Popper and Archaeology

This dissertation examines the philosophy of Karl Popper and its place within the philosophy of science, in the literature of theoretical archaeology, and the possibilities of an application of a Popperian approach to archaeology. An investigation is undertaken of the areas of Karl Popper’s philosophy which are of broader concern to the social sciences, and history and archaeology in particular, but which have not been mentioned in the literature. A Popperian approach to archaeology is developed and advanced, emphasising evolution and its expression in the material record. The dissertation closes with an examination of the unity and the influence of Karl Popper’s philosophy.


Cover Sheet 1

Dedication and Thanks 2

Abstract 3

Contents 4

Abbreviations 5

General Introduction 6

Chapter 1: Popper and the Philosophy of Science 7-14

1.A Introduction 7

1.B The Aim of Science 7-8

1.C The Problem of Induction 8-9

1.D Falsification and the Demarcation of Science 9-10

1.E Criticisms 10-11

1.F Conclusion 11-14

Chapter 2: Theoretical Sciences and Historical Sciences 15-25

2.A Introduction 15

2.B The Unity of Method 15

2.C The Covering Law Model 15-16

2.D Theoretical and Historical Sciences 16-17

2.E Theories and Interpretations 17-18

2.F The Two Threads of History 18

2.G History, Meaning and Interpretation 19-21

2.H Psychologism and the Autonomy of Society 21-22

2.I The Institutional Theory of Progress 22-23

2.J Criticisms 23-24

2.K Conclusion 24-25

Chapter 3: Two Views of Popper 26-30

3.A Introduction 26

3.B Popper and Kelley and Hanen 26-28

3.C Popper and Shanks and Tilley 28-29

3.D Conclusion 29-30

Chapter 4: Archaeological Knowledge: A Popperian Approach 31-42

4.A Introduction 31

4.B Unified Truth and Fragmented Knowledge 31-32

4.C Is Truth Attainable? 32

4.D Understanding, Accepting, Believing 32-33

4.E The 3 Worlds and Demarcation 33-35

4.F The Place of Archaeology 35-36

4.G Evolution and Epistemology 36-37

4.H Evolution and Archaeology 38-39

4.I Identity and Expression 39-40

4.J The Spearhead Model of Cultural Evolution 40-42

4.K Conclusion 42

Chapter 5: Popper’s Philosophy and Influence 43-45

5.A Introduction 43

5.B The Unity of Popper’s Thought 43

5.C Popper’s Influence 43-45

5.D Conclusion 45

Bibliography 46-49

Abbreviations used in the Text

CR = Conjectures and Refutations (1972). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

LSD = The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1980). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

OK = Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1979). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

OS1 = The Open Society and Its Enemies – Volume I: The Spell of Plato (1962). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

OS2 = The Open Society and Its Enemies – Volume II: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath (1962). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

PH = The Poverty of Historicism (1961). London: ARK Paperbacks.

RC = Replies to My Critics (1974). pp. 959-1197 in The Philosophy of Karl Popper: Book II. The Library of Living Philosophers volume XIV. SCHILPP, P.A., ed. Illinois: Open Court.

UQ = Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (1976). Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.

General Introduction

We all have our philosophies, whether or not we are aware of this fact, and our philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our actions and our lives is often devastating. This makes it necessary to try to improve our philosophies by criticism. This is the only apology for the continued existence of philosophy which I am able to offer. (OK 33)

Zeno Swajik, a philosopher, commenting on a recent collection of essays on theoretical archaeology, noted that among them there was a glaring failure to discuss Popper’s ideas, ‘as he felt that many of the papers adopted a Popperian approach: ‘I concluded I was whiffing the scent of closet Popperians who would appear only when the broad issues had been resolved” (Zubrow 1989, 49).

This comment is striking, for the name of Karl Popper or reference to his theories is common in archaeological literature concerned with theory and the philosophy of science; indeed, Kelley and Hanen’s Archaeology and the Methodology of Science (1988) devotes an entire chapter to contrasting Popper’s and Kuhn’s view of science, and Popper’s ideas are referred to in four out of the remaining seven chapters. It is a historical fact that a call had been made for archaeology to adopt a Popperian methodology prior to Binford’s advocation of Hempel’s deductive-nomological model (Kelley and Hanen 1988). I would suggest that, had ‘the New Archaeology’ been founded on Popperian rather than Hempelian lines, many of its numerous errors would have been avoided.

I would contend that, despite the notice which has been paid to him, Popper is still mostly misunderstood, and this misunderstanding, together with the assumption that Popper is solely a philosopher of science, has lead to a lack of exploration of his ideas which are of relevance to archaeology beyond methodological issues. It is my hope to rectify this situation by presenting here a outline of the areas of Popper’s philosophy which have a bearing on the issues addressed by social sciences in general, and archaeology in particular.

Chapter 1 considers Popper’s philosophy of science, the area of his philosophy which is best known, but is still not properly reviewed in the literature and suffers from frequent misrepresentation. Chapter 2 moves on to Popper’s commentary on the social sciences, and the division between what he terms ‘theoretical sciences’ and ‘historical sciences’. Chapter 3 examines the reception Popper’s philosophy has received in the archaeological literature, by particular reference to two studies which review his thoughts. Chapter 4 develops and modifies Popper’s philosophy, and a Popperian model for archaeology is outlined. Chapter 5 concludes this study with a brief investigation of Popper’s underlying approach and the influence his philosophy has had.

Chapters 1 and 2 are concerned with introducing issues and arguments; in these chapters I have acted in an editorial role, and saved my own comments for their respective conclusions. Throughout the study I have attempted to give an accurate rendering of the ideas under discussion; to this end I have transcribed numerous and lengthy passages from the original sources. I make no apology for this as it has been my intention not to interpret Popper’s philosophy, but firstly to present it. Having said this, editing is not a passive process and the ideas I have selected and the way in which I have assembled them reflects my understanding of the subject and the points which I see as having most relevance to archaeology.

Chapter 3 is of historical, and chapter 4 theoretical, interest to archaeology. Undoubtedly, these chapters are not exhaustive, and much more could be in relation to these areas and the philosophy of Popper. However, I hope that they give sufficient consideration to their subject matter to point the way for further research.

The final chapter does not attempt to offer a definite conclusion to the issues raised in the study, as I believe such a conclusion could only be made once the full extent of Popper’s application to archaeology has been explored.

I have followed the philosophical literature in my references to Popper’s works, and a list of the abbreviations used is given in the bibliography and succeeding the contents page. For the work of other writers, the Harvard System has been used throughout.

Popper and the Philosophy of Science

1.A Introduction

‘Popper’s philosophy is marked by a breadth and a coherence unusual for a modern philosopher. While his fundamental insight may stem from the philosophy of science, what he has to say then reaches out into politics, into the theory of rationality and into the nature of life itself.’ (O’Hear 1995b, 2)

It is, perhaps, a little ironic that most people involved in the social sciences will (if they recognise the name at all) associate Popper with the hypothetico-deductive method, and his insistence on a criterion of falsification rather than justification (or verification) for the testing of scientific theories. Few social scientists seem aware that, apart from the philosophy of science, Popper also commented on epistemology, Quantum theory, probability, determinism, psychology, history, politics, Marxism, Darwinism, aesthetics and ethics.

In this part I examine the core issues of Popper’s philosophy of science which are the subject of debate in the archaeological and philosophy of science literature.

1.B The Aim of Science

‘To speak of ‘the aim’ of scientific activity may perhaps sound a little naive; for clearly, different scientists have different aims, and science itself (whatever that may mean) has no aims. I admit all this. And yet it seems that when we speak of science we do feel, more or less clearly, that there is something characteristic of scientific activity; and since scientific activity looks pretty much like a rational activity, and since a rational activity must have some aim, the attempt to describe the aim of science may not be entirely futile.’ (OK 191)

Popper believed, contrary to Wittgenstein, that there are real problems in philosophy. Such a problem is truth – not what the word ‘truth’ means, but what truth is.

Popper followed Tarski’s correspondence theory of truth, which defines a statement as being true if it ‘corresponds’ to the facts of the phenomena to which the statement refers. (Although, strictly speaking, it is not the statement which is true but the facts themselves – the orrespondence of the statement to the facts means that the statement corresponds to the truth, rather than being the truth.)

Although this theory does define whether or not a statement is true, it cannot, unfortunately, give us any way of knowing what is true – what the ‘facts’ actually are. Popper comments on this, noting that ‘the idea of truth is absolutist, but no claim can be made for absolute certainty: we are seekers for truth but we are not its possessors‘ (OK 46-47: italics in original). Following this reasoning Popper suggests that ‘both precision and certainty are false ideals. They are impossible to attain, and therefore dangerously misleading if they are uncritically accepted as guides. The quest for precision is analogous to the quest for certainty, and both should be abandoned’ (UQ 21).

Given the above, Popper is led to remark that ‘science aims at true theories, even though we can never be sure that any particular theory is true; and that science may progress (and know that it does so) by inventing theories which compared with earlier ones may be described as better approximations to what is true’ (CR 174, italics in original). If we accept that for an aim to be rational, it must be achievable, there seems to be a problem with Popper’s definition (see Newton-Smith 1981, 1995); Popper is aware of this however and later offered a somewhat modified view; ‘it is the aim of science to find satisfactory explanations, of whatever strikes us as being in need of explaining’ (OK 191).

1.C The Problem of Induction

Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century is credited with the formulation of the ‘inductive method’. A scientist following Bacon’s method ‘starts with observations, and moves on from them to generalizations (laws and theories), and predictions’ (Gillies 1993, 5). Bacon contrasted the ‘Anticipation of Nature’ – the practice of speculating without data – with his own method which sought the ‘Interpretation of Nature’, that is, the gathering of data followed by the formulation of a theory to explain the data (Gillies 1993, 5).

In the eighteenth century the philosopher David Hume raised major objections to the type of method Bacon proposed. Hume pointed out that it is impossible to deduce general laws or predictions from a body of data; Bacon’s method was therefore not deductive, hence the term ‘inductive’ (Gillies 1993, 8).

Hume especially objected to the idea that from observation we could produce predictions:

When we infer effects from causes, we must establish the existence of these causes; which we have only two ways of doing, either by an immediate perception of our memory or sense, or by an inference from other causes; which causes again we must ascertain in the same manner, either by a present impression, or by an inference from their causes, and so on (Hume 1978, 83; italics in original).

Hume compares this inferential procedure to a chain, with each link serving as an inference; no matter how many links we add, there is still nothing to which the chain is ‘fixed’, so the whole thing remains unsupported.

Hume also attacks the assumption that is possible to extrapolate from past events to future events (i.e. produce predictions):

‘there can be no demonstrative arguments to prove, that those instance, of which we have had no experience, resemble those, of which we have had experience‘ (Hume 1978, 89; italics in original).

