Category Archive: Objective Knowledge

Oxford University Press: 1979.

What aims we pursue

What is the characteristic difference between a scientific theory and a work of fiction? It is not, I hold, that the theory is possibly true while the descriptions in the story are not true, although truth and falsity have something to do with it. The difference is, I suggest, is that the theory and the story are embedded in different critical traditions. They are meant to be judged by quite different traditional standards (even though these standards might have something in common.)

What characterizes the theory is that it is offered as a solution to a scientific problem; that is, either a problem that has arisen before, in the critical discussion of earlier tentative theories, or (perhaps) a problem that discovered by the author of the theory now being offered, but being discovered within the realm of the problems and solutions belonging to the scientific tradition. [289]

The independence of World 3

Among the inmates of my ‘third world’ [World 3] are, more especially, theoretical systems; but inmates just as important are problems and problem situations. And I will argue that the most important inmates of this world are critical argu­ments, and what may be called—in analogy to a physical state or to a state of consciousness—the state of a discussion or the state of a critical argument; and, of course, the contents of journals, books and libraries. …

Let me repeat one of my standard arguments for the (more or less) independent existence of the third world [World 3].

I consider two thought experiments:

Experiment (1). All our machines and tools are destroyed, and all our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools, and how to use them. But libraries and our capacity to learn from them survive. Clearly, after much suffering, our world may get going again.

Experiment (2). As before, machines and tools are destroyed, and our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools, and how to use them. But this time, all libraries are destroyed also, so that our ca­pacity to learn from books becomes useless.

If you think about these two experiments, the reality, significance, and degree of autonomy of the third world [World 3] (as well as its effects on the second and first worlds [Worlds 2 and 1]) may perhaps become a little clearer to you. For in the second case, there will be no re-emergence of our civilization for many millenia. [107-8]

Reducing mental to physical states

If mental entities or, better, mental states should exist—and I myself do not doubt that the do exist—then positing mental states is necessary for any true explanation of them; and shoud they one day be reduced to physical states, then this will be a tremendous success. [293]

Provoking the ‘belief philosophers’

In upholding an objective third world [World 3] I hope to provoke those whom I call ‘belief philosophers’: those who, like Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, or Russell, are interested in our subjective beliefs, and their basis or origin. Against these belief philosophers I urge that our problem is to find better and bolder theories; and that critical pre­ference counts, but not belief. [107]

Nonsensical common sense

The commonsense theory of knowledge (which I have also dubbed ‘the bucket theory of the mind’) is the theory most famous in the form of the assertion that ‘there is nothing in our intellect which has not entered it through the senses’. (I have tried to show that this view was first formulated by Parmenides—in a satirical vein: Most mortals have nothing in their erring intellect unless it got there through their erring senses.) [3]

The subjectivist blunder of common-sense knowledge

I am a great admirer of common sense which, I assert, is essentially selfcritical. But while I am prepared to uphold to the last the essential truth of commonsense realism, I regard the commonsense theory of knowledge as a subjectivist blunder. This blunder has dominated Western philosophy. I have made an attempt to eradicate it, and to replace it by an objective theory of essentially conjectural knowledge. [Preface]

Scientism: slavishly aping a myth

But I should go even further and accuse at least some professional historians of ‘scientism’: of trying to copy the method of natural science, not as it actually is, but as it is wrongly alleged to be. This alleged but non-existent method is that of collecting observations and then ‘drawing conclusions’ from them. It is slavishly aped by some historians who believe that they can collect documentary evidence which, corresponding to the observations of natural science, forms the ’empirical basis’ for their conclusions. …

Worse even than the attempt to apply an inapplicable method is the worship of the idol of certain or infallible or authoritative knowledge which these historians mistake for the ideal of science. Admittedly, we all try hard to avoid error; and we ought to be sad if we have made a mistake. Yet to avoid error is a poor ideal: if we do not dare to tackle problems which are so difficult that error is almost unavoidable, then there will be no growth of knowledge. In fact, it is from our boldest theories, including those which are erroneous, that we learn most. Nobody is exempt from making mistakes; the great thing is to learn from them. [186]

Scientism, backatcha!

Thus I oppose the attempt to proclaim the method of understanding as the characterisitic of the humanities, the mark by which we may distinguish them from the natural sciences. And when its supporters denounce a view like mine as ‘positivistic’ or ‘scientistic’,* then I may perhaps answer that they themselves seem to accept, implicitly and uncritically, that positivism or scientism is the only philosophy appropriate to the natural sciences. [185]

* The term ‘scientism’ meant originally ‘the slavish imitation of the method and language of [natural] science’, especially by social scientists; it was introduced in this sense by Hayek in his ‘Scientism in the Study of Society’, now in his The Counter-Revolution of Science, 1962. In The Poverty of Historicism, p. 105, I suggested its use as a name for the aping of what is widely mistaken for the method of science; and Hayek now agrees (in his Preface to his Studies in Philo­sophy, Politics and Economics, which contains a very generous acknowledgement) that the methods actually practised by natural scientists are different from ‘what most of them told us … and urged the representatives of other disciplines to imitate’.

Operating with World 3 objects

[A]ll the important things we can say about an act of knowledge consist of pointing out the third-world objects of the act—a theory or proposition—and its relation to other third-world objects, such as the arguments bearing on the prob­lem as well as the objects known. [163]

Objective understanding

I have given here some reasons for the autonomous existence of an objective third world because I hope to make a contribution to the theory of understanding (‘hermeneutics’), which has been much discussed by students of the humanities (‘Geisteswissenschaften’, ‘moral and mental sciences’). Here I will start from the assumption that it is the understanding of objects belonging to the third world which constitutes the central problem of the humanities. This, it appears, is a radical departure from the fundamental dogma accepted by almost all students of the humanities (as the term indicates), and especially by those who are interested in the problem of understanding. I mean of course the dogma that the objects of our understanding belong mainly to the second world, or that they are at any rate to be ex­plained in psychological terms. [162]

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