Popper’s Conjectural, Objectivist, Social, and Metaphysical Turns
Since this essay was first written it has become apparent that the reception of Popper’s ideas has been limited by widespread misconceptions that readers bring with them to the texts. This applies especially to people with a background in philosophy. It is widely accepted that Popper was a kind of eccentric positivist who simply substituted falsification for verification, and distorted versions of his ideas are circulated with the label “falsifiationism” attached. Quite likely one of the most influential books in this regard is What is this thing called science? and I trust that this review of that otherwise admirable text will clarify the situation.
The standard account of Popper as a falsificationist does not do justice to the full extent of his program, starting with the first step which can be described as a full-blooded “conjectural turn”, to claim that even our best theories may be rendered problematic by new evidence, new criticisms and new theories. This anticipated the “hermeneutic turn” when appreciation of the theory-dependence of observations and arguments became more widespread in the wake of Kuhn and the modern French theorists. Other “turns” include the “objectivist turn” to break with the obsession with the justification of beliefs and instead to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of theories that are stated in a public, inter-subjective or “objective” form. Then there is Popper’s “social turn” to examine the function of institutions, traditions, conventions and “rules of the game” in science and society. And finally the “metaphysical turn” to recognise the pervasive influence of philosophical or metaphysical ideas which are the framework assumptions or presuppositions of thought.
And now, back to...
The Purpose of Popper
Originally printed in the Melbourne Age Monthly Review,1985
POPPER, Sir Karl (b 1902); Member of the Vienna Circle. "That which is unfalsifiable is meaningless." Did he solve the problem of induction? The argument still rages. See Swans. (Henry Root's World of Knowledge)
Just under 70 years ago, an argumentative Viennese cabinet maker and schoolteacher wrote a revolutionary book about the philosophy of science. This came about by accident. After a night-long conversation a friend suggested that Popper should organise his ideas into a book.
It had never occurred to me to write a book. I had developed my ideas out of sheer interest in the problems, and then written some of them down for myself because I found that this was not only conducive to clarity but necessary for self-criticism.Writing a book did not fit my way of life nor my attitude towards myself - my father was afraid that it would end in my becoming a journalist. My wife opposed the idea because she wanted me to use any spare time to go skiing and mountain climbing with her.
Logic der Forschung (translated 25 years later as The Logic of Scientific Discovery) appeared in 1934. It resulted in another happy accident when in 1937 Popper obtained a job as a philosophy lecturer at Canterbury College, Christchurch, New Zealand. This probably saved his life for he was born of Jewish parents and he might not have survived the Nazi regime that came to power in Austria in 1938. After the war he counted fourteen relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
Writing books became something of a habit after this late start though the rate of production was slowed by the infinite pains that he took in polishing his manuscripts. This process reached epic proportions in a companion volume to The Logic of Scientific Discovery which appeared three decades behind schedule. Such a long delay was most unfortunate because The Postscript contains a highly important 'Metaphysical Epilogue' which reveals some of the themes running through Popper's work which simultaneously account for its depth and for the problem of reception among professional philosophers.
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