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Review: Popper's Mystification of Objective Knowledge

Reviewed Work(s): Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach by K. R. Popper

Review by: David Bloor
Source: Science Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1974), pp. 65-76
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
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Science Studies, 4 (I974), 65-76

Essay Review


David Bloor
Science Studies Unit,
Edinburgh University

K. R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach. Oxford:

Clarendon Press, I972. x+38o. ?4.50 hardback, ?I.50 paper.

For Popper, science is the very epitome of objective knowledge. The central
papers of his latest book argue and elaborate this theme. He says:

All work in science is work directed towards the growth of objective knowledge.
We are workers who are adding to the growth of objective knowledge as masons
work on a cathedral. (p. 12 I)1

I will first make some preliminary points about the word 'objective'. This
will give substance to issues which are in danger of becoming too rarefied.
Second, I will outline Popper's account of objectivity. Third, I will argue that
despite the value of what he says, his approach is seriously misleading. I will
propose a formula for systematically transforming Popper's theses and exposing
what is important in them. This 'transformative method' points the way
towards an entirely different conception of what makes knowledge objective.

What does it mean to use the word 'objective' as it appears in the quotation
above? Popper, himself, does not linger over this issue because he does not
believe that questions about words are important (e.g. p. 3Io). However, re-
flection on our common-sense thinking reminds us that we make important
use of a family of distinctions: between knowledge and belief; truth and error;
what is real and what is imagined; between what is known in general compared
with what some individual knows; between what is the case and what some-
one feels about it, etc. These I will refer to collectively as 'objectivity distinc-
tions', and they may be said to hinge on the use of 'objectivity concepts'. What
is 'objective' is characterized by the first half of each distinction, what is 'sub-
jective' by the latter half.
These distinctions and concepts embody a basically materialistic picture of
man. They portray him as both interacting with, and vet set over against, his
environment-an environment which is stable enough to learn about and
1 All page references refer to the work under review, unless otherwise stated, and all
italics are in the original.

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66 David Bloor

independent enough to be mistaken and mischaracterized. Objectivity distinc-

tions do this job by signalizing the separateness of the knower and the known.
They hold open the possibility of disparity and divergence between a concep-
tion of the world and what the world is really like.
What Popper offers in Objective Knowledge is partly a codification of the
common-sense deployment of objectivity concepts, a codification organized
around his well known conception of science as a fallible enterprise of con-
jectures and refutations. But his book is more than a codification. It is also a
theory about the underlying reality-the ontology-which he believes is implied
by, and is necessary for, the use of objectivity concepts. The fact that what he
offers is a theory is of the utmost importance. It means that the use of these
distinctions might be fully acknowledged by those who nevertheless disagree
with Popper's account of them. What, then, is Popper's theory of objectivity?

Popper's whole account of objective knowledge hangs on the framework of

a pluralistic philosophy which postulates the existence of three distinctly
different kinds of thing-'three worlds'. He says:

In this pluralistic philosophy the world consists of at least three ontologically

distinct sub-worlds; or, as I shall say, there are three worlds: the first is the physical
world or the world of physical states; the second is the mental world or the world
of mental states; and the third is the world of intelligibles, or of ideas in the object
sense; it is the world of possible objects of thought, the world of theories in themselves,
and their logical relations; of arguments in themselves; and of problem situations
in themselves (p. 154).

The first two 'worlds', the physical and the mental, are frequently distin-
guished both in common-sense and in philosophy. But what is this 'third world'
of objects of thought, logical relations and 'arguments in themselves'?
What Popper is saying is that it is both possible and important to adopt a
certain perspective on thinking, and especially on scientific thinking. This
perspective is one which concentrates exclusively on evaluating what is said
and done according to a variety of impersonal criteria. For example: such an
approach bids us to concentrate on establishing the truth or falsity of what is
asserted, and the validity or invalidity of any arguments used. What men say
and write must be checked for consistency and scrutinized for its relevance to
important scientific problems. What Popper calls the 'objective approach'
enjoins us to attend to what men say, not to why they say it. The outcome of
their intellectual endeavours, and not their motives, should be our prime
concern. The reasons which might compel assent to a proposition are to take
precedence over the inclinations which may in fact cause belief. The associa-
tions that people merely happen to make between ideas are less important than
the logical relations of entailment that may connect the propositional content
of their thoughts.
The qualities of truth, validity and relevance which the objective approach
highlights seem to Popper to define a realm of entities which have a quasi-
independent existence. Propositions, theories, arguments, reasons, and so on,
seem to constitute an important and distinct kind of thing. Justice must be

