Ghosting Popper

From GM Davies’s post:
and my response below (with much-needed amendments and additions in red):

Hi Nigel,

Your thoughts in the above post have a lot going on in them. Ponderous.

First-off, I also think that time horizons are amongst the most overlooked aspect of the consideration in many areas, not in the least, trading, economics and politics.
[This idea can lead to the largest most universal of conceptions, or towards the tiniest un-sliceable point-interval… I dare not venture…]

And reading quickly through your post, I can’t help but be struck by several pertinent points you mentioned which recalls the central tenets used and taught by a modern thinker/philosopher (especially in the areas of the philosophy of the scientific method and its applications to social+political philosophy) — Karl Popper.

Empirical falsification is the capstone to Popper’s overarching methodology (in his philosophy of the scientific method) and decidedly informs his social+political views as well (in his primary social philosophy work: Open Society and Its Enemies ).

And in the field of probability science, Popper extended beyond ‘Frequencies’ towards ‘Propensities’ in his Propensity Theory of Probability. (While) Popper’s propensity theory has had more direct (though not wholly successful) applications towards resolving some of the paradoxes in quantum mechanics in providing a dispositional account of quantum states in the (Schrodinger) wave-function;
but in applying (his) probabilistic thinking/ideas towards social science, Popper’s words echoes what you said above regarding ‘significance’ and ‘impact’:

Popper argues, then, paradoxical as it may sound, the more improbable a theory is the better it is scientifically, because the probability and informative content of a theory vary inversely—the higher the informative content of a theory the lower will be its probability, for the more information a statement contains, the greater will be the number of ways in which it may turn out to be false. Thus the statements which are of special interest to the scientist are those with a high informative content and (consequentially) a low probability, which nevertheless come close to the truth. Informative content, which is in inverse proportion to probability, is in direct proportion to testability. Consequently the severity of the test to which a theory can be subjected, and by means of which it is falsified or corroborated, is all-important.

[Popper argues the above in his justification of the efficacy of Piecemeal engineering over large-scale (and potentially catastrophic) ‘paradigm shifts’ in the humanistic area of social engineering.
(Basically (the first consideration is): To do no harm.)

And in the comments (between you and the Rock) above, it is evident that the two views raised reflect the enduring questions asked ever since Plato asserted: Who Shall Rule (the state)?
Plato’s preferred solution is for a virtuous and most excellent (tongue-in-cheek, but I really meant ‘Arete’) Philosopher-King to be educated and groomed from youth. As we have seen in history, the actual sovereigns and monarchies we had since were but poor and pale shadows of this ideal. Popper, in Open Society, takes aim at Plato squarely:

“Plato’s theory of justice indicates very clearly that Plato saw the fundamental problem of politics in the question: Who shall rule the state? It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy.
First of all, such a reply is liable to persuade us that some fundamental problem of political theory has been solved. But if we approach political theory from a different angle, then we find that far from solving any fundamental problems, we have merely skipped over them, by assuming that the question ‘Who should rule?’ is fundamental. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’, and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?

–Karl Popper, Open Society and its Enemies, Chapter 7: Leadership

Apologies for the verbiage.

Don Chu

And here, to show Popper’s views on The Paradoxes of Sovereignty:

From Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies,
-Chap 6: Totalitarian Justice (section on Individualism)
-Chap 7: The Principle of Leadership
-Chap 8: The Philosopher King

But the most pertinent parts relating to the paradox of freedom, the paradox of tolerance and the paradox of democracy, are actually to be found in the Notes to Chapter 7: The Principle of Leadership.

[Popper again cast aspersion on Plato, this time on his ‘altruistic collectivism’ and follows through this thread in his critique (lightly) on the early empiricists and their clinging onto Historicism (ie: to various modes of monarchies in their fear of Anarchy/the masses — eg. Robespierre’s horrendous Revolution & Reign of Terror) and then (heavily) attacking Marx’s ‘dialectic materialism’ in its inexorable march towards the ideal synthesis of Socialism from the initial thesis and antithesis of Feudalism and Capitalism.


3 thoughts on “Ghosting Popper

  1. Qualification 1:

    Reading and understanding any idea as a stand-alone entity in a vacuum will always be an incomplete and eventually futile task. Context, background and history are all-important.

    Karl Popper’s larger familial and cultural history as an oft-persecuted ethnic minority;
    the context of his formative years growing up in the crumbling last years of the intellectually stimulating Austro-Hungarian Empire led by the progressive Emperor Franz-Joesph,
    and later, the background of his middle-class family which was without the means to allow him to secure a certain future in the face of the uncertainties faced in the years and events leading up to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, the Anschluss.

    All these were hugely-influencing factors which shaped Popper’s thinking in social and political philosophy, and must be understood and kept in mind especially when reading Popper’s social/political writings.

  2. Qualification 2:

    Just want to qualify my statement ‘and then (heavily) attacking Marx’s…’.

    Actually, a reader reading Popper’s Open Society and the related portions on Marx (Popper devoted 10 chapters to Marx) will probably come away thinking Popper engaged Marx’s ideas rather congenially and may disagree whether Popper ‘attacked’ Marx in any robust way. Indeed, Popper in his close examination of Marxist theory, in fact appear to be building up and (rather generously) effecting a structure out of Marx’s methods.

    But a closer reading will reveal that Popper is again applying his much-used argumentation tactic, of building up the theories and arguments of the other party, all the while keeping a hand on the crucial keystone, of which at the right moment he will yank sharply away and send the impressive tower of ideas of the other party (which he helped build), crashing and reduced to petty debris.

    Never play Jenga with Popper.

  3. Qualification 3:

    All the above in no way indicate my agreement with Popper’s ideas.

    In fact, Popper is actually one of my least favourite thinkers, modern or classic. I appreciate some parts of his thinking, but almost all of his big ideas, I cannot accommodate.
    The largest of these will probably be his ideas on Demarcation:

    The Problem of Demarcation
    As Popper represents it, the central problem in the philosophy of science is that of demarcation, i.e., of distinguishing between science and what he terms ‘non-science’…

    I fully agree with the first half of the statement and in fact, will restate it into the even stronger form:
    “The central problem in ALL philosophy is that of demarcation”.
    which primarily fuels my obsession with Boundaries.

    Popper insists on demarcating science and non-science (the central part of his theories on the scientific method);
    but for me, the tyrannical divide between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ (or art and science or this or that or anything for that matter) is undeserved — the twain (or indeed, All) should meet and anon.

    [And I guess, am swayed by the fact that Popper was the scheming antagonist in that famous ‘poker match’ (he claims victim and victor) with that anti-hero, the great and acerbic Witt.]

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