Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology

Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology

by Justin Cruickshank, Raphael Sassower


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786600912
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Series: Collective Studies in Knowledge and Society Series
Pages: 314
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Justin Cruickshank is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Realism and Sociology (2002) and editor of Critical Realism: The Difference it Makes (2003).

Raphael Sassower is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He is the author or co-author of twenty books, including Compromising the Ideals of Science (2015), The Price of Public Intellectuals (2014), Religion and Sports in American Culture (2014), and Digital Exposure: Postmodern Postcapitalism (2013).

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Democratic Problem-Solving

Dialogues in Social Epistemology

By Justin Cruickshank, Raphael Sassower

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2017 Justin Cruickshank and Raphael Sassower
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78660-092-9



Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practices1

Justin Cruickshank

For many, Rorty was a postmodern relativist, and Popper was a positivist and Cold War liberal ideologue. The argument developed here rejects such views and explores how Rorty's work is best understood from a Popperian problem-solving perspective. It is argued that Rorty erred in seeking justification for beliefs, unlike Popper who replaced the search for justification with criticism. Nonetheless, Rorty's arguments about post-Nietzschean theory and reformism function as important updates to Popper's arguments about methodological essentialism and piecemeal social engineering, respectively.


Rorty's criticism of philosophy, cultural theory and the political Right and Left made him one of the most (in)famous contemporary philosophers, and his work unsurprisingly attracted significant attention, ranging from sympathetic to hostile criticism. (See, for instance, Calder 2007; Geras 1995; Malachowski 1990, 2002; Mouffe 1996; and the exchange between Fuller 2008a,b and Turner 2008.) Here, it is argued that Rorty's work is best understood from a Popperian perspective. This may seem surprising given that Rorty is often criticised for being a postmodern relativist, and Popper is often criticised for being a positivist and Cold War liberal-capitalist ideologue.

Rorty once described himself as a 'postmodern bourgeois liberal' (1991a). He supported liberalism or, more correctly, liberal democracy, because he argued that such societies had the potential to improve their practices by reducing suffering through dialogue. Specifically, for Rorty, the potential benefit of living in a liberal democracy was that educated citizens could expand their understanding of suffering through dialogue, revising their values if necessary, and pressing for reforms to both policies and prevailing attitudes (Rorty 1991a, 1999). While Rorty advocated liberal democracy, he did not turn to the usual philosophical justifications for it which invoke a universal human essence, defined in terms of a materially acquisitive, instrumentally rational competitiveness. For Rorty, liberal democracy was justified in terms of the practical benefits it could potentially afford, concerning the freedom to engage in critical dialogue and the construction of policies to reduce suffering, rather than in terms of it being congruent with a fixed human nature. Consequently, Rorty would have no truck with any argument that liberal democracy was a historical inevitability, in the sense that it had to emerge at some point in history to provide a political system that 'fitted' human nature. This was described by Rorty as a 'bourgeois' approach to liberalism because he accepted the Marxist argument that the development of liberalism was contingent upon the development of a capitalist economy. Nonetheless, whereas Marxists held that history was following a pre-determined path towards communism, Rorty eschewed all notions of particular epochs being necessary developments. For Rorty, history was a series of contingencies. This led Rorty to refer to himself as 'postmodern' as a way of indicating that he rejected any 'metanarratives' that claimed the philosophical/scientific authority to legislate on matters of politics and ethics, by virtue of having certain knowledge of the laws of history or a fixed human nature.

