Tag Archive: criticism

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]

Truth is above human authority

If only we look for it we can often find a true idea, worthy of being preserved, in a philosophical theory which must be rejected as false. Can we find an idea like this in one of the theories of the ultimate sources of our knowledge?

I believe we can; and I suggest that it is one of the two main ideas which underlie the doctrine that the source of all our knowledge is super-natural. The first of these ideas is false, I believe, while the second is true.

The first, the false idea, is that we must justify our knowledge, or our theories, by positive reasons, that is, by reasons capable of establishing them, or at least of making them highly probable; at any rate, by better reasons than that they have so far withstood criticism. This idea implies, I suggested, that we must appeal to some ultimate or authoritative source of true knowledge; which still leaves open the character of that authority–whether it is human, like observation or reason, or super-human (and therefore supernatural).

The second idea—whose vital importance has been stressed by Russell—is that no man’s authority can establish truth by decree; that we should submit to truth; that truth is above human authority.

Taken together these two ideas almost immediately yield the conclusion that the sources from which our knowledge derives must be super-human; a conclusion which tends to encourage self-righteousness and the use of force against those who refuse to see the divine truth.

Some who rightly reject this conclusion do not, unhappily, reject the first idea—the belief in the existence of ultimate sources of knowledge. Instead they reject the second idea—the thesis that truth is above human authority. They thereby endanger the idea of the objectivity of knowledge, and of common standards of criticism or rationality. [38-9]

Waking people from their dogmatic slumber

But this moral intellectualism of Socrates is a two-edged sword. It has its equalitarian and democratic aspect, which was later developed by Antisthenes. But it has also an aspect which may give rise to strongly anti-democratic tendencies. Its stress upon the need for enlightenment, for education, might easily be misinterpreted as a demand for authoritarianism. This is connected with a question which seems to have puzzled Socrates a great deal: that those who are not sufficiently educated, and thus not wise enough to know their deficiencies, are just those who are in the greatest need of education. Readiness to learn in itself proves the possession of wisdom, in fact all the wisdom claimed by Socrates for himself; for he who is ready to learn knows how little he knows. The uneducated seems thus to be in need of an authority to wake him up, since he cannot be expected to be self-critical. But this one element of authoritarianism was wonderfully balanced in Socrates’ teaching by the emphasis that the authority must not claim more than that. The true teacher can prove himself only by exhibiting that self-criticism which the uneducated lacks. ‘Whatever authority I may have rests solely upon my knowing how little I know’: this is the way in which Socrates might have justified his mission to stir up the people from their dogmatic slumber. This educational mission he believed to be also a political mission. He felt that the way to improve the political life of the city was to educate the citizens to self-criticism. In this sense he claimed to be ‘the only politician of his day’, in opposition to those others who flatter the people instead of furthering their true interests. [ch. 7, 141-2]

The objectivity of a critical tradition

Elfte These: Es ist gänzlich verfehlt anzunehmen, daß die Objektivität der Wissenschaft von der Objektivität des Wissenschaftlers abhängt. Und es ist gänzlich verfehlt zu glauben, dass der Naturwissenschaftler objektiver ist als der Sozialwissenschaftler. Der Naturwissenschaftler ist ebenso parteiisch wie alle anderen Menschen, und er ist leider – wenn er nicht zu den wenigen gehört, die dauernd neue Ideen produzieren – gewöhnlich äußerst einseitig und par­teiisch für seine eigenen Ideen eingenommen. Einige der hervorragendsten zeitgenössischen Physiker haben sogar Schulen gegründet, die neuen Ideen einen mächtigen Widerstand entgegensetzen.

Meine These hat aber auch eine positive Seite, und diese ist wichtiger. Sie ist der Inhalt meiner zwölften These.

Zwölfte These: Was man als wissenschaftliche Objektivität bezeichnen kann, liegt einzig und allein in der kritischen Tradition; in jener Tradition, die es trotz aller Widerstände so oft ermöglicht, ein herrschendes Dogma zu kritisieren. Anders ausgedrückt, die Objektivität der Wissenschaft ist nicht eine individuelle Angelegenheit der verschiedenen Wissenschaftler, sondern eine soziale Angelegenheit ihrer gegenseitigen Kritik, der freundlich-feindlichen Arbeits­teilung der Wissenschaftler, ihres Zusammenarbeitens und auch ihres Gegeneinanderarbeitens. Sie hängt daher zum Teil von einer ganzen Reihe von gesellschaftlichen und politischen Verhältnissen ab, die diese Kritik ermöglichen. [88]

The mistaken theory of objectivity

No doubt the idea which inspires the inductive style—the idea of adhering strictly to the observed facts and of excluding bias and prejudice—is laudable. And no doubt those trained to write in this way are unaware that this laudable and apparently safe idea is itself the mistaken result of a prejudice—worse still, of a philosophical prejudice—and of a mistaken theory of objectivity. (Objectivity is not the result of disinterested and unprejudiced observation. Objectivity, and also unbiased observation, are the result of criticism, including the criticism of observational reports. For we cannot avoid or suppress our theories, or prevent them from influencing our observations; yet we can try to recognize them as hypotheses and to formulate them explicitly, so that they may be criticized.) [48]

No knowledge is above criticism

[I]rrationalists are dangerously mistaken when they suggest that there is any knowledge, of whatever kind, or source, or origin, which is above or exempt from rational criticism. [28]

Critical discussion is always comparative

It is most important to see that a critical discussion always deals with more than one theory at a time. For in trying to assess the merits or demerits even of one theory, it always must try to judge whether the theory in question is an advance: whether it explains things that we have been unable to explain so far – that is to say, with the help of older theories. [160]

If you are serious about truth…

Wer wirklich an der Wahrheit Interesse hat, wird so verfahren, daß er gerade Auffassungen, die er für besonders wichtig hält, am schärfsten der kritischen Prüfung aussetzt, nicht nur diejenigen, die er ohnehin einigermaßen leichten Herzens zu opfern bereit ist. [135]

The price of knowledge

In his epistemological sensibility, Popper follows in the footsteps of the philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Their common starting point may be summarised in the following principle: The price of acquiring any knowledge at all is that it will be somehow distorted by the conditions of its acquisition; hence, criticism is the only universally reliable method. [127]

A necessary condition for critical distance

Even if ideas and arguments should be evaluated independently of their origins, we must still first learn about their origins, in order to ensure the evaluation is indeed independent of them. The only thing worse than accepting or reject­ing an idea because we know about its originator is doing so because we know nothing of the originator. Ignorance may appear in two positive guises. Both are due to the surface clarity of relatively contemporary texts, which effectively discourages any probing of their sources: on the one hand, we may read our own assumptions into the textual inter­stices; on the other, we may unwittingly take on board the text’s assumptions. In short, either our minds colonise theirs or theirs ours. In both cases, the distinction between the positions of interpreter and interpreting is dissolved, and hence a necessary condition for critical distance is lost. [71−2]

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