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Essay Review 67

done to them by ackn

must not be confused w
fusing them with physi
to assimilate them to su
means of persuasion, etc.
How well motivated are the distinctions which Popper draws with his 'three
world' picture? In many respects they are, surely, of central importance for
any theory of knowledge. This is because they turn out to be precisely the
common-sense objectivity distinctions that I outlined above. The common-
sense concept of 'idea', for example, is just that of an 'idea in the objective
sense' to which Popper refers. That is: the word 'idea' is so used that it can be
said that someone is thinking about (or ignoring) the same idea as someone else,
that he agrees or disagrees with it, and so on. Ideas, for most purposes, are
intersubjective. They are public property, and are not locked in the private
closets of people's minds.2 Popper sometimes speaks of the third world as being
made up of the 'content' of subjective states of belief, where the subjective
states themselves belong to the second, or psychological, world. This is perfectly
acceptable. It is a way of indicating that the meaning of an individual's
thoughts and utterances can be treated for many purposes without considering
their origin. They can be written down, repeated and operated on regardless
of the circumstances that may have surrounded their birth.
So Popper's distinctions are valuable and plausible. But it is obvious that they
are common-sense distinctions. This makes it puzzling to read Popper's bold
assertion that:

... scientific knowledge simply is not knowledge in the sense of -the ordinary usage
of -the words 'I know'. (p. i o8)
Popper presumably believes that ordinary usage, in contrast to scientific usage,
does not properly draw such distinctions as that between knowledge and belief.
(Although he says in the preface that common-sense is essentially self-critical,
like science.) Our initial glance at objectivity distinctions suggested that this was
not so: that the confusion of knowledge and belief is not in fact part of
common usage. But whatever the ground of Popper's separation of a scientific
from a common sense of 'I know', the possible effect of it is clear. It serves to
cut us off from those linguistic intuitions which would normally guide our
reflections on knowledge. This leaves the way open for having our thinking
restructured for us by the imagery of the three worlds.
2 Popper does not fall into the trap of Ryle and Strawson, who assume that the
public' character of mentalistic concepts refutes the belief in the mind-body dualism.
A dualistic conception of the mind as a special, non-material substance can quite easily
accommodate this fact. The mind simply has to be seen as akin to the theoretical
entities of science, like atoms or electro-magnetic fields. They are unobservables which
explain the observable. A modified, but essentially traditional, dualism can evade the
modern objections to it, just as atomism evaded the philosophical criticisms which were
once so popular. The parallel is investigated in my 'Is the official theory of mind
absurd?', British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 21 (I970), I67-83, and
'Explanation and Analysis in Strawson's Persons', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 48
(May I970), 2-9.

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68 David Bloor

How literally does Popper intend his reader to take the metaphysical picture
of the three worlds? In some respects he is clearly hesitant. We are told not to
take the word 'world' too seriously, and that the 'worlds' could be counted up
in somewhat different ways. When arguing for the autonomy of the third
world he usually speaks of its 'more or less' or 'partial' autonomy (e.g. p. I07).
Unfortunately there is no clear indication of what these qualifications amount
to. The overall impression is that Popper intends his picture to be taken very
seriously. This comes over in the general confidence of his presentations, and
in the detailed way in which he elaborates the mechanics of his world picture.
His discussion of the autonomy of the third world and its interactions with
physical and psychological states will illustrate this.
The issue of the 'autonomy' of the third world is that of establishing that
knowledge is quite different from mere subjective belief, that it has its own
nature and mode of being. For, as Popper says:

The idea of autonomy is central to my theory of the third world... (p. 118)

The argument for seeing matters this way uses a number of revealing analogies,
mostly of a biological kind. Thus:
...,the third world is a natural product of the human animal, comparable to a
spider's web. (p. I I2)
On other occasions the world of knowledge is likened to the beaver's dam, or
the wasp's nest, or a building. The point of these analogies is that they allow
a naturalistic conception of knowledge as being man-made, but they indicate
that, once produced, it is independent of its maker. Knowledge, like a cathedral,
possesses properties that can be studied without regard to its origin. It can
pose problems different from those that prompted, or were encountered in,
its construction. Above all, it is capable of interacting back on its builder and
his successors in ways which could not have been foreseen. The 'object-like'
character that knowledge has for Popper comes out very clearly when he says:

