Popper’s ‘two methods’

In the introduction to Popper’s Logic of scientific discovery; he elicits two important trends in his contemporamous philosophical age when it comes to approaching epistemology. In a sense these two trends more or less still resonate today; although both camps are significantly weaker in influence as they were say, 50-60 years ago. I found his apprasial quite refreshing in the sense that I would normally class both simply as ‘analytic’ approaches to philosophy; while they are still analytic, distinctions should be made. Popper addresses two styles of philosophical method: the linguistic and the ‘foundations’ approach. Both of which are flawed in their unique ways.

1. The linguistic approach seeks to account for phenomena by logical analysis and propositional calculus. This works well and has worked well in providing interesting philosophical analyses. To consider how we come to believe something, for instance, may be apprehended in generalised cases of belief forming schema; or the propositional calculus of what it means to know p. The linguistic approach tends to analyse tools rather than features of the world; and is apprehensive to appeals of the likes of say, psychology in its broadest sense. This, would be its downfall.

Popper likes some of the contributions of this linguistic approach; but to say that language and linguistic analysis fits every question of philosophy, from theoretical to practical; would simply be wrong. The linguistic approach to philosophy dominant in oxford in the 1950s boasted of a certain kind of arrogance; if it can’t be formalised, its worthless. Strawson opposed this tendency by turning the aforementioned maxim on its head: if it can be formalised: its worthless.

2. The ‘foundations’ approach: While the British were quite enjoying linguistic styles of philosophy, some of the great Vienna heroes were interested in a foundations approach. Epistemology was largely a matter of scientific knowledge; thus the approach toward epistemology genera had become a notion of understanding science, for (assumption) science was the greatest candidate for human knowledge.

I myself would possibly agree that science is the great insight and token case of knowledge genera; but the so-called ‘social’ or ‘feminist’ epistemologists would have us move away from a strict notion of knowledge, and further away from the ‘tripartite’ definition of knowledge. The foundations approach can be attributed to the likes of Carnap; who proposed that the language of science (itself an interesting enthymeme) required a metalanguage or superstructure from which the underlying mathematical postulates/axioms are based upon even higher linguistic norms. I have to say I’m quite sympathetic to this project, Popper has a more open minded approach to philosophy; if we provide tools to solve problems, and reach the heart of certain problems; we are doing philosophy. If we are to follow the likes of Carnap’s Aufbau; we are immediately nailing our colours to the mast with certain important regards to philosophical method.

In considering Carnap’s Aufbau project, I often observe with interest the growth of the movement of so-called Formal Philosophy which attempts to mathematise as many aspects of philosophy as possible; from approaches to probability and rationality to epistemology; many, such as Hendricks and Leitgeb, wave the flag for the ‘foundations’ approach. Perhaps their enemy, similar to those who received Kant and Spinoza; was that people weren’t capable of fully understanding them, present company included.


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