An addition to Karl Popper’s critique of psychologism

I am going to comment on Chapter 14 of Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies,” titled “The Autonomy of Sociology.”

The main purpose of this chapter is to criticize the position called “psychologism.” This position is attributed to John Stuart Mill, which claims that human actions and institutions can be explained by a psychology of human nature. Popper’s position is that they cannot; that social phenomena are sui generis, i.e., autonomous. I will not rehearse his arguments, with which I agree, but introduce my own.

Consider the case of feral children, who are by assumption normal, except for lacking a human language. Watch the following video below about such children:

The video asks whether feral children are “human.” In one sense, of course, biologically, feral children are human beings. The question is really whether they are “persons,” or “human” in the way we are. By my criterion, a person is anything with which one can make agreements. And agreements are possible only with a language. So, the origin of society as we have it, is possible only with language. Subtract language from a person, and you get a feral human being.

One interest in studying feral children is to understand under what conditions learning a language is possible. And the hypothesis is that there is a critical period of early life when learning a language is possible — something like the phenomenon of imprinting. And when that window of opportunity is passed, learning a language does not occur.

The mystery is how languages originate. And the only clear fact is that language is a social phenomenon. Other than the behavior of a feral child, all other actions of human beings are imbued with language and human institutions. Thus, if Descartes were more reflective, he would have realized that his skepticism was possible only in language; specifically, the statement “I think therefore I am” is in language. He could have concluded “I think therefore I am using a language.”

Popper concludes — and I agree — that what passes for psychology [of a language using human] is imbued with sociology.

Can one escape from bullshit?

It was while I was teaching introductory courses in logic and philosophy at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, that I got the idea that the core of philosophy has always been escaping from bullshit. Of course, philosophers almost never used the word “bullshit” — though they used something like its cognates: absurd, nonsense, ridiculous, invalid, fallacious, moonshine, etc.

Socrates — to go to the beginning of philosophy — would simply assist his companions in dialogue to note that their hypotheses led to contradictions; which meant, of course, that their hypotheses were wrong, or, in other words . . .

Now I have always been careful not to claim that one can actually escape from bullshit. I deliberately use the word “escaping,” which means that one is trying to escape — only to the extent of having plans which may or may not be realizable.

But to evaluate something as being bullshit, one has to have a knowledge of the criteria of evaluation: one has to have some facility in clarity of language (i.e., as Stuart Chase put it: to be wary of the tyranny of words), general knowledge of the state of the world (i.e., an informed Weltanschuung), and an ability — as Susan Stebbing, in step with Robert H. Thouless, said — to spot twisted and crooked thinking.

What is extremely difficult to change are bullshit political and economic institutions. The greatest immediate danger is the ecological one. The ice caps are melting and the Brazilian rainforest is burning. The UN recognizes these dangers, and is calling for a Summit, September 23, 2019, in New York.

Now, our ecological problems are directly linked to the fact of human overpopulation. More people; the need for more resources and products. The more production, the greater pollution. However, nothing is really done about this — or even discussed.

And why not? Because the world is run by capitalism which controls governments and most of the mass media, and whose only interest is profit.

So, the situation is like this. If you were a slave, how could you escape? If you were a serf, how could you escape? And if you are a proletarian, how do you escape?

Individual escape is possible, but how does one change the institutions for the benefit of all?

Puzzles vs Problems in Philosophy: Karl Popper and the poker of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Below is an excerpt from section 26. “England: At the London School of Economics and Political Science,” in Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, 1985. This book is a reprint of the “Autobiography of Karl Popper,” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper in The Library of Living Philosophers, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1974.


Early in the academic year 1946-47 I received an invitation from the Secretary of the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge to read a paper about some "philosophical puzzle". It was of course clear that this was Wittgenstein’s formulation, and that behind it was Wittgenstein’s philosophical thesis that there are no genuine problems in philosophy, only linguistic puzzles. Since this thesis was among my pet aversions, I decided to speak on "Are there Philosophical Problems?". I began my paper (read on October 26, 1946, in R. B. Braithwaite’s room in King’s College) by expressing my surprise at being invited by the Secretary to read a paper "stating some philosophical puzzle"; and I pointed out that, by implicitly denying that philosophical problems exist, whoever wrote the invitation took sides, perhaps unwittingly, in an issue created by a genuine philosophical problem.

