Popper Karl

Popper Karl

(1902-94) Austrian-born philosopher of science who worked from 1945 at the London School of Economics and is renowned for his advocacy over many years of FALSIFICATIONISM and ‘critical rationalism’.

It was in his Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959, German 1934) that Popper first claimed to have ‘solved the problem of empiricism’ (see also EMPIRICISM, INDUCTION AND INDUCTIVE LOGIC), proposing a criterion of science based on the falsifiability rather than the verifiability of hypotheses (compare POSITIVISM, VERIFICATION PRINCIPLE). In taking this view Popper has also been a leading advocate of the COVERING-LAW MODEL of science, which is an integral part of his falsification view.

Although at first Popper's focus concerned mainly physical science, subsequently he extended the scope of his philosophy to include social science, notably in The Poverty of Historicism (1957) and The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). In the first of these Popper attacked those forms of historical social theory that claim a special status for the social sciences as historical sciences but in doing so either overstate the possibilities of scientific laws or see no possibility of these (see HISTORICISM). Both forms of theory were seen by Popper as failing to appreciate the true character of laws and theories in science and social science, i.e. that these involve limited, not unconditional, predictions.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper continued his critique of ‘historicism’, focusing particularly on Hegel and Marx, whose historicism, he suggested, makes them ‘enemies of the open society’. The OPEN SOCIETY is Popper's formulation of his preferred kind of society, a society in which individuals can aspire to change history and in which the future as a whole is recognized as inherently unpredictable. This form of society is the only one compatible with the kind of scientific laws that Popper believed possible in the social sciences, laws which are couched in terms of situational logic (see SITUATIONAL ANALYSIS AND SITUATIONAL LOGIC) and METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM and make only limited predictions.

A similar reliance on this general epistemological view was also apparent in Popper's conception that PIECEMEAL SOCIAL ENGINEERING, rather than any utopian scheme, represents the only form of social planning which can be justified by social science.

In the exposition and elaboration of his views, Popper drew latterly on EVOLUTIONARY THEORY, arguing that, as in the biological world, knowledge and societies advance by gradual steps involving ‘hopeful conjectures’ which are sometimes successful, but which are unpredictable overall (see also EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY).

Although he presented it as ‘anti-Positivist’, Popper's philosophy remained broadly within the empiricist and positivist tradition with its claims for an absolute foundation for science and a unity of social and physical science.

In recent years Popper's position on science and social science has been subject to a number of damaging critiques, notably:

  1. critiques of both the falsificationist and the covering-law model (see FEYERABEND, KUHN, SCIENTIFIC REALISM);
  2. critiques of methodological individualism;
  3. suggestions that part of the undoubted wide appeal of Popper's philosophy is ideological.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000