John Sceski's Popper, Objectivity and the Growth of Knowledge contains many interesting passages and a wealth of suggestive ideas. It makes helpful connections between Popper's work and the philosophical literature. And it displays a genuine sympathy for Popper's projects and preoccupations. At the same time, the text is not as well edited as it might have been (see below). Also, some opportunities to make useful connections are missed. The overall result is a work that Popper aficionados will find engaging, but one that may leave some others disappointed.
Sceski begins by noting that thinkers influenced by Wittgenstein, Derrida and Rorty (among others) take a dim view of philosophy's attempts to contribute to a quest for impartial, objective knowledge. In their hands, philosophy risks becoming an inward-looking, self-involved therapy session, devolving into text-play, or (worse still) embracing ironic sophistry. Sceski suggests that Popper's critical rationalism offers us an inviting alternative -- one that has the advantage of salvaging what is best about the Enlightenment tradition while steering clear of dogmatic foundationalism.
To show the scope and power of Popper's philosophical vision, Sceski focuses on conceptual problems raised by the quest for objective knowledge in five domains: epistemology, metaphysics, linguisitcs, politics, and ethics. Let me say a little about each of these in succession.
The epistemic problems Sceski discusses are perhaps among the most familiar. One central challenge, of course, is to explain what sets knowledge apart from other cognitive states. This turns out to be present some nontrivial challenges for Popper, who rejects appeal to justification as among the relevant desiderata. In Chapter Two of the book, Sceski addresses this topic at some length. He also devotes considerable energy to related epistemic issues including the problem of demarcation in natural science, Popper's proposed solution to the problem of induction, and the significance of theory corroboration. The discussion weaves in an interesting commentary on the work of the logical positivists, Saul Kripke, and David Miller, among others.
A portion of Chapters Two and Three is taken up with explaining how Popper addresses the metaphysical issues connected with objectivity and knowledge: what must reality be like, and what must the cognizing subject be like, for objective knowledge to be possible? Sceski's discussion here covers Popper's conception of truth, the purported asymmetry between truth and falsehood, as well as Popper's view of propensities. Sceski's exposition of the links between Popper's evolutionary epistemology and Darwinian biology is one of strengths of the book.
The specifically linguistic problem of knowledge comes up in Chapter Four. It comprises two issues. One challenge is to explain agreement and disagreement between human agents without invoking subjective frameworks or conceptual schemes. (These threaten objectivity.) A second challenge concerns making sense of the nature of the relationship between human linguistic abilities and our evolutionary heritage. The hope is that an improved understanding of the ways in which our conceptual and linguistic abilities emerge as a result of our phylogenic development will shed light on the activity of criticism that is so central to critical rationalism. The principal points of reference for these discussions of linguistic objectivity are Quine, Davidson and Kuhn. Wittgenstein is frequently in the background as well. In one sense, this is what one would expect. Nonetheless, I read these pages feeling that an opportunity had been missed here. It would have been interesting to see the author tie his discussion of Popper on language with ongoing work in linguistics.
The book's fourth Chapter is dedicated to objectivity and knowledge in politics and ethics. The political problem concerns striking a balance between the need for social cohesion and the inevitable and healthy tensions that a self-critical society must face, permit, and even encourage. Put another way, the problem is how to construct stable democratic institutions that do not stifle or suppress historical change. Sceski's discussion is somewhat brief here, but he does an admirable job articulating and commenting on Popper's modest, fallibilist, and anti-utopian vision of political struggle. The discussion of Popperian ethics is also quite brief. Here, Sceski brings out the parallels between Popper's negative-utilitarian conception of ethics and the ethics of Kant and also that of Rawls.
Popper, Objectivity and the Growth of Knowledge is an ambitious book. One happy consequence of treating the five themes I have just enumerated together in one work -- rather than, say, limiting the scope of the discussion to the demarcation problem or the Open Society, to the exclusion of others issues -- is that it allows the reader to appreciate more clearly the wide-ranging and systematic character of Popper's thought. This, I think, is among the strengths of Sceski's approach.
For all that, the book suffers from some flaws. The first concerns the book's overall structure. Chapter One advertises that we will be dealing with five central problems. This sets up the expectation on the part of the reader that the book will be organized around these five themes. Unfortunately, this is not the case; in fact, it takes a certain amount of work to extract the solutions Sceski takes Popper to offer from the subsequent chapters. The task is not unrewarding. Still, it may have been easier on the reader to make the framework of the book more transparent.
The text also suffers from some surprisingly careless editing. Here's one instance: contrary to what the text suggests, the argument offered as a disjunctive dilemma on page 36 is, in fact, formally invalid. This, in turn, has the effect of making the point Sceski is developing in the surrounding paragraphs significantly harder to understand. As well, a more scrupulous editor might have objected to a number of overly dense passages that resist interpretation even on careful scrutiny. Here is one such:
"Because, pace Wittgenstein, there are no private languages, fundamental confusion on the individual level implies fundamental confusion on the communal level since language is a social phenomenon; however, to assert this is to deny the prospects for community, and thereby to contradict an obvious state of affairs of the world around us." [p.24, (sic.)]
On occasions such as this, I was left sincerely wishing that the author had slowed down to explain more patiently what he had intended to convey.
In spite of this, the book is an interesting contribution to the Popper literature. It presents Popper sympathetically, draws out some useful connections with the tradition, and makes a case for the relevance of Popper's work today. I think fans of Karl Popper's work will enjoy reading it.
© 2008 Luke Jerzykiewicz
Luke Jerzykiewicz, Visiting Assistant Professor, Clark University, Massachusetts
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