Karl Popper and Rudolf Carnap revisited

In his classic book Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory (1938) Terence W. Hutchison  makes the case for economics as an empirical science.

An interesting aspect about this book is the ease with which Terence W. Hutchison uses logical empiricist authors like Moritz Schlick, Rudulf Carnap, and Otto Neurath but also the “critical rationalist” Karl Popper in making his case for the testability of economic theories.

On a number of occasions Rudolf Carnap himself has drawn attention to Popper’s habit of exaggerating the differences between his work and the logical empiricists. Historians of philosophy, or at least those with little training in the philosophy of science, have often followed Popper in his views while ignoring the quite substantial agreements between the logical positivists and Popper on topics such as the unity of scientific method and their common objective to find criteria to distinguish science from other activities.

In hindsight, Popper’s compulsive need to distance himself from the logical positivists has harmed his own project more than he could have anticipated. The traditions of thinking and social inquiry that Popper railed against, and hoped to defeat by his non-justificationist philosophy and falsification criterion, were often identified as problematic by the logical positivists as well. It is rare to find a philosopher or social scientist dealing in obscurantism and anti-empiricism who rejects logical positivism but praises Karl Popper’s demarcation between science and non-science and his views on falsifiability.

But until the dominant reception of logical empiricism as a monolithic enterprise with little more to offer than its verification principle persists it is doubtful that the broader concerns of Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper will receive the attention they deserve. A promising start would be for philosophers to seriously engage with the work of Carnap instead of judging it on the basis of Karl Popper’s views. For example, in his later writings Carnap recognized both the problems with the classic verification principle and Popper’s falsification  principle and proposed a more liberal criterion of confirmability. As Carnap would be the first to recognize, this proposal may turn out to be either too liberal or too restrictive after detailed analysis, and further refinement may be necessary. Last, but not least, Carnap is also an admirable example of how one can do philosophy of science without (political) hyperbole.

Avoiding Karl Popper

popperThe philosopher Karl Popper has published on a wide variety of subjects but his most lasting contribution is his answer to the problem of induction by drawing attention to the asymmetry between verification and falsification. A theory can never be proven, but it can be falsified. Popper’s falsification criterion can also be used  to distinguish scientific theories from unscientific theories. His ideas on science and knowledge are captured  by his philosophical perspective called critical rationalism.

One does not necessarily have to be an avid reader of Popper to be a critical rationalist. As a matter of fact, some people are critical rationalists by temperament. They have an open mind, encourage critical thinking, and are suspicious of any claims that something is “certain” or “settled.” Unfortunately, one can also subscribe to critical rationalism as a philosophical perspective and be a self-righteous arrogant bastard at the same time, such as…..Karl Popper.

One of the great ironies in the history of thought is the disconnection between what people preach and what they practice.  In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes how members of the Vienna Circle tried to avoid Popper, “not because of his divergent ideas, but because he was a social problem,” being “a terrible listener and bent on winning arguments at all costs,” according to people who knew him.

Even a casual acquaintance with his writings is sufficient to detect this trait. His self-righteous character is not only evident in his thinking about social philosophy and politics, it permeates his writings about epistemology and science as well, as can be seen in his strong obsession with his own place in the history of thought and his recognizable belligerent style.

Although Popper has become known as a fierce critic of authoritarian social thinking, utopian plans to reform society and an advocate of the “open society,” his writings on political matters display the spirit of a rabid Jacobin, throwing around words such as “catastrophe,” “nonsense,” “irresponsible,” “evil,” and “absurd” like there is no tomorrow. Despite  his “anti-authoritarian” perspective on politics, Popper routinely descends into handing down all kinds of dictates about how to organize society.

Some people have drawn attention to the tensions between Popper’s epistemology and interventionist views. The social philosopher Anthony de Jasay carefully reviewed Popper’s problematic arguments for “piecemeal social engineering” and democracy in his insightful essay “The Twistable is not Testable: Reflexions on the Political Thought of Karl Popper.” It may not come a surprise that Popper’s writings have been employed to advocate the most grandiose plans to remake the world.

Taleb observes that “we like to emit logical and rational ideas but we do not necessarily enjoy this execution.” Reading Popper can be a rewarding experience, but it is not necessarily a pleasurable experience…..