Karl Popper –the critique of positivism
Karl Popper is considered to be the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century due to his humungous contribution in the fields of science, social science, philosophy, art, education, politics and also political philosophy. In an era dominated by the doctrine of positivism, Karl popper’s contributions were a breakthrough in the fields of science and social science. He was associated with the concept of falsifiability which later on developed into critical rationalism. Popper published his first book “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” in 1934 wherein he argued in favour of theoretical falsification, i.e., ‘although scientific theories cannot be verified, or even rendered probable, by evidence, they can be falsified’ (Maxwell 2017,8). Therefore, by the term ‘Falsification’ he meant the refutation of a hypotheses at it’s initial or developing stage, so that it can be developed further and more perfectly without much flaws. This refutation of hypotheses is very important for science to progress further, because without this there won’t be any improvements in the theories and as a result those will become flawed- ” Science makes progress by putting for-ward falsifiable conjectures – theories which say as much as possible about the world, and which thus expose themselves as much as possible to the risk of empirical refutation; they are then subjected to a ruthless onslaught of attempted observational and experimental refutation. When finally, a scientific theory is falsified empirically, the task then becomes to think up an even better theory, which says even more about the world. The new theory must predict all the success of the old theory, predict successfully the phenomena that falsified the old theory, and predict new phenomena as well.” For example- A hypotheses are taken where all swans were white but on seeing a black swan the entire hypotheses are proved wrong, thereby falsifying the theses. This is the reason why theories run of risk of refutation. The concept of positivism dates back to the ages of Locke and Hume. August Comte had coined the term ‘Positivism’. The basic conception of positivism was to put social sciences into the same framework as that of sciences to study social phenomena and they also believed that science was inductive which means the theories could be verified by evidence only.
Popper in his work which was published in 1979, “The Two Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Knowledge” being a prelude to “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” consisted of two problematic components – the first one being the problem of induction where the hypotheses or the theories could only be verified by evidence and second of all the problem of separation of science and social sciences by putting them into different structural frameworks, not studying them under the same light and not quantifying the social phenomenon. Popper’s philosophy harped on the importance of criticism within rationality – “criticism lies at the heart of rationality”. (Maxwell 2017,9) Though Popper was associated with people who were a part of the ‘Vienna Circle’, he was never invited to the seminars. The convenor Moritz Schlick used to invite eminent scholars to attend the seminars which constituted the Vienna Circle. The members of the Vienna Circle being Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Herbert Feigl, Kurt Gödel, Friedrich Waismann, Victor Kraft, Karl Menger, Hans Hahn, Philipp Frank, Richard von Mises, Hans Reichenbach and Carl Hempel, headed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Mach and Bertrand Russell. Also there were visitors like A. J. Ayer and Frank Ramsey from England, Ernest Nagel and W. V. Quine from the USA, Arne Næss from Norway, and Alfred Tarski from Poland. Popper had submitted papers and also attended a number of alternative seminars. Vienna Circle definitely influenced few of Popper’s works but nevertheless he was highly critical of the doctrines followed and preached within the Vienna Circle. The main doctrine preached within the Vienna Circle was that of Logical positivism. Logical positivism was based on certain basic tenets like the ‘logic of inquiry’ is applicable to all the forms of sciences (science and social sciences); the main aim of inquiry is to provide with an explanation and prediction which will lead to the discovery of the necessary conditions for the occurrence of phenomenon; theses or theory should be empirically observable with human senses and be inductive, i.e., can be verified with the help of evidences; there had been a clear demarcation between science and common sense and the line should not blur leading to the interference of common sense into the research conducted ; they also believed that science should be based on logic and should remain without any kind of political , moral values attached to it as the main aim of science is to produce Knowledge. Basically, logical positivism was based on the notions of empiricism and rationalism. The traditional view of logical positivism that existed prior to Karl Popper was that science is an ‘Inductive Process’. In order to draw conclusions leading to the construction of universal laws or laws of nature, the scientists used to collect and observe the world systematically. These laws could be used to predict the future phenomenon and also various explanations about the functioning of the world, but this clearly led to the generalisations of laws.
