Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Popper: difference between mind and brain|
The death last month of the philosopher Sir Karl Popper was followed by a series of particularly misleading obituaries. One of his former pupils, David Miller, called him 'the most important philosopher of the 20th century', which he certainly wasn't. For Jonathan Rée of Radical Philosophy, who ought to know better, Popper was 'the first and best of the postmodernists'--hardly a helpful description since no one can agree what this label means or even whether it should be used at all.
Probably Popper will be remembered for one book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). The last two German chancellors, for example--the social democrat Helmut Schmidt and the conservative Helmut Kohl--have both praised him as the philosopher of the 'open society', by which he really meant modern liberal capitalist society.
He tried to show how its enemies--above all, Plato, Hegel and Marx--had, over more than 2,000 years, sought to construct a closed, totalitarian society which crushed the individual. Hardly surprisingly, Popper has been popular among Russian and East European intellectuals influenced by the vogue for the ideas of the free market right that accompanied the collapse of Stalinism.
It would be a pity if Popper's reputation were to rest on The Open Society. Critics long ago demolished the sections of the book devoted to Plato and Hegel. It has been many years since serious students of these philosophers paid any attention to Popper's criticisms. The section on Marx is a strange mixture of dogmatism, muddle and occasional insight. It is almost charming how Popper will from time to time interrupt his ranting about Marx's totalitarianism, historicism and other crimes, actually read what Marx says, and acknowledge, slightly bemused, that he held views often the opposite of those attributed to him in the rest of the book.
Popper's real importance lies in the fact that he was a great philosopher of science. His Logic of Scientific Discovery (1935) was genuinely path breaking. In it he demolished the traditional empiricist view of science as the gradual accumulation of secure facts. Popper first showed that even the most straightforward observation contains an irreducible element of theory. Secondly, he argued that science progresses through the formulation of 'bold conjectures', which may not be based on 'facts' but which can be put to some kind of experimental test. This process, moreover, will never end in the attainment of some final truth.
This account provided Popper with a criterion for demarcating science from non-science--falsification. A theory is scientific, he claimed, to the extent that it opens itself to potential falsification by experience. Though Popper sought to give this claim a rigorous logical formulation, his search for a demarcation criterion had political roots. He argued that neither of the theories which most influenced intellectuals in his native Vienna during his youth between the wars--Marxism and psychoanalysis--was falsifiable. Both, therefore, were pseudo-sciences--another idea which helped make Popper's name during the Cold War.
Popper also tried to develop an alternative social science to Marxism, based on 'methodological individualism', which denied that society can be understood in terms of structures (like capitalism), but only on the basis of the individuals composing it. This argument is the ancestor of Margaret Thatcher's notorious claim that 'society doesn't exist'.
A series of major debates among philosophers of science in the 1960s and 1970s established that falsifying scientific theories is a far more complex business than Popper had imagined. His most talented pupil, Imre Lakatos, who had also been taught by the great Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs, came up with a far more satisfactory version of Popper's ideas. But Lakatos also showed that in their original form--he had in mind especially Popper's insistence that theories can never be shown to be true, but only falsified by experience--these ideas could easily merge into the sceptical idea that objective knowledge of the world is unattainable.
Popper himself remained content to remain aloof from these debates and basked in the praise of politicians and scientists unaware of the philosophical difficulties his views involved. His later writings sometimes assumed a megalomaniac tone, as he claimed to have definitively solved one or other of the basic problems of philosophy. He devoted much effort to the futile task of trying to show that there is a fundamental difference between the mind and the brain, pursuing the old idealist fantasy of a soul that somehow lurks within the human body.
Even most of his critics were, however, prepared to concede to Popper the honour of having 'refuted' Marxism. Yet there is a paradox here. In practice it has been Marxists who have taken the problem of whether their theories are supported by empirical evidence far more seriously than mainstream social scientists. Thus the revolutionary left has engaged in lengthy debates since the Second World War over the development of modern capitalism and the class nature of the Stalinist societies. By contrast orthodox neoclassical economics (on which Popper based his 'methodological individualism') has evolved into a series of arcane mathematical formalisms each successive version of which is further removed from the actual behaviour of capitalist ironies. It would be ironic if Marxists turned out to be the best Popperians--though they would do so while integrating the genuine insights Popper offered into the nature of science, into a philosophy and a theory of society radically different from the rather crude version of liberalism he sought endlessly to defend.