Popper, Perkinson, Pedagogy, and Authority

Lecture Supplement for IDS 6937, July 8, 2004

1. Karl Popper [1902-1994]:

Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery [1959—a translation of his Logik der Forschung (1934)] offered his view regarding “the problem of demarcation”—the issue of how to separate science from pseudo-science.  Popper’s orientation is distinctive in the history of the philosophy of science.  Instead of emphasizing the role of observation or the role of induction, or the role of confirmation of theories, he emphasizes the fact that scientific theories are falsifiable.  Popper emphasized the falsifiability of scientific theories because he saw a central problem with the traditional view in the philosophy of science that what scientists did was to try and prove (or confirm) their theories.  The problem was that we can never, logically speaking, verify a universal statement (and given that scientific laws are such).  Popper, instead, pointed to the importance of falsifications for science.

     As Stephen Thornton points out, however:

logically speaking, a scientific theory is conclusively fallible although it is not conclusively verifiable.  Methodologically, however, the situation is much more complex: no observation is free from the possibility of error—consequently we may question whether our experimental result was what it appeared to be.
  Thus, while advocating falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation for science, Popper explicitly allows for the fact that in practice a single conflicting or counter-instance is never sufficient methodologically to falsify a theory, and that scientific theories are often retained even though much of the available evidence conflicts with them.1

Popper’s way of accommodating this sort of insight is by emphasizing that it is the critical methodology which is at the core of science.  In his Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge [1963], he presents a picture of scientific theorizing as one of coming up with falsifiable hypotheses and then endeavoring to refute them as the core of the scientific enterprise.  As Thornton notes:

scientific theories…are not inductively inferred from experience, nor is scientific experimentation carried out with a view to verifying or finally establishing the truth of theories; rather all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical—we can never finally prove our scientific theories, we can merely (provisionally) confirm or (conclusively) refute them; hence at any given time we have to choose between the potentially infinite number of theories which will explain the set of phenomena under investigation.  Faced with this choice, we can only eliminate those theories which are demonstrably false, and rationally choose between the remaining unfalsified theories.  Hence Popper’s emphasis on the importance of the critical spirit to science—for him critical thinking is the very essence of rationality.  For it is only by critical thought that we can eliminate false theories, and determine which of the remaining theories is the best available one, in the sense of possessing the highest level of explanatory force and predictive power.2

As Popper sees it pseudo-scientific theories (he includes Freudian and Marxist theories here) are not falsifiable and their practitioners do not endeavor to falsify them.  Thus the critical methodology can be employed to “demarcate” science.

     Popper believed that the critical methodology which he championed would not simply yield a sequence of refutable conjectures which move from unrefuted to refuted, but that it would yield a growth of knowledge.  In short, he held that science is a progressive enterprise which would, while pursing falsifiable conjectures, produce a growth in human knowledge.  Like most modern epistemologists, Popper’s epistemology is optimistic—like the earlier theorists, he holds that humans could know the world and the truth.  However he believes that the modern epistemological tradition encourages skepticism, relativism, and authoritarianism and he wants to avoid these “evils.”

He believes that the modern view that the truth is manifest calls out for an explanation regarding our ignorance of it, and here there will be one or more version of a conspiracy theory of ignorance.  Popper rejects both views.  He wants an optimistic epistemology which will not lead to an authoritarianism of foundations or sources of knowledge, a skepticism which denies us knowledge, or a relativism which undercuts objective knowledge.

Moreover, Popper claims that disbelief in the human power to discern the truth encourages a particularly pernicious appeal to authority—one which utterly distrusts human rational capacities—encouraging a “blind faith” instead.

     Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies [1945] is a classic of liberalism and a sustained attach on Plato and others.  As Thornton notes:

the link between Popper’s theory of knowledge and his social philosophy is his fallibilism—just as we make theoretical progress in science by deliberately subjecting our theories to critical scrutiny, and abandoning those which have been falsified, so too, Popper holds, the critical spirit can be sustained at the social level.  More specifically, the open society can be brought about only if it is possible for the individual citizen to evaluate critically the consequence of the implementation of government policies , which can then be abandoned or modified in light of such critical scrutiny—in such a society, the rights of the individual to criticise administrative policies will be formally safeguarded and upheld, undesirable policies will be eliminated in a manner analogous to the elimination of falsified scientific theories, and differences between people on social policy will be resolved by critical discussion and argument rather than by force.  The open society as thus conceived by Popper may be defied as ‘a association of free individuals respecting each other’s rights within the framework of mutual protection supplied by the state and achieving, through the making of responsible, rational decisions, a growing measure of humane and enlightened life’.3

Popper’s complaint with both traditional epistemology and traditional social theory is that both encourage authoritarianism.  Traditional epistemologists did so by looking for the foundations of, and sources of our knowledge.  They sought certainty and Popper believes that this is something which is precluded by our fallible nature.  In political and social theory, he finds enemies of his “open society” in both Plato and Marx.  His critical methodology is to avoid either the explicit authoritarianism of the former, or the historicism of the latter.