Rorty came to regret using the term 'postmodern' for three reasons. First, it is taken to imply a commitment to a relativist epistemology. This in turn led some commentators on the political Right, such as Kozody and Neuhaus, to argue that Rorty espoused an irresponsible 'anything goes' relativism which undermined intellectual and moral standards, and those on the political Left, such as Eagleton, to argue that Rorty's work undermined the possibility of describing socio-political problems as real problems (Rorty 1999, 3–4). For Rorty, as we will see, the philosophical problem of defining what truth is has to be regarded as a pseudo-problem, whether this is approached in terms of a relativist theory of truth or in terms of arguing that beliefs and statements can 'represent' reality. Consequently, he denied the charge of advocating a relativist position. Second, Rorty (1999) argued that the term 'postmodernism' was generally used to express nihilistic despair, with this running counter to his hope that liberal democracies would promote reforms to reduce suffering by, for example, reducing poverty and improving access to healthcare. The humanities would be important for reformism because they would help create an educated, critically minded citizenry capable of engaging in an informed dialogue about socio-political matters and arguing against suffering. Third, in the 'science wars', postmodernism came to be associated with the view that science failed to provide knowledge, because knowledge itself was impossible, given that all claims to know the world emanated from a particular 'discourse' (or power-knowledge nexus). Against this, Rorty (1999) argued that while he had not been particularly positive about the sciences in his earlier work, this was not because he was trying to invert the sciences – humanities hierarchy in the 'cultural pecking order'. Rather, it was because he was just trying to stress the need for the recognition of the value of the humanities alongside the sciences. Both the humanities and the sciences were, for Rorty, important because they addressed different problems, and trying to establish a hierarchy between intellectual disciplines was as pointless as trying to establish a hierarchy between different tools in a toolbox (Rorty 1999, 186).

As regards Popper, Rorty states that he supports Popper's fallibilism and critique of methodological essentialism in politics (Rorty 1991b, 66–67, 1999, 31). That is, he supports Popper's rejection of the view that scientific knowledge is certain in favour of the view that theories can always be replaced by better theories. Consequently, he also supports Popper's rejection of Marxism's claim to have certain knowledge of the 'laws of history' and the liberal philosophical claim to have certain knowledge of the defining essence which controls human behaviour. However, Rorty rejects what he takes to be Popper's 'positivist dualism' which distinguishes science from lay knowledge, with science being regarded as a form of knowledge that is qualitatively different from lay knowledge because it penetrates a deeper reality (Rorty 1999, 31).

For some critics of Popper, he was not simply a positivist in the sense that he held that science had an algorithm to unlock reality, with science therefore being superior to all other disciplines. Rather, he was a positivist in a broader sense, viewing knowledge in purely instrumental terms, with science being justified in terms of its ability to increase the efficiency of capitalist production, and policy making being a matter of elitist technocratic top-down measures to ensure the reproduction of Cold War capitalism. (See for instance the debates in Adorno et al. [1969].) A number of authors, including Fuller (2003), Hacohen (2000) and Sassower (2006), have challenged the view that Popper is an elitist technocratic positivist and Cold War liberal. The view taken is that Popper did not argue for a bureaucratic–scientific elite to impose social and economic policies on a passive and compliant populace, with the objective of ensuring the smooth functioning of corporate capitalist accumulation, and the use of science solely to increase the efficiency of capitalist production. Rather, it was argued that Popper supported a vision of democracy whereby epistemic and ethical progress turned on a constant critical dialogue. What is of central importance here is that criticism allows people to develop by being open to changing their views on politics, science, and ethics. For Popper, a successful democracy was one where as many people as possible could partake in critical dialogue over as many issues as possible which in turn required, among other things, the alleviation of chronic poverty, removal of racism and construction of a good state education system.

