[hist-analytic] Analytic Philosophy of History

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Fri Sep 17 16:30:42 EDT 2010


Let me look at this. There is quite a bit and I need to give it a bit of thought. Popper, perhaps more than most other philosophers, is misunderstood, largely owing to a failure to examine his ideas beneath the easy style of his exposition. Sometimes Popper will advocate what looks like a straightforward "covering law" model. 

"To give a causal explanation of an event means to deduce a statement which describes it..." (Logic of Scientific Discovery Sec 12) 

Similar remarks occur in The Poverty of Historicism (Secs 28 and 31); but what does THIS have to do with cause or causation. We find him saying, elsewhere, things like 

"But we add a third thing; a universal law; and with respect to this law we may speak of a causal link..." (Open Society and Its Enemies, vol II. p. 363). 

The "link" seems to come to this: there is a cause if there is a lawlike connection. It does not appear that he rejects causes in favor of laws, only that there is a cause only if there IS a lawlike connection. Whether he identifies lawlikeness and causation; or whether his view entails this are exegetical point. To do this we need sources for some of your attributions. You give titles but no page numbers or where this can be found. It is absolutely essential, particularly in the case of Popper, to make explicit his very statements, lest a false impression be conveyed; a very common situation. So before I go on, could you comment on why you think Popper rejected the idea of causes, IF that is your position; particularly in view of the very specific and easy to locate quotes I have provided. 

Now you have nothing to say on my view, suggesting you can't understand it. Let me simplify one part of it. There are only singular causes; no cause and effect relation can be captured in a lawlike relation. Indeed, there are no "causal laws." Hempel and Popper were making taking the "linguistic turn" and attempting the impossible: to make the matter of causation a formal relation between sentences in the context of a theory. 

I don't see methodological individualism as an attack on collectivism, per se. Surely, von Hayek is a bit more explicit on this; but methodological individualism is no more an attack on collectivism than it is an attack on nominalism. We have to distinguish these two in order to get at an accurate portrayal of Popper's real view. 



----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Danny Frederick" <danny.frederick at btinternet.com> 
To: hist-analytic at simplelists.co.uk 
Sent: Friday, September 17, 2010 2:19:19 PM 
Subject: RE: Analytic Philosophy of History 

Hi Steve, 

I don't pretend to understand what you are up to, but I will offer a few 
comments on Popper and singular causation. 

For Popper, there is no real connection between causation as ordinarily 
understood and historical explanation (or, indeed, social scientific 
explanation in general). As you know, Popper advocated the 
hypothetico-deductive method in natural science, where we have: 

a law of nature, 

the initial conditions (= the cause), and 

the predicted event (= the effect). 

But in the historical and social sciences we have human agents. And human 
agents have free will (on Popper's view). But Popper also advocates the 
unity of science, so he wants to apply the hypothetico-deductive method of 
explanation in the social and historical sciences too. He achieves this by 
proposing that, in place of a natural law, we have 'the rationality 
principle,' which says that the agent acts appropriately to his situation 
(as he sees it). The rationality principle is not a law of nature; in fact 
it is false, because people sometimes act irrationally. But, Popper says, we 
must assume the rationality principle in social scientific and historical 
explanation, otherwise our hypotheses about the initial conditions will not 
be testable/falsifiable. For Popper's most detailed exposition of this stuff 
see his 'Models, Instruments and Truth' in his book 'The Myth of the 

Methodological individualism is Popper's stand against collectivist 
conceptions of society as an agent. Historical and social explanation should 
be in terms of the actions of individual human agents in social situations, 
these situations including the agents' aims and their understanding of the 
situation (and also including social institutions of which the agent takes 
account). Popper does not make much use of the TERM 'methodological 
individualism' (excuse me not checking, but it might be that he never uses 
it). I think the term comes from Weber, and it was made much of by Ludwig 
von Mises and the Austrian economists, who had a big influence on Popper. It 
probably got strongly associated with Popper because one of his closest 
students and colleagues, John Watkins, was a vigorous advocate of it (though 
he later relented somewhat in a paper on Hobbes). 

I am not aware that Popper ever discussed the possibility of singular 
causation. I think he just assumed that causation was bound up with natural 
laws. When he developed his propensity metaphysic, he generalised the notion 
of causation to include one event making another more probable (other 
philosophers have done this too, notably, Reichenbach). But the generalised 
notion of causation was now linked to probabilistic laws. So still no 
singular causation. 

I do not think that Popper's neglect of singular causation was simply an 
oversight. I think he would have objected that such a notion was 
scientifically useless because we could not test statements of singular 
causation (since tests require repeatable observations). I guess he would 
have been happy to allow singular causation as a metaphysical possibility 
(he was not a positivist, after all); but he would not have taken such an, 
in principle, untestable notion at all seriously. I write this paragraph 
off-the-top-of-my-head: if anyone knows better, please say so. 

Best wishes, 

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