David Stove and the Plato cult

David Stove’s book The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies is a remarkable collection of essays. As a staunch positivist ,the author is not impressed with most of what constitutes “philosophy” (or the quality of our thinking in general). As Stove laments in the preface, “there is something fearfully wrong with typical philosophical theories.” But unlike the early 20th century logical positivists, Stove has little hope for formulating a criterion that shows why the opinions of most philosophers are nonsense and completely devoid of common sense. As a consequence, Stove is forced to look for alternative  strategies to explain the “exceedingly strange” views of prominent philosophers.  Most of the essays in Stove’s book are informed by a perspective that investigates non-rational causes that could throw some light on the matter.

For example, the thoughts of Karl Popper, who Stove holds responsible for facilitating an era of irrationalism in the philosophy of science, are explained by the spirit of the “Jazz Age” (anything goes) that is expressed in Popper’s philosophy.   Stove’s case is not  all that persuasive. The most obvious line of criticism is that it is highly implausible to attribute the spirit of the Jazz Age to a grumpy, intolerant person like Karl Popper. If anything, in light of Popper’s personal traits, the anti-authoritarian aspirations  in his writings are actually quite remarkable.  Stove missed the most obvious personal explanation available to him; Popper’s obsession to refute the logical positivists. One would look in vain in Popper’s writings for a celebration of the Jazz Age but it is not hard to detect Popper’s compulsive need to establish his place in the history of thought.  Obviously, this cannot be done through incremental refinements of the theories of previous philosophers; it requires a new way of looking at things (falsificationism).  If Stove would have argued that lifting concepts from the political realm and using them in epistemology is the road to confusion and leads inevitably to the epistemological anarchism of Paul Feyerabend and the vacuous “pancritical rationalism” of William Bartley, he might have been on firmer ground.  Instead, Stove argues that the main emotional impulse of Popper was ultimately what he calls horror victorianorum,” the  irrational distaste for, or condemnation of, Victorian culture, art and design. As a self-proclaimed conservative, one would expect Stove to launch a strong defense of the politics and culture of late Victorian England but, oddly enough, Stove seems to have considerable sympathy for horror victorianorum and it is only the rational side in him that forces him to admit that this emotional response has little intellectual merit.

The other essays in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies are similar cases studies of philosophers with crazy ideas including a scathing review of Nozick’s attempt to engage in “non-coercive” philosophy. Of most interest is the final chapter called “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo.” It is in this essay where the strict positivist outlook of Stove finds its most forceful expression. Stove cites a number of passages of the works of Plotinus, Hegel and Foucault and cannot explain how (supposedly) intelligent people can express such madness. What characteristics do all these ideas have in common? Stove has considerable sympathy for the logical positivist project to find criteria to eliminate metaphysics and nonsense from philosophy but does not believe that finding such criteria will be comprehensive enough. He refers to Tolstoy who said that all happy families are the same while every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.  There are endless ways in which human thinking can go wrong. In the end Stove is pessimistic about the prospect for rational thought: “genetic engineering aside, given a large aggregation of human beings, and a long time, you cannot reasonably expect rational thought to win.”

Stove may be correct about the ultimate fate of the human race, but he may be too pessimistic about developing criteria that discipline thinking. The mistake of some of the early logical positivist may not have been so much in looking for such criteria but insufficient recognition of the fact that such criteria need a context to be useful. Instead of saying that the statements of, let’s say, Hegel or Heidegger, or not meaningful (period) it would be better to say that such statements are not meaningful in the context of action or prediction. As Hans Reichenbach writes in his logical empiricist masterpiece “Experience and Prediction:”

It seems to me that the psychological motives which led positivists to their theory of meaning are to be sought in the connection between meaning and action and that it was the postulate of utilizability which always stood behind the positivistic theory of meaning, as well as behind the pragmatic theory, where indeed it was explicitly stated.

From this perspective, critiques concerning the self-applicability of the logical positivist criterion of meaningfulness can be avoided by linking cognitive significance to action (including such endeavors as experimental science) in a way that itself can be subjected to logical or empirical investigation. In essence, this “pragmatic” element would introduce a more thoroughgoing empiricism. Logical positivists like Carnap were not hostile to this idea as evidenced by his ongoing efforts to refine his criteria so as not to exclude the achievements of modern science.  Broadly speaking, we look at successful scientific efforts (which basically comprise all sciences that can be reduced to physics and mathematics) and “reverse-engineer” our criteria around this.  Such efforts may produce new roadblocks but there is a good chance that the resulting criteria will eliminate of lot of the madness that Stove finds in most philosophers, intellectuals, and public policy makers.

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…..