Bertrand Russell was very concerned with these points, stating that if there was no way to gain a solid foundation for induction (in this sense meaning justification for inductive inferences) then there would be no way logically of deciding between different theories, and there would be no division between sanity and insanity. This is the problem of induction, and Russell therefore ‘suggested that we had to adopt some principle of induction which in its turn could not be based on induction’ (UQ 109).

Popper followed Hume’s reasoning very closely, pointing out that, for a scientist to follow the inductive method, he (or she) must not begin with a theory. However, as Hume demonstrated, there is no observation before inference: all observations are theory-laden. We do not perceive the world indiscriminately, our perception is directed.

Furthermore, Popper claimed that induction was unnecessary to science, that all science could be done deductively, and therefore he had ‘solved’ the ‘problem of induction’ (so there was no need for a principle of induction). Popper formulates the problem of induction as follows:

‘Can the claim that an explanatory universal theory is true be justified by ’empirical reasons’; that is, by assuming the truth of certain test statements or observation statements (which, it may be said, are ‘based on experience’)?’ (OK 7).

To which the answer is ‘No, it cannot; no number of true test statements would justify the claim that an explanatory universal theory is true’ (OK 7). However, if the problem is altered by adding the concept of falsity, thus:

‘Can the claim that an explanatory universal theory is true or that it is false be justified by ’empirical reasons’; that is, can the assumption of the truth of test statements justify either the claim that a universal theory is true or the claim that it is false?’ (OK 7, italics mine).

Then we can answer: ‘Yes, the assumption of the truth of test statements sometimes allows us to justify the claim that an explanatory universal theory is false‘ (OK 7, italics in original).

Popper goes on from this to point out that this method is logical valid – that it is deductive, not inductive. Given this, Popper feels justified in claiming that:

‘Induction is a muddle, and because the problem of induction can be solved, in a negative but none the less straightforward manner, induction turns out to play no integral part in epistemology or in the method of science and the growth of knowledge’ (OK 85).

Or, more forcefully, that ‘there is no induction, because universal theories are not deductible from singular statements’ (UQ 86).

1.D Falsification and the Demarcation of Science

The demarcation of science was actually one of Popper’s first philosophical solutions, which he had arrived at in 1919, aged 17 (UQ 41).

Demarcation was an issue which the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle had addressed, for them the aim being to distinguish science from metaphysics, which was linked to their goal of producing a criterion of meaning which would make metaphysics meaningless and reduce all meaningful knowledge to science.

Popper’s aim was different. Popper wished to demonstrate the difference between science and what he termed ‘pseudoscience’, by which he meant theories which appeared or claimed to be science, but in fact were not (Popper was particularly thinking of the ‘historicism’ of Marx, the psychoanalysis of Freud and the individual psychology of Adler). Popper therefore proposed:

‘the refutability or falsifiability of a theoretical system should be taken as the criterion of … demarcation. According to this view… a system is to be considered as scientific only if it makes assertions which may clash with observations; and a system is, in fact, tested by attempts to produce such clashes, that is to say by attempts to refute it. Thus testability is the same as refutability, and can therefore likewise be taken as a criterion of demarcation.’ (CR 256; italics in original)

Popper realised that this demarcation incidentally also demarcated scientific theories from metaphysical ones; if a theory was not testable, it was metaphysical.

The conception behind falsificationism is an understanding of logical implication:

‘(i) All the implications of a true proposition have the same truth-value as that proposition, i.e., they ‘preserve’ its truth. For this reason implication is said to be a truth-preserving relation. In tracing out the implications of a true proposition we can be led only to further true propositions, never to false ones. Or, in other words, the only propositions that follow from or can be inferred with deductive validity from propositions which are true are propositions which are also true. (ii) The implications of a false proposition need not have the same truth-value as that proposition. Some of the implications of a false proposition are themselves false; but others are true. Implication, we may say, is not falsity-preserving. Among the propositions which follow from or can be inferred with deductive validity from propositions which are false, there are some true propositions as well as some false ones.’ (Bradley and Swartz 1979, 33; italics in original)

In other words:

‘if a hypothesis has implications which experience shows to be true, this does not entitle us to conclude that the hypothesis itself is true.’ (Bradley and Swartz 1979, 33)

Confirmationism can therefore lead us to accept false theories; the truth of a theory can never be ascertained, all that we can achieve is the elimination of false theories through falsification.

The emphasis on testing and falsifiability lead Popper to term his view of science as ‘the critical method, the method of trial and error: the method of proposing bold hypotheses, and exposing them to the severest criticism, in order to detect where we have erred’ (UQ 86; italics in original).

1.E Criticisms

‘No doubt … [Popper] is … aware of the comedy whereby a philosopher who claims to have been able to dispense with some basic component of the systems we have inherited finds himself charged with harbouring its vestiges. Hegel dissolved God into Geist but his followers thought he had only swept the concept under the carpet. Popper’s ‘God’, as it were, was induction, and some notable lecturers … have detected its presence, as indispensable, in Popper’s own system.’ (Minogue 1995, 225)

Because of the coherence of Popper’s philosophy, the relationship between falsification, demarcation, and the rejection of induction, means that by demonstrating one part of it is mistaken the whole lot begins to seem shaky.

The issue of induction is perhaps the most contentious, and Popper’s dismissal of induction has been unacceptable to both philosophers and scientists. Lipton (1995) notes that Popper ‘seeks to accept Humean scepticism about induction without accepting scepticism about science. Many of the standard objections to Popper’s position attempt to show that he cannot have it both ways; insofar as his account really does abjure induction, it makes scientific knowledge impossible’ (Lipton 1995, 32).

O’Hear (1980) makes similar remarks:

‘Scepticism about induction can seem curiously perverse. It says that we have no grounds for thinking that the future will be like the past, but it actually gives no reason for thinking that the future will be different in any given respect. Of course, it could hardly do that because such reasons themselves will in all probability be inductive .., as well as presupposing an inductive framework of reasoning (the need to specify a relevant difference in expecting the future to be unlike the past).’ (O’Hear 1980, 19)

From which he concludes:

‘Popper’s attempt to dispense with induction is unsuccessful… [I]nductive reasoning, removed from one part of the picture, crops up in another… the underlying reason for this is that any coherent conceptualization of experience requires the assumption of a stable order in the world.’ (O’Hear 1980, 58)

Popper’s demarcation of science is likewise viewed to be unrealistic. There are three principle problems here; firstly, if one accepts that empirical falsification divides scientific from metaphysical theories, then a lot of theories regularly used by scientists (concerning such phenomena as force, energy, etc) must be excluded from science because they are untestable. Secondly, scientific theories are not individually testable statements, but systems of statements which must be taken together to derive empirically refutable predictions. An observation which refutes any of the predictions may be due to an error in one of the statements or it may indicate that the theory as a whole is false, but it could be impossible to show which statements have been tested, which part of the theory is at fault, given that the theory must be taken as a whole to derive particular predictions. The result of this is that it leaves a doubt over which part of a system is falsified by a given empirical test; should one abandon the entire system or modify one or more of its constituent propositions? Thirdly, refutation can be avoided by ‘immunizing’ strategies, either declaring that the test was invalid for some reason, or by adding an additional ‘ad hoc’ theory to the system which accounts for the test result. Thus any refutation can be turned into confirmation.

O’Hear (1980) has questioned the aim of producing a distinction such as Popper proposes between science and non-science, claiming that:

contrary to the intentions of Popper in formulating his demarcation criterion, there is no precise point at which holding one theory as opposed to another becomes unscientific, or pejoratively dogmatic. Dogmatism and metaphysics are essential elements of the scientific attitude. Moreover, there is inevitably a degree of uncertainty in deciding precisely when to accept one theory and to abandon another. (O’Hear 1980, 109)

1.F Conclusion

This chapter has outlined some of Popper’s contributions to the philosophy of science, although not in any great breadth or depth. However, I feel that the discussion given does fairly summarize the positions, and I think the arguments presented highlight the real problems involved. Given the criticisms above, one may be inclined to believe that none of Popper’s ideas are capable of holding water. This would only be reasonable if the criticisms were valid, which I do not hold to be the case in this instance. I hope to demonstrate that the arguments levelled against Popper often fail to hit the mark.

Where induction is concerned, the arguments against Popper have ‘been raised many times, and answered many times’ (OK 363); the critics, however, seem strangely unable to note Popper’s rejection of their claims, and continue to repeat themselves ad nauseam. Popper comments that:

It seems to me that all the objections to my theory which I know of approach it with the question of whether my theory has solved the traditional problem of induction – that is, whether I have justified inductive inference.

Of course I have not. From this my critics deduce that I have failed to solve Hume’s problem of induction. (OK 28)

Put simply, inductivists argue that ‘some inductive assumption is needed if we wish to argue from past experience to a prediction of future events; at least an assumption that tells us that we are entitled to argue from past experience to the future’ (OK 363). To this point Popper replies:

‘we never (least of all in science) draw inferences from mere observational experience to the prediction of future events. Rather, each such inference is based upon observational experience (formulated by statements of ‘initial conditions’) plus some universal theories. The presence of these theories … is essential for arguing from the past to the future. But these universal theories are not in their turn inferred from past observational experience. They are, rather, guesses: they are conjectures‘ (OK 363; italics in original).

Miller (1982) expresses this point in a simple and straightforward manner:

‘science need contain no metaphysical assumption concerning the regularity or order of nature. It need contain no assumptions not explicitly available for testing. Scientific hypotheses propose order for the world; they do not presuppose it.’ (Miller 1982, 35)


‘No inductive inference is needed to put a hypothesis into science; no inductive inference is needed to keep it there; and no inductive inference is needed to prize it out.’ (Miller 1982, 35)

Perhaps what is really at issue here is the vague use of the word ‘induction’. The critics use ‘induction’ to mean something like ‘extrapolation from experience’; induction must be utilized if we wish to believe that yesterday’s experiences can help guide our life today, and today’s experiences can help to guide us tomorrow. If we cannot extrapolate from our experiences, then experience becomes empty, and learning impossible.

Popper’s use of the word induction, however, seems to accord better with a definition like ‘justification of belief’. And Popper saw no need for any justification for belief; for him, to believe that something was true was irrational, because there can be no justification to believe that anything is true; nothing can be proved true, but some things may be proved false. Faced with this, Popper’s method is the only rational choice; the search for truth can only be an ideal, which we work towards through discarding false ideas. The closer we get to truth – the better our approximation – the more useful our knowledge becomes. But this knowledge will never be complete, never total.