I need hardly say that this was meant merely as a challenging and somewhat lighthearted introduction to my topic. But at this very point, Wittgenstein jumped up and said loudly and, it seemed to me, angrily: "The Secretary did exactly as he was told to do. He acted on my own instruction." I did not take any notice of this and went on; but as it turned out, at least some of Wittgenstein’s admirers in the audience did take notice of it, and as a consequence took my remark, meant as a joke, for a serious complaint against the Secretary. And so did the poor Secretary himself, as emerges from the minutes, in which he reports the incident, adding a footnote: "This is the Club’s form of invitation." [The minutes of the meeting are not quite reliable. For example the title of my paper is given on the printed list of meetings as “Methods in Philosophy” instead of “Are there Philosophical Problems?”, which was the title ultimately chosen by me. Furthermore, the Secretary thought I was complaining that this invitation was a brief paper, to introduce a discussion — which in fact suited me very well. He completely missed my point (puzzle versus problem).]

However, I went on to say that if I thought that there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philosopher; and that the fact that many people, or perhaps all people, thoughtlessly adopt untenable solutions to many, or perhaps all, philosophical problems provided the only justification for being a philosopher. Wittgenstein jumped up again, interrupting me, and spoke at length about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems. At a moment which appeared to me appropriate, I interrupted him, giving a list I had prepared of philosophical problems, such as: Do we know things through our senses?, Do we obtain our knowledge by induction? These Wittgenstein dismissed as being logical rather than philosophical. I then referred to the problem whether potential or perhaps even actual infinities exist, a problem he dismissed as mathematical. (This dismissal got into the minutes.) I then mentioned moral problems and the problem of the validity of moral rules. At that point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor’s baton to emphasize his assertions, challenged me: "Give an example of a moral rule!" I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.

I really was very sorry. I admit that I went to Cambridge hoping to provoke Wittgenstein into defending the view that there are no genuine philosophical problems, and to fight him on this issue. But I had never intended to make him angry; and it was a surprise to find him unable to see a joke. I realized only later that he probably did indeed feel that I was joking, and that it was this that offended him. But though I had wanted to treat my problem lightheartedly, I was in earnest — perhaps more so than was Wittgenstein himself, since, after all, he did not believe in genuine philosophical problems.

After Wittgenstein left us we had a very pleasant discussion, in which Bertrand Russell was one of the main speakers. And Braithwaite afterwards paid me a compliment (perhaps a doubtful compliment) by saying that I was the only man who had managed to interrupt Wittgenstein in the way in which Wittgenstein interrupted everyone else.

Next day in the train to London there were, in my compartment, two students sitting opposite each other, a boy reading a book and a girl reading a leftish journal. Suddenly she asked: "Who is this man Karl Popper?" He replied: "Never heard of him." Such is fame. (As I later found out, the journal contained an attack on The Open Society.)

The meeting of the Moral Sciences Club became almost immediately the subject of wild stories. In a surprisingly short time I received a letter from New Zealand asking whether it was true that Wittgenstein and I had come to blows, both armed with pokers. Nearer home the stories were less exaggerated, but not much.

The incident was, in part, attributable to my custom, whenever I am invited to speak in some place, of trying to develop some consequences of my views which I expect to be unacceptable to the particular audience. For I believe that there is only one excuse for a lecture: to challenge. It is the only way in which speech can be better than print This is why I chose my topic as I did. Besides, this controversy with Wittgenstein touched on fundamentals.

I claim that there are philosophical problems; and even that I have solved some. Yet, as I have written elsewhere "nothing seems less wanted than a simple solution to an age-old philosophical problem".[See Conjectures and Refutations [1963], p. 55.] The view of many philosophers and, especially, it seems, of Wittgensteinians, is that if a problem is soluble, it cannot have been philosophical. There are of course other ways of getting over the scandal of a solved problem. One can say that all this is old hat; or that it leaves the real problem untouched. And, after all, surely, this solution must be all wrong, must it not? (I am ready to admit that quite often an attitude like this is more valuable than one of excessive agreement.)