... the human mind can see a physical body in the literal sense of 'see' in which
the eyes participate in the process, It can also 'see' or 'grasp' an arithmetical or
a geometrical object; a number, or a geometrical figure. But although in this sense
'see' or 'grasp' is used in a metaphorical way, it nevertheless denotes a real
relationship between the mind and its intelligible object, the arithmetical or geo-
metrical object; and the relationship is closely analogous to 'seeing' in the literal
sense. (p. 155)

Referring to the 'intelligible objects' mentioned above he says:

. .. we operate with these objects almost as if they were physical objects. (p. I63)
Except to those prejudiced against metaphor, this is a clear and powerful way
of formulating a theory. It admirably conveys the almost tangible character
of that 'real relationship' which, for Popper, obtains between the subjective
world of the mind and the objective world of knowledge.3

3 Some philosophers do have a methodological prejudice against metaphor, the use

of which they are prone to identify with philosophical confusion. The result is that they

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Essay Review 69

This 'real relationship' is further illuminated by what Popper calls the

'causal interactions' and the 'feedback' between the different worlds. (It is the
uninhibited use of this sort of language that shows how serious Popper is about
his three worlds. One does not without qualification enquire into the causal
links between things that one does not believe in.)

The three worlds are so related that -the first two can interact, and that the last
two can interact. Thus ithe second world, the world of subjective or personal
experiences, interacts with each of the other two worlds. The first world and the
third world cannot interact, save through the intervention of the second world, the
world of subjective or personal experiences. (p. 155)

The vision is compelling and the reiterated terminology infectious. Perhaps

this should occasion no surprise. What Popper is doing is replaying, in modem
dress, an old drama. His picture of three worlds resonates with the myths and
imagery of Judaeo-Christian theology. Man is a creature midway between the
material and the spiritual, an admixture of clay and God. For Popper a per-
sonal God has been replaced by an impersonal Science, the world of spirit by
the world of knowledge.
If its theological overtones explain the power of Popper's vision, other
historical links afford a clue to the responses that might be made to it. Popper
positions his theory of the third world in the tradition of Plato's theory of
Forms and Hegel's theory of Objective and Absolute Spirit. Plato, he says,
probably discovered the third world (p. I22). Only, instead of the rich and
dynamic content envisaged by Popper, Plato's version was inhabited by a
limited number of static concepts, like number or equality. Arguments,
criticisms, problems and conjectures were overlooked. In this respect Hegel was
nearer to Popper's heart (p. 125). He had a strong sense of the ever-moving
and progressing character of man's history and achievements, of his institutions,
art, religion and philosophy. For Hegel these things are partial embodiments
of, and pointers to, a non-material reality which is working out its dialectical
purpose in the world. Of course, there is much in the work of these two
thinkers with which Popper disassociates himself: for example, Hegel seems
to treat the contents of his third world as if they were ideas in the mind of a
super-consciousness. Nevertheless, the affinities are revealing.

The brief account given so far hardly does justice to the valuable pattern
of relationships which emerge in Popper's book. Is there any way in which
these patterns can be preserved without the metaphysical apparatus of the
three worlds? The fact that some of the central distinctions have been taken
over from common usage strongly suggests that this ought to be possible. The
distinctions should be detachable from Popper's theory because their unself-
conscious employment predated that account. The Hegelian overtones of
Popper's theory hints how this might be done systematically.

never come to terns with the procedures of science. See my 'The Dialectics of Metaphor',
Inquiry, 14 (X97), 43-44, and 'Are Philosophers Averse to Science?' in D. 0. Edge
and J. N. Wolfe (eds.), Meaning and Control (London: Tavistock, x973), I-I7.

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70 David Bloor

There are a variety of responses that can be made to metaphysical systems

which seem to bring news of mysterious realms and uncommon types of thing.
One is to erect a stringent standard of meaning and to declare their proposi-
tions meaningless. This response is characteristically empiricist and inherently
conservative. It results in the loss of any insights that might have been retrieved
from the novel perspective of the system.
An alternative response is that of the 'transformative method'. This was
developed by Feuerbach (who used it to interpret Christianity), but its most
famous application was by Marx to Hegel.4 The method is based on the
assumption that metaphysical systems are not empty fantasies, but are about
something real-namely, the social relations between men. It further assumes
that such systems disguise, displace and invert what they perceive; that they
make a mystery out of what might be said more plainly. By adopting a single,
systematic principle of interpretation-equating the metaphysical with the
social-the valuable structure of the system can be preserved and the mystifying
form of its presentation decoded.
The conjectural rule of transformation or interpretation to be applied to
Popper is:

For 'Third World' read 'Social World'.

