, through the rights of apartment owners, to policy issues on intellectual handicap, to Les Darcy and also philosophy. Given Champion's enthusiasm for and deep understanding of Karl Popper, and his talent for the cogent and forceful popular presentation of abstract ideas, the reader of this self-published collection is, in many ways, in for a treat.
The essays (mostly previously published) are on themes to do with the philosophy of Karl Popper and its significance, and also discuss aspects of the work of two writers influenced by Popper: William Bartley and Peter Medawar. Champion writes for the layperson, and does so clearly and effectively. He is especially adept at getting to the heart of key aspects of Popper's work - of which he has an excellent command - and in conveying its excitement, relevance and potential in a powerful way. He develops some nice metaphors - such as of knowledge as a hot air balloon, tethered to the ground (if the ropes are cut, there is nothing to tie down speculation; if one shortens them, one loses the content that only speculation and imagination can provide). He illustrates his points by way of references to a range of interesting material, and has a nice turn of phrase. At its best, this represents as good a guide to the excitement and potential of a 'Popperian' approach as you will get (although it covers only limited aspects of Popper's ideas). Champion adds to the value of his discussion of this material in novel and interesting ways; for example by way of discussing issues in literary theory.
The broad message that Champion offers can be put like this although I am conscious that I cannot do so with Champion's flair. Popper provides a view of knowledge that resolves an old problem. It was that rationalists typically held the view that if a position was rational, it must be capable of justification. This, however, easily generates a regress. For if you justify things logically - by deducing them from something else - you are then stuck with the problem of how to justify that. As a result, some rationalists were led into a quest for knowledge that was supposed to be self-justifying (hence, concerns about our experience of red patches, or ideas such as 'I think therefore I am' which were allegedly undeniable). This led philosophers into lots of fascinating discussion, as anyone who has studies the history of philosophy at university will tell you. But the problem is that even if one can find statements that, in some sense, can't be denied, or experiences that we can be certain that we are having, they would not help us to justify substantive knowledge claims, because such certainty can only be obtained at the cost of near-triviality. As a result, the demands of rationalists that knowledge claims should be justified in fact served to strengthen the case of the enemies of rationalism - for they would typically be able to show that any claim to have justified substantive claims to knowledge was, in fact, bogus.
Popper (and Bartley, who offered this as an interpretation of Popper's work, and contributed some important developments of his own) responded to this by developing the view that we should ditch the ideal of justification, and replace it instead by openness to criticism. From this perspective, what became important, and the mark of rationality, was whether ones ideas resolved problems, and whether they could be critically appraised - either by testing them, if they aimed to be empirical knowledge, or by way of more general criticism. Such a view of knowledge is immensely liberating. It offers a resolution of what is, otherwise, an intractable problem. It puts emphasis upon the importance of learning and of progress in our knowledge. It also gives proper weight to imagination in the development of scientific ideas, and thus offers an account of science that places it much closer to literature. Popper also stressed the objectivity of our knowledge, in the sense of its existing as something outside ourselves, with which we could interact. Not only can we open our ideas up to criticism if we spell them out in this way. But we, ourselves, can be transformed by way of our interactions with these objects that we, and others, produce and work on together.
Champion conveys all this, its excitement and its promise, better than could I, and on this score his book is a real success. However, I am not 100% enthusiastic about it. The reason for this, is that the collection consists of some thirteen essays too many of which offer an introduction to much the same ideas. Champion does this well, and the essays are typically economical and wide-ranging. But he sometimes writes much too briefly. For example, while he is good at explaining Popper's ideas to the non-specialist, he sometimes offers criticism of other writers that is acute, but which is conveyed so briefly that it will only be intelligible to those who already know a lot about the material that he is discussing. Similarly, his treatment of literary criticism, while interesting, at times presupposed more knowledge of the figures and ideas that he was discussing than was possessed by this reviewer, and which I could have thought he could reasonably expect of his (lay) audience. Such compression is fair enough when one is writing under space limitations, as Champion was likely to have been in the original versions of these pieces. It is more problematic when the material is collected into a book. Indeed, the transition from occasional pieces to a book seems to me the Achilles heel of this collection.
Collected in this manner, this material is repetitive. The same thing is sometimes explained, in much the same way, using the same references, striking metaphors or examples, in more than one place. Indeed, the very power of Champion's writing here works against him. For if something is said in a distinctive way cheese, for example, crops up as an example the reader will remember it if is said more than once. At a more picky level, there is no consistent system of referencing, and I suspect that most readers would have trouble tracking down Champion's sources, because what is provided is often inadequate.
There are a couple of lessons in all this. For the reader - and I would, indeed, commend the purchase and reading of this book - I would suggest reading it an essay at a time, rather than the whole thing at a sitting. For Champion himself, I would suggest that he quits self-publication and, instead, considers writing a more systematic introduction to Popper's work with a regular publisher. Given his knowledge, flair and ability to communicate effectively, that would be something that the reading public could really look forward to.
Reviewed by Jeremy Shearmur.