Ian Jarvie on Popper’s “social turn”

It is generally accepted that Popper did not give a thorough account of the way that science actually works, and that is supposed to indicate that by the 1960s he was a bit out of things. Perhaps he did some interesting work back in the 1930s that challenged the logical positivists, but that was such a long time ago, of course things have moved on from there. Now we have the penetrating insights of Thomas Kuhn with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1961). And then along came Imre Lakatos, the strong program in the sociology of science, and fieldwork like the major project carried out in the Walter and Eliza Hall by Charlesworth and associates.

Ian C Jarvie has launched a strong challenge to that view of Popper. He is a Canadian member of the Popperian Mafia with a special line of interest in sociology, including the sociology of the modern cienema. In 2001 be published a book called The Republic of Science: The Emergence of Popper’s Social View of Science 1935-1945. The dust jacket announces:

This book offers a careful re-reading of Popper’s classic falsificationist demarcation of science, stressing its institutional aspects. Popper’s social thinking about science, individuals, institutions, and rationality is tracked through The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies as he criticises and improves his earlier work. New links are established between the works of the 1935-1945 period, revealing them as a source for criticism of the institutions and governance of science.

Jarvie argues strenuously that Popper’s first major work in early 1930s can be interpreted to anticipate the “social turn” in the philosophy of science. This may be called the “strong version” of his thesis, by analogy with the strong program in the sociology of science. A weaker version of Jarvie’s thesis, which is equally fruitful but possibly less controversial, is that Popper should be regarded as a conventionalist in scientific methodology (not to be confused with conventionalism as a theory of truth). Jarvie has argued convincingly that the decisive achievement of Logik der Forschung was to show the indispensable function of methodological conventions as “rules of the game” in science. This mirrors Popper’s approach to political philosophy; as the function of the philosophy of science is to formulate and criticize the “rules of the game” of science, so the function of moral and political philosophy is to do the same for the “rules of the game” of social and political life. These rules may be unwritten conventions, mores and folkways, traditions, laws of the land and institutions of all kinds.

The Introduction to the book, ‘Science as an Institution’, sets out the major issues in the complex relationship between science and society that Jarvie hopes to illuminate. The word science of course has many different uses and discussion can easily be confused by conflating two or more of the meanings. “Science” may refer to a body of public knowledge; a set of beliefs about the world; the whole range of activities performed by scientists; some subset of those activities that are supposed to be special to science; the social and political institutions that influence the activities of scientists. Jacques Barzun wrote a particularly valuable book with the title Science: The Glorious Entertainment. Jarvie is clearly aware of the nuances of the topic and he surveys various approaches to it, including the positivist and falsificationist demarcation principles and Merton’s sociological account of the distinguishing features of scientific knowledge.

Chapter 1 unpacks the hidden elements of the “social turn” in Popper’s early philosophy of science. The key concept here is the need for “rules of the game” in science and these constitute what Jarvie calls “the proto-constitution of science”. This is the foundation of his project and he spells out this constitution in some detail, drawing from The Logic of Scientific Discovery (originally Logik der Forschung, 1935). In the following chapters he works through the evolution of Popper’s thoughts over the decade from 1935 to 1945 to show how his views on science and society developed to the point they reached in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies.

My argument will be that thinking socially (rather than logically or psychologically) is central to Popper’s philosophical enterprise beginning with 1 The Logic of Scientific Discovery, continuing for his ten most creative years, and emerging sporadically after that. Popper’s consistent ability to think socially also does much to account for his originality, since it is hard to do and its difficulty is attested by how often readers and critics of Popper do not grasp that this is what he is doing.

Jarvie argues that the roots of Popper’s social thinking can be traced back to Logik der Forschung (1935).

David Oldroyd demonstrated how easily the significance of the “methodological turn” in Popper’s thought can be overlooked. His book The Arch of Knowledge (1986) listed ten or twenty prescriptions that Popper specified for the conduct of scientists. He then completed the chapter with critical comments on Popper’s logic of science and treated the sociological turn as post-Popperian development in the last chapters of the book.

The second chapter of Jarvie’s book is called ‘Popper’s 1935 Proto-Constitution for the Republic of Science’. This contains a list with Popper’s supreme or meta-rule (SR) and 14 subsidiary rules (R1 to R14), which constitute the rudimentary “scaffolding for Popper’s republic of science” (page 51).