This formula is 'reductionist' because it cuts down the number of independ-

ent kinds of thing by equating one realm, the third world, with another, more
earthy, sphere. But it is probably less reductionist than the simpler expedient
of merely translating Popper's claims into ordinary language, as was done
above with some of his distinctions. Here it is too easy to lose the very thing
that is worth preserving; viz., structure. This is because recasting into ordinary
language can proceed in a piecemeal, unsystematic way. The more systematic
transformative method, as will be seen, keeps structure prominently to the
fore. Even so its application is hazardous. Only general guidelines are provided
and every interpretation is a conjecture. (In this respect the transformative
method is itself in accord with the Popperian methodology for achieving
understanding; e.g. p. 176.)
The proposed transformation leaves the basic threefold structure of Popper's
theory intact. The individual is still a being poised between two worlds, only
now it is the natural and the social worlds. The manifest differences between
the physical, the psychological and the social parallel the ontological cleavages
between Popper's three worlds. The causal and feedback relations are also
unchanged. Society acts on men, but collective purposes impinge on nature only
through the agency of individuals. There can be no unmediated commerce
between a society and nature. Similarly the social world is a human product
(like the third world) and yet it is set over against the individual, and interacts
back on him. Society is even open to the same sort of misunderstandings, and
evokes the same sort of analogies, as Popper's third world. The mistake of

4For a detailed and fascinating account of Marx's use of the transformative method
see S. Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge: CUP,

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Essay Review 71

assimilating the third

nizable syndrome of b
ize social processes: po
individual decisions and choices. At the other extreme are people who sense
the constraining character of social reality and are moved to say that social
facts are things-just as Popper was moved so to describe his third world. The
basic structure and relationships are thus 'invariant' under the proposed
transformation .5
Once equipped with the rule for transformation it is possible to go through
Popper's theses one after the other turning them from claims whose import and
basis is obscure into propositions which are both clear and arguable. Consider,
for instance, his important thesis concerning the relative priority of objective
and subjective approaches to human thinking. He says:
An objectivist epistemology which studies the third world can help to throw
an immense amount of light upon the second world of subjective consciousness,
especially upon the subjective thought processes of scientists; but the converse is not
true. (p. I12)

The claim is that an individual's subjective acts of understanding are 'largely

anchored in the third world', and that almost everything of importance that
can be said about such acts 'consist4s] in pointing out ... relations to third
world objects' (p. I63).
Uhder transformation, this thesis becomes the claim that an individual's
subjective acts of thought are anchored in the social world, and that almost
everything of importance that can be said consists in pointing out their rela-
tion to the social world: In short, Popper is saying in his language that
psychology owes more to sociology than vice versa.
Whatever the fate of this claim when examined in detail, it is at least a clear
thesis for which reasons can be adduced. An argument in its favour might begin
with the observation that people see the world in terms of socially-given
categories. Consider the sorts of thing that people think about (which is one
of the factors that governs the ideas that are in their heads). They think about
objects like computers or oracles, about substances like oxygen or phlogiston,
and about states like being infected by a virus or being ritually unclean.
Clearly peoples' habitual categories of thought vary from culture to culture.
To these categories they apply socially-varying standards, of efficiency, cogency
and satisfactoriness. The ideas that are in people's minds are in the currency
of their time and place. People will differ in their judgments, depending on
their intelligence, temperament and experience, but the terms in which they
think do not emanate from their subjective psyches. They come from the
5 Even the theological overtones of Popper's theory transform in a revealing way.
To say that Popper treats knowledge in a way which is structurally akin to how others
treat God turns into the thesis that society plays a role like God's. This is precisely
Durkheim's theory of religion (see E. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life,
trans. J. W. Swain [London: Allen and Unwin, 1915]). A. MacIntyre states the point
neatly: 'What the members of a society worship is the ensemble of their own social
relationships in a disguised form', Marxism and Christianity (London: Duckworth,
I 969), 3.