By now, the gap between the 'postmodernist' Rorty and the technocratic 'positivist' Popper can be seen to have narrowed. Before comparing their views in more detail, it is necessary to state which aspects of Popper's work from his oeuvre are going to be drawn upon and which will not be. Here, the problem-solving epistemology developed by Popper will be used to assess Rorty's positions on the development of beliefs, values and practices. Basically, it will be argued that Rorty's work is strongest where it is closest to Popper's problem-solving epistemology and weakest where it is markedly different from this. This problem-solving epistemology can be described as follows. For Popper (1963, 1972, 1999), if it is accepted that knowledge is fallible, then it follows that one should always seek out better interpretations and explanations of reality. To do this, existing solutions to problems in ethics, science, politics, and so on, need to be subject to criticism, with new solutions to the problems found then being subjected to criticism and eventually replaced by new solutions, in a never-ending critical dialogue. With this approach, the focus is on using criticism to drive change rather than on justifying solutions. This stands in contrast to the traditional philosophical view that knowledge is justified true belief and traditional epistemology on finding epistemic criteria to establish justification. For Popper, we are organisms situated within a reality that includes us, namely the environment, and we have to develop beliefs to act in a fashion analogous to tools, to help us overcome practical problems in our environment, rather than trying to justify claims about beliefs being ideational copies of objects outside the mind. While the natural sciences are a very sophisticated form of interaction with our environment, they do not produce knowledge that is qualitatively different from other branches of knowledge because, contra positivism, all knowledge is fallible and open to change through critical problem-solving dialogue (1999). Commenting on the difference between the amoeba and Einstein, Popper (1999) does not argue that Einstein, as a scientist, has a uniquely privileged algorithm to unlock nature's secrets, unlike lay human knowledge which will be flawed and animal 'knowledge' which is incapable of penetrating nature's secrets. Rather, Popper's argument is that both the amoeba and Einstein learn by solving problems in their environment but, whereas the former dies if it fails to adapt to a problem, the latter can put expectations into language, thus allowing theories qua adaptations to problems in our environment, to die in our stead if and when they fail (1999, 39). All knowledge for Popper, whether scientific or lay, human or non-human, is a matter of problem-solving adaption, rather than a matter of beliefs being justified as ideational copies of objects (Popper 1999, see also 1963, 1972).

The focus just on Popper's problem-solving epistemology means that there are two contentious areas of Popper's work that will not be discussed in detail. The first concerns Popper's prescriptions for a scientific method. For critical discussions of Popper's arguments for falsification and the use of the hypothetico-deductive method see, for instance, Lakatos (1970), Newton-Smith (1981) and O'Hear (1980). The second area concerns Popper's (1972) philosophical shift from metaphysical agnosticism to his arguments in defence of metaphysical realism together with his later support of the correspondence theory of truth and argument for verisimilitude. Metaphysical realism sets up a dualism between our beliefs and a reality that is always independent of our beliefs – reality in effect becomes an unknowable domain. As regards the correspondence theory of truth and verisimilitude, Popper (1972) held that while all scientific theories are 'strictly speaking false', it was the case that the elimination of false theories increased the verisimilitude (or truthlikeness) of newer theories. On this view, science was getting closer to the truth through a never-ending process of falsification. Popper (1972) refers to this as an evolutionary epistemology, treating falsification as the removal of failed adaptations, which assists the movement of knowledge towards increased verisimilitude. Many criticisms have been raised concerning the argument that the removal of false theories gets us closer to a reality that we will never actually know in itself, and the argument that there is a strong similarity between the evolution of species and the evolution of theories: see for instance O'Hear (1980, 1984); Psillos (1999); Radnitzky and Bartley (1987); and Schilpp (1974).

Rorty writes, broadly speaking, in a pragmatist tradition, and Popper (1972) rejects pragmatism, arguing that theories have to be true as well as useful. However, without getting drawn into the extensive arguments about metaphysics and the correspondence theory of truth for which there is not the space to enter here, the following point can be noted. Popper's problem-solving epistemology, which was developed before his arguments for metaphysical realism and the correspondence theory of truth, is similar to the pragmatist emphasis on usefulness. One could argue about whether – or not – useful theories replaced with other useful theories via criticism led to increased verisimilitude, but the main emphasis in explaining the development of knowledge would be on the practical matter of solving substantive problems and then criticising those solutions. Where one could try to say there was a major difference between pragmatism and Popper's philosophy was with the issue of justification. For pragmatists, a theory is justified if it is useful whereas for Popper no theory can be epistemically justified because all theories are fallible. However, although one may accept that no theory can be epistemically justified in the sense that it can be shown to achieve certainty by mirroring a manifest truth, but is instead a fallible interpretation of reality, it is still the case that one may say that one is logically justified in choosing a theory that has yet not been shown to have anomalies and refuted predictions over one that has. While it is rational to choose a theory which has not yet been shown to have problems over a theory with problems, one cannot seek epistemic guarantees for the former in terms of such a theory being justified by its ability to mirror or represent a 'manifest truth'.

