- Paperback: 608 pages
- Publisher: Routledge; 2nd edition (August 11, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0415285941
- ISBN-13: 978-0415285940
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.4 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #233,944 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Routledge Classics) (Volume 17) 2nd Edition
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Conjectures and Refutations is one of Karl Popper's most wide-ranging and popular works, notable not only for its acute insight into the way scientific knowledge grows, but also for applying those insights to politics and to history. It provides one of the clearest and most accessible statements of the fundamental idea that guided his work: not only our knowledge, but our aims and our standards, grow through an unending process of trial and error.
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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.