18 JANUARY 1975, Page 20

Thinking things through

Antony Flew

The Philosophy of Karl Popper edited by P. A. Schilpp (Open Court and Alcove Press £15 for two volumes) Popper Bryan Magee (Woburn Press £2.50)

The Philosophy of Karl Popper is the latest and the largest of fourteen books so far published in The Library of Living Philosophers, all edited by P.A. Schilpp. In this gallery Popper stands out as unique in his combination of philosophical distinction with the widest relevance. G. E. Moore, by contrast, although his minute precision and his passionate integrity were a lifelong inspiration to generations of students and colleagues, was always the very model of a philosopher's philosopher. Russell, although his name became known to millions for his interventions in public affairs, was not, and could not have been, guided, or misguided, in those interventions by the ideas which were his achievement as a philosopher.

But it is as appropriate as it is significant that among the thirty-three critical essays in these two Popper volumes we find one from the Nobel Laureate John Eccles, telling how his own approach to scientific work was revolutionised by the ideas of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and another from Lord Boyle, describing the impact on him as a politically active undergraduate of The Open Society. (The political balance may be restored a little by noticing that Bryan Magee, author of the excellent Modern Masters Popper, now usefully made available in library hardcover, became in the February election a not fanatically socialist Labour MP).

The Schilpp book, which has been an unconscionable time a-making, earns its place on major library shelves primarily by Popper's own contributions. His 'Intellectual Autobiography' at the beginning and his 'Replies to My Critics' at the end are both much longer than their predecessors in the same series. The former interested me with its account of the excitements of the Viennese half of Popper's life. The critical essays vary enormously in both length and quality, and their dates spread all over the eight years 1964-1971. The shortest is a luminous and altogether typical two and a bit pages by W.V.O. Quine. I will not here pick out the longest, or the worst. The amonnt of gross, and gratuitous misunderstanding is distressing. Several contributors must have skimped their preparation shamefully. John Wild, for instance, faults Popper's failure to respond to Levinson's In Defence of Plato (1953). All Wild's references are to the Princeton edition of The Open Society (1950). But Popper added a twenty page discussion of Levinson's book to the 1964 and all later editions. More interesting, and far worse, is the case of Harvard Professor Hilary Putnam. Putnam speaks of Popper's "rather reactionary political conclusions," and complains that he is obscurantist in ruling out a priori the Marxist belief "that there are laws of society."

Popper offers his own gently humorous conjecture to explain why "a leader of the younger generation of logicians . . . found it unnecessary to do his homework." Perhaps Popper has not heard that Putnam is now a dedicated Leninist too; or perhaps he has. Certainly Putnam's unwillingness or inability to provide an even quarter way fair and accurate account of Popper's social philosophy is best seen as a backhanded tribute to the force of Popper's detailed and devastating critique of Marxism. Popper has of course asserted again and again — falsely in my opinion — that there are sociological laws; and he has in The Poverty of Historicism and elsewhere displayed supposed specimens. What in his view there are not — and indeed there are not, and could not be — are inexorable overall laws governing the entire development of a society. What Popper denies, therefore, are only laws of the kind to which Marx refers in the Preface to Capital: "When a society has discovered the natural law which determines its own movement . . . even then it can neither overleap the natural phases of its evolution, nor shuffle them out of the world by a stroke of the pen."

Putnam labours to score another point for his brand of authoritarian politics by asserting that Popper demands "a sharp 'demarcation' between science, on the one hand, and political, philosophical, and ethical ideas, on the other." You could scarcely be more wrong. The truth is that The Open Society constitutes, as Lord Boyle says, "a major contribution to the theory of how we can apply 'the critical and rational methods of science' to the problems of society, and how we can establish sound principles of democratic advance." That and nothing else is why Putnam and his like detest the book, and will not open their minds to what it actually says.

Lord Boyle continues: "One unifying principle, which runs through the whole of Popper's work, is the crucial importance of learning from our own mistakes, whether we are involved in science, in social science, or in government" (Boyle's italics). Just so. The essence of heroic science is, in Popper's view, forming bold, clear theories; and then seeking to produce situations in which, if these theories are false, they are shown to be. The nerve of the difference between true science and such degenerate or pseudo-sciences as astrology, psychoanalysis, and twentieth century Marxism, is that theories of the latter kind are by all manner of "immunising stratagems" made unfalsifiable by anything which either does or conceivably might occur. Since any explanation of fact must explain why things happen thus, and not otherwise, such unfalsifiability can be purchased only at the price of a loss of all explanatory power.

So also in his social philosophy Popper insists upon piecemeal reformist policies, subject to constant critical review. He utterly rejects wholesale utopian social engineering. He rejects it precisely because policies of total transformation cannot be — and are not intended to be — halted, altered, or reversed in the light of appraisals of results actually achieved.

One thing which Popper has not stressed, but Popperians should, is that this is a matter not of rationality only but of good faith too. If it really is the true explanation which I am after, not the all out defence of my own treasured theory, then I must be ready to test that theory to destruction; and to seek a better if it fails. If your social or political policy really is pressed sincerely as a means to further human goods, then you must be ready, even eager, to monitor its actual success or failure; and ready, even eager, to amend or to abandon that policy when and in so far as such critical appraisal shows it not to be achieving those goods, U-turns, but principled and unconcealed, would be characteristic of Popperian politics!

To recognise this logically necessary connection between, on the one hand, the critical rationality which seeks always for falsifications, and, on the other hand, scientific good faith and genuine political good intentions, is to acquire not only a philosophical insight but also a powerful polemical weapon. To conclude on a sharply topical note, it is conspicuously and significantly not as benevolent learners that our Labour Party presses always for ever more nationalisation and comprehensivisation; and threatens that these and other measures listed in its manifesto are to be "irreversible."

Antony Flew is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading