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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 18 November 2013

On dissing Popper

Recently I was reading, with great enjoyment, Peter Medawar's Memoir of a Thinking Radish. In one part he discusses Karl Popper's reputation and what he says strikes me as spot on:

"... a good many philosophers are jealous of Popper, pick fault where they can, and find reasons to praise philosophers who put forward views different from his, even when those views are somewhat flimsy. I have a feeling that many lecturers on scientific method are oppressed by the sheer reasonableness of Popper's philosophy, and in taking a different or very critical line they feel that their personal identity has somehow been enlarged. Worse still, it has become the thing for literary intellectuals to pretend that there is something a little passé about Popper's philosophy and that he has been supplanted by a number of mavericks and clowns."

When I started as an undergraduate at the LSE Popper had already been retired for 10 years, but his views were still taught and, my impression was, in the main, taken seriously. Just over a decade later when I joined the faculty the mood had changed. It was fashionable to deride Popper, often for views that it was hard to demonstrate he actually held and just as frequently for views that he definitely did not hold. Attitudes towards his politics, personality, the manner in which he ran his department, how he conducted his seminar, dealt with colleagues and carried out his teaching seemed to get thoroughly mixed up, in quite absurd ways, with questions to do with the soundness or utility of his ideas. In fact to defend Popper in public more or less condemned you in some eyes as a witless simpleton.

Changing the proper name and a few nouns in the quotation would lead to an equally accurate description of certain tendencies in British sociology.

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