One of the things which in those days I found difficult to understand was the tendency of English philosophers to flirt with nonrealistic epistemologies: phenomenalism, positivism, Berkeleyan or Humean, or Machian idealism ("neutral monism"), sensationalism, pragmatism — these playthings of philosophers were in those days still more popular than realism. After a cruel war lasting for six years this attitude was surprising, and I admit that I felt that it was a bit "out of date" (to use a historicist phrase). Thus, being invited in 1946-47 to read a paper in Oxford, I read one under the title "A Refutation of Phenomenalism, Positivism, Idealism, and Subjectivism". In the discussion, the defence of the views which I had attacked was so feeble that it made little impression. However, the fruits of this victory (if any) were gathered by the philosophers of ordinary language, since language philosophy soon came to support common sense. Indeed, its attempts to adhere to common sense and realism are in my opinion by far the best aspect of ordinary-language philosophy. But common sense, though often right (and especially in its realism), is not always right And things get really interesting just when it is wrong. These are precisely the occasions which show that we are badly in need of enlightenment They are also the occasions on which the usages of ordinary language cannot help us. To put it in another way, ordinary language, and with it the philosophy of ordinary language, is conservative. But in matters of the intellect (as opposed, perhaps, to art, or to politics) nothing is less creative and more commonplace than conservatism.

All this seems to me very well formulated by Gilbert Ryle: "The rationality of man consists not in his being unquestioning in matters of principle but in never being unquestioning; not in cleaving to reputed axioms, but in taking nothing for granted."" [See p. 167 of Ryle’s review of Open Society in Mind, 56 (1947), 167-72.]


Commentary: By Popper’s own exhortation never to argue about the meaning of words, this seems to be a case of arguing about the uses of the words “puzzle,” “problem,” and “philosophy.” Wittgenstein too seems to be taking a position inconsistent with his idea that some words are ambiguous, vague, and some have a logic of “family resemblances.”

The central question is what to include under the label “philosophy.”

As it turns out the word “philosophy” — as many other words — is both ambiguous, vague, and has “family resemblances.” Wittgenstein is known for claiming that philosophical problems are due to linguistic confusions. Examples of such confusions are the various paradoxes, which can be treated by a distinction of use and mention of words, and the distinction between a language and a meta-language — as pointed out early by Bertrand Russell. Other sorts of linguistic confusions are category mistakes, made much of by Gilbert Ryle. Wittgenstein added to this tool box, the idea that language has many uses. And I suppose it would be a category mistake to confuse these many uses.

Popper saw philosophy as including other concerns (problems) — which he mentions, and which Wittgenstein readily pigeonholes as logical, mathematical or ethical. As a first take on the situation, the word “puzzle” has the connotation of not being urgent or serious; whereas the word “problem” has the connotation of being something requiring at least some urgency and seriousness.

But, really, is there a clear distinction?

This reminds me of the confrontation between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The Sphinx posed a riddle (a kind of puzzle). If Oedipus could not solve it, he would be killed by the Sphinx. And if he did solve it, the Sphinx would commit suicide. If the mark of a problem is its seriousness, then Oedipus had a problem of solving a puzzle (the riddle).

But perhaps Popper meant by a problem the finding of a peculiar type of explanation — perhaps a “scientific” explanation. In that case, Popper would be saying something to the effect that science and philosophy have no clear demarcation; while Wittgenstein was looking for such a demarcation. In his earlier book, Tractatus, he said metaphorically that philosophy if either above or below science.

In any case, judging by his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper saw philosophy as also concerned with a normative undertaking for a better society.

My own perspective on philosophy has changed from a minimalist perspective of avoiding contradictions such as found in paradoxes and category mistakes, especially within and between religions. This is a form of a priori criticism, which does not seek the truth, but which avoids error. I have also used a broader critique which assumes the reliability of science as a benchmark for what is plausible, and which then criticizes views as incompatible with science. And in the spirit of Popper, I include a further critique of institutions which centers on giving people the opportunity (freedom) to agree or disagree. In other words, I too seek an “open society.”