So, the focus here will simply be on how the problem-solving epistemology of Popper can be used separately from his later arguments about metaphysics and the correspondence theory of truth to assess Rorty's arguments for the dialogic development of beliefs and practices. A dialogic approach would not be required if there was an authority to legislate on beliefs and practices, but both Popper and Rorty contest the notion of such an authority.


In his autobiographical essay, Popper (1974a; see also Popper 1974b) states that 'his faith' in the philosophical/scientific, moral and political authority of Marxism ended during a protest where the police killed several protesters. Popper concluded that he was partly responsible for the deaths because he had supported what purported to be a scientific doctrine which offered certainty about the overcoming of capitalism and injustice, coupled to a 'moral law' to help realise the inevitable revolution. While many years after this incident Popper formulated his criticism of Marxism as a pseudo-science, this event was of major importance because it made him eschew any search for an authority in beliefs and practices. As Popper puts it:

The encounter with Marxism was one of the main events in my intellectual development. It taught me a number of lessons I have never forgotten. It taught me the wisdom of the Socratic saying, 'I know that I do not know'. It made me a fallibilist, and impressed on me the value of intellectual modesty. And it made me most conscious of the differences between dogmatic and critical thinking. (1974a, 27–28)


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements / Introduction / PART 1: LINKING PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS / 1. Anti-Authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practices Justin Cruickshank / 2. A Bridge over Turbulent Waters Raphael Sassower / 3. Context and Contestation Justin Cruickshank / 4. Problem-Solving: Critical Contingencies Raphael Sassower / 5. There Are No Dangerous Ideas Joseph Agassi / PART 2: SCIENCE, PROBLEM-SOLVING AND SOCIOLOGY / 6. Science, Democracy and the Sociology of Power
Isaac Ariail Reed / 7. Criticism versus Dogmatism Justin Cruickshank / 8. The Problem of Demarcation Isn’t Going Away Raphael Sassower and Seif Jensen / PART 3: DEMOCRACY, EDUCATION AND THE ROLE OF INTELLECTUALS IN PUBLIC LIFE / 9. Democracy, Criticism and the Problems Facing Dialogue Justin Cruickshank / 10. Beyond Lamentations: Overcoming Neoliberalism? Raphael Sassower / 11. The Politics of Definitions and Neoliberal Interventionism Justin Cruickshank and Ioana Cerasella Chis / 12. Appealing to Academics to Become Public Intellectuals Raphael Sassower / 13. The Cost of Public Intellectuals Ioana Cerasella Chis and Justin Cruickshank / 14. Radical Public Intellectuals
ECONOMY AND TECHNOLOGY / 15. Public Intellectuals and the Political Economy of Food
Justin Cruickshank and Ioana Cerasella Chis / 16. Desiderata of the Future of Political Economy Raphael Sassower / 17. The Neoliberal Political Economy of Science and
Higher Education Justin Cruickshank / 18. The Problem of Technocapitalism
Ioana Cerasella Chis and Justin Cruickshank PART 5: DEMOCRACY, DIALOGUE, EXPERTS AND ELITES / 19. Envisioning Peaceful Democratic Dialogues Raphael Sassower / 20. Democracy, Experts and Elites: The Case of Brexit Justin Cruickshank with Ioana Cerasella Chis / Conclusion / Bibliography / Index / About the Authors

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