Saturday, October 16, 2004

Popper the rationalist

Excerpts from his essay entitled, “On Freedom.” See the Karl Popper Page. Emphasis is Popper's.


It is especially important to me that what I am about to say is not taken on trust. Indeed, I should prefer it to be treated with the utmost skepticism. Unlike so many of my philosophical colleagues, I am not a leader in traveling new paths, heralding new directions in philosophy. I am a thoroughly old-fashioned philosopher who believes in a completely outmoded philosophy: that is, the philosophy of an age long past, the age of rationalism and the Enlightenment. As one of the last stragglers of rationalism and the Enlightenment, I believe in human self-emancipation through knowledge — just as Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment once did. … I should like to say quite clearly that I represent views that were already seen as outdated and totally mistaken some 150 years ago.

When I speak of rationalism, I am not speaking of a philosophical theory (such as Decartes’) and not at all of the highly unreasonable belief that man is a purely rational creature. When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another’s opinions, but by gladly criticizing or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us to achieve new ideas. But he does think that in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that critical discussion can give us the necessary maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgment of it.

This assessment of critical discussion also has its human side. For the rationalist knows perfectly well that critical discussion is not the only relationship between people: that, on the contrary, rational critical discussion is a rare phenomenon in our lives.

THE RATIONALIST APPROACH

The rationalist approach might be described as follows. Perhaps I am wrong and you are right; anyway, we can both hope that after our discussion we will both see things more clearly than before, just so long as we remember that our drawing closer to the truth is more important than the question of who is right. Only with this goal in mind do we defend ourselves as well as we can in discussion.

SELF-EMANCIPATION THROUGH KNOWLEDGE

This, in short, is what I mean when I speak or rationalism. But when I speak of Enlightenment, I mean something else as well. I think above all of the idea of self-emancipation through knowledge, the idea that Kant and Pestalozzi inspired. And I think of the duty of every intellectual to help others to free their minds and to understand the critical approach — a duty which most intellectuals have forgotten since the time of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. For, unfortunately, it is all too common among intellectuals to want to impress others and, as Schopenhauer put it, not to teach but to captivate. They appear as leaders or prophets — partly because it is expected of them to appear as prophets, as proclaimers of the dark secrets of life and the world, of man, history, and existence. Here, as so often, ceaseless demand produces a supply. Leaders and prophets are looked for, so it is hardly surprising that leaders and prophets are found. But “grown men do not need leaders,” as H.G. Wells once said. And grown men ought to know they do not need leaders. As for prophets, I believe in the duty of every intellectual to keep them at arm’s length.

SIMPLICITY

The Enlightenment thinker speaks as simply as possible. He wants to be understood … because the true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince: All the time he is aware that he may be wrong. Above all, he values the intellectual independence of others too highly to want to convince them in important matters. He would much rather invite contradiction, preferably in the form of rational and disciplined criticism. He speaks not to convince but to arouse — to challenge others to form free opinions. Free opinion formation is precious to him: Not only because this brings us all closer to the truth, but also because he respects free opinion formation as such.

NO CERTAINTY ABOUT TRUTH

One of the reasons why the Enlightenment thinker does not want to talk people into anything, or even to convince them, is the following: He knows that, outside the narrow field of logic and perhaps mathematics, nothing can ever be proved. Once can certainly put forward arguments, and one can critically examine points of view. But outside elementary mathematics, our arguments are never conclusive and free of gaps. … In the end, then, opinion formation contains an element of free decision. And it is the free decision that makes an opinion humanly precious. … Kant meant that every human being and his convictions should be respected.

Perhaps it is true that freedom of thought can never be completely suppressed, but it can be suppressed to quite a considerable degree. For without a free exchange of ideas there can be no true freedom of thought. To find out whether our ideas are sound, we need other people to try them out on. Critical discussion is the basis of free thought for each individual. This means, however, that freedom of thought is impossible without political freedom.

NO CONVERSION

Because I am a rationalist, I do not want to convert anybody. Nor do I want to abuse the name of freedom to turn anyone else into a rationalist. But I should like to challenge others to contradict me; I should like, if possible, to prompt others to see things in a new light, so that each may take his own decision in the freest possible formation of opinion. Every rationalist must say with Kant: One cannot teach philosophy — at most only philosophizing, which means a critical attitude.


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