Also, people are ignorant, stupid, irresponsible, malicious, and manipulative — prone to bullshitting with all sorts of unsavory speeches and actions. I think the phrase “escaping from bullshit” encapsulates this broader concern and critique.

Is an employer a capitalist?

We — including me — often use the word “capitalist” as a synonym for “employer,” “entrepreneur,” or “businessman.” But on reflection, this is a mistake; or, at best, a problem of ambiguity. Capitalism is a kind of theory, and a “capitalist” should be the name of a person who subscribes to this theory.

To illustrate the linguistic problem here, consider the case of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s doppelganger. Both were arch anti-capitalists. But Engels was the son of an owner of textile factories in Salford, England and in Barmen, Prussia. He was, thus, an employer. And if one uses the word “capitalist” as a synonym for “employer,” than we get the paradoxical result that the arch anti-capitalist was a capitalist!

This apparent paradox is due to the ambiguous use of the term “capitalist.” If we were writing a dictionary, we would have to introduce two meanings for the word: Capitalist-1, an employer; Capitalist-2, someone who subscribes to the politico-economic theory of capitalism.

With that distinction, we could then get rid of the paradox by saying that Engels, the capitalist-1, was an anti-capitalist-2.

The Zizek-Peterson quasi-debate on Capitalism and Marxism

In the world of the Internet, there are rising so-called popular “public intellectuals” as contrasted with a well-established and respected intellectual such as Noam Chomsky. Among these are Slavoj Zizek of Slovenia, and Jordan Peterson of Canada. Because of their great popularity and apparent polarity, a confrontation between the two was a much hyped event, and apparently it was a very successful show. It was billed under the title: Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism. Peterson is a defender of Capitalism; while Zizek calls himself a type of Marxist. Here is how the awaited clash between Capitalism and Marxism played out during their confrontation on April 19, 2019 in Toronto, Canada:

Because of the widespread interest this confrontation aroused, it is also an event that resulted in a host of post-mortem analyses, which I found in some cases to be more insightful then the confrontation itself, and I recommend that you listen to some of them. [see below]

My own criticism of the confrontation is that neither of them knows what they are talking about. They are allegedly talking about Capitalism, but in fact they are talking about some peripheral issues arising from Capitalism — like inequality and unhappiness.

Do they ever define “capitalism”? No. Both Karl Marx and Max Weber understood capitalism as a politico-economic system in which the majority of people are barred from owning and using land for free. Such people are called proletarians. And because they are politically barred from the free use of land, they are forced to sell themselves to others for wages.

The result is economic inequality.

Peterson focuses on abstract inequality as if this was the intrinsic evil, and defends the existence of inequality as a natural by-product of unequal talents, competition, and luck. Granted. But that is not the inequality under consideration by Marx or Weber.

The original inequality of having or not having access to land is the result of aggression. If one wishes to look at this from the vantage point of warrior talent or the ability to organize a warrior band or army, then yes, that is the origin of the inequality. [I recommend the small book by Franz Oppenheimer, The State, as an expanded analysis and substantiation of this thesis.]

Neither Peterson nor Zizek focus on this phenomenon of the creation of classes through conquest. The result is that they talk about inequality abstracted from its origin in aggression and conquest.

There is, however, one segment of their interchange in which Zizek criticizes from the right perspective, and in which Peterson has a very weak defense. This has to do with the phrase “post-modern neo-Marxism.” Here is the segment:

Peterson produces the phrase “post-modern neo-Marxism” from two errors. The first error is to abstract from the Marxist idea of an aggressive division of people as land owners and the landless, resulting in inequality, and then calling any kind of inequality an extension of Marxism as neo-Marxism.

The other erroneous reason he gives — which is in his imagination and also at best true only by association — is the claim that French Marxists, as a result of the discreditation of Marxism by the deeds of Stalin, shifted their focus from economic class inequality to all sorts of other cultural inequalities. So, for Peterson a Marxist who broadens his concern to include all sorts of inequalities is a neo-Marxist. And since these neo-Marxists also happen to be post-modernists; hence the amalgam “post-modern neo-Marxists.”

