October 15, 2005

Wittgenstein, Popper

Wittgenstein has been considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century. I think not. I am not sure that he was even a good philosopher, and one of the principal effects of his influence has been the largely sterile shambles to which 20th Century philosophy was reduced. This effect was not unlike what he actually wanted, since there was for him in fact little for philosophy to do except to undo the damage that philosophy had done by existing in the first place.
With Franz Brentano (1838-1917) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), we have the introduction of the idea of "intentionality" into the mainstream of modern philosophy. Husserl uses the idea to define the nature of consciousness: Consciousness is always intentional, is always "consciousness of," i.e. it always empties out or projects its contents onto something else, onto an object. This was thought of by both Brentano and Husserl, as it was in Mediaeval philosophy, as a subjective quality; but Schopenhauer had already said much the same thing with a Kantian twist: The contents of consciousness, in being projected, create external objects, phenomenal objects, and so are not merely subjective.
Intentionality gives us Kant's "empirical realism." The paradoxes that attend this are examined in "Ontological Undecidability". The status of empirical objects as described by Kant is reflected in Husserl's choice of a name for his system of philosophy: "Phenomenology." Husserl's Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment (the "epoché") about the ontology of empirical objects, however, reflects Cartesian rather than Kantian assumptions. If phenomenal objects are empirically real, then they clearly do exist. Descartes and Husserl were worried about what Kant had called "transcendental realism."
The most important philosopher of science since Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Sir Karl Popper finally solved the puzzle of scientific method, which in practice had never seemed to conform to the principles or logic described by Bacon -- see The Great Devonian Controversy, by Martin J. S. Rudwick, for a case study of Baconian rhetoric and expectations being contradicted by actual practice and results. Instead of scientific knowledge being discovered and verified by way of inductive generalizations, leaping from perceptual data into blank minds, in terms that go back to Aristotle, Popper realized that science advances instead by deductive falsification through a process of "conjectures and refutations."
It is imagination and creativity, not induction, that generates real scientific theories, which is how Einstein could study the universe with no more than a piece of chalk. Experiment and observation test theories, not produce them. This was not, in retrospect, so hard to understand; and some philosophers, like Kant, had come close to recognizing it. It is still subject to some dispute, though mainly from those who misunderstand the rejection of induction or who demand positive epistemic reasons for crediting theories that are derived negatively, by falsification (see "Criticism of Karl Popper in Anthony O'Hear's An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science"). That is a reasonable enough demand, but the answer can only come from deeper philosophical epistemology, not from science or philosophy of science.
That deeper epistemology is, in fact, Friesian. Fries had held that synthetic propositions a priori, or the First Principles of Demonstration, do not need to be proven. This follows from Hume and Kant's definition of "synthetic" (can be denied without contradiction) and from Aristotle's definition of "First Principles" (are not justified by derivation from other propositions). Since Popper thought that justification works through falsification, and never through verification, he obviously agreed that such propositions do not need to be proven in the sense of logical derivation. It is now common in science to use falsifiability as a criterion for dismissing theories or claims as parts of science. Popper's own critique of Marx and Freud as unfalsifiable was a classic study, and the salutary influence of the principle in discussion of psychics or astrology is occasionally seen.
Popper, however, misunderstands the rest of Fries's theory, accusing him of "psychologism" in the sense that Fries supposedly relies on a psychological or subjective sense of certainty to justify instances of immediate knowledge. This is not true. Popper's mistake, in criticizing the Postivists, was to accept a Positivist, and Empiricist, premise, that we only have access to perceptions, to contents of the mind, not to the objects themselves. Popper misses the Kantian aspect of Friesian theory that immediate knowledge consists of phenomenal objects, which as objects, are not merely psychological or subjective. One's psychological attitude, or its origin, is therefore irrlevant; and the cognitive force of immediate knowledge lies in the intersubjective availability of empirical objects, our direct acquaintance with them, and the possiblity of their being shown to others by way of justification. (Ontological Undecidability)
Furthermore, Popper himself realized that the test of falsification cannot be applied to everything, for it is not clear how the principle of falsification itself could be subject to a falsifying test. If the principle can then be known to be true, there must be some means of verification for certain things after all. That must return us to Fries' original considerations. Popper's connection with Nelson's Neo-Friesian School is recounted in his Unended Quest, an Intellectual Autobiography [Open Court, 1985].
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, Los Angeles Valley College, Van Nuys, California, DrKelley at

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