The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Monday, October 4, 2010

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations, chapter 1(a): On the sources of knowledge and ignorance

Popper, Karl ; Conjectures and Refutations - the growth of scientific knowledge (1968, c1963)

Chapter 1(a)

Popper asks, “How can the absence of anything have sources?”  Popper says that he means, through the phrasing of the title (i.e. the “sources of ignorance” part), to direct attention to a “number of historically important although unrecorded philosophical doctrines, and among them, especially, to a conspiracy theory of ignorance which interprets ignorance not as a mere lack of knowledge but as the work of some mischievous power, the source of impure and evil influences which pervert and poison our minds and instill in us he habit of resistance to knowledge.” (3, italics his) 

He begins by saying that he thinks that both the “empiricists” and he “rationalists”, understood respectively as those saying the ultimate source of knowledge is observation or “the intellectual intuition of clear and distinct ideas”, are both wrong.  “I shall try to show that neither observation nor reason can be described as a source of knowledge, in the sense in which they have claimed o be sources of knowledge, down to the present day” (4)

He notes that the “belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of justice, and of freedom, cannot well survive the acceptance of an epistemology which teaches there are no objective facts.” (5)  He says that “the great movement of liberation which started in the Renaissance” “was inspired by an unparalleled epistemological optimism: by a most optimistic view of man’s power to discern truth and to acquire knowledge.” (5)  “Modern science and… technology [were] inspired by this optimistic epistemology whose main spokesmen were Bacon and Descartes” (5).  Despite their differences, both men believed “each man carried the sources of knowledge in himself” (5).

Indeed, Benedictus de Spinoza may have said that truth manifests itself, and John Locke that “every man carries about him a touchstone… to distinguish… truth from appearances” (3), but as Popper will go on to say, they were wrong: truth is not evident, revealing itself or being revealed to us by the removal of its veil… And it is not true that “once the naked truth stands revealed before our eyes, we have the power to see it, to distinguish it from falsehood, and to know that it is truth.” (5)

Popper also talks about an epistemological pessimism, which he says is rooted in a distrust of man and his reason… his power to discern the truth.  It is, he says, linked historically with a doctrine of human depravity, which usually leads to the demand for powerful traditions and authorities to keep people in check.

So if Popper does not endorse the kind of epistemological optimism (or pessimism!) he describes, in what way does he believe “man can know: thus he can be free”, and therefore remain an advocate of the ideas of classical liberalism (i.e. “rationalism” in a wide, good, sense), which has always “claimed the right of reason and of empirical science to criticize, and to reject, any tradition, and any authority, as being based on sheer unreason or prejudice or accident?”  More later…

My summary: -
My comments/critique: First of all, let me point out that Popper is a gifted writer and communicator – I think this book, given its topic matter, is relatively easy to understand.   That said, I will hold my tongue for a while longer before commenting.   

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