Tag Archive: institution

Manning the fortress

Plato’s principle of leadership is far removed from a pure personalism since it involves the working of institutions; and indeed it may be said that a pure personalism is impossible. But it must be said that a pure institutionalism is impossible also. Not only does the construction of institutions involve important personal decisions, but the functioning of even the best institutions (such as democratic checks and balances) will always depend, to a considerable degree, on the persons involved. Institutions are like fortresses. They must be well designed and manned.

This distinction between the personal and the institutional element in a social situation is a point which is often missed by the critics of democracy. Most of them are dissatisfied with democratic institutions because they find that these do not necessarily prevent a state or a policy from falling short of some moral standards or of some political demands which may be urgent as well as admirable. But these critics misdirect their attacks; they do not understand what democratic institutions may be expected to do, and what the alternative to democratic institutions would be. Democracy (using this label in the sense suggested above) provides the institutional framework for the reform of political institutions. It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence, and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new insti­tutions and the adjusting of old ones. It cannot provide reason. The question of the intellectual and moral standard of its citizens is to a large degree a personal problem. [ch. 7, 138]

Our devastating system of education

Institutions for the selection of the outstanding can hardly be devised. Institutional selection may work quite well for such purposes as Plato had in mind, namely for arresting change. But it will never work well if we demand more than that, for it will always tend to eliminate initiative and originality, and, more generally, qualities which are unusual and unexpected. This is not a criticism of political institutionalism. It only re-affirms what has been said before, that we should always prepare for the worst leaders, although we should try, of course, to get the best. But it is a criticism of the tendency to burden institutions, especially educational institutions, with the impossible task of selecting the best. This should never be made their task. This tendency transforms our educational system into a race-course, and turns a course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over the hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his advancement. In other words, even in the field of science, our methods of selection are based upon an appeal to personal ambition of a somewhat crude form. (It is a natural reaction to this appeal if the eager student is looked upon with suspicion by his colleagues.) The impossible demand for an institutional selection of intellectual leaders endangers the very life not only of science, but of intelligence.

It has been said, only too truly, that Plato was the inventor of both our secondary schools and our universities. I do not know a better argument for an optimistic view of mankind, no better proof of their indestructible love for truth and decency, of their originality and stubbornness and health, than the fact that this devastating system of education has not utterly ruined them. [ch. 7, 147-8]

Science as a model for society

In chapter 5 I discuss the two great utopianist social engineering movements of nationalism and totalitarianism. One problem they pose is that they were espoused by intellectuals, including scientists. To turn them aside Popper has to develop his view of social science and of the social organisation of science. From this effort we can extrapolate his view that science is a model for society: science is the knowledge-gaining institution par excellence. Because all institutional initiatives embody conjectures, the society of institutions embodies our aggregate conjectural attempts to realise our aims. Knowledge is a social institution, and social institutions are our attempts to apply our knowledge. [143]

The paradigm of rationality

Science, or rather, doing science, is Popper’s paradigm of rationality, of acting under the constraint of ends. Scientists aim to solve problems by advancing theories and testing them step by step. This acitvity presupposes and depends upon institutions, including a public language and fora in which mutual cross-checking can take place. [129-30]

No logic of scientific discovery?

Popper conceded that there was no formal way to characterise a statement or a system of statements as scientific. He thus vacated any hopes raised by the linguistic turn, and he seems to have seen clearly that science had to be looked at institutionally, and that it was in the methodological institutions that the connection beween science and experience would be found. After all, elsewhere he argued clearly that there was no logic of discovery: scientifically respectable statements came with no mark upon them (such as being free of metaphysics). Rather, a statement was checked by what scientists did to it, how they tested it. Testing is a procedure, a social practice. [83-4]

Distinctly social

What Popper argued is that a problem classically treated as logical (the demarcation of science) is insoluble in that form. Yet science does seem distinctive, i.e. demarcatable. The solution to its distinctness is found in its institutionalised rules of inquiry. These rules can be circumvented without violating any rules of logic. In the choice or decision not to circumvent them we find the hallmark of science. Such choice is not individual but social: it is constitutive of and depen­dent upon institutions. Moreover, being institutions, the rules of science are not like rules of inference: discoveries about the properties of logical systems. Institutional rules can be assessed against given aims, such as fruitfulness, and be discussed and modified. Science and its distinctiveness are open to modification. [83]

Science, the liberal society

Consonant with is transcendental aims, science strives to be the social formation that can tolerate even those who are corrupt: who seek advancement, power, advantage, to serve the cause of anti-science. It relies on its institutional strenghts to overcome such individual lack of acceptance of scientific ideals and concentrates solely on the cotribution, if any, such individuals make to ongoing projects. Thus venality and dishonesty – provided they are not pervasive – are compatible with making a scientific contribution. Science is the most liberal version of the open society … . [80]