An Objectivist’s assessment of Karl Popper

“The view that truth is possible, but not manifest, means that we can know truth, but not without effort. Knowing the truth is difficult, fraught with the potential for errors—errors made honestly, in good faith, not because of incompetence or evil.”
– Tim Starr


From the archives: The original post was posted on 22nd September 1996

Here’s a post I wrote for an Objectivist e-mail list, which I’m forwarding here [to the Taking Children Seriously forum] because I believe it clarifies the good and bad in Popper’s thought better than some of my previous posts may have. 

Someone wrote:

“I think it is clear from his writings that Popper sought to defend the rationality and objectivity of human knowledge, and that his concept of an objective reality existing independently of our recognition of it is fully consistent with that of Objectivism.”

Someone else replied:

“I disagree. Even if Popper does think there is a mind-independent world, he is utterly and completely pessimistic about the possibility of knowing much about it.”

First, let me make clear that I’m not a Popperian. I believe that he was wrong in his basic epistemology. However, I also believe that he still got many things right, and that we have much to gain from studying his thought. That said:

It is simply false to say that Popper was “utterly and completely pessimistic about the possibility of knowing much about” the real world. In fact, the exact opposite was the case. Popper was very optimistic about that possibility. If I had any of his books with me, I could quote from them to this effect, and I’m no great expert on Popper.

Virtually all of Wilkinson’s factual claims about Popper’s philosophy are equally false. Rather than rebut them in detail, let me try to explain how this misunderstanding may have arisen in the first place.

Popper was a metaphysical realist. He was also an advocate and defender of “critical rationalism,” as opposed to “constructivist rationalism.” He did uphold the correspondence theory of truth.

However, he wasn’t a perceptual realist. He was a representationalist when it came to the theory of perception. I believe that most of the confusion about his ideas stems from this. So do most of his contradictions (of which there were many in his thought). Not only that, but he was an anti-foundationalist, too.

Popper put theories of knowledge into three fundamental categories:

  1. Truth is manifest.
  2. Truth is impossible.
  3. Truth is possible, but not manifest.

These categories are analogous to Rand’s trichotomy of intrinsicism, subjectivism, and objectivism. Both Popper and Rand independently arrived at the same conclusion here. Intrinsicism corresponds to position 1 above, subjectivism to position 2, and objectivism to 3. I’ve found it helpful to substitute the term “obvious” for “manifest” in his formulation.

The view that truth is “manifest” means that it is obvious, that it can be known so effortlessly that the failure to grasp it can only be explained by incompetence or evil—never by honest errors made in good faith. This is what Popper called “constructivist rationalism,” and devoted much of his work to arguing against.

The view that truth is impossible means that we can never know whether our claims to knowledge ever correspond to reality. All we can know is what we believe, which is up to our own subjective will. Popper called this “relativism,” as did many others, and opposed it, too.

The view that truth is possible, but not manifest, means that we can know truth, but not without effort. Knowing the truth is difficult, fraught with the potential for errors—errors made honestly, in good faith, not because of incompetence or evil. This is Popper’s own view, the one he defended with some success and some failures. He called it “critical rationalism.”

F.A. Hayek was also a critical rationalist, and there’s a whole school of critical rationalists who follow Popper as they understand him. One of the factions within this school is that of “evolutionary epistemology,” which has it that knowledge grows by a process that’s analogous to biological evolution, in which theories are generated randomly, false ones are selected out of the “meme” pool by means of criticism, and true ones are retained. Another goes by the name of “falliblism.” (I’m not sure what, if any, distinctions there are between these different schools, so don’t take my classification of them as definitive or exhaustive.)

Popper argued that the manifest theory of truth and the view that truth is impossible both led to tyranny—correctly, I would argue. He did not say that the view that truth is possible but not obvious led to tyranny. Quite the opposite, he held that it led to liberty, and the progress of science and industry. Correctly.

Popper classified all foundationalism as belonging to the category of the manifest theory of truth. He also unquestioningly accepted representationalism as the only alternative to idealism in the theory of perception. W.W. Bartley III, one of his followers and a founder of the school of evolutionary epistemology, wrote an essay in which he treated representationalism as if it were the equivalent of realism. As David Kelley brilliantly argues in his under-appreciated book, The Evidence Of The Senses, it is not.

Popper was in error on these points, as are his followers. These errors lead many to wrongly call Popper an irrationalist. They especially lead to conflict between Popperians and Objectivists, with Popperians accusing Objectivists of adhering to obsolete, discredited ideas like induction, foundationalism, etc., and being potential (or actual) tyrants—while Objectivists accuse Popperians of being anti-rationalists who are undermining the defense of science, progress, and liberty.