Popper never argued that we could not extrapolate from our experiences, but simply did not use the term ‘induction’ to describe this process. Perhaps this point is best demonstrated by O’Hear’s insistence that induction defines rationality and rationality is necessary for science to achieve its aims, and Popper’s equal insistence that the basis of his philosophy is rationality but not induction. The paradox here is solved by realising that Popper distinguished between induction and rationality, whereas inductivists have not. Popper and his critics were arguing at cross purposes; they were not debating the same issue.

The real argument, then, is about the need to justify our theories. For inductivists there is a need, for Popper there is not – indeed, he is utterly against such an idea, stating that ‘no theory of knowledge should attempt to explain why we are successful in our attempts to explain things‘ (OK 23). Note that Popper is not saying we should not attempt to explain our explanatory successes, only that such an attempt should not be a theory of knowledge. The matter is a psychological problem, not a logical one.

Harré (1970, 1985), although dismissive of Popper’s approach, is equally dismissive of induction. His argument is different, however, and not exactly complimentary, but its makes an interesting addition to the debate:

Philosophy of science is prone to pointless scolasticism. The present morass of deductivism is the successor to the even more scholastic morass of inductivism, and its great problem. The ‘Problem of Induction’ arises because it is supposed that we need an explanation of evidence for, or guarantee of sameness, of unchange. The problem is generated by asking ‘What guarantees have we that the regularities and existences we have so far discovered will persist in the future?’ It is then suggested that anything might succeed any previous state, and in the metaphysics of events (each independent of the previous one) this would indeed follow. But sequences of events are the produces of generative mechanisms, regularities of appearances are the consequences of the endurance of internal structures. Persistence, endurance and unchange require no explanation and particular cases of them have no causes. Consequently, no evidence for belief in persistence, in endurance, is required; only identification of that which is enduring. Because enduring has no causes there can be no call for evidence to support belief in the continuance of endurance, other than that something has endured, and that is enough… There is no problem of induction since no evidence is required to support the belief that regularities persist. (Harré 1970, 248-249; italics mine.)

Moving onto falsification and the demarcation of science, there are some similar misunderstandings.

The demarcation criterion distinguishes scientific from non-scientific (metaphysical) theories; this is not be taken as rejecting from scientific knowledge metaphysical concepts, for as Popper went to pains to point out that ‘it would be inadequate to draw the line of demarcation between science and metaphysics so as to exclude metaphysics as nonsensical from a meaningful language’ (CR 257; italics in original), and furthermore ‘the transition between metaphysics and science is not a sharp one: what was a metaphysical idea yesterday can become a testable scientific theory tomorrow; and this happens frequently’ (RC 981). The distinction Popper makes with his demarcation is between theories with an empirically testable content and theories which are empirically untestable; it is a line drawn between what is empirically refutable and what is empirically unrefutable. Furthermore, it is a line which can move, as that which is untestable today may be testable tomorrow, so a theory can go from being metaphysical to being falsifiable (scientific).

The view that scientific theories are actually systems of theories, no single theory of which is testable on its own, was put forward by Popper himself in his first book, Logik der Forschung. His analysis of the situation is that ‘we may describe a system as scientific or empirically testable, while being most uncertain about its constituent parts’ (RC 982; italics in original) and if such a system is refuted by an observation then the system as a whole is refuted:

‘We may perhaps put the blame on one of its laws or on another. But this means only that we conjecture that a certain change in the system will free if from falsification; or in other words, that we conjecture that a certain alternative system will be an improvement, a better approximation to the truth’ (RC 982).

This point brings us to the problem of what to do when a theory is falsified; should we abandon the theory and develop a new one, modify the refuted theory so that the observation is consistent with the theory, or draw into question the accuracy of the test? Popper cannot argue that we should always abandon theories when they are refuted as the history of science gives many examples of where an ad hoc theory has been found to be true. This point is usually demonstrated by the fact the orbit of Uranus was found not to conform to Newtonian physics (i.e. the prediction of Uranus’s orbit according to Newton’s theory did not accord to empirical observations of Uranus’s orbit). To explain this anomaly the existence of a new planet was postulated (the gravity of which caused the disturbance to Uranus’s orbit), and Neptune was duly discovered.

Popper suggests that if an ad hoc explanation is offered, it should itself give falsifiable predictions. This does not solve matters either, a critic may reply, as the spectre of infinite regress found in the problem of induction occurs here also, for if the ad hoc theory’s prediction is falsified, a further ad hoc theory could be made to account for this failure, and so on ad infinitum. This is only a problem if one forgets that the addition of ad hoc theories leads to the creation of a new theory, for the system as a whole is changed. Seen this way, there is no problem with altering a system of theories (providing such alterations maintain or increase refutability) as this is equivalent to proposing an entirely new theory, and there can be nothing wrong with that.

O’Hear’s (1980) remarks about the ability of Popper’s demarcation criterion to actually offer a strict demarcation between science and non-science are misfounded. They would only apply if Popper in fact did intend to show a critical disjunction between the two, which he did not. Popper is quite clear on this point; ‘From the beginning I called my criterion of demarcation a proposal‘ (RC 981; italics in original). He also points out that ‘demarcation in my sense must be rough’ (RC 981; italics in original).

Personally, I accept almost all of Popper’s philosophy of science; the rejection of inductivism is possible if it is realised that justification for scientific theories is unnecessary. The distinction between empirically refutable theories and metaphysical theories is logical and enlightening. And, furthermore, Popper’s decisive criticisms of positivism and verificationism remain whether or not one accepts Popper’s approach; to dismiss Popper only to adopt some form of confirmationism (e.g. Gilles 1993) is not a rational decision. As Popper himself remarks:

I have always stressed that it [falsificationism] may not succeed; and I shall be surprised but happy if anybody suggests a better or more rational method, and one whose success is certain, or probable. (OK 286; italics in original)

Theoretical Sciences and Historical Sciences

‘Labouring the difference between science and the humanities has long been a fashion, and has become a bore.’ (OK 185)

2.A Introduction

‘Popper is as important to contemporary philosophy of history as Hegel was to that of the nineteenth century and for much the same reason: just as nineteenth century philosophy of history was mainly an extended commentary on Hegel, so contemporary philosophy of history is largely an extended commentary on arguments presented by Popper.’ (Wilkins 1978, 13)

Popper had much to say about the social sciences in general, and history in particular. The previous chapter dealt with Popper’s philosophy of science, and in the same manner this chapter tackles Popper’s views on sociology and history. The relevance of this chapter to archaeology should be obvious when it is realised that the term ‘historical science’ and ‘historical scientist’ are respectively replaceable by ‘archaeology’ and ‘archaeologist’.

2.B The Unity of Method

Popper distinguishes two broad methodological approaches in the social sciences, which he terms ”pro-naturalistic’ or ‘positive’ if they favour the application of the methods of physics to the social sciences, and ‘anti-naturalistic’ or ‘negative’ if they oppose the use of these methods’ (PH 2). He asserts, however, that a particular social scientist does not have to take either stance, but may adopt a method combining elements of both. Popper comments that the decision as to the correct method for social science which a social scientist may make will:

‘depend on his views about the methods of physics… And I think that the crucial mistakes in most methodological discussions arise from some very common misunderstandings of the methods of physics. In particular, I think they arise from a misinterpretation of the logical form of its theories, of the methods of testing them, and of the logical function of observation and experiment. My contention is that these misunderstandings have serious consequences.’ (PH 2)

Popper asserts that the method of the social sciences is the same as that in the natural sciences, and justifies this assertion by referenced to shared aspects between natural and social sciences – we can understand nature, as we can understand society, because we are a part of them, and we assume that nature and society operate rationally, or according to some underlying fundamental logic. Popper gives a broad definition of the method of science as being ‘concerned with explanations, predictions, and tests, and that the method of testing hypotheses is always the same’ (PH 132). Furthermore, ‘there is no great difference between explanation, prediction and testing. The difference is not one of logical structure, but rather one of emphasis; it depends on what we consider to be our problem‘ (PH 133; italics in original).

2.C The Covering Law Model of Explanation

Popper states that ‘to give a causal explanation of a certain specific event means deducing a statement describing this event from two kinds of premises: from some universal laws, and from some singular or specific statements which we may call the specific initial conditions‘ (PH 122; italics in original). This is generally called a ‘covering law model of explanation’.

A theory formulated under the covering law model is therefore of the logical form:

The explanation A is deduced

From universal laws B1, B2,…, Bn

Given specific initial conditions C1, C2,…, Cn


(B1, B2,…, Bn) + (C1, C2,…, Cn) = A

The covering law model was further developed and modified by Carl Hempel, which was then advocated by the ‘new archaeologists’ of the 1960s and ’70s.

2.D Theoretical and Historical Sciences

Having claimed that all sciences share a single method, Popper then proceeds to distinguish between what he terms ‘theoretical sciences’ and ‘historical sciences’, arguing that ‘while the theoretical sciences are mainly interested in finding and testing universal laws, the historical sciences take all kinds of universal laws for granted and are mainly interested in finding and testing singular statements’ (PH 143-144). This distinction, Popper points out:

‘makes it clear why so many students of history and its method insist that it is the particular event that interests them, and not any so-called universal historical laws. For from our point of view, there can be no historical laws. Generalization belongs simply to a different line of interest, sharply to be distinguished from that interest in specific events and their casual explanation which is the business of history.’ (OS2 264)

However, this distinction does have its problems, for if historical scientists take the laws on which they are basing their explanations (or prediction, or test) for granted, then such laws must be both trivial in that they are not worthy of consideration and in that they must be assumed to be more or less true, which Popper implies when he claims that ‘rarely do we find ourselves in the position of having to worry about the universal laws involved in such an explanation’ (OS2 264). Having noticed this, Popper is faced with also acknowledging that the triviality of the laws used by historical scientists means that ‘they are practically without interest, and totally unable to bring order into the subject matter’ (OS2 264) and can therefore ‘provide no selective and unifying principle, no ‘point of view’ for history’ (OS2 265).

The point of view, or unity, of historical sciences must therefore be created by the historical scientists themselves – the problems which they consider are of their own choosing, whereas in the theoretical sciences the problems are determined by the type of universal laws being sought (e.g. physicists study laws of physics, sociologists study laws of society).