“SR: The other rules of scientific procedure must be designed in such a way that they do not protect any statement in science against falsification.”

“R1: The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.”

“R2: Once a hypothesis has been proposed and tested, and has proved its mettle, it may not be allowed to drop out without ‘good reason’.”

The “supreme rule” and the first two subsidiary rules were proposed by Popper, then Jarvie has identified additional rules that can be found scattered in the text of Popper’s book.

“R3: We are not to abandon the search for universal laws and for a coherent theoretical system, nor ever give up our attempts to explain causally any kind of event we can describe.”

“R5: Only those auxiliary hypotheses are acceptable whose introduction does not diminish the degree of falsifiability or testability of the system in question but, on the contrary, increases it.”

“R9: After having produced some criticism of a rival theory, we should always make a serious attempt to apply this criticism to our own theory.”

And so on.

Jarvie’s commentary on the “constitution” begins with the reminder that it is very incomplete. He notes also that it is very abstract, as thought the whole of science is a kind of debating society, leaving out of account a great deal of gritty reality, such as the question of leadership in the decision-making that is inevitably required, including decisions about adding to the constitution or revising it.

One of the implications of the social turn is that the nature of objectivity is radically shifted. It ceases to be a problem for individual scientists, requiring that they be unbiased, rational and free from preconceptions. It becomes a situational or institutional problem, calling for such things as theoretical pluralism, clear formulation of the problems that the theories are supposed to solve, the design of critical experiments, the existence of journals, seminars and conferences to facilitate critical discussion. Some of these requirements need to be provided by individual scientists, especially new ideas and imaginative criticism; others call for institutions, including political institutions, to protect the autonomy of the journals and the research institutes.

Jarvie has surveyed the work of other commentators and critics of Popper who have touched on these matters. For example Polanyi in Personal Knowledge recognised the importance of rules (which he called maxims) in scientific practice. He considered that these were “tacit”, picked up in the process of training and induction into the scientific community. They are supposed to be interpreted and administered by the leadership of the scientific community, a notion that is not far removed from the idea of the philosopher king of the republic at large. Polanyi’s maxims did not appear to include any guidelines for critical discussion of the maxims even in the republic itself, much less by outsiders. Feyerabend reacted against the authoritarian use of rules to rubbish the notion of rules tout court, a position which ignores the stance of critical rationalism, which permits us to make use of rules while standing ready to revise them.

Chapter 3 “The Methodology of Studying Social Institutions” takes up Popper’s work in The Poverty of Historicism. Jarvie selected three topics for special attention: first, Popper’s ideas about the emergence of institutions, including scientific institutions; second, his ideas about individuals and their function in science; and thirdly, his ideas on rationality in general and the scope for objectivity and testing in the human sciences. Hacohen’s biography of Popper shows how his views on these topics can be traced to Carl Menger, and the “Austrian school” of social and economic thought which runs through Mises to Hayek and on to others such as Kirzner and Lachman. Two of the central “Austrian” doctrines which Popper took on board are the theory of the origin of social institutions and methodological individualism.

Popper argued that “only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed while the vast majority have just ‘grown’ as the undesigned results of human actions”. Jarvie is prepared to challenge this (page 113), in view of the intensive discussion and conscious work that has been done on social institutions over the last couple of centuries. As for science as a social institution, Jarvie emphasizes Popper’s view on the importance of freedom of though for scientific progress, and the importance of appropriate political institutions to protect freedom, by which he means democracy. Of course it all depends what you mean by democracy. Gerard Radnitzky wrote a fascinating paper which argued that science, free thought and limited government arose in parallel (and not by accident) and that this was a pre-democratic development, made possible by taming the power of government.

On methodological individualism, Jarvie reminds us that this does not entail psychological reductionism, nor atomistic individualism. It is a proposal (a convention) for a form of explanation, which acknowledges social institutions and influences that transcend the individual, but without invoking group minds or the spirit of the age. Jarvie suggests that “Attacks on Popper’s MI have missed the richness of his conception of the logic of the situation”. Jarvie himself treated this matter in some detail in the first chapter of his book Concepts And Society (1972).