BOTH of these accusations have a grain of truth to them. Popperians don’t appreciate how they weaken their case for truth, justice, etc., by accepting anti-foundationalism and representationalism. But all too many Objectivists, including Rand herself, have held to the manifest theory of truth in practice even while insisting they rejected it in theory, leading them to be actual tyrants and dictators in real life.

The manifest theory of truth is so ingrained in our culture that it takes a conscious, determined effort to get it out of your system. Formal rejection of it in theory as “intrinsicism” isn’t enough to get you to consistently apply it in practice. There are no infallible sources or methods of finding truth. It can be found, though. One of the greatest accomplishments of David Kelley’s Truth and Toleration has been to formulate an argument for this in Objectivist terms—although I’m not sure he or his followers would accept my evaluation.

We have much to learn from Popperians, fallibilists, and evolutionary epistemologists, despite their errors. They also have much to learn from us. But they’ll be reluctant to reject their anti-foundationalism and representationalism and accept foundationalism and perceptual realism so long as we remain derelict in our duty to explain to them why they should, acting as if it took no effort to understand the reasons. So long as we do this, we remain practitioners of the manifest theory of truth, of intrinsicism, in this respect, which they will point to as evidence that the position we advocate really does amount to that in practice. We need to practice what we preach before we can make any converts among them. 

“…Popper’s essential irrationalism is brilliantly exposed by David Stove in Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists and in the chapter “Cole Porter and Karl Popper: the Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science” in Stove’s The Plato Cult (a funny, curmudgeonish, logically devastating book).”

Thanks for the reference, but Popper wasn’t an irrationalist, as I’ve already noted. Another reference is the essay “A Tangled Web of Guesses,” by Nicholas Dykes, which can be found here. Dykes critiques Popper from an Objectivist perspective and does a pretty good job of it—although I don’t agree with every detail.

“[Moderator, Heretofore Suppressing Himself: I add my full endorsement to the above. Popper was a very nasty guy. The VERY FIRST PREMISE of his The Logic of Scientific Discovery is that induction doesn’t work; he just rewrites a page out of Hume and then goes on to build his philosophy. His falsificationism tries to avoid the logical problems inherent in the Logical Positivist verification principle, but runs into exactly every one of them (Carl Hempel, The Empiricist Criterion of Meaning, in Logical Positivism ed. A. J. Ayer). His The Open Society and Its Enemies should be the leading document of modern conservatism: let’s change toward socialism, but do it slow, okay? Whatever he may have correctly denounced, his philosophy is as lame as they come. (Sorry for the off-the-cuffness—just a little note, right?) Thanks, Will, for the references!]”

Yes, Popper rejected induction. However, this must be put into context: he was arguing against the extreme empiricists of the Logical Positivists who held that if only the right procedures were used that truth had to be the result, beyond any possibility of doubt or disproof. That is, that if a scientific hypothesis were confirmed by the evidence that it could never be disconfirmed or falsified.

In rejecting the verificationism of Logical Positivism, he proposed the alternative of falsificationism: hypotheses can never be verified, but they can be falsified. He threw out the baby with the bathwater here. Both views are wrong, as stated in their simple forms. There is a place for evidence which confirms hypothesis, while any theory can be falsified by contrary evidence no matter how much confirming evidence there may be for it. There’s also the question of how to interpret evidence—does the evidence taken to confirm a theory actually confirm it? Does the evidence taken to falsify actually do so?

As for his political philosophy, yes, Popper was a conservative—a conservative social democrat. However, this was for two reasons. The first was that he rejected the radicalism of Marxism as an attempt to completely re-make society without the knowledge adequate for the task. Instead, he favored “piecemeal” social engineering, reforming society in smaller bites instead of more than we can swallow. The second was that he failed to appreciate the value of pluralism in political-economy as much as he did in science and free expression. He never seemed to realize that free markets are the corollary to free minds, as Ayn Rand did. He never seemed to realize that businessmen need just as much freedom to experiment with diverse tactics, strategies, methods, etc., to find out how to provide goods and services successfully and profitably as scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals do to find out what truth and justice are.

Most of the Popperians I’ve talked to are much better politically than Popper ever was. They don’t make the same political mistakes as he did. They do support pluralism in material goods and services as well as in ideas.

In a way, Popper’s work is a good example of the theory that while it is possible to find out what truth and justice are it’s easy to make mistakes. He made his share of mistakes. But he did manage to get many things right, too. We should be more careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

See also:

Tim Starr, 1996, ‘An Objectivist’s assessment of Karl Popper’,

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