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72 David Bloor

public domain into their heads during socialization. The understanding of the
thinking processess should tread the same path from the outside of the
individual to the inside.6
Another example of the transformative method turning an opaque thesis
into a clear one is provided by its effect on Popper's claim that objective
knowledge is 'knowledge without a knowing subject' (the title of one of his
chapters). If the third world is the social world, then objective knowledge
refers to something like the state of a discipline, or a part of culture, at any
given time. It refers to the standards, conventions, accepted procedures, para-
digmatic results and models to which some group subs6fidb.Objective know-
ledge is the property of a collectivity and hence not the content of any
individual physicist however brilliant and pre-eminent. Physics is what physi-
cists (as a group) know. Since the class of physicists is not itself a physicist,
physics as such is knowledge without a knowing subject. (Examination of
Popper's three examples of knowledge in the objective sense, given on page
IIO, confirms this interpretation of objective knowledge as 'the state of a
It is even possible to resolve apparent anomalies and sources of puzzlement
in Popper's thesis by the transformative method. Some of Popper's readers who
accept his idea that science is objective knowledge may be puzzled by his in-
clusion in the third world of works of art, poems, music, etc. Is it just an
arbitrary matter what Popper includes under the heading of 'objective'? Or
does it depend on esoteric debates about whether poetry has its own form of
truth, or whether pictures and music convey propositions? No: Popper is being
straightforward and consistent in including them in the third world-although
he does not fully explain why. It becomes clear when the thesis is transformed.
Works of art are part of a culture. They embody and celebrate, challenge or
negate the norms of a group. Art is not pure subjectivity. It also has a place
in the wider society, which takes it up and uses it in its own way. Art's in-
evitable possession of a social meaning ensures that it must have a place in
the third world. All socially meaningful and socially-structured activities should
be included amongst the 'objects' of the third world. If anything, Popper
should increase the already variegated content of his metaphysical realm, thus
making it even more like Hegel's.

Does the transformative method simply take everything that Popper says
and produce a counterpart in social terms? If it did there would seem to be
little point in the exercise. It would be merely swapping one terminology for
another. In fact everything does not transform mechanically. The discipline
imposed by the transformation throws into relief points against which objections
can be raised.
The first point that does not transform satisfactorily is Popper's rendering
6 Psychologists do not in practice need anyone to remind them of this. Their own
tradition is amply rich enough to make the point. For example, F. C. Bartlett's classic
work, Remembering (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1932) studied the influence of culture in
structuring the memory image. See also, M. Sherif, The Psychology of Social Norms
(New York: Harper, 1936).

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Essay Review 73

of the demarcation between subjective and objective ways of studying knowl-

edge. The distinction as such is preserved, but not Popper's conception of it.
He groups together as equally 'subjective' both individualistic psychology and
sociology. The way that I am here suggesting that Popper should be read in-
volves taking 'objective' to refer to social and structural factors such as customs,
institutions and norms. A 'subjective' approach would be one which did not con-
cern itself with structural factors but only with the intrinsic qualities of indi-
viduals. Clearly, Popper's advocacy of an objective method-as here under-
stood-should not be combined with a condemnation of both psychology and
sociology. He should only object to psychology. In direct terms the criticism
is that Popper never bothers to distinguish between the different approaches
that he lumps together for condemnation as 'subjective'. Indeed, he never
really characterizes the enemy in any detail at all. It is a vague bogy. Both
psychology and sociology are represented in extremely weak terms as being
concerned with things like the feelings which surround someone's creative acts
or discoveries (e.g. p. z66). This characterization does justice to neither
Another point which does not 'transform' properly arises out of Popper's
useful discussion of what he calls 'situational logic' (p. 178). He argues that the
proper way to understand, say, Galileo's theory of the tides, and indeed the
work of any scientist, is to position it in the context of problems and assump-
tions as they appeared to the actor. Galileo rejected a theory of tides which im-
plicated the moon because lunar influence smacked of astrology-a tradition of
thought to which he was opposed. Once the problem situation (as it appeared to
Galileo), and the background assumptions, have been articulated, then the
theory becomes fully intelligible. Because Popper includes problems and back-
ground assumptions amongst the objects of the third world, he counts this
approach as a triumph of the objective method. It is clear that 'situational logic'
readily transforms into the sociological rule-of-thumb that to understand an
action one must begin by taking the actor's point of view. To do this one must
understand the norms, categories and habits of the group into which he has been
socialized. These provide the backbone for any explanation or account of be-
haviour. Surely, sociologists are no strangers to this approach: though they
talk of 'situational logic' but of 'the actor's perception of the situation', and not
of 'the objective method' but of 'the subjective method'.7
Popper is not, however, an entirely consistent advocate of 'situational logic'.
It is once again the transformed version of his theory which permits a firmer
7 See for example S. B. Barnes, 'On the Reception of Scientific Beliefs' in Barry
Barnes (ed.), Sociology of Science: Selected Readings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972),
and 'Sociological Explanation and Natural Science,' Arch. Europ. Sociol., xiii (1972)
373-93. Barry Barnes has raised the question of why Popper speaks of the third world
and not of the third worlds. Galileo's rejection of astrology is a part of the third world,
but what about the astrologer's assumptions? Popper might reply by including them
all together in one unitary world, arguing that this world consists of sub-worlds or
clusters of assumptions, problems, etc. In this way he would come to reflect the fact
that complex societies are made up of different sub-cultures. This would help articulate
Popper's picture, whilst bringing it closer to a sociological perspective in a natural and
easy way. A map of the third world would begin to assume the pattern and colouration
of a map of society.