There is another, much more disturbing problem, however, with Popper’s distinction between theoretical and historical sciences – that is, the very status of historical sciences as being scientific is brought into question, as the empirical refutability of the historical sciences must now rest entirely on the finding and testing of singular statements which refer to the particular events which the historical scientists are interested in. In terms of the covering law model given above, theoretical scientists control C (the specific initial conditions), conjecture A (the explanation, prediction or test), from which, assuming that it was not refuted, they deduce that B obtains (the universal law under investigation). Historical scientists, on the other hand, conjecture A, assume B and deduce C (the particular events under study). However, if B is assumed then it should be ejected from the equation, which then becomes:

The explanation A is deduced

Given specific initial conditions C1, C2,…, Cn


(C1, C2,…, Cn) = A

The result of this is that the conjectures of historical scientists ‘will not, as a rule, be possible to test’ (OS2 265). This is because the specific initial conditions from which the explanation is deduced is a historical set of conditions, i.e. it happened in the past and cannot be observed; therefore, to make the conjecture A we must assume C, but if we do this A can only be stated, not deduced. This leads Popper to accept that ‘historical theories can then rightly be charged with being circular in the sense in which this charge has been unjustly brought against scientific theories’ (OS2 266) – by which, I believe, Popper is suggesting that historical theories are inductive (circular), and hence not a part of science (see 1.C).

2.E Theories and Interpretations

Having demonstrated to his own satisfaction that the historical sciences are not actually often scientific by his demarcation criterion, Popper is faced with distinguishing history from science. He does this by suggesting that historical theories should be distinguished from ‘true’ scientific (i.e. empirically refutable) theories by calling ‘historical theories, in contradistinction to scientific theories, ‘general interpretations‘ (OS2 266).

The idea of interpretation comes as a saving grace for Popper, as with it he is able to give a shape to history which he had stated did not exist when he made the initial distinction between theoretical and historical sciences:

Interpretations are important since they represent a point of view. But we have seen that a point of view is always inevitable [Popper is here referring to the theory-ladenness of observation (see 1.C)], and that, in history, a theory which can be tested and which is therefore of scientific character can only rarely be obtained… Historians often do not see any other interpretation which fits the facts as well as their own does; but if we consider that even in the field of physics, with its larger and more reliable stock of facts, new crucial experiments are needed again and again because the old ones are all in keeping with both of two competing and incompatible theories … then we shall give up the naive belief that any definite set of historical records can ever be interpreted in one way only. (OS2 266)

Seeming to have got himself into a corner, Popper skilful backs out again without contradicting himself, for he realises that not only do interpretations give a perspective to history, there can be a claim that some interpretations may be better than others:

First, there are always interpretations which are not really in keeping with the accepted record; secondly, there are some which need a number of more or less plausible auxiliary hypotheses if they are to escape falsification by the records; next, there are some that are unable to connect a number of facts which another interpretation can connect, and in so far ‘explain’. There may accordingly be a considerable amount of progress even within the field of historical interpretation. (OS2 266)

If we accept that in history interpretations play the same as role as theories do in science, and if the aim of science is to produce theories which progress closer to the truth, then history can progress closer to the truth by producing better interpretations. Popper does however state that there is still a major difference between the two, which will be discussed below (see 2.G).

2.F The Two Threads of History

Having tackled to some degree the refutability of historical interpretations, Popper must return to the question of induction (see 1.C), for his complete rejection of it from science commits him to ridding it from history as well. If history is concerned only with particular events (see 2.D) there is a danger that historical study can only produce a mere list of occurrences, names, places and dates; a meaningless narrative. Popper argues:

‘This leads us to the question of the uniqueness of historical events. In so far as we are concerned with the historical explanation of typical events they must necessarily be treated as typical, as belonging to kinds or classes of events. For only then is the deductive method of causal explanation applicable. History… is interested not only in the explanation of specific events but also in the description of a specific event as such. One of its most important tasks is undoubtedly to describe interesting happenings in their peculiarity or uniqueness; that is to say, to include aspects which it does not attempt to explain causally, such as the ‘accidental’ concurrence of causally unrelated events. These two tasks of history, the disentanglement of causal threads and the description of the ‘accidental’ manner in which these threads are interwoven, are both necessary, and they supplement each other; at one time an event may be considered as typical, i.e. from the standpoint of its causal explanation, and at another time as unique.’ (PH 146-147)

Popper’s suggestion that events may be considered both unique and typical, and this makes deductive logic applicable to their casual explanation, points towards his ideas of situational logic and his ‘Institutional Theory of Progress’ (see 2.I). However, it is not clear how these suggestions relate to the problems perceived with the covering law model of explanation; are typical events supposed to be formulated as ‘specific initial conditions’, and would in some manner be testable as such, or is he indicating that they should be analyzed as forming ‘universal laws’ of action or behaviour which are non-trivial, and hence can be inserted back into the covering law model? Perhaps the only point that Popper is making is that, even though interpretations may not be empirically refutable, they should still be deductively formulated so they are better open to critical discussion.

2.G History, Meaning and Interpretation

With reason to doubt history’s ability to be scientific, Popper goes on to argue (despite his dislike of such discussions) that neither does history have either ‘meaning’ or an actual ‘existence’:

‘history’ in the sense in which most people speak of it simply does not exist

‘How do most people come to use the term ‘history’? (I mean ‘history’ in the sense in which we say of a book that it is about the history of Europe – not in the sense in which we say that it is a history of Europe). They learn about it in school and at the University. They read books about it. They see what is treated in the books under the name ‘history of the world’ or ‘the history of mankind’, and they get used to looking upon it as a more or less definite series of facts. And these facts constitute, they believe, the history of mankind…

‘What people have in mind when they speak of the history of mankind is, rather, the history of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman empires, and so on, down to our own day. In other words: They speak about the history of mankind, but what they mean, and what they have learned about in school, is the history of political power.’

(OS2 269-270; italics in original)

Here I see Popper joining together two themes; the reason for the study of history and the purpose of the study of history. The reason for studying history will accord to the historian’s interests, and the purpose of studying history is to explain the past. But this is a purpose which can never be realised in the sense that history will ever produce anything resembling a ‘true’ account of the past of mankind; not only is it impossible to achieve this, but also planning it would be pointless, for a ‘concrete history of mankind, if there were any, would have to be the history of all men. It would have to the history of all human hopes, struggles, and sufferings. For there is no one man more important than any other’ (OS2 270). In this light, a ‘true history of mankind’ would be a biography of every person who has ever lived.

The purpose of studying history is therefore not to present the past, in terms of writing a full exposition of everything that has happened. As Popper remarks:

‘there can be no history of ‘the past as it actually did happen’; there can only be historical interpretations, and none of them final; and every generation has a right to frame its own. But not only has it a right to frame its own interpretations, it also has a kind of obligation to do so; for there is indeed a pressing need to be answered. We want to know how our troubles are related to the past, and we want to see the line along which we may progress towards the solution of what we feel, and what we choose, to be our main tasks.’ (OS2 268)

Obviously, Popper sees an ethical imperative in the historian’s task; if truth cannot be absolutely achieved, then sincerity should be realised in its place. This ethical dimension is very important to Popper, and perhaps the lack of empirical rigour in historical study is to be forgiven when one takes into account the ability of interpretations to give insight not only to the problems of the past, but also the problems of the present.

This brings us back to the distinction between theories and interpretations (see 2.E). The major difference between them is that theories may be incompatible with regard to the truth (if two theories are truly incompatible one must be closer to the truth than the other, although there may be no way to empirically decide between them) whereas two interpretation need not be:

interpretations may be incompatible; but as long as we consider them merely as crystallizations of points of view, then they are not. For example, the interpretation that man steadily progresses (towards the open society or some other aim) is incompatible with the interpretation that he steadily slips back or retrogresses. But the ‘point of view’ of one who looks on human history as a history of progress is not necessarily incompatible with that of one who looks on it as a history of retrogression; that is to say, we could write a history of human progress towards freedom (containing, for example, the story of the fight against slavery) and another history of human retrogression and oppression (containing perhaps such things as the impact of the white race upon the coloured races); and these two histories need not be in conflict; rather, they may be complementary to each other, as would be two views of the same landscape seen from two different points. This consideration is of considerable importance. For since each generation has its own troubles and problems, and therefore its own interests and its own point of view, it follows that each generation has a right to look upon and re-interpret history in its own way, which is complementary to that of previous generations. After all, we study history because we are interested in it, and perhaps because we wish to learn something about our own problems. But history can serve neither of these two purposes if, under the influence of an inapplicable idea of objectivity, we hesitate to present historical problems from our point of view. And we should not think that our point of view, if consciously and critically applied to the problem, will be inferior to that of a writer who naively believes that he does not interpret, and that he has reached a level of objectivity permitting him to present ‘the events of the past as they actually did happen” (ibid. 267-268).

The purpose of history, seen from Popper’s perspective, is to ‘present’ the past – that is, to view the past is such a way that it reflects upon the present. The speculations of Marx concerning history and the inevitable communist future are to be repudiated by ‘true’ historical scientists, for in trying to demonstrate the existence of historical laws which shape the progression of human society, and claiming that these laws are objective and unstoppable, Marx has reduced human beings to puppets, denying not only personal freedom and personal responsibility, but also denying the worth of the individual and his or her life. Interpretation frees the historian from trying to ‘find’ a law of history, and opens the way to search for trends which will elucidate the problems of the present:

‘If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. For to progress is to move towards some kind of end, towards an end which exists for us as human beings. ‘History’ cannot do that; only we, the human individuals, can do it… And we shall do it much better as we become more fully aware of the fact that progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice.

‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes. And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control. In this way we may even justify history, in our turn. It badly needs a justification.’ (OS2 279-280)

By these arguments, Popper’s criticisms of the study of history are turned into grounds for ethical and critical investigation of the past; the sterile examination of singular statements about particular events is to be rejected, and replaced by the perception of the past as a store of knowledge which is both intrinsically interesting and pragmatically helpful. With this perspective in mind, Popper reaches the conclusion:

History itself … has no end nor meaning, but we can decide to give it both… and we can interpret it accordingly. Ultimately, we may say the same about the ‘meaning of life’. It is up to us to decide what shall be our purpose in life, to determine our ends. (OS2 278)

2.H Psychologism and the Autonomy of Society

Popper upheld the view that society cannot be explained by reference to psychological conditions; he is here attacking psychologism, ‘the doctrine that, society being the product of interacting minds, social laws must ultimately be reducible to psychological laws, since the events of social life, including its conventions, must be the outcome of motives springing from the minds of individual men’ (OS2 90). Popper gave grounds for his position as follows:

no action can ever be explained by motive alone; if motives (or any other psychological or behaviourist concepts) are to be used in the explanation, then they must be supplemented by a reference to the general situation, and especially to the environment. In the case of human actions, this environment is very largely of a social nature; thus our actions cannot be explained without reference to our social environment, to social institutions and to their manner of functioning. It is therefore impossible, the institutionalist may contend, to reduce sociology to a psychological or behaviouristic analysis of our actions; rather, every such analysis presupposes sociology, which therefore cannot wholly depend on psychological analysis. Sociology, or at least a very important part of it, must be autonomous. (OS2 90)

