The latest "sophisticated Marxism...has yet to become a truly literary criticism, since the question of the text's existence and status as a literary object has yet to be squarely faced. Until it is, literature will continue to be assimilated or reduced to history or politics...To do literary criticism will require recourse to the more linguistically self-conscious and philosophical schools of contemporary criticism, structuralism (or semiology) and its successor, deconstruction. Howard Felperin, in Meanjin June 1982)
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 “falsiciationism” 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 Popper’s 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.
In this paper I will take up the challenge to develop a theory of the literary text which avoids reduction or assimilation to history or politics though without recourse to deconstruction. The tentative answer lies with Karl Popper's theory of objective knowledge, a reformulation of a notion that can be traced back to Plato's theory of Ideal Forms. More recently Wellek and Warren proposed a similar concept in Theory of Literature (1949) and it appears that this area of literary theory has not advanced very far since then. This is an awkward situation because the demand for progress in academic circles is so compelling that if genuine advances cannot be achieved there is a great temptation to simulate them. In areas that are worm-eaten with essentialism (conceptual analysis), with standards of clarity in writing gone by the board, such simulations are easy to achieve, as witnessed by the efflorescence of the deconstructionists.
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