Popper was concerned with two issues mostly – one being the separation of science from pseudoscience or social science and how to do it. He discussed the differences between the theories of Marx, Adler and Freud on one side and Einstein’s theory of relativity on the other, stating that how the former not refutable or contested which led to these theories belonging to the pseudoscience or social science, but the latter was subjected to empirical refutation which meant that this theory belonged to science. Popper also faced the problem of how science could acquire new knowledge but he himself solved his problem by completely rejecting the verification of theories in science and highlighted the importance of refutation. He believed that it was through a method of trials and errors or falsifiable conjectures (theories which have been provided as solutions to problems) and refutations that science could progress and acquire new knowledge. The main doctrine for which Popper was famous was the theory of falsification which meant that only through refutable falsified conjectures the progress of science was possible. This means that a scientific theory gets empirically falsified, then a new and better theory has to replace it which will discuss about much more upcoming and new worldly phenomenon. “The new theory must predict all the success of the old theory, predict successfully the phenomena that falsified the old theory, and predict new phenomena as well”. (Maxwell 2017,8) “Even though theories cannot be verified, they can be “corroborated” (Maxwell 2017, 14)- For Popper those theories which could stand in the face of extreme refutations and still managed to survive proving it’s worth, then the measure of that is known as corroboration.
Popper himself had claimed that his criticism of logical positivism led to the ‘downfall of that doctrine’. However, Popper has also not been free from criticism. He was criticized on the grounds that the conjectures which are empirically refuted cannot be finalised. But Popper responded to such criticisms by mentioning two points: firstly, all theories consist of innumerable empirical consequences varying with time and place, and it’s only possible to verify certain finite consequences and obviously not the entire theory. And only one falsifiable consequence is enough to falsify the entire theory. Secondly, he clearly stated that the falsification of a theory completely depends on the methodology adopted. Popper devised a philosophical method called ‘Conventionalist Stratagem’ which would help the falsified theories. This could be done in ways like giving explanations of the experimental research in a different manner, or adding modifications to the existing theory suddenly in order to avoid any clashes with the result. He also suggested for the adoption of certain methodological rules in science which will help in governing the way the theories are accepted and rejected with respect to evidences. Therefore, Popper emphasizes the need of these rules to be designed in such a manner that they expose the theories to the maximum risk of empirical refutation. For Popper, the highest and supreme methodology of science are those “that the other rules of scientific procedure must be designed in such a way that they do not protect any statement in science against falsification” (Popper 1959, 54). Garry Jones and Clifton Perry in their article “Induction and Falsification” critiqued Popper’s method by stating that if the method of induction is not justified then there’s no need of falsification as well. And if justifying the induction method is necessary then a similar justification is also needed for Popper’s method of falsification. Hence, Popper’s method will only be required if the method of induction is necessary. However, if induction is needed, the Popper’s method wouldn’t be actually required. And this is how they prove the unnecessity of Popper’s method. (Jones and Perry 1982). Despite such criticism Popper’s contribution to the various fields of science and social science cannot be forgotten amidst the rise of various new doctrines and methodologies for the purpose of research and explanations.
• Popper, Karl. 1959. The Logic of Scientific Discovery (translation from the German of Logik der Forschung with additional footnotes and appendices), London: Hutchinson; New York: Basic Books
• Jones,Gary and Clifton Perry. 1982. Popper, Induction and Falsification. Erkenntnis (1975-): 18(1), pp. 97-104, Springer.
• Maxwell, Nicholas. 2017. “Karl Raimund Popper” in Karl Popper, Science and Enlightenment. UCL Press.
• Albert, Hans. 2015. “Karl Popper, critical rationalism and the positivist dispute.” Journal of Classical Sociology. 15(2): 209-19
• Tilley, Nicholas. 1980. “Popper, Positivism and Ethnomethodology”. The British Journal of Sociology.31(1): 28-45