Popper elaborates on this point, arguing that:

the stress on the psychological origin of social rules or institutions can only mean that they can be traced back to a state when their introduction was dependent solely upon psychological factors, or more precisely, when it was independent of any established social institutions. Psychologism is thus forced, whether it likes it or not, to operate with the idea of a beginning of society, and with the idea of a human nature and a human psychology as they existed prior to society. (OS2 92-93)

Contrary to this view, Popper points out that ‘only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed while the vast majority have just ‘grown’, as the undesigned results of human actions‘ (PH 65), and therefore concludes:

‘this theory of a pre-social human nature which explains the foundation of society – a psychologistic version of the ‘social contract’ – is not only an historical myth, but also, as it were, a methodological myth. It can hardly be seriously discussed, for we have every reason to believe that man or rather his ancestor was social prior to being human (considering, for example, that language presupposes society). But this implies that social institutions, and with them, typical social regularities or sociological laws, must have existed prior to what some peoples are pleased to call ‘human nature’, and to human psychology. If a reduction is to be attempted at all, it would therefore be more hopeful to attempt a reduction or interpretation of psychology in terms of sociology than the other way round.’ (OS2 92-93)

2.I The Institutional Theory of Progress

Popper’s analysis of social and historical study naturally led him to propose his own theory of social development, which he termed ‘the Institutional Theory of Progress’. Having made his criticisms, Popper recommends a new approach:

we need something like an analysis of social movements. We need studies, based on methodological individualism, of the social institutions through which ideas may spread and captivate individuals, of the way in which new traditions may be created, and of the way in which traditions work and break down. In other words, our individualistic and institutionalist models of such collective entities as nations, or governments, or markets, will have to be supplemented by models of political situations as well as of social movements such as scientific and industrial progress. (PH 149)

To achieve these aim, Popper provides two tools; situational logic and unintended consequence analysis.

In many ways, situational logic is similar to the method of (what may be called) ‘imaginative re-enactment’, proposed by the British classical archaeologist and philosopher of history, Robin Collingwood. Although Popper’s and Collingwood’s philosophy disagreed in many respects, there was a degree of common ground between them.

Collingwood was an idealist; he did not believe it was possible to distinguish theories and facts, and for him the past as it happened is inaccessible – the best a historian could hope to achieve is an ‘imagining of the past that … approximated the understanding held by the people who had lived in the past’ (Trigger 1998, 3). This ‘imagining of the past’ is the most important part of the historian’s work; it is the basis for interpretation in Collingwood’s philosophy. By imaginative re-enactment historians ‘attempt to replicate the ideas that caused people to make and do things in particular ways in the past’ (Trigger 1998, 3).

Popper’s understanding of Collingwood’s philosophy was that ‘the essential thing in understanding history is not the analysis of the situation itself, but the historian’s mental process of re-enactment, the sympathetic repetition of the original experience. For Collingwood, the analysis of the situation serves merely as a help – an indispensable help – for this re-enactment’ (OK 188). Popper’s view was the opposite of this: ‘What I regard as essential is not the re-enactment but the situational analysis‘ (OK 188). In Collingwood’s system, the historical scientist tries to put him or herself into the situation which they are studying; they understand the situation when they can see it from the original agent’s point of view. Popper’s perspective puts weight not on understanding the agent’s mental processes, but on understanding the situation itself: ‘The historian’s task is… to reconstruct the problem situation as it appeared to the agent, [so] that the actions of the agent become adequate to the situation’ (OK 188).

Unintended consequence analysis compliments and extends situational logic. It is an examination of the unforeseen results of human actions, just as situational logic is an examination of what actions are appropriate in a given situation. As part of his rejection of psychologism (see 2.H), Popper notes that most social institutions are not planned, they natural emerge from social behaviour. This brings us to the realisation that:

Social life is not only a trial of strength between opposing groups – it is action within a more or less resilient or brittle framework of institutions and traditions and it creates – apart from any conscious counter-action – many unforeseen reactions in this framework, some of them perhaps even unforeseeable. (OS2 95)

2.J Criticisms

Wilkins (1978) notes many problems with Popper’s analysis of the study of history. He criticizes Popper’s claim that historians are interested in particular or specific events:

‘In my judgment to characterize events so complex as either the Peloponnesian Wars or the development of Britain as being singular or specific would be informative only as a way of telling us that historians are not concerned with wars or nations in general but only with particular wars or nations. In other words, too much emphasis upon actual, singular, or specific events as the objects of historical inquiry may lead one to deny or downgrade the historian’s interest in more general considerations, especially in the causal connections among the many events which usually make up the problem of the “whole” that the historian investigates.’ (Wilkins 1978, 25).

Further, Popper’s argument that the laws drawn upon by scientists in forming their interpretations are trivial is open to question:

‘It could perhaps be argued that many laws used by historians are of no interest,.. however, Popper has not given us any reason to suppose that this is true of all the laws… historians use.’ (Wilkins 1978, 26; italics in original)

The covering law model has been criticised on the grounds ‘that covering laws explain kinds of events, not particular events’ (Wilkins 1978 47; italics mine), and the model is therefore inadequate for the purposes of historians. Minogue (1995) makes a similar point, arguing that:

‘History is not an account of events in general terms. There is no law such that, from knowing that a number of Romans feared for the Republic at the hands of Caesar, one might deduce the assassination of Caesar at the Senate House on the Ides of March.’ (Minogue 1995, 233)

Rather, Minogue argues, history should be seen as a narrative, and a ‘narrative has a unified texture in which everything belonging to it is marked by contingency. The interest of a story lies in the fact that when A responds to what B has said and done, we are interested to discover what the response will be. If the response were strictly necessary, predictable in all its details, it would lack all suspense, all interest’ (Minogue 1995, 232; italics in original).

The difference Popper draws between scientific theories and historical interpretations has been questioned. Popper’s main argument for this differentiation is that scientific theories are testable but historical interpretations are (often) not. He justifies this argument by reference to the historical record; unless new historical texts are found, interpretations based on already-known texts can only be examined against these texts, which raises the danger of affirming the consequent and makes the testing procedure circular. Thus it is the need for new and independent data which produces this problem, and the inability to acquire new texts which makes interpretations non-scientific. Wilkins remarks:

‘even if the historical record remains constant in that no new artefacts or documents become available, it seems reasonable to assume that, as our methods of investigation and our insights into human behaviour become more sophisticated, new factual discoveries will actually occur and that these facts may be used in the testing of various historical theories.’ (Wilkins 1978, 71)

Popper’s distinction between the explanation of specific events and the description of such events – the two threads of history – is seen by Minogue as a ‘fundamental defect… it fatally divides history into two unrelated parts: firstly, the red meat of real historical explanation supposedly revealed by bringing covering laws to the surface of attention, and second a certain amount of mere fat constituted of the reporting of facts which are ‘accidental’ or merely ‘interesting” (Minogue 1995, 230). Minogue argues that:

‘In this way, a great deal of history is drummed out of intellectual respectability as lacking explanatory significance; it is merely the description of the unique and particular.’ (Minogue 1995, 231)

Wilkins has expressed a number of difficulties with Popper’s situational logic. He raises ‘the problem of to what extent, if any, the historian can arrive at an independent assessment of “the logic of the situation”‘ (Wilkins 1978, 55) and also asks how it is possible to assess ‘the rationality of an agent’s behaviour in cases where one had absolutely no knowledge or beliefs about how the agent conceived of his own situation’ (Wilkins 1978, 56). This raises the question of the purpose of performing situational analysis; is it to explain the agent’s behaviour given their situation, or to explain the situation given the agent’s behaviour? In either case, what is the relationship between ‘rational’ behaviour and ‘adequate’ behaviour, and what are we supposed to infer when an agent’s actions do not conform to them?

Chalmers (1985) argues strongly that Popper’s methodological proposals are inconsistent. This arises from Popper’s claims that ‘the task of social theory is to construct and to analyse our sociological models carefully in descriptive or nominalist terms, that is to say, in terms of individuals, or their attitudes, expectations, relations, etc – a postulate which may be called ‘methodological individualism’ (PH 136; italics in original) while also recommending that such a method should remain ‘clear of psychology’ (PH 152). Chalmers points out that the attitudes, expectations and relations of individuals are psychological concerns; they are problems which psychologists study. What justification can Popper give for deciding that psychological research can be of no help when it comes to modelling the relationship between individuals and their social context? The statement and demonstration of the autonomy of society does not contradict the fact that societies are collections of individuals, nor does it imply that the behaviour and beliefs of individuals are irrelevant to an understanding of society itself.

2.K Conclusion

The previous chapter demonstrated that Popper has many critics, but also that the general misunderstanding of Popper’s philosophy made many of the arguments raised by the critics invalid. The position here is not identical; although there are many misunderstandings present I feel that Popper’s methodological position on the social science and history is flawed to a fair degree.

I do not disagree that the natural and social sciences should have a unified method, and that this should be the critical method of conjectures and refutations. The deductive formulation of theories is a worthy ambition, although the covering law model of explanation should not be seen as the only possible presentation of an interpretation.

I agree with Wilkins’ points that historical scientists are not only concerned with particular events (although the examples he gives are entirely particular) and that the laws they use in forming their interpretations are not necessarily trivial.

Popper does seem to have exaggerated the problems concerned with the ability of historical scientists to test interpretations; archaeology has developed many tools for prising data out of the stubborn medium of the archaeological record, which, perhaps, Popper was not aware of. I agree that testing is perhaps more difficult in historical sciences than theoretical sciences, but this is a problem with the source of its empirical evidence, not the subject matter itself.

Minogue’s arguments are misconstrued; the event of the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March is obviously unique, but the event of an assassination of a political leader is just as obviously not. Likewise, Minogue’s dismissal of the two threads of history – the accidental and the causal – is incoherent; he does not show that this distinction is illogical or contradictory, and his suggestion that it results in a major part of history being inconsequential ignores the fact that Popper described the analysis of both threads as being necessary and complimentary. It is hard to imagine how something could be both necessary and inconsequential at the same time.

The criticisms of Wilkins and Chalmers on Popper’s methodology are most important and relevant. There are grave problems with situational logic; to assume that the actions of social agents are usually adequate in a given situation, and that it is the task of the historian to reconstruct situations so that the adequacy of the agents’ actions are understandable, is a method which surely leads to affirming the consequent. Chalmer’s arguments are well-made, and I find it difficult to understand exactly why Popper looked at psychology in such a negative light. Popper had, after all, written his Ph.D thesis on psychology, although this may be a part of the reason. Perhaps Popper’s attitude is related to the time of his writing – psychology in the 1940’s was ground in the mires of deterministic behaviourism, which denied the human mind anything above an epiphenomenal existence (Gross 1987). Clearly, a psychology which denies free-will and higher cognition is not appropriate for understanding rational social behaviour and should rightly be excluded from such research.