2. Perkinson:4

xii Whenever I have mentioned the title of this book to anyone, I am met with knowing nods and mutual agreement: “Yea, right!  That’s what’s wrong with schools.  Teachers have no goals; students have no purposes.”  I usually have difficulty convincing people that I propose this as the solution to what is wrong with schools: teachers should have no goals; students should have no purposes.
  I make this quirky recommendation because I have come to the conclusion that contemporary educational practice is based on a thoroughly incorrect theory of knowledge.  Most teachers have a completely inadequate conception of the nature of knowledge: of where knowledge comes from and of how it grows.  Besides corrupting the practice of education, this incorrect theory of knowledge has made improvement impossible.  As Michael Oakeshott has noted, “The practical danger of an erroneous theory is not that it may persuade people to act in an undesirable manner, but that it may confuse activity by putting it on a false scent.”
  In this book, I sketch an alternative approach to education, a critical approach based on the theory of knowledge that Sir Karl Popper calls evolutionary epistemology.  Even if this critical approach to teaching proves inadequate, my hope is that the theory of knowledge upon which it is based may help but educators on the right scent.

5 …I am against treating education as the promotion of learning.  Instead, I suggest that we consider education as growth, the growth of knowledge.

16 …purposes are not necessary to learning; students do not have to want to learn in order for their knowledge to grow.  Note that I do not deny that students, like all human beings, have purposes.  What I deny is that teachers must pay heed to students’ purposes in order to teach them, in order to promote the growth of their knowledge.  Indeed, it is this mistaken belief that has crippled schooling.  It has trivialized the content of education and subverted our methods of teaching.  This mistaken belief stems from the wrong-headed notion that knowledge comes to us from without.

-17 …we have gradually abandoned the teleological explanations of the physical world….But most of us still try to explain human conduce teleologically, by reference to purposes or goals….

-17-18 So it is with teachers.  Most teachers approach their task by identifying goals or aims.  Indeed, most teachers not only see each lesson and each class in terms of goals; this is how they see the entire educational process: as an enterprise, a mission, a journey to some end.
  Teachers usually couch their goals in terms of what they want the students to learn, what knowledge they want students to acquire.  As they see it, their role is to transmit the targeted knowledge to the students.  As noted before, this construction of the educational transaction arises from the belief that we acquire knowledge from without, the belief that the mind is a bucket to be filled with knowledge.
  But if the argument presented in the preceding chapter is correct, we are not passive receptors of knowledge; rather, we create new knowledge when we uncover inadequacies in our present knowledge.  In every case, the growth of knowledge consists of modifying the knowledge one already possesses.
  From this, it follows that teachers cannot transmit knowledge to students.  It may look as though the teacher is transmitting knowledge to students, but this is an illusion.  A teacher can present knowledge to students, but it is the students who create their understandings of what the teacher presents.

-18-19 …the attempt to transmit knowledge to students corrupts education.

20 Teachers who adopt the critical approach do not have goals; they have agenda.  That is, each teacher focuses on a specific part of a student’s knowledge.  A teacher may focus on helping students improve their writing, or their mathematical skills, or their understanding of the physical world; this is the teacher’s agenda.

-Well, Is there really a distinction here (between having goals and having agendas?

31-32 …teachers who use the critical approach do not want to strengthen the present understandings of their students; they want to improve them—by helping students uncover the errors in their present understandings.  So they ask their students to criticize the understandings (conjectured theories) presented by the author of the text (or by the lecture)—asks them to present arguments and counterexamples that will refute what was presented.  The criticisms the students put forth will indirectly disclose their own present understandings, since the criticisms they raise must rest upon their own understandings.

51 In the fifties, many philosophers began to follow the later work of Wittgenstein, abandoning the ideal of truth and replacing it with the quest for meaning.  Meaningful knowledge, they said, was useful knowledge; i.e., the meaning of a symbol, a word, a phrase, a statement, a text, was now said to depend upon the way language is used.  And since different groups use language differently, or play different language games, the meaning of a proposition becomes relative to a speech community.  Although they abandoned the notion of truth and substituted meaning in its place, these philosophers still retained the belief that knowledge had to be justified.  But now justified knowledge was simply knowledge that had meaning to some group.  A justified proposition was one used in accordance with the language rules of some linguistic community.  To justify a proposition, one had only to describe its meaning to some group.

-53 Epistemological relativism is the heart of postmodernism.  For if one abandons the search for true knowledge, and replaces it with the search for meaningful knowledge, then—since meanings do vary among different speech communities—knowledge is relative.  But if all knowledge is relative, then there can be no such thing as the growth of knowledge.

-53-54 Instead of promoting the growth of their student’s knowledge, postmodern teachers acculture them to the language games of one or more academic fields.  They teach students how the experts in each academic community use language.

-54 Why should students accept acculturation into the language games of the experts?  Especially if that language game has nothing to do with truth?  The only answer that postmodern teachers can give is that we are all continually playing games....The teacher’s game is to socialize or acculturate students to the language games of the experts.  The students’ game consists of learning those language games....
  Here, as in much of postmodern thought, description substitutes for explanation: take it or leave it.  At bottom then, education in the hands of postmodern teachers becomes a political activity.  That is, those who have the power impose language games on those who do not.  That is what education is.


1 Stephen Thornton, “Karl Popper,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed on-line at:
http://www.plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper on 07/07/04.  Emphasis has been added to the passage (twice).   Back

2 Ibid.   Back

3 Ibid.   Back

4 Citations below far all from Henry Perkinson, Teachers Without Goals: Students Without Purposes (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1993).  The bold emphasis in the passages cited has been added by me.   Back

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