Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Routledge Classics) (Volume 17) 5th Edition
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- Publisher : Routledge; 5th edition (July 21, 1992)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0415043182
- ISBN-13 : 978-0415043182
- Item Weight : 1.55 pounds
- Dimensions : 1.25 x 6 x 9.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,953,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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In Conjectures and Refutations, he touches upon people such as Plato, Kant and Hume and things such as linguistics, the nature of scientific progress, philosophical problems, epistemology, history and politics. For example, in discussing Hume he speaks about Hume’s articulation of the problem of induction, the fact that no matter how often we see some event happen, we cannot logically derive a general rule (the reverse of deduction). What was a vexing problem for so long is finally solved by Popper (although to this day many seem not to realize it). You’ll learn that our entire body of knowledge stems from the identification of problems and the theories put forward to solve such problems. No matter how sure we are we’ve got a solid foundation, all knowledge is conjectural. Indeed, the search for an absolutely firm foundation is mistaken from the beginning. But that’s ok. We can and do make real progress.
Popper has altered the way I have thought about what constitutes a democracy. Whereas most people might ask “who should rule?”, Popper replaces that with a much better question, namely, “what is the best way to get rid of bad rulers and bad policies?” This somewhat subtle shift in thinking has deeper implications than may be initially recognized and suggests new ways of structuring society.
Further, Popper also addresses the problems with Marxism and other revolutionary schools of thought, explaining the problems the quest for utopia tends to produce. Recognizing that we are fallible, he explains just why it is that we’re apt to make major mistakes and get things wrong rather than get them right. Rather, he supports the idea of more incremental changes.
There are some areas which I found fairly boring and I think most people will, areas where he gets bogged down in the peculiarities of language. But, even in these areas, he shows himself to be a keen thinker. Having read quite a bit by him now, I can’t help wondering why he isn’t more well known.
He was not looking to favour any one theory, as he was incumbent upon establishing a critical criteria for scientific discovery. This attitude extended well beyond the margins of the scientific method, such as it is, into the unlikely domains of sociology, psychology, ethics, and politics. Nonetheless the salient question persists: why did Popper have such a bone to pick with the scientific orthodoxy? Central to scientific discovery is induction which, relevant to Popper's conception of it, can be summarised as rendering an empirical judgment from inferred, and thus insufficient, observation(s). The spirit of Hume can be found in Popper's penmanship here, as he derived considerable inspiration from his work on induction. He heralds Hume's critique of induction as the exemplar of epistemological insight, but stops short of complete reverence by repudiating Hume's psychological description of induction. Hume's critique is well known, even millennial, but Popper goes further. It cannot logically be said that the inference (the element of induction) connecting the tissue of theory and judgment in science is at all empirical. Even if the inferred element of a scientific theory withstands a variety of tests, one cannot recall the gap in the method as being empirical in character. This prompted Popper to leap to an extraordinary corollary: induction is a myth! This ratio was, and continues to be, met with howls of disapproval, but I think it's necessary to contextualise his myth-making scheme. Many have assumed, falsely, that Popper's declaration amounts to a logical absurdity, but they are missing the point. When Popper spoke of induction as a myth, he did not relegate it to non-existence, but denied its presence as a corroborative tool of empirical analysis.
Is there an ultimate source of knowledge, then? Popper thought not. Empiricism, knowledge derived from the observation of the senses, is essential, but so are other methods of human knowledge. To profess universal certainty of one above all is to privilege ignorance and authoritarianism over the quest for knowledge. Going back to what I wrote earlier, one finds an organic reciprocity bridging Popper's technical work on the philosophy of science with his political philosophy. In my review of The Open Society and its Enemies, I concluded with the remark that Popper was "an eminently moral thinker," and upon reflecting further on Conjectures and Refutations, I find little reason to quarrel with that assessment. Popper was almost engulfed by the Third Reich when it annexed Austria, and his lifelong commitment to liberal democracy and critical inquiry rendered him a grand moral philosopher. The sources of knowledge, it goes without saying, are many. He targets those who are inclined, as if by default, to dismiss evidence on the grounds that they don't personally agree with it, say with a news report or an archaeological dig. He is opprobrious of the conspiracy theorist version of history and knowledge - those who would cast all events under their oracular microscope. The prophetic margins of human knowledge are catastrophic failures. History has no special meaning or designated authority, and those who have fashioned humanity in their own image (Hitler, Lenin, Trotsky, etc.) eventually succumb to their own contrivances. How do we know what's true, though? The empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) trusted the evidence of the senses, but the rationalists (Leibniz, Descartes, and Spinoza) had some interesting thoughts, too. Popper situates the rationalists within the boundaries of epistemological optimism. Their justification for divinity found its expression in the following logic: what there is, there must be; otherwise God willingly deceives us. Popper writes of this system with a kind of paternal affection, but in no way does he give it serious consideration. He expresses much admiration for Berkeley's cosmology, which he dedicates an entire chapter to as the precursor of Ernst Mach, but it is Hume who is given preferential treatment overall - and rightly so.
The roots of cosmology are given fascinating and comprehensive detail by Popper. The burning ontological questions of the ancients were eventually answered by Newton, but Popper is not so quick to dismiss the preceding schools, either. Indeed, we owe an apparent debt to the pre-Socratic philosophers. Thales, one of the ancient sages, concluded that water was the essence of all things. When there was an earthquake, for example, that was a result of chaotic seas. Heraclitus, the sage of fire, believed that the earth was suspended in space and rotated on the axis of two wheels, the left wheel 19 times the size of the earth, the right wheel 28 times the size of the earth. Their cosmology was informed by their polytheism, but we ought not dispose of them entirely. To begin with, Heraclitus, prior to all tools of modern science, predicted the earth as a planet in orbit. The actual mechanics he relied on are utterly absurd, but his attitude was basically right. Popper provides an example of empiricism in error: thinking the world was flat based on his experience, Thales imagined the world to be the shape of a drum. Here, Heraclitus' intuition trumped the experiential conclusions of Thales. The conceptual apparatus of physics under Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Kepler were regarded as preeminent for centuries until Einstein came to the scene. What Popper means by all this is that the growth of knowledge is eternal, and while we can be confident in the probability of a theory, we can never declare that there is an ultimate truth above and beyond all else. Where we are lured by a false dichotomy containing only two properties, Popper reminds that there is another way out of the problem, the third way.
Conjectures and Refutations is a magnificent, compelling work. There is such a vast wealth of material here for the prospective reader to peruse.