[hist-analytic] Analytic Philosophy of History

Ron Barnette rbarnett at valdosta.edu
Fri Sep 17 17:12:07 EDT 2010

Steve and Danny,

This might be a naïve remark, but didn’t Popper follow Hume in construing
causal relations as instances of universal generalizations (i.e. covering
laws, a la Hempel)? And that knowledge of the latter can’t be justified
vis-à-vis induction? And that generalizations that resist attempted
refutations warrant belief as their probabilities are increased, and
likewise with the putative claims for their corresponding instances of
causal relations? Is this not the case?

Just curious, after construing Popper in this vein for all these years:-)


Ron Barnette 



From: hist-analytic-manager at simplelists.com
[mailto:hist-analytic-manager at simplelists.com] On Behalf Of
Baynesr at comcast.net
Sent: Friday, September 17, 2010 4:31 PM
To: Danny Frederick; hist-analytic
Subject: Re: Analytic Philosophy of History



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.

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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