Updated: 27 November 2002

Critical Rationalism: a personal account


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I hold that orthodoxy is the death of knowledge, since the growth of knowledge depends entirely on the existence of disagreement. Admittedly, disagreement may lead to strife, and even to violence. And this, I think, is very bad indeed, for I abhor violence. Yet disagreement may also lead to discussion, to argument and to mutual criticism. And these, I think, are of paramount importance, I suggest that the greatest step towards a better and more peaceful world was taken when the war of swords was first supported, and later sometimes even replaced, by a war of words. This is why my topic is of some practical significance.

- Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework

"Critical Rationalism" (CR) is the name given to a strand of philosophy that considers the nature of problems and their solutions. It encourages a style of thinking that addresses real problems in a practical way, leading to real solutions.

This article is intended as an introduction to Critical Rationalism. I am not a philosopher myself, so all I can do is try to explain what it means to me, and why I think it is so valuable.

The word "philosophy", unfortunately, suggests to many people an arid academic debate, with no practical implications. This is wrong. Democracy would not exist without philosophers, and modern science frequently tackles problems that philosophers raised a long time ago - and creates new problems for them (consider quantum mechanics, the theory of the fundamental structure of matter, or the ethics of genetic modification.).

CR is particularly associated with the Austrian (naturalised British) philosopher Sir Karl Popper (1902-94). Popper made contributions across most of the range of traditional philosophy, and his work has been influential on many distinguished people working in science and the humanities, as well as ordinary toilers like me. I shall not attempt to give a definitive account of Popper's philosophy, and it is impossible even to mention, let alone summarise, all his work here. As far as I know, there are no really accessible accounts of Popper's philosophy on the Web. For the main resource on critical rationalism, see the Karl Popper Web.

Popper's writings and influence covered political theory, quantum mechanics, logic, scientific method, evolutionary theory and the nature of mind and knowledge. He challenged some of the ruling orthodoxies of philosophy: logical positivism, Marxism, determinism and linguistic philosophy. For a young science student, as I was once, a long time ago, his work on the nature of scientific knowledge and its demarcation from pseudo-science was an inspiration.

It's interesting to note that some scientists who study the workings of the mind now theorise that the brain works in ways very similar to Popperian problem-solving as it tries to make sense of sensory input, even though we are unaware of the actual processes.

"Through his ideas Popper promoted a critical ethos, a world in which the give and take of debate is highly esteemed in the precept that we are all infinitely ignorant, that we differ only in the little bits of knowledge that we do have, and that with some co-operative effort we may get nearer to the truth." - from the Karl Popper Web.

To read the article, click here.

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