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74 David Bloor

hold on the argument than does his own three-world picture. Popper says that
he thinks truth is a question of whether a theory corresponds to the real facts,
but he then conflates this point with the quite different issue of the circum-
stances under which men alter their views about reality. Thus:

Our man-made theories may clash with these real facts, and so, in our search
for truth, we may have to adjust our theories or to give them up. (p. 329)

The question of whether we have to adjust and relinquish our theories has
nothing to do with whether they clash with reality. What matters is whether
they are believed to clash. They may clash without the clash being perceived,
and they may be perceived to clash when they do not. Popper is right about
what 'truth' means: when we say that a proposition is true we mean that it
corresponds with reality. But that is a purely formal observation about the idea
of truth. In order to give it content, specific claims must be advanced and
allowed to stand in for the true and the real. Neither science nor common life
can be conducted with abstract formulas. The same goes for the rest of the
objectivity distinctions mentioned earlier. They derive from a general model,
or picture, of what it is to know and learn. This provides a background against
which particular agreements and disagreements can be seen. Objectivity
distinctions trade on a notion of truth and reality as such, but their use does
not depend on our actually having access to these commodities. The base line
against which theories are tested are the currently accepted beliefs of a social
group, or what have been called 'cognitive norms'.
Popper himself used to believe exactly this. In a profound chapter of his
Logic of Scientific Discovery8 he explains that the empirical base of science
consists of a set of statements which have been accepted as 'conventions' (for
the time being) by a 'decision' of the scientific community. His picture of
decisions and conventions is designed to replace the empiricist account in
which the basis of science is observation yielding observation-statements of
complete or near certainty. For Popper observation is merely one of the causal
factors motivating the decisions to accept certain 'basic-statements'.9
The transformative method thus helps to keep Popper's philosophy on the
course set by his early work. It helps root out the confusion between the
absolute and perceived falsity of a theory. It is the latter which is the real
motor of scientific charge.

So far my suggested way of reading Popper's account of knowledge has

8 K. R. Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery (rev. edn., London: Hutchinson, I968),

105, o09.
9 Popper's theory of the empirical base, although far more subtle and penetrating than
the three-worlds view, shows the same desire to avoid confrontation with the real social
processes of science. At the point where his theory of the empirical base makes contact
with sociology Popper resorts to fictions like group 'decisions'. These 'decisions' have
the same status as the social 'contracts' of seventeenth century political theorists. This
poses an important problem: why do people go to such great lengths to avoid facing
social reality? Why do they prefer to construct a myth rather than conduct an empirical

