Critical rationalism and irrationalism

It is interesting to note how Popper (1994 [2013]: 437) describes his reasons for adopting of critical rationalism over irrationalism by asking:

... (W)hy not adopt irrationalism? Many who started as rationalists but were disillusioned by the discovery that a too comprehensive rationalism defeats itself have indeed practically capitulated to irrationalism. . . . But such panic action is entirely uncalled for. Although an uncritical and comprehensive rationalism is logically untenable, and although a comprehensive irrationalism is logically tenable, this is no reason why we should adopt the latter. For there are other tenable attitudes, notably that of critical rationalism which recognizes the fact that the fundamental rationalist attitude results from an . . . act of faith - from faith in reason. Accordingly, our choice is open. We may choose some form of irrationalism, even some radical or comprehensive form. But we are also free to choose a critical form of rationalism, one which frankly admits its origin in an irrational decision .. .

From an epistemological perspective, the quotation implies that Popper has established his reading of critical rationalism on the basis of the debate between the dogmatic epistemology of rationalism and the sceptic’s rejection of rationalism. It should be noted that the sceptic’s critique of dogmatic rationalism originates in its justificationism: since dogmatism camiot prove the premises, rationalism is untenable. After wrongly accepting the sceptic’s critique of dogmatic rationalism as tnte. Popper establishes his philosophy of critical rationalism upon the justifi-cational critique that the sceptic levels at dogmatic rationalism and thus reaches irrational faith in reason rather than irrationalism.

Epistemology of critical rationalism

Although the relation between epistemology and the theory of rationality is made very clear in the debates among supporters of critical rationalism, David Miller (2017: 50) argues that “. . . the disappearance of the epistemological dimension of rationality is what is least understood about Popper's philosophy”. Once the justificational origin of Popper's irrational faith in reason has been revealed, however, the epistemological dimension of his critical rationalism becomes clear. It is important to distinguish critical rationalism as a hypothesis regarding rational beliefs and critical rationalism merely as a rationale for empirical science. It seems that Miller's attempt to put Popper's critical rationalism in its epistemological context does not pay enough attention to the aforementioned distinction between the two forms of critical rationalism. Miller (2017: 50-59) describes Popper's critical rationalism from an epistemological view by presenting it in three major aspects: (a) critical rationalism as the denial of certainty and reflection of fal-libilism, (b) critical rationalism as the method of conjecture and refutation that demarcates fallibilism in critical rationalism from previous ones and (c) critical rationalism as "what is of central importance in the examination of any scientific theory is whether or not true. That it is true is indeed not something that we can recognize, but we can guess it. .(2017: 57). Hence, Miller’s conclusion is that critical rationalism involves scepticism.

Miller’s epistemology of critical rationalism reflects Popper’s theory of science instead of pointing out how Popper's epistemology has contributed to his definition of critical rationalism as an irrational faith in reason. If Popper's epistemology does not allow him to base his philosophy of critical rationalism upon a non-justificational theory of knowledge, the origin of Popper’s definition of critical rationalism as a moral attitude of openness to criticism is to be sought in his limitation of epistemology to the philosophy of science. As observed by Miller (1985: 60), Popper confesses that "Epistemology I take to be the theory of scientific knowledge". However, the epistemology of science deals with the question of ‘How do I know science?’ rather than with the general question of ‘How do I know?’.

Hans Albert (1985: 10) provides a border view:

... (C)ritical rationalism .. . camiot limit rationality to the sphere of science, nor to those technical and economic fields for which its usefulness is customarily conceded. It cannot consent to hold at boundaries of any kind - neither at those of scientific disciplines, nor at those of any social sphere that appears to be immunized against rational criticism by virtue of custom or tradition or conscious protective screening.

Validating this wider perspective, my intention in this chapter has been to show that the lack of a non-justificational theory of knowledge has led to a vital consequence for Popper's philosophy of critical rationalism in terms of a moral attitude of openness to criticism. As long as a critical rationalist does not know that how his openness to criticism enables him to be led logically to know whether or not his rational beliefs are true, his moral commitment to openness to criticism does not help him to be a critical rationalist simply because he does not know how to profit from error. Hence, there is no logical foundation for Popper's attempt to demarcate uncritical rationalism from critical rationalism on the basis of an irrational choice in favour of a moral attitude of openness to criticism.

In the same line of thought, Darrell P. Rowbottom (2011: 12) argues:

... (T)he problem with comprehensive rationalism is the presumption of jus-tificationism. The problem with critical rationalism, as espoused by Popper.

is the admission that trusting in experience and reason is irrational because doing so is unjustified . . . . Moving criticism to centre stage and decoupling criticism and justification - as Popper had already done in his treatment of science, long before Bartley pointed out that this could be extended to epistemology more generally - is the solution.

In the next chapter, I pursue the idea of the separation of justification and criticism in order to investigate William Bartley’s theory of critical rationalism.

I close this chapter in agreement with Miller's (2017: 59) conclusion that:

The great liberating force of critical rationalism is that it permits us to be logically rigorous without driving us along the road to irrationality. For the realization that this is possible we owe a great deal to one man: Karl Popper. It was he who first challenged the view that the role of argument is not to provide us with justification. By stressing the virtue of criticism, it was he who made it possible for rationalism to hold up its head in dignity again.

Nevertheless, in the course of my arguments it may become clear that the idea of critical rationalism is to be reinvented on the basis of a theory of knowledge that takes the shift from justification to criticism into account, thus enabling us to understand how a ‘rational belief’ can be examined logically without any need for irrational faith in reason. As long as critical rationalism is defined as a moral commitment to openness to criticism rather than as a theory of rational beliefs, it cannot contribute to the micro-foundation of the macro-theory of society.


  • 1 Logical positivists such as Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap have argued that it is not possible to attain truth or falsity in regard to knowledge. In contrast, scientific statements can only attain continuous degrees of probability, the unattainable upper limit of which is truth. Popper rejects this solution, saying that nothing is gained if the principle of induction is accounted for as probable or if a certain degree of probability is to be attributed to statements based on inductive inference, for this then has to be justified by invoking a new principle on ad infinitum (Popper 1992 [1959]: 248-252).
  • 2 It has been observed that Popper’s deductive theory of science does not show how a scientific theory is falsified conclusively. As Deborah A. Redman (1994: 70) puts it: “Since the unit of appraisal is in practice not a shnple statement, scientists cannot know which assumption of the theory is causing the problem; they can only conclude that at least one of the many assumptions is false. Hence, the theory can never be falsified conclusively. This difficulty is known to philosophers of science as the Duhem problem and was taken up in greater detail by Lakatos..This difficulty, I suggest, originates from the nature of the modus tollens according to which the falsity of conclusion can refute at least one of premises.
  • 3 Jarvie (2001:29) writes: “The social content of Popper's philosophy of science was institutionalisation of the decision to maximize falsifiability. The form of institutionalization was methodological rules. These rules made possible intersubjective testability . .

However, with regard to the theory of rationality. Popper does not use intersubjective testability arguments, whereas critical rationalists open their rational beliefs to mutual criticism.

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