Moving on to chapters four and five on The Open Society and its Enemies Jarvie’s aim was to capture Popper’s published ideas over the decade 1935 to 1945, avoiding the complications of subsequent changes to the original texts.This is where a problem of organisation becomes apparent, partly due to the great density of argument. In The Open Society Popper took many hundreds of pages, almost half in small print, to spell out his arguments. In less than a hundred pages Jarvie has set out to convey the gist of these arguments, along with his “first take” on the way that Popper’s ideas about society enrich his ideas about science and vice versa. It is possible that there are two or three books in here, jostling for attention. There is the strong thesis regarding Popper’s “social turn”; the analogy between Popper’s approach to the rules of the game in science and society; the parallels between Popper and the “Austrians” in the methodology of the social sciences; the exegesis of The Open Society and its Enemies; and the implications of all of the above in working out the relationships between science (in all its various aspects) and society (and politics).Jarvie’s exploration of science and society, and the possibility that science may function as a model or exemplar for the open society, is rich in problems and issues. Many of these arise from the troubled relationship between science and politics since applied science became vital for defence, and also since science moved beyond the point where people could win Nobel Prizes with equipment put together with bits and pieces purchased from the local dime store. Much of Jarvie’s discussion on these matters is directly or indirectly concerned with the governance of science (another book trying to get out) and Steve Fuller’s comments on these parts of the book should be especially helpful.

A small aside on rank and status in science: on p 161 Jarvie speculates about the application of Popper’s principles of equalitarian justice in the hierarchical scientific community. (Recall Polanyi’s view of the authoritarian function of the leaders in science). David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality has an answer. On p 232ff (Penguin edition) he wrote that despite Kuhnian exceptions to the principle of open-ended critical discussion “Nevertheless, the extent to which it 2 adheres to ‘proper scientific practice’ in the conduct of scientific research is nothing short of remarkable”. He described the conduct of a seminar where observers would be hard put to work out the ranks of the participants, where a leading professor will politely answer slightly “off the point” questions by a novice, and so on.

But now the seminar ends…3 the professor is treated with deference, and sits at a table with those of similar rank. A chosen few from the lower ranks are given the privilege of being allowed to sit there too. The conversation turns to the weather, gossip or (especially) academic politics. So long as those subjects are being discussed, all the dogmatism and prejudice, the pride and the loyalty, the threats and flattery of typical human interactions in similar circumstances will reappear. But if the conversation happens to revert to the topic of the seminar, the scientists instantly become scientists again…rank and rule become irrelevant…That is, at any rate, my experience in the fields in which I have worked.

His experience may have been fortunate but it is not unique, and this is a cheerful thought to have in mind at the end of this canter through Jarvie’s opus.


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Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

The quote you provide at the end reminds me of Dewey, writing perhaps a little before Popper’s work.

No scientific inquirer can keep what he finds to himself or turn it to merely private account without losing his scientific standing. Everything discovered belongs to the community of workers. Every new idea and theory has to be submitted to this community for confirmation and test. There is an expanding community of cooperative effort and of truth. . . . [T]hese traits are now limited to small groups . . . . But the[ir] existence reveals a possibility of the present. . . . The general adoption of the scientific attitude in human affairs would mean nothing less than a revolutionary change in morals, religion, politics and industry.

I really love that quote!

17 years ago

Popperian Mafia: “we’ll make you a theory you can’t refute”?,,,

17 years ago

I studied science in the 1970s, as a proper enrolled student; as opposed to attending a university in the 1960s; and learned about Popper, Lakatos, and some of the other philosophers. The lecturer was an unpleasant fellow who did not understand symbolic logic, which I was trying to absorb as a hobby, thinking that it might be some use. We were encouraged to try and understand electronics.

Science is an anarchic discipline, which emerged largely from the efforts of the bourgeoisie during the Enlightenment, and the philosophy of science is a tool of those who would tame it. Anyone can practise science by e.g. proving Pythagoras’ Theorem, or fixing some mechanical problem that is not trivial with their car, or proving to their own satisfaction that the world is really round.

The article does touch on the possibility of the subversion of science, and there is an egregious example of this that is still current. Following 911 within two days the Administration emerged with a fully formed account of what happened and many experts rushed with theories that supported the official story, thus locking themselves in. Then when some people later raised serious doubts about the scientific plausibility of the official theory they were by and large discredited politically rather than scientifically. Still the debate has not been shut down, indeed it is still quite vigorous, although by now quite muddied.