Some Post-Mortems of the Zizek-Peterson Quasi-Debate

Eli Rotenberg

David Doel

Peter Joseph

Timothy Snyder’s Red Herrings in “The Road to Unfreedom”

I have not read his book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” but I have watched a few of his lectures on this book. I think I have picked up some of his leading ideas.

My overall judgement is that Timothy Snyder is involved in colossal Red Herrings. To call an argument a “red herring” is to say that it is focused on the wrong thing relative to some problem. By this I mean that he is diverting our attention from where the more important problems lie: it introduces peripheral, marginal matters. This is not to say that the diversion is wrong in what it claims, it is rather to say that what it focuses on is irrelevant or relatively so.

Since the title of his book is “The Road to Unfreedom,” it suggests, at least by associated titles, such works as Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Bertrand Russell’s “Proposed Roads to Freedom.” I mention these, but that is all.

Snyder begins with two implicit mythical views on the trajectories of history: an optimistic one, which he calls the “politics of inevitability,” and a pessimistic one, which he calls the “politics of eternity.” I don’t know why he chose these neologistic phrases, and I don’t know why the word “politics” is used. What these phrases describe is what Popper called “historicist” views — attempts to discern (mythical) patterns in history. And Snyder does recognize them as mythical.

The overtly optimistic one, which is akin to Fukuyama’s claim that we have reached the end of history, is the idea that capitalism and representative democracy have now — so to say — conquered the world. We are now on a unalterable progressive path into the future.

The pessimistic view is that we are — as always — surrounded by ever emergent enemies. History is a cyclical pattern of fighting with enemies. It is always “us” against “them.” It is a nationalistic view, and, according to Snyder, ultimately fascist.

Snyder, himself, views these two implicit beliefs as myths because, as he believes, the future is not determined and cannot be predicted, but it can be shaped through effort. He calls this political effort, the “politics of responsibility.” What he means by this, I think he expressed in his previous book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century.” On the Bill Maher show, on which he appeared just after publishing his book, he was asked to name the top three lessons. Here is what he said. The first is: “Don’t obey in advance” by which he means figure it out for yourself — be critical. The second: “Defend institutions.” I think he meant something like “defend the US Constitution.” The third: “Believe in truth.” I suppose this is a prescription against post-modernism.

Furthermore, he sees the “politics of inevitability” shaping the policies of the United States and Europe, and the “politics of eternity” shaping the policies of Russia.

Why are these Red Herrings?

Let me explain why all this is a red herring for me — a diversion. We have one general political problem in the world: we are ruled by single individuals. We used to have hereditary monarchies; now we have forced dictatorships or elected dictatorships with restricted powers.

Forced dictatorships, we understand; democratic dictatorships are the result of a widespread myths about inherent worth of both capitalism and democracy.

Snyder’s book is a red herring because it does not address the roots of our problems which is, from a Marxist perspective, capitalism, and from an anarchist perspective, “liberal” democracy. He bypasses these, that is why his discussion is for me a red herring.

I take it that an imperialistic country like the United States, with its “politics of inevitability,” fights its wars openly and aggressively. While Russia — a weaker power — resorts to a new form of clandestine, hybrid warfare and propaganda. Hybrid warfare, on the one hand, was introduced by Russia in Crimea by sending in Russian soldiers in green uniforms bearing no insignias. And both Putin and these soldiers denied being Russian soldiers, with a general denial of any Russian involvement. Hybrid propaganda, on the other hand, is the injection into cyberspace of a spectrum of fake “facts” resulting in a public confusion and anxiety. In this way, the enemy is defeated not from without, but from within.

All this is true. But what does it have to do with the fact that we have capitalism, and “democratic” governments which support capitalism?

