Karl Popper: The Myth of the Framework – Irrationality and Relativism

September 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Those who believe this, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but in their view of their opinions they must of necessity scorn each other. Plato

What are the implications of this with regard to empathy and understanding, social awareness and compassion; those catch cries and mantra’s of the contemporary ‘value creation’ zeitgeist? The zeitgeist of the rejection of traditional values, the decay and fragmentation of cultural institutions and as Popper asserts, the era of irrationalist doctrine seems to be the fruits of the German influence on the West. (see Alan Bloom, Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Frankfurt school)

“One of the components of modern irrationalism is relativism (the doctrine that truth is relative to our intellectual background, which is supposed to determine somehow the framework within which we are able to think: that truth may change from one framework to another), and, in particular, the doctrine of the impossibility of mutual understanding between different cultures, generations , or historical periods – even within science, even within physics.”
Popper: The Myth of the Framework

This could be framed as a problem directly related to Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Does the ‘framework’ correspond to Gadamer’s horizons? At the outset it seems as if this will become a question of degree; of determining a sensible approach to moral standards and judgments. To what extent is Gadamer’s hermeneutics outcome driven? Does he seek just to describe the state of man’s existence in the world and ability to interpret events/texts/reality? Or does he seek a normative approach to seeking truth? (this will determine the character of his relativism)

“The proponents of relativism put before us standards of mutual understanding which are unrealistically high.”
Popper: The Myth of the Framework

What is a realistic level of mutual understanding? The proponents of relativism are thus asserting that mutual understanding is impossible, which seems a contradiction to the mantra of ‘understanding’ delivered by the ‘socially aware’ social elites. Popper argues that such impossibility is not the case and that common goodwill can lead to far reaching understanding. This is a very different picture to mutual understanding. Mutual understanding asserts an equality of understanding for ones own set of beliefs (frameworks) and the others. Far reaching understandings asserts that ones own set of beliefs can maintain a hierarchy of priorities/values/ethics/morals whilst still ‘seeing’ or empathizing with the other. Common goodwill implies cultural institutions and traditions, as it is through these that the ‘common’ find expression.

“Furthermore, the effort is amply rewarded by what we learn in the process about our own views, as well as about those we are setting out to understand.” Popper: The Myth of the Framework

This has correlation to Gadamer’s fusion of horizons.

On tradition:

I hold that orthodoxy is the death of knowledge, since the growth of knowledge depends entirely on the existence of disagreement.Popper: The Myth of the Framework

Popper goes onto an exposition of the importance of culture clashes in the development of the intellectual characteristics of Western civilization. He sees the ‘framework’ as a direct opposition to the notion of argument and discussion. The ‘framework’ asserts that there is no access to the truth so therefore discussion and critical evaluation of reality is arbitrary.

The Myth of the Framework defined by Popper:

“A rational and fruitful discussion is impossible unless the participants share a common framework of basic assumptions or, at least, unless they have agreed on such a framework for the purpose of the discussion.” Popper: The Myth of the Framework

Popper is defending a directly opposite thesis:

“that a discussion between people who share many views is unlikely to be fruitful, even though it may be pleasant; while a discussion between vastly different frameworks can be extremely fruitful, even though it may sometimes be extremely difficult, and perhaps not quite so pleasant (though we may learn to enjoy it).” Popper: The Myth of the Framework

Cultural Relativism

Relativism is the result of over-optimism concerning the powers of reason – that is, the over-optimistic expectation concerning the outcome of a discussion. When it is discovered that a discussion doesn’t lead to victory for truth of one side over another (the chaotic and random nature of our existence and relations in the world), over-optimism turns to a general pessimism. This observation of Popper’s seems to me to fit perfectly with the pessimistic view of mankind put forward by those who embrace cultural relativism, especially those of the environment movement. On one hand you hear words of compassion and understanding (code for cultural relativism, and a particularly arrogant view; as if no one else has compassion or understanding) and on the other that mankind’s ascent from the darkness of deep-time is a malignant cancer on the earth (total pessimism). This also accounts for the psychology of the mistrust of the marketplace by the far-left.

In terms of difference between people and cultures, some are arbitrary. Fashion, music, language, arts etc, even what side of the road you drive on, comes down to gradual integration of the more appropriate and popular ideas (formats for cultural life). However, Popper introduces the elephant in the living room: institutions, laws and customs.

“Some countries and their laws respect freedom while others do less, or not at all. These differences are most important, and they must not be dismissed or shrugged off by a cultural relativism, or by the claim that different laws and customs are due to different standards, or different ways of thinking, or different conceptual frameworks, and that they are therefore incommensurable or incomparable. On the contrary, we should try to understand and to compare. We should try to find out who has the better institutions. And we should try to learn from them.” (Popper, p46)

This is crucial to the confusion of today’s discussion on issues such as multiculturalism and the vision for how our societies demographics are to play out over time. It seems to me that multiculturalism usually gets discussed by the (biased and often completely out of touch) media in terms of two extremes, neither of which anyone actually wants in reality. On the one hand, a totally culturally relative vision in which no critical thought or discussion between two different cultures is to take place, usually propped up by misguided accusations of racism, (this is the desirable mode for the countries media and politically correct) and on the other hand, an exclusive closed door culture (which I’m yet to be convinced actually exists). These are the terms of the discussion as they appear on the front page of the average newspaper.

“Cultural relativism and the doctrine of the closed framework are serious obstacles to the readiness to learn from others. They are obstacles to the method of accepting some institutions, modifying others, and rejecting what is bad.” Popper, p46 The Myth of the Framework

Cultural relativism also has to conclude that morality is identical with legality, custom or usage. popper relates this to Hegel, for whom truth itself was both relative and absolute. Hegel is followed by Marx, who (obviously) asserts that each mans conceptual framework is determined by his ‘social habitat’. Marx also asserted a difference between ‘bourgeois’ science and ‘proletarian’ science.

So, where to if the insight asserts that all things are relative, yet we need to be able to exercise critical judgements?

“Thus to the fallibilist the notion of the truth, and that of falling short of the truth, may represent absolute standards – even though we can never be certain that we are living up to them. But since they may serve as a kind of steering compass, they may be of decisive help in critical discussions.” Popper, p48 The Myth of the Framework


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