Popper’s philosophy of social sciences does contain problems, but the damage is repairable. The Institutional Theory of Progress offers an interesting perspective on social change and could provide a framework for the interpretation of cultural processes extended over great periods of time. Situational logic is a useful tool, but must be used in conjunction with psychological and cultural understanding to create what could be termed contextual logic. Unintended consequence analysis is perhaps difficult to use, but the possibilities of its application are great. The way in which Popper’s theories can be put into archaeological research will be outlined in chapter four.

Two Views of Popper

3.A Introduction

In this chapter I examine the appearance of Popper’s philosophy in the archaeological literature by reference to two particular pieces, Kelley and Hanen’s Archaeology and the Methodology of Science (1988) and Shanks and Tilley’s Re-Constructing Archaeology (1987). Both these works give consideration to Popper in some detail, and both represent him in an unflattering manner.

3.B Popper and Kelley and Hanen

‘Karl Popper’s account of science is one of the most influential ever put forward, and also one that many scientists have adopted as an accurate model of their discipline.’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988)

Kelly and Hanen’s ‘Archaeology and the Methodology of Science‘ (1988) aimed to ‘clarify for an archaeological audience the standard concepts of philosophy of science – explanation, confirmation, law, theory, and so on’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, viii). To this end, Popper’s work receives frequent mention.

Kelley and Hanen’s concern is principally with issues involving the philosophy of science and archaeological methodology, so perhaps it is forgiveable that they do not refer to any of Popper’s philosophy of history. However, the fact that they have not considered the full range of Popper’s philosophy makes their appraisal of him biased, especially concerning issues such as the use of covering law models, explanation, testing and theory-building, and the approach to the past.

Popper is mostly referenced with regard to his view of science and his methodological proposals. Popper’s form of the hypothetico-deductive method (H-D) is discussed and compared to Hempel’s deductive-nomological model of explanation (D-N); it is pointed out that H-D is a research strategy and D-N is a model of justification, and that H-D requires deductively formulated hypothesis whereas D-N does not. Falsificationism and the critical method (see 1.D) are fairly, if briefly, examined.

Kelley and Hanen then move on to criticisms of Popper. They focus on two weaknesses; the first is the problem that ‘a negative observation falsifies… either the hypothesis in question or one of more of the auxiliary hypotheses’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 80; italics in original). They raise this point without any recognition that Popper had examined this problem, and it has been addressed above in chapter one (see 1.F). The second problem concerns the use of the hypothetico-deductive method as a system of confirmation; Popper of course never believed or suggested that it could be used in such a manner and therefore this criticism is invalid. As for the critical method, they produce an argument against the practice of making bold conjectures with a medical scenario:

‘If a patient is suffering nausea and acute abdominal pain, an inflamed appendix is among the more plausible diagnoses. Medical science might stand to learn more if it “jumped” to the conclusion that the patient had a brain tumor and tested that, as opposed to the appendicitis hypothesis. The overwhelming odds are, however, that if investigators proceeded in such a way the only result would be a person dead of a burst appendix. Since in science our investigations are often concerned with pressing human problems, it would seem absurd, as well as irresponsible, to conduct all scientific research along Popperian lines.’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 254)

This argument, apart from being dubious in an archaeological context (I find it hard to imagine a situation where a person’s life is dependent upon a archaeological interpretation), is quite irrelevant; obviously where a life is at stake moral concerns come before scientific interest. A remark made by Popper on certainty sum up his position:

‘There is a commonsense notion of certainty which means, briefly, ‘certain enough for practical purposes’. When I look at my watch, which is very reliable, and it shows me that it is eight o’clock, and I can hear that it ticks (an indication that the watch has not stopped), then I am ‘reasonably certain’ or ‘certain for all practical purposes’ that it is fairly close to eight o’clock. When I buy a book and get 20 pence change from the bookseller, then I am ‘quite certain’ that the two coins are not counterfeit…

‘If somebody asked me, ‘Are you sure that the piece in your hand is a tenpenny piece?’ I should perhaps glance at it again and say ‘Yes’. But should a lot depend on the truth of my judgement, I think I should take the trouble to go into the next bank and ask the teller to look closely at the piece; and if the life of a man depended on it, I should even try to get to the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England and ask him to certify the genuineness of the piece.

What do I wish to say by this? That the ‘certainty’ of a belief is not so much a matter of its intensity, but of the situation: of our expectation of its possible consequences. Everything depends on the importance attached to the truth or falsity of the belief.’ (OK 78; italics in original)

Misunderstandings are also found in the discussion of the difference between deductive logic and inductive inference. Kelley and Hanen’s point of view is that ‘inductive inference… is absolutely essential to scientific progress’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 48), a claim they make on the completely mistaken grounds that without induction ‘we could not expand the body of knowledge of any discipline, for we could never justifiably project beyond already identified facts’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 48). The entire point of Popper’s method is exactly to do this – to produce new theories (which are deductively formulated) and then to test them, a procedure capable of produce more ‘facts’. They are therefore dismissive of Popper’s rejection of induction, and they dispute the deductiveness of Popper’s method on the grounds that science has to make predictions and ‘predictions necessarily go beyond the evidence on which they are based, and thus necessarily involve some sort of inductive inference’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 81). This argument demonstrates that Kelley and Hanen are not aware that, by Popper’s definition, predictions, tests and explanations are not logically distinct (see 2.B); if an explanation can be deductively formulated, so can a prediction.

Some of these misunderstandings extend into the examination of the difference between the discovery and the justification of theories. Firstly they note ‘that the discovery of a hypothesis is logically independent of its justification and thus that we might be justified in accepting a hypothesis even though it has been arrived at in some entirely unorthodox manner’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 40), but later claim ‘it seems reasonable to maintain that there is no hard-and-fast line between the context of discovery and the context of justification’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 43). The obvious failure of Kelley and Hanen’s analysis is that there are not two but three contexts under scrutiny here – theory formation (the arrival, or genesis, of an idea), theory formulation (putting an idea into a logical and testable hypothesis) and theory testing (the empirical procedure of attempting to refute a hypothesis). By missing the distinction between theory formation and theory formulation they inevitably find themselves in a position where the justification of a theory is partly based on its discovery, which is simply not the case. And they manage to do this despite quoting Popper on his insistence that there is no logic of inspiration; for Popper to make this claim and also to claim that there is a logic of scientific discovery must indicate a distinction between the two. There seems to be a correlation between this over-sight and Kelley and Hanen’s rigid adherence to induction.

In the third chapter of Kelley and Hanen’s work, Two Views of Science (to which the title of this chapter refers), Popper’s view of science is considered beside Kuhn’s. A problem with this juxtaposition is that Kuhn’s account was an attempt to give a description of science in general, whereas Popper’s account was a mixture of descriptive and prescriptive elements. For Kelley and Hanen to suggest, therefore, that science is not ‘as unwaveringly rigorous as Popper would have us believe; critical discourse is sacrificed for the sake of progress’ (Kelley and Hanen 1988, 95) misses not only the point that Popper advocated critical discourse – he did not claim it was necessarily typical – but also the fact that in Popper’s philosophy critical discourse is the cause of progress, so I fail to see how sacrificing one would allow the other to occur.

Kelley and Hanen’s book is an interesting addition to the literature of theoretical archaeology, but it makes a poor introduction to Popper’s philosophy.

3.C Popper and Shanks and Tilley

Shanks and Tilley have sought to ‘re-construct’ archaeology, and to do so they have launched a ferocious attack on positivistic science and the ‘New Archaeology’. Popper’s philosophy of science is introduced during the discussion of positivistic models of science, and Shanks and Tilley only invoke Popper to forcefully dismiss him. To make this an easy matter, Popper’s philosophy is presented in a dim light, and kept there. Despite this, Shanks and Tilley’s criticisms are still poorly formulated and actually go toward undermining their own position.

Firstly, they discredit Popper’s claim that he is not a positivist on the grounds that his ‘criterion of scientific activity is that statements should be subject to testing’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 41), so one must assume that any scientist who tests his or her theories is a positivist. In Shanks and Tilley’s view, ‘positivism provides no coherent epistemology, no adequate ontology of the world, no means of conceptualizing the theory/data relationship which is acceptable, no convincing account of explanatory structure’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 43).

They suggest that falsificationism is unreliable by the argument that there is no logical limit ‘to the number of conjectures and refutations to be made of a theory’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 41), and therefore no number of tests can establish the truth or falsity of a theory. The problem with this argument is, of course, that one test may refute a theory, so it does not matter whether or not there are an infinite number of other tests we could carry out.

They next raise the problem of immunization strategies (see 1.E) and claim that Popper argued against ever using them, which is simply untrue (see 1.F). Following on from this misrepresentation they suggest that Popper’s method redefined science as the acceptance of a ‘type of behavioural norm as to how to act’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 42). If the rejection or modification of theory in the light of falsifying empirical evidence is a ‘behavioural norm’ then any type of methodical activity could be so termed, and rejecting Popper’s method to follow Shanks and Tilley’s proposals would be replacing one behavioural norm with another. Needless to say, I do not consider this a reasonable argument.

Shanks and Tilley next assert that if observation is theory-laden, as Popper asserts, then ‘the very act of observation then testing cannot be a rational procedure’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 42). They give no logical reason for this claim, and without such I do not know how they expect the reader to believe it. I find no contradiction in holding to the view that an observation is theory-laden, but that it is a theory-laden observation of something which is itself real (i.e. distinguished from theory), and which may be examined in such a way that the theory behind the observation may be brought into question.

Shanks and Tilley conclude that Popper’s philosophy, along with positivism and the new archaeology, is ‘a philosophy of NO’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 103). A philosophy of ‘NO’ ‘constrains, sets limits, attempts to legitimate the notion of fundamental foundations to thought beyond which we must not stray. It is a rigid framework which were it to be actually adopted by scientists in their practice would stultify thought’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 103; italics in original). Shanks and Tilley’s alternative is to propose ‘an open philosophy of archaeology – a philosophy which does not set limits, create areas beyond which research should not stray’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 103).

Unfortunately, Shanks and Tilley’s alternative does not fulfil their aim. They assert that observation is theory-laden, and thus that testing is impossible. From the start, then, Shanks and Tilley’s ‘open philosophy of archaeology’ is closed to critical testing. Despite the theoretical nature of observation, the archaeological record still manages to present a measure of ‘resistance’ to conceptualization, and through a dialectical relationship archaeologists can come to ‘know’ the objects they study (and, presumably, the objects come to know the archaeologists). The entire process of interpretation is therefore something of a mysterious, almost occult, relationship between archaeologists and their ‘theoretical objects’, which somehow disclose ‘the social conditions, social relations, interests and structures from which they arise’ (Shanks and Tilley 1987, 114).

