Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin on Karl Popper

I very much enjoyed David Berlinski’s discussion of the “stranglehold” that Karl Popper’s notion of falsifiability has had on the sciences. Indeed, one might venture to say that the inability of Popper’s criteria to handle, as Berlinski puts it, “some very, very simple sentences” is indicative of problems with Popper that stretch beyond the natural sciences.

To that end, I offer the wonderfully scathing assessment of the man at the hands of 

  1. katievs

    What fun.

  2. Robert Lux
    katievs: What fun. · Jun 16 at 6:02am

    Heh, heh.  Had a sense you might appreciate that, Katievs.

  3. Hang On

    All Popper’s criteria is saying is that a statement such as: “All men are mortals” is not a scientific theorem because it is not falsifiable. Lots of simple statements are not scientific theorems. So what?

  4. Pseudodionysius

    Robert, you should get at least a free month of Ricochet membership for this one. This should be put up permanently right under Claire’s 11 Tips for a Great Post.

  5. Pseudodionysius

    And the Editorial staff needs to bump this to main feed, stat.

  6. Deleted Account
    Hang On: All Popper’s criteria is saying is that a statement such as: “All men are mortals” is not a scientific theorem because it is not falsifiable. Lots of simple statements are not scientific theorems. So what? · Jun 16 at 6:54am

    Unfortunately it looks like a lot of the pseudo-sciences/soft sciences want respect similar to that earned by hard sciences, but without taking on the risk of falsifiability. So when called to task on that, they can only reply with mud fights (as in the two letters quoted in the article).

    Robert – I obviously didn’t find the letters either scathing, devastating, or even particularly convincing, just rather silly. Sort of like the internal memos that pop up from time to time in todays academic environment when confronted with ideas that don’t meet the current liberal meme, right down to preventing a possible appointment. Sad.

  7. tabula rasa

    Several years, National Review brought together a panel of conservatives to create a list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century. Here. The panel included conservative luminaries like Richard Brookhiser,  Christopher Caldwell, Robert Conquest, David Gelernter, George Gilder, Mary Ann Glendon, Mark Helprin, Arthur Herman, John Keegan, Richard John Neuhaus, John O’Sullivan,  Richard Pipes, and James Q. Wilson.

    Number 6 on the list was Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, about which Arthur Herman said, “The best work on political philosophy in the 20th century. Exposes totalitarianism’s roots in Plato, Hegel, and Marx.”

    I read the book and found it to be brilliant and illuminating.  I know that in Open Society Popper ventured into politics instead of science, so maybe that explains why Strauss and Voegelin were so critical of what appears to be Popper’s scientific writing. 

    If not, then I don’t get it.  Can someone help me understand how a man like Popper, who is so lionized by a group of well-respected, intellectually-powerful conservatives could be so vilified by Strauss and Voegelin?  Who’s right?  Petty academic jealousy or real substantive criticism?

    The letters are funny.

  8. KC Mulville

    Excellent post, Robert. 

    I’d guess that working scientists don’t feel so strangled. Science does use falsifiability in the formation of canonical scientific “knowledge,” but the business of science is much more about how to get there. How do you create hypotheses in the first place? That’s really where the fun is. 

    The frightening aspect of science as a community is the same as any other intellectual community: are your conclusions being evaluated by an independent standard of proof, or are they evaluated by how they conform to conventional thinking? How much of science is just group-think?

    Every intellectual community faces that dilemma, including theologians, military intelligence, computer science, etc.

  9. Southern Pessimist

    Tabula rasa, thanks for the link. I am a voracious reader. I am fairly sure I have read over 10,000 books in my lifetime but I have only read 11 of these. My education has been sadly limited. It is time to remedy this.

  10. Nathaniel Wright

    Popper’s contributions to the philosophy of science, I think are meritorious.&nbsp; It is his contribution to the study of classical philosophy that is vicious.&nbsp; It quickly becomes clear to one who has read Plato’s actual writings that Popper hasn’t.&nbsp; Even Peter Singer pointed out in an NYRB piece, Popper hadn’t read Plato when he wrote <em>Open Society</em>.

    The falsifiable standard is one of the most interesting discussions in the philosophy of science.&nbsp; Merely accepting it as “mandatory to the scientific method,” without understanding that it is itself a philosophic hypothesis is lazy science.&nbsp; As it foretells a lack of understanding of the philosophy of science.&nbsp; There is currently a crisis in the sciences with regard to a lack of familiarity with said PoS.