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Essay Review 75

been shown to have three characteristics: (i) the essential pattern and structure
of Popper's ideas can be fully retrieved but in a non-mysterious form; (ii)
problematic features of his views can be accounted for; and (iii) errors can
be highlighted and corrected. In conclusion, I will offer a few general reasons
for preferring the social perspective to the three-worlds metaphysic. I will
also mention some typical objections that might be made to the transformed
version of Popper's thesis, and offer suggestions to overcome them.
The central worry for any reader of Popper's book is: What exactly is the
third world? What mode of being does it have? To say that it just is the
world of propositions, theories and problems leaves the issue obscure, because
an account is needed of what sort of entity these are. Popper explains that his
theory is different from Plato's or Hegel's, and he asserts that his third world
really exists-but he never explains how the trick is done. Equating the third
world with the social world at least provides a point of entry into these
Could the transformation ever really provide an adequately detailed account
of the content of the third world? How can sociology account for meaning,
for logical validity, or for the truth and falsity of theories? Take each point
in turn. If Wittgenstein is correct then in general the meaning of a word just
is the use to which it is put.10 To talk of the meaning of a symbol is to talk of
its role and employment and place in the life of a social group. Language is a
form of behaviour, as is criticism and argument.
What about logic and validity? Again Wittgenstein has shown how to
ground these in social life. To appraise an argument for validity is to apply
the standards of a social group. It cannot be other, or more, than this because
we have access to no other standards. But don't these standards reflect some
external and more enduring truth-something built into the fabric of the
universe, as it were? It is quite possible to see matters like this, just as one
can see the ethical practices of a group as a more-or-less adequate embodiment
of some privileged 'absolute' system. But as an explanation of human behaviour
this does not have much to recommend it. It brings little illumination and
much theoretical trouble. The feeling that logic constitutes a separate order
of being, or that it is, in some mysterious way, built into the nature of things,
is just one more example of reading social practices into the world. To
externalize them in this way is a means of making it feel as if the cosmic
order sanctions one's practices: always a comforting feeling, but not ore
conducive to critical thought. Reasoning logically is like behaving morally.
It means conforming to norms of correct procedure.11
What about truth: surely that depends on the natural, not the social, order?
10 See Philosophical Investigations, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), para. 43.
11 Wittgenstein's account of the compulsive character of logic is to be found in his
Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (Oxford: Blackwell, I964). For an exposition
of his theory, and a discussion of its frequently unperceived sociological character, see
my 'Wittgenstein and Mannheim on the Sociology of Mathematics', Studies in History
and Philosophy of Science, 4 (i973), 173-91. Wittgenstein, the man, was no ally of the
sociology of knowledge. But this does not stop it being right to use some of his argu-
ments, even to support causes which he would oppose.

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76 David Bloor

For truth as such the answer is 'yes': but I have already argued that judgments
of what is true (that is, perceived truth) depend on both the natural and the
social order. The natural order provides the external stimulus, and the social
order the terms of the response. Social organization can indeed ensure that a
given theory is perceived as true. Evans-Pritchard showed as much when he
examined the way in which Zande society is organized around the premise
that the natural world is replete with the forces of witchcraft.12 Philosophers
as well as anthropologists have increasingly investigated the social processes
whereby theories are sustained and anomalies absorbed. Conversely, of course,
other systems of norms can be imagined which would maximize the perception
of falsity. Popper advocates a competitive, individualistic social structure for
science precisely because it would do just that. Popper does not, of course,
claim that such a system will prove or establish the falsity of more theories
than would other systems. Indeed he has always argued that proofs and
justifications, even of the falsity of theories, cannot in principle be provided
by science. Social organization, then, is the crucial variable determining the
perception of the truth and falsity of any given theory."3
If these arguments are accepted, then it can be claimed that the objectivity
of knowledge resides in its being the set of accepted beliefs of a social group.
This is why and how it transcends the individual and constrains him. This is
why it seems stable and enduring and external to him, and why it appears to
constitute a third world with its own nature. The authority of truth is the
authority of society.
This shift in ontology is more than a mere matter of theoretical preference.
It has practical implications. To adopt the transformed version of Popper's
theory is to connect his epistemology with processes that are real and accessible
to investigation. It permits the resources of an empirical and theoretical
research tradition to be brought to bear on the third world. By identifying it
with society, an opportunity is provided for detecting new problems, reformu-
lating old ones and developing new theories. By contrast, the opaque ontology
of the so-called 'objective approach' paralyses the imagination and stultifies

12 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1937).
13 Before a theory could be proved false a basic statement which contradicted it
would have to be proved true. Popper clearly states (e.g. Logic, p. 47) that there are no
ultimate statements in science which cannot in principle be refuted, including reports
of observations and experiments. All statements have the status of conjectures. It is
precisely because of this fact that Popper's epistemology has totally to dispense with

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