I do not wish to go into an involved discussion of each and every shortcoming of Shanks and Tilley’s archaeological theory. I agree in principle with their critical attitude towards positivistic and empiricistic pretentions, but they have over-stepped the boundary between logic and rhetoric, and their entire structure is liable to float away on the hot air it is created from. The trivial and unenlightened account of Popper’s philosophy does not improve their position, and if they had actually studied Popper’s philosophy of history they would have found that Popper’s point of view did not diverge as radically from their own as they claim. We can find agreement between Popper and Shanks and Tilley on the following points:

1. The past is not open to objective study, it must be interpreted.

2. There can be no final, ‘true’ interpretation of the past.

3. Interpretations of the past are made in, and relate to, the present.

4. The received view of the past is misconstrued and supports rather than questions the inequalities of societies past and present.

Doubtless more similarities could be found if there was the need to do so. The point is, Shanks and Tilley should have researched their arguments more thoroughly before castigating another person’s theory. The vigour of their argument should be matched by the vigour of their logic, which it is not. This does a disservice to the whole of archaeology, and rather than bring wisdom to the unenlightened positivists of archaeology, they are supplying them with more fuel to continue the endless, empty, scholastic bickering which seems to have become commonplace in the literature of theoretical archaeology for the past two decades (see, for example, Renfrew et al. 1982). To put it bluntly, New Archaeology is old hat, and is not of remaining interest. Each attempt to bury it involves digging it back up again; if it were just left alone, it might get the opportunity to die in peace.

3.D Conclusion

Popper’s name and philosophy has received an unflattering and frankly unfair reception in archaeology. It is interesting to note that there has been one paper in the literature of the past two decades positively advocating a Popperian approach – Bell’s (1982) Archaeological Explanation: Progress through Criticism. However, Bell is a philosopher, not an archaeologist, and no attention appears to have been paid to his contribution. It is nonetheless illuminating to compare Bell’s Popperian account of the scientific process and archaeological explanation beside the representations of Popper’s views given by Kelley and Hanen (1988) and Shanks and Tilley (1987). Instead of the constrained and strictly scientific approach Kelley and Hanen, and Shanks and Tilley, have drawn, Bell’s outline of refutationism is the picture of openness:

‘It is counter-productive to be compulsively “scientific.” If, in the name of “science,” time and energy are drained away from considering the most interesting problems or from considering insightful but “nonscientific” theories as possible solutions to those problems, then one is being inconsistent with good science. As in the physical sciences, many significant explanations will not be readily refutable, and many important problems may not be amenable to analysis according to some preconceived view.’ (Bell 1982, 69)

It is notable, however, that Bell does not raise Popper’s philosophy of social science and history, and I feel this is a mark against his presentation of Popper’s relevance to archaeology.

In the same volume as Bell’s paper, there is a paper by Daniel Miller (1982), who notes:

falsifiability is about the only element of Popper’s extensive writings to have been included in the deductivism ascribed to by archaeologists, an approach that has led to a degree of determinism that he would strongly reject … The roots lie rather with Hempel and the underlying positivist tradition’ (Miller 1982, 86; italics in original).

This remark bring me to a point of factual error which is often made (e.g. Preucel 1991c), or implied (as with Kelley and Hanen), in the archaeological literature. Perhaps because of the dates of publication in english of Popper’s work, the idea has appeared that Popper adopted his theory of scientific explanation from Hempel. The situation is, however, the reverse; Popper’s theory was produced first and Hempel modified it to fit in with the positivist tradition.

The discussion of Popper’s philosophy given by Kelley and Hanen and Shanks and Tilley would suggest that Popper’s philosophy is not adequate or appropriate for archaeology, and therefore is without further archaeological interest. Contrary to this notion, I would suggest that, as the similarities between Popper’s and Shanks and Tilley’s conceptions of the study of the past demonstrate, Popper was in many ways ahead of his time. The next chapter will propose an approach to archaeology embracing a modified Popperian philosophy.

Archaeological Knowledge: A Popperian Approach

‘There comes a time, in all science, when it is profitable to move away from the bold and obvious and circle around a bit, inventing more subtle approaches to search for concealed phenomena. In the study of communities, this strategy requires greater attention to context, history, and chance.’ (Wilson 1993, 169)

4.A Introduction

In this chapter I offer an elaboration and modification of Popper’s philosophy. The aim is to produce a coherent theory of archaeology, and to demonstrate its place within the framework of philosophy and science. In order to create a coherent theoretical framework it will be necessary to first provide an ontological and epistemological background.

In this chapter I will be drawing not only on the aspects of Popper’s philosophy reviewed in the previous chapters but also on Popper’s epistemological and evolutionary theories.

4.B Unified Truth and Fragmented Knowledge

I assert that this is such a thing a truth, and that this truth is a whole – that is to say, no two truths can be contradictory and all truths taken together form a unified structure. The elucidation of this structure is the goal of the pursuit of knowledge.

I agree with Popper that false theories can be confirmed and therefore the only way to be certain about a theory is to attempt to falsify it – when a theory is refuted, then we can be sure its false; until then, we may provisionally accept it as being possibly true.

Having made some statements about truth, I now wish to say something about knowledge. As Popper points out, the misuse of the word knowledge is responsible for some basic epistemological misunderstandings (see 4.E). Knowledge is neither the same as belief nor truth. It is, perhaps, closer to information. It represents a body of data accumulated in the study of particular phenomena. Knowledge is therefore assembled information, and it is assembled by a logic of relevance or similarity. Thus knowledge is divided into areas, or subjects, or disciplines.

Such divisions, however, are only pragmatic and do not relate to the true structure of the universe. Seemingly, this is not often realised, and many people think there is something intrinsically different between two sciences, which is essentially arguing that there is a distinct differences in the truth of the subject matter, which is utter nonsense. If something is true, then it is true; there is no ‘hierarchy of truth’, nor is one truth of a fundamentally different nature from another truth.

All this Popper himself clearly stated:

‘The belief that there is such a thing as physics, or biology, or archaeology, and that these ‘studies’ or ‘disciplines’ are distinguishable by the subject matter which they investigate, appears to me to be a residue from the time when one believed that a theory had to proceed from a definition of its own subject matter. But subject matter, or kinds of things, do not, I hold, constitute a basis for distinguishing disciplines. Disciplines are distinguished partly for historical reasons and reasons of administrative convenience (such as the organization of teaching and appointments), and partly because the theories which we construct to solve our problems have a tendency to grow into unified systems. But all this classification and distinction is a comparatively unimportant and superficial affair. We are not student of some subject matter but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline.’ (CR 66-67; italics in original)

I think no subject shows more clearly than archaeology the tendency for knowledge to become ‘fragmented’. Nowadays, no archaeologist is merely an archaeologist; there are environmental archaeologists, archaeozoologist, bio-archaeologists, geophysical archaeologists, archaeo-metallurgists, and, even, theoretical archaeologists (to name but a few). The amount of specialization in each of these sub-disciplines has already reached the point where a professional from one cannot easily understand what is going on in the others. This is something Popper was familiar with and strongly disfavoured:

‘No doubt there is too much specialization and too much professionalism in contemporary science, which makes it inhuman; but this unfortunately is true of contemporary history or psychology also, almost as much as of the natural sciences.’ (OK 185)

4.C Is Truth Attainable?

The correspondence theory of truth demonstrates adequately the relationship between a statement and the fact of whether or not it is true. This theory does not provide any way of determining whether we can actually obtain ‘truth’. This problem is not conclusively answered in Popper’s philosophy, but I feel that it is relevant to the question of the aim of science.

I do not see that the correspondence theory of truth gives any foundation for assuming that truth can be actually stated. It could be that the true nature of the universe is such that the human mind cannot comprehend it, or it may not be expressible in any language. If the aim of science is to ‘discover the truth’ then to regard this goal as achievable it must assume that truth can really be discovered.

Popper asserts that science progresses toward the truth through a process of better and better approximation. It seems to me that if one can progress in a given direction, then there must be some discrete end-point to the enquiry – we can either obtain truth or there is a final approximation to it beyond which we are either cognitively or empirically incapable of progressing.

To preserve science’s rationality in the face of this consideration, I feel that the aim of science should be seen as complete understanding, meaning that our goal is an understanding of the truth as complete as is humanly possible.

4.D Understanding, Accepting and Believing

This brings me to cognitive aspects of science. We can distinguish several different ways in which we consciously perceive theories, and I would draw distinction to the following hierarchy of cognitive meaning:

1. Incomprehension – inability to grasp the sense of a statement or theory.

2. Comprehension – ability to make sense or understand the meaning of a statement or theory.

3. Acceptance – evaluation of a statement or theory as being potentially true.

4. Belief – evaluation of a statement or theory as being actually true.

I agree with Popper that no science should ever give a scientific theory cognitive meaning beyond acceptance – that is, we should never believe a theory. The reason for this is simple; if we believe a theory, then we shall only be able to comprehend a rival theory, never accept it. A person who believes a theory will not see the point in testing a rival, and instead of trying to refute the alternative by a severe and thoughtful test, they are likely either to attack it with rhetoric and vacuous logic, or simply repeat and re-confirm the theory they believe. With sufficient counter-evidence a person may be led to reject their belief in a theory, but sometimes belief leads to dogma, and a dogmatically held theory is very difficult to alter. We may speak of degrees of dogma, and also degrees of belief and acceptance; if one accepts one theory more than another (i.e. feels that one has a greater potential to be true) one could be said to have a greater ‘belief’ of this theory. We must always aim at a minimum of belief, so that we can more readily accept a greater number of theories.

4.E The 3 Worlds and Demarcation

‘without taking the words ‘world’ or ‘universe’ too seriously, we may distinguish the following three worlds or universes: first, the world of physical objects or of physical states; secondly, the world of states of consciousness, or of mental states, or perhaps of behavioural dispositions to act; and thirdly, the world of objective contents of thoughts, especially of scientific and poetic thoughts and of works of art. (OK 106)

Popper’s invention of what we may call ‘the 3 worlds model’ seems rooted in his assertion of realism – the belief in a real ‘objective’ world – which leads him to the conclusion that there is, aside from objective matter, also objective knowledge: ‘Knowledge in the objective sense is knowledge without a knower: it is knowledge without a knowing subject‘ (ibid., 109, italics in original).