  11. Roy Lofquist

    I don’t pretend to know Popper’s motivations but a functional result is that it has raised some defense of “science”. That is, more and more “fields” of study claim to be “science” as a means to lend credibility – the fallacious “appeal to authority”.&nbsp;

  12. Kenneth

    This sort of discussion reminds me of the movie Leaves of Grass, in which Edward Norton’s drug-dealing redneck brother asks Norton, a Professor of Philosophy at Brown University, why he’d want to spend his life writing books critiquing books other guys have written about a book some other guy wrote.

    Norton’s character replies, “You’ve just perfectly summarized academia.”

  13. Hang On
    HalifaxCB

    Unfortunately it looks like a lot of the pseudo-sciences/soft sciences&nbsp;want respect similar to that&nbsp;earned by&nbsp;hard sciences, but without taking on the risk of falsifiability.&nbsp;So when called to task on that, they can only reply with mud fights (as in the two letters quoted in the article).

    &nbsp;· Jun 16 at 10:07am

    Communists think that there is someone pulling all the strings and the economy is highly directed by some group of evil capitalists. The intelligent design people are analogous to the communists except it is science and the director is some higher being. Self-organizing systems are more than abundant in nature and the guiding principle is a lowest energy state.

  14. Crow

    I found Open Society banal where it was right, and boring where it was wrong.

    He definitely didn’t read Plato closely enough.&nbsp;

  15. Robert Promm
    Hang On

    Communists think that there is someone pulling all the strings and the economy is highly directed by some group of evil capitalists. The intelligent design people are analogous to the communists except it is science and the director is some higher being. Self-organizing systems are more than abundant in nature and the guiding principle is a lowest energy state. · Jun 16 at 1:30pm

    Yah, like those tornadoes roaring through the auto wreckers.&nbsp; They are going to organize a 747 any day now.

  16. Roy Lofquist

    @Hangon,

    Information theory disagrees with that statement. You are confusing physical patterns that are governed by known physical laws with the increase of information in a system. Perhaps you could cite a non-biological systems that adds information?

  17. George Heingartner

    “Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances.”

    Such as…?

    Where’s the rest of his letter? The rest of this post?

  18. katievs
    Nathaniel Wright:&nbsp;

    The falsifiable standard is one of the most interesting discussions in the philosophy of science.&nbsp; Merely accepting it as “mandatory to the scientific method,” without understanding that it is itself a philosophic hypothesis is lazy science. &nbsp;

    Yes, that’s just it. &nbsp;Many scientists (and science-worshippers) appear oblivious to the fact that science rests on unfalsifiable philosophical assumptions.

  19. Robert Lux
    Kenneth: why he’d want to spend his life writing books critiquing books other guys have written about a book some other guy wrote.

    Undoubtedly that’s a respectable and much to be encouraged disposition to have regarding much of academia. Strauss, Voegelin, and Popper, however, are not just “other guys.” Certainly with respect to Strauss–as I think it’s increasingly coming to be recognized–he is a thinker of the very highest order.

    (To take one example very germane to Ricochet: Paul Rahe’s pathbreaking scholarship–his rebuking of the entire “Cambridge school” of historicism–would not be possible if not for Strauss. However banal it may seem, ideas do have consequences, as per the title of Harvey Mansfield’s sparkling review of Prof. Rahe).

    One does well to bear in mind the import of Keyne’s closing remarks of the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money:

    “…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.”&nbsp;

  20. Tully

    &nbsp;It seems to me the&nbsp;falsifiablity&nbsp;standard is perfectly&nbsp;legitimate&nbsp;as a practical scientific standard. The purpose of science is to examine the laws which govern natural phenomena. If you cannot test a hypothesis, which&nbsp;cannot be proven solely on a priori grounds, there really is nothing to talk about; consequently such a theory ought to be rejected out of hand. However, if the&nbsp;falsifiablity&nbsp;standard is&nbsp;taken in a strict philosophical sense, it is nothing but&nbsp;positivism; whether or not we can empirically show a thing to be true or not is utterly&nbsp;irrelevant&nbsp;to its being true. This applies, as Katieves rightly points out, to philosophical axioms. One can demonstrate the truth of a proposition, not only empirically, but also by showing the only alternatives lead to contradiction.

    I too would like to have seen a better critique, if jeering qualifies as a critique, than is apparent in these letters.

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