Critical rationalism: a moral commitment or a rational defence?

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper (1994 [2013]: 435-436) defines critical rationalism in the following way:

... I shall distinguish in what follows between two rationalist positions, which I label “critical rationalism” and “uncritical rationalism” or “comprehensive rationalism” .... Uncritical or comprehensive rationalism can be described as the attitude of the person who says “I am not prepared to accept anything that camiot be defended by means of argument or experience”. We can express this also in the form of the principle that any assumption which camiot be supported either by argument or by experience is to be discarded. Now it is easy to see that this principle of an uncritical rationalism is inconsistent; for since it cannot, in its turn, be supported by argument or by experience, it implies that it should itself be discarded. . . . Uncritical rationalism is therefore logically untenable; and since a purely logical argument can show this, uncritical rationalism can be defeated by its own chosen weapon, argument. . . . The rationalist attitude is characterized by the importance it attaches to argument and experience. But neither logical argument nor experience can establish the rationalist attitude; for only those who are ready to consider argument or experience, and who have therefore adopted this attitude already, will be impressed by them. This is to say, a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and it cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience. . . . Thus a comprehensive rationalism is untenable. But this means that whoever adopts the rationalist attitude does so because he has adopted, consciously or unconsciously, some proposal, or decision, or belief, or behaviour; an adaptation which may be called “irrational”. Whether this adoption is tentative or leads to a settled habit, we may describe it as an irrational faith in reason.

Upon closer inspection of the aforementioned quotation, it can be argued that Popper’s defence of critical rationalism against uncritical rationalism is justifi-cationist: since the uncritical rationalist cannot defend all his beliefs, including his belief in rationalism, by argument or experience, his position is logically untenable. By replacing the term ‘defend’ with ‘justify’, we realize that, if the demand for justification is invalid from a non-justificational perspective, then the uncritical rationalist need not meet this demand, and the lack of satisfying it renders comprehensive rationalism untenable. Unlike the scientist who need not justify his hypothesis by verifying evidence in Popper’s theory of science, the rationalist, who cannot defend all his beliefs by argument and experience in Popper's definition of critical rationalism, should admit critical rationalism through an ‘irrational’ faith in reason. If critical rationalism is regarded as a claim of rational belief, why shouldn't the claim in question be refuted instead of justified? If justification involves infinite regress, what is the difference between justification of a scientific claim and justification of a claim of rational belief? Both claims are fallible conjectures which ought to be examined critically.

If the transition from justification to criticism is permitted in the theory of science, why shouldn't it be allowed in the theory of rationality? If the criterion of truth as justified belief is to be rejected in science, why should it be applied for demarcating uncritical rationalism from critical rationalism? Popper (1994 [2013]: 436) writes: “. . . a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and it cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience”. Popper views the adoption of such a rationalist attitude as necessary before any rational discussion, assuming that every argument has premises which are to be justified in order to provide a rational basis for argument. Since such justification involves infinite regress, an irrational faith in reason would be the only way out of such infinite regress. However, Popper’s definition of critical rationalism as an irrational faith in reason stands on the mistaken assumption that a belief is rational if and only of it can be justified.

Gunnar Andersson (2009: 27) points out.

For Popper, a critical rationalist is a person who is dogmatic only at one point: when he decides to accept the rationalist attimde. Such a person who understands the limits of reason Popper calls a critical rationalist. . . . According to Popper, a critical rationalist makes a minimum concession to irrationalism when he decides to adopt the rationalist attimde.

However, if we ask Popper why he says that a critical rationalist should make such a concession to irrationalism, the answer to this question on Popper’s behalf is that the critical rationalist cannot defend his belief in reason by argument or experience. Andersson asks why Popper says that critical rationalism is not defendable by argument or experience and responds that . he implicitly assumes the principle of sufficient reason in his discussion of rationalism. But why should we assume this principle as the ultimate principle when discussing rationalism?” (2009: 27). I argue that Popper’s critical rationalism makes a justificational return when he says that uncritical rationalism is untenable because it cannot be justified by argument or experience, and this return occurs because his theory of knowledge does not provide him with a logical framework for showing how a theory of rationality can be refuted rather than justified.

In the same line of reasoning. Jarvie (2001: 207) points out:

Popper maintains that since "all argument must proceed from assumptions, it is plainly impossible to demand that all assumptions should be based on argument” .... It follows that the decision to choose to listen and to give weight to arguments must precede argument. A choice not made on the basis of argument or experience is by definition an irrational choice.

However, it would be justificationist to argue that the assumptions from which our arguments proceed must be undisputable premises in order to be acceptable. Justificationism confronts Popper with the choice between offering justifiable premises and admitting an irrational choice. If, however, we replace the demand for justification by the demand for criticism, there is no reason to argue in favour of basing our faith in reason upon an irrational choice. Joseph Agassi (1987: 260) states: "As Popper presents critical rationalism, it is a commitment, a commitment to accept criticism of all of one's view but not of one’s critical rationalism itself’. However, an irrational commitment to accept this kind of criticism originates in justificationism and would thus be untenable.

It is noteworthy that Popper (1994 [2013]: 431) defines critical rationalism as an attimde of admitting that "I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth”. Popper claims that the rationalist attimde . . is very similar to the scientific attitude, to the belief that in the search for truth we need co-operation, and that, with the help of argument, we can in time attain something like objectivity”. The preceding discussion of Popper's defence of critical rationalism reveals, however, that he does not extend the shift from justification to criticism found in the theory of science to the theory of rationality.

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