[hist-analytic] Analytic Philosophy of History

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Fri Sep 17 19:42:41 EDT 2010


Let's set aside, at least momentarily, the issues of probability and induction, an imperfect "setting aside" but it helps. Here is one, among several problems with Popper and his account (under Hempel). Some hard line logical positivists will have no objection, but consider the following. 

Popper remarks at one point (Open Society vol. II. p. 262): 

"The initial conditions (or more precisely, the situation described by them) are usually spoken of as the *cause* of the event in question," 

But why not say that we speak of the cause as what is described by the *statement* of initial conditions?! These are very different. Instead of launching very deeply into this, consider the following question: "WHY should anyone come to think that the initial conditions should be spoken of as "causes"?? Try stating explicitly what reasons Popper could possibly have without circularity of some sort. Then try it the "other way around." The problem is that in Popper (unlike Hempel) there is room for some uncertainty. In Hempel we get a clear statement that we are working at the level of explanation NOT ontology. I do ontology. Subsuming a sentence under another ("covering" it) is not what I want to figure out, viz. what is the nature of causal processes in history? 



----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Ron Barnette" <rbarnett at valdosta.edu> 
To: Baynesr at comcast.net, "Danny Frederick" <danny.frederick at btinternet.com>, "hist-analytic" <hist-analytic at simplelists.co.uk> 
Sent: Friday, September 17, 2010 4:12:07 PM 
Subject: RE: Analytic Philosophy of History 

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 J 


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. 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, 

Danny 45000
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