On the Bill Maher show, Bill pointed out that President Donald Trump has done things which are reminiscent of such dictators as Hitler. This led to a reminder of two points. The first one was stressed by Maher that Hitler was democratically elected. But, instead of focusing on what is the nature of democracy to allow someone like Hitler to emerge and take power, Snyder immediately went to point out that Hitler used the Reichstag fire to blame a set of enemies and curtailed rights of citizens. Snyder’s point was that democracy can turn to dictatorship on the pretext of some national emergency. Yes, but under what kind of democracy is this possible? Is it possible, for example, under Swiss democracy? Again, instead of perhaps suggesting the need for a different type of democracy, Snyder, instead, advises us to mobilize and protest for our rights.

The situation in the world is this. Capitalism is almost completely universal. And in almost every country there is a leader — either elected democratically or not. If elected, he is either a president or a prime minister (some have both). If he is not elected, he is either a monarch or a dictator. And in every country there is a privileged class of government officials and oligarchs.

Snyder does not define “fascism.” But I would call any country that (1) has a leader and (2) restricts freedom of speech — fascist (though the term applies historically only to Mussolini’s Italy). I suppose I would use the term “totalitarian” where there is suppression of the freedom of speech (Popper’s “closed society”) regardless of the form of government.

Snyder disregards any criticism of the forms of government he is considering, which are all forms of one person rule. And when talking about democracy, he means “liberal democracy,” which is representative mass or macro democracy in which thousand and millions elect a leader. He does not consider other forms of democracy. Snyder ignores Switzerland which has a seven-member Federal Council, and he is oblivious to anarchism, which would be a bottom-up type of democratic government composed of nested councils. I suppose he disregards these alternatives as apparently unrealistic — but they are possible alternatives, nonetheless. In other words, he is not interested in a criticism of either capitalism or democracy — save for recommending his “politics of responsibility.”

Snyder introduces more red herrings with the following. He says that the political problems for any regime are two-fold: the problem of succession and the problem of inequality. (Although inequality brings discontent, I would say that the real problem is poverty — not having enough for subsistence.) And the root cause of this is preventing people from having a free access to subsistence land (which happens to be the necessary condition for capitalism) — but Snyder is totally oblivious to this.

As to political succession, the West deals with this problem democratically, while Russia, under Putin, has become fascist — with no clear principle of succession. On the other hand, the West deals with the problem of inequality by allowing a “theoretical” social mobility. While in Russia, there is the Platonic idea that justice requires knowing your place in society — hence, Snyder’s idea of “eternity” in contrast to mobility.

As he pursues these red herrings, he claims that in order to understand Russia, we must understand Putin, and to understand Putin, we must understand the philosophy of Ivan Ilyin. And from this perspective, Snyder views Ivan Ilyin as the most important (i.e., influential) philosopher of out time. Ilyin advocated a form of Christian fascism. His ideas: Democracy should be a ritual exercise (rigged). There should be no social advancement. Freedom is knowing what your place is. Factuality or truth does not matter if it serves a higher purpose. The end justifies the means. The world is defective; everyone lies. Nationalism is to prevail.

I am dubious about looking to sacred books to explain the deeds of dictators. I find it implausible to explain Stalin’s barbarity by way of Marx. As I find it implausible to explain Putin’s hybrid tactics by way of Ilyin. The better way to explain Stalin, Hitler, Putin, or any leader, is better served by reading Machiavelli. There is, however, more reason in explaining theocratic practices such as the Inquisition by the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible, and Sharia law by an appeal to the Koran. But when it comes to secular individuals, they have their own reasons and their own interpretations.

A necessary condition for Capitalism and a sufficient condition for Socialism

In the following presentation, Cohen presents an analogy between Al Capp’s creature, the Shmoo, and subsistence land. The Shmoo provides everything a person needs to survive, as does subsistence land.

Using Cohen’s analogy, socialism is the system which provides free access to the Shmoo, or, literally, free access to subsistence land. And capitalism is the system which does not. I understand that capitalism is a market economy — but that cannot be a sufficient condition for capitalism because barter or a free exchange of goods has always existed — under slavery and under feudalism. What unites slavery, feudalism, and capitalism is the denial of free access to subsistence land.

A necessary — though not a sufficient — condition for Capitalism is the prohibition of free access to subsistence land.

By contrast, I propose that the sufficient — though not a necessary –condition for Socialism is the right to a free access to subsistence land, or its equivalent (such as a universal basic income).