On knowledge and ignorance: Karl Popper’s legacy for today

(Part IV on Popper and contemporary ideologies)

The avoidance and attempted suppression of contradictory arguments and evidence is a typical feature of ideologies.

This tendency is also a natural feature of everyday politics of course. Practically, it is worth tolerating – though with an awareness that to tolerate something is to dislike it.

However, when we are talking about matters of truth and right, and attempts to control what is said based on exclusive authority, reserved for certain groups or people, it is a different matter. This is where authoritarianism still raises its ugly head in our supposedly liberal Western societies - including from supposedly liberal people.

As Karl Popper said in ‘On the Sources of Knowledge and Of Ignorance, a lecture given in 1960:

The question of the sources of our knowledge, like so many authoritarian questions, is a genetic one. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may legitimize itself by its pedigree. The nobility of the racially pure knowledge, the untainted knowledge, the knowledge which derives from the highest authority, if possible from God: these are the (often unconscious) metaphysical ideas behind the question. My modified question, ‘How can we hope to detect error?’ may be said to derive from the view that such pure, untainted and certain sources do not exist, and that questions of origin or of purity should not be confounded with questions of validity, or of truth.”

The forms of Islamism and feminism I looked at in Parts II and III respectively are each grounded in assumptions that they have found ultimate knowledge of existence, that they know true reality behind and beyond the swirling chaos of human life; that they have superior knowledge and, with it, ultimate authority.

The ideologue assumes they can integrate what they do not know into their existing theoretical structures. In this way we can see the paradox that they know what they do not know, by knowing the structures into which all knowledge fits. Among other troubling consequences, this renders all actual knowledge redundant, as subservient to the system. It also defeats any idea of ethics – for if the world and the people in it are determined by systems, there is no space for choice and ethical behaviour.

As Bryan Magee has written:

If it is true, then none of us can ever refrain from anything we do. In that case any notions of good or bad, right or wrong, have no application with regard to human behaviour. It is false ever to attribute praise or blame to anyone, guilt or responsibility. ‘Ought’ never applies, nor do such concepts as ‘duty’, ‘justice’, ‘fair’. Conscience is an illusion. Every determinist, if he is sincere, must eliminate all such conceptions from his view of human beings, and also from his view of all human activities, arrangements and institutions.”

Popper’s theory of knowledge rejects this essentialism – essentialism being the idea that we can be certain about social processes and that we can see laws of inevitability in them - of essence.

With essentialism comes the right – or perhaps even the obligation – to tell others what to do. It confers authority and legitimacy on the true believers, and removes them from everyone else. It breeds unpleasantness and intolerance, as we can see from Islamist violence and the tribes of feminists warring online against each other and anyone else who dares to disagree with them.

But, as Popper demonstrates, essentialism is also essentially wrong. All the laws of nature and society that we claim to know are contingent on those things we do not know not intervening. They are therefore never completely reliable. We may claim it a law that the sun rises every morning, but one day it may not. However many times a ball bounces when we drop it, we cannot be sure it will bounce next time. There may be some factor we are not aware of that will render our laws incorrect. You cannot prove something before it has happened. To every Newton there may follow an Einstein.

This is greatly relevant today, not least on climate change. Some ‘sceptics’ in their misunderstanding mistakenly invoke Popper to scorn the idea of man-made climate change. However Popper did not believe that scientific theories like that of man-made climate change are invalid because we cannot ultimately prove them through evidence. That would lead to a classic ‘antinomy’, as we also cannot prove the opposite.

Instead, Popper believed that science progresses through critical scrutiny and by us learning from our mistakes. With climate change, we cannot finally prove it is happening nor that it is man-made, but we can make best estimates and work from them. Irrefutable proof is impossible, but that stands for all sides, and it does not mean that we cannot and should not use what knowledge we have. True, honest science means being scientists being self-critical, but not self-denying.

Popper’s legacy for today

The big weakness of Islamist, feminist and other ideologies is right here, in their claims to ultimate knowledge of the world. The advocates of these theories engage in classic authoritarian practices to defend these claims: dogmatism, aggressive censorship, segregation of insiders from outsiders, and victimisation of those who stray from the given ideological purity.

These advocates are often educated, idealistic and highly motivated, having been inspired by powerful but bad and even dangerous ideas that universalise the particular (for example the hatred of women or oppression of Muslims).

On a fragmented, half-understood level, these ideas do make some sense. But they have been so successful partly because they have no substantive political opposition – so they can easily take the whole world outside them (‘society’, or ‘the West’) as their opposition. They have meanwhile largely steered clear of any involvement in other squabbles, for example between the left and right within the Labour Party.

There is an intellectual arrogance to their ideas characteristic of 19th Century European high theory, and as we have seen from the earlier parts of this essay, they are largely derived from it. They make claims to ultimate knowledge of how things really are, of the underlying laws of existence. Any evidence of discrimination against women not taking place or of Muslims not being victimised is ignored or rejected for not fitting this deeper knowledge of how things are.

Karl Popper is probably the greatest critic of these types of high theory. In the 1940s, he tore them apart in The Open Society and Its Enemies. But now he is now shunned by the left, misappropriated by the right and ignored by intellectuals.

In their entertaining book Wittgenstein’s Poker based around a clash between Popper and Wittgenstein at Cambridge in 1946, David Edmonds and John Eidinow say:

In new democracies and closed societies, The Open Society retains its freshness and relevance...But in Britain and America, Popper is slowly being dropped from university syllabuses; his name is fading, if not yet forgotten...Many of the political ideas which in 1946 seemed so radical and were so important have become received wisdom. The attacks on dogma and historical inevitability, the stress on tolerance and humility – these today are beyond challenge and so beyond debate.”

As we have seen, this is mightily premature. In Western Europe in the early 21st Century, we may not be living under particularly authoritarian governments, but the authoritarian mindset remains very much with us, just in different guises. It is having a significant impact on our politics too, not just through the politics of identity but through other ideologies that seek to suppress democratic ways, including those promoting supposedly ‘free’ markets.

Popper’s writings effectively attack these dogmatic ways. But he also had a deeper positive vision, of the ‘open society’, in which the only permanent restriction on democratic government should be the protection of democracy itself; that everything else should be left on the table.

As he writes, 

In a democracy, we hold the keys to the control of the demons. We can tame them. We must realize this and use the keys; we must construct institutions for the democratic control of economic power, and for our protection from economic exploitation”.

He was also adamant about the importance of morality and ethics, and ironically thought that Marx showed the way:

“[Marx underrated] the significance of his own moral ideas; for it cannot be doubted that the secret of his religious influence was in its moral appeal, that his criticism of capitalism was effective mainly as a moral criticism. Marx showed that a moral system can as such be unjust; that if the system is bad, then all the righteousness of the individuals who profit from it is a mere sham righteousness, is mere hypocrisy. For our responsibility extends to the system, to the institutions which we allow to persist.
“It is this moral radicalism of Marx which explains his influence; and that is a hopeful fact in itself. This moral radicalism is still alive. It is our task to keep it alive, to prevent it from going the way which his political radicalism will have to go. ‘Scientific’ Marxism is dead. Its feeling of social responsibility and its love for freedom must survive.”

Popper’s conception of the open society in which public policies are tested thoroughly and honestly for their effectiveness should be familiar to us. But in practice – as the science writer Ben Goldacre has said – politicians are reluctant to subject their big ideas to any sort of testing. Many of our policy makers are also cautious about ceding authority and trusting in people as Popper suggested they should: “we must recognize everybody with whom we communicate as a potential source of argument and of reasonable information”.

Popper himself was not faultless by any means. While praising The Open Society as “a powerful and important book”, Gilbert Ryle for example criticised a tendency in it towards ‘vehement and sometimes venomous’ polemic, adding that “it is bad tactics in a champion of the freedom of thought to use the blackguarding idioms characteristic of its enemies”. This is fair, one example being Popper’s failure to see any value whatsoever in Hegel and Heidegger. He failed to engage with some good arguments that did not suit his polemical narrative.

In doing so, and while being nakedly partial himself, he showed little sensitivity for the quite natural tribal affiliations that people have - for example he thought the idea of national self-determination was ridiculous. On a personal level, and contrary to his own philosophy, he could be dreadfully intolerant and bullying towards those who disagreed with him; indeed his colleagues at the London School of Economics used to call him the ‘totalitarian liberal’. Popper was an outsider in Britain and always remained apart and aloof from the main currents of academic thought, which perhaps explains the relative neglect for his writings in those circles.

But no one could accuse him of avoiding the fray and hiding out in an ivory tower of obscurity and intellectuality as so many academics do. Rather than dealing with esoteric questions, his philosophy contests the real, contested world of politics in a manner which ordinary people can understand and engage with. Popper furnishes us with a practical philosophy with great depth but that we can use, not least in helping us to sort out sense from nonsense.

As Magee says, “He has never been in the eye of fashion; and, big though his reputation is, his time has yet to come.”


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