The proposal of a non-physical, purely theoretical universe, which is distinct from the physical universe, has a long history in philosophy, which Popper is of course familiar with:

what I call ‘the third world’ has admittedly much in common with Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas, and therefore also with Hegel’s Objective Spirit, though my theory differs radically, in some decisive respects, from Plato’s and Hegel’s. It has more in common still with Bolzano’s theory of a universe of propositions in themselves and truths in themselves, though it differs from Bolzano’s also. My third world resembles most closely the universe of Frege’s objective contents of thought. (ibid., 106)

We are all familiar with the distinction between matter and thought (e.g. the ‘mind-body’ problem), which Popper makes with the distinction between world 1 and world 2. In adding to this framework world 3, Popper draws attention to the distinction between our thoughts and the content of our thoughts. The justification for this distinction he gives as follows:

Traditional epistemology has studied knowledge or thought in a subjective sense – in the sense of the ordinary usage of the words ‘I know’ or ‘I am thinking’. This, I assert, has led students of epistemology into irrelevancies: while intending to study scientific knowledge, they studied in fact something which is of no relevance to scientific knowledge. For scientific knowledge simply is not knowledge in the sense of the ordinary usage of the words ‘I know’. While knowledge in the sense of ‘I know’ belongs to what I call the ‘second world’, the world of subjects, scientific knowledge belongs to the third world, to the world of objective theories, objective problems, and objective arguments. (ibid., 108)

Therefore the 3 worlds model ‘is of interest for a theory of understanding which aims at combining an intuitive understanding of reality with the objectivity of rational criticism’ (ibid., 190).

So far, these statements I would fully agree with; the distinctions made by Popper are logical and helpful. Where I disagree with Popper is in the genesis of world 3; Popper claims the third world ‘is the product of men, just as honey is the product of bees, or spiders’ webs the product of spiders’ (OK 159). I assert that the third world has always existed – that, just as the logic of genetic coding, complex biochemical structures, and evolutionary processes existed prior to their manifestation (e.g. plant and animal life were logically formulated before their actual appearance), so to did the logic of mathematics, language, science and art exist before humans had evolved to understand them. Our mental exploration of the third world, by thought experiments, critical argument or poetic inspiration, is similar to and analogous with our exploration of the physical world (both gravity and America existed prior to their discovery). That this exploration manifests itself in different ways and according to different methods and procedures is due to the fact that they are explorations of fundamentally different phenomena which obey their own laws and rules – but both are equally as real, and as equally independent of our knowledge of them. We did not make the third world; if anything it made us, for our existence was already figured into it before our manifestation in the first world.

Popper’s attempt to assert the autonomy of world 3, has been found wanting (e.g. O’Hear 1980, Cohen 1985). I am not sure that there could be any completely convincing argument in favour of the 3 worlds model, as it is a particularly abstract concept and not one which is logically refutable (i.e. it is metaphysical). Apart from Popper’s discussion of problems and consequences, I feel that the behaviour of world 1 (the physical universe) is only understandable by reference to a set of independent but co-terminus laws and possibilities; the laws of physics are judged to be real, but they have no weight, no volume, and are unobservable (except indirectly, i.e. through their consequences). That they have real effects upon the universe is not denied, but where exactly do they come from?

Using world 3 as the origin for all physical and logical laws, all true and false statements, all facts, theories and fantasies, we arrive at a picture of the universe which consists of three distinct but interdependent components. Worlds 1 and 3 are co-terminus and determined – determined by each other (and world 2). What is true in world 1 is true because of the structure of world 3 and the affect of world 2, but what is true or false in world 3 is only knowable by reference to worlds 1 and 2.

World 2 is an emergent property of the interaction between worlds 1 and 3. The characteristic property of world 2 is its self-determinacy; neither world 1 nor world 3 decide for themselves what occurs within them; only in world 2, which sits between them, can, by reference to them and to itself, decide its own future.

The differences between this view of the 3 world model and Popper’s are extremely significant. According to Popper, the structure of the 3 worlds is thus:

World 1



World 2



World 3

World 1 is thus the origin of world 2, which is the origin of world 3 in turn. World 1 and world 3 are thereby disjunct, and unable to interact. My model is represented like this:

World 2

/ \

/       \

World 1 —— World 3

This diagram represents the logic for my demarcation; the demarcation between theoretical (metaphysical) science, descriptive science, and explanative science – or philosophy, physical sciences and living sciences.

As with Popper’s demarcation, mine is not meant to represent a definitive and unbridgeable gap between different kinds of knowledge, rather I am suggesting there is a logical but fluid distinction between the epistemological status of certain types of theories. Physical or descriptive sciences study world 1, without particular concern for world 2 and only pragmatic (but important) reference to world 3; physics and chemistry are among these sciences. Explanative sciences study world 2, the living world, and hence consist of all social sciences (archaeology included) as well as ecology, biology and related subjects. Theoretical sciences such as philosophy and mathematics deal exclusively with abstract ideas, and thus world 3.

It is readily apparent why it cannot be suggested there are no sharp boundaries to this demarcation – bio-chemistry, geology and meteorology all include world 1 and world 2 objects in their subject matter.

I have termed the sciences which study world 1 ‘descriptive’ because they cannot explain their subject. The laws of physics, thermodynamics, quantum theory, etc, do not explain the universe, they describe it. They cannot suggest any reason why the universe is not as it is (although they may be able to offer an idea of what the universe would be like if it was not as it is, but, again, this would only be a description and not an explanation), whereas world 2 sciences can – with luck – trace the results of a certain world 2 event (a particular action or thought) to its occurrence, and offer a reason for why it happened. World 1 sciences, dealing only in terms of states, energy, matter, force, propensities, probabilities, etc, are constrained from giving us anything other than a better and better idea of how world 1 works; they can never tell us why world 1 exists.

4.F The Place of Archaeology

According to my demarcation, archaeology is an explanatory science that studies the past. Although usually this ‘past’ is thought of as being the human past, archaeology maintains mutually profitable relationships with non-human environmental and ecological studies, so perhaps archaeology is better defined as the study of humanity’s past and its relationship with the world.

The restriction of archaeological study to the material past is arbitrary and not a practical goal; the division between history and archaeology is irrational. Our theories should accommodate, but not be dictated, by the particular problems of our empirical data. We should not practice an archaeology sensu stricto, where all concepts are internally defined, theoretically determined and empirically prescribed, but an expanded archaeology which includes the knowledge of the social sciences in toto, rather than mere tit-bits borrowed from anthropology et alia.

So; archaeology studies the human influence on the past (or what remains of it in the present), predominately through world 2 understanding and research but inevitably and unavoidably including world 1 study (geophysics, material analysis, etc.) and world 3 considerations (epistemological, ontological, metaphysical, etc.).

Advocating a Popperian archaeology, I recommend a critical realist approach. Our method should be that of bold conjectures – imaginative and challenging theories, thorough in theoretical and empirical understanding and formulated in a precise, logical and testable manner – and severe tests. It is not easy to define exactly what Popper meant by ‘severe tests’, but I assume he could only mean by analyzing a theory from every possible angle, tracing out all its possible consequences and ramifications, and comparing it against as many independent data sources as can be discovered. In this way there are certainly similarities between severe testing, ‘inference to the best solution’ (e.g. Kelley and Hanen 1988) and ‘cables and tacking’ mentioned by Wylie (1993).

Conjectures are not just produced by methods, however; a theoretical framework is also required. A framework provides the epistemological perspective – the archaeologist’s point of view – and determines what type of research programme is appropriate for a given study. Following a broadly similar path to Popper, I propose a framework of evolution and identity. Evolution is applied to describe processes of change, and includes Popper’s idea of unintended consequence analysis. Identity is the study of expression, it is the use of contextual logic – a Popperian situational logic mixed with psychological, sociological and anthropological theories, to explain the empirical expression of human behaviour.

Note here that I have invoked evolution as a descriptive tool; evolution explains nothing, it is analogous to the distinction made above (see 4.E) between descriptive and explanative science. Evolution can only tell us what happened, to understand why we must be able to point to what, in a particular context, evolution expresses. Identity is the result and cause of evolution; identity is selected by experience, and the result of selection, extended through time, is ‘evolution’.

4.G Evolution and Epistemology

Popper was extremely interested in Darwinian evolution and commented on it throughout his later philosophical writings. However, he had doubts about its status as a scientific theory, and came to regard it as metaphysical (unfalsifable):

‘It is metaphysical because it is not testable. One might think that it is. It seems to assert that, if ever on some planet we find life … [natural selection] will come into play and bring about in time a rich variety of distinct forms. Darwinism, however, does not assert as much as this. For assume that we find life on Mars consisting of exactly three species of bacteria with genetic outfit similar to that of three terrestrial species. Is Darwinism refuted? By no means. We shall say that these three species were the only forms among the many mutants which were sufficiently well adjusted to survive. And we shall say the same if there is only one species (or none). Thus Darwinism does not really predict the evolution of variety. It therefore cannot really explain it. At best, it can predict the evolution of variety under “favourable conditions”. But it is hardly possible to describe in general terms what favourable conditions are – except that, in their presence, a variety of forms will emerge.’ (UQ 171)

Popper was also keen to point out that evolution is not a law – there is no ‘law of evolution’ – but rather, as a theory, it is a singular historical statement (although it contains universal laws in the form of laws of heredity, mutation, segregation, etc). To Popper, Darwinian evolution was an expression of situational logic, and that an analogous process to Darwinian evolution accounted for the growth of scientific knowledge (hence Popper’s use of the term ‘evolutionary epistemology’ to describe his theory of knowledge). I will give consideration here to Popper’s evolutionary epistemology as it has an important part not only in Popper’s philosophy as a whole but also in the way in which I use the term ‘evolution’. Popper argues that theories – in the form of expectations – always precede observation. The point of observation in science is to test our theories, but outside of science the same procedure holds; if our expectations are disappointed we may be led to review our ideas.

The refutation of a theory by observation (or the disappointment of an expectation) causes a problem; if our theory is wrong, what is the truth of the matter? To solve this problem we offer solutions – i.e. conjectures; new theories. Further observations will decide whether we have arrived at a correct theory (a true expectation) or whether we must again revise our ideas.

Popper holds that this same process governs the evolution of living organisms:

‘I assert that every animal is born with expectations or anticipations, which could be framed as hypotheses; a kind of hypothetical knowledge. And I assert that we have, in this sense, some degree of inborn knowledge from which we may begin, even though it may be quite unreliable. This inborn knowledge, these inborn expectations, will, if disappointed, create our first problems; and the ensuing growth of our knowledge may therefore be described as consisting throughout of corrections and modifications of previous knowledge.’ (OK 258-259; italics in original)

Failure to solve a problem – the inability to form a new and better theory, or an appropriate change in expectations – may lead to the elimination of the theory, or the organism holding the particular expectation. At any one time an organism will usually be facing a number of problems, and any particular problem may have a number of possible solutions. Furthermore, few problems can be permanently solved, or solved in such a way that the solution does not itself cause additional problems to arise.

In terms of Popper’s theory, natural selection is a process of error elimination – the elimination of organisms which have failed to solve survival or reproductive problems.

4.H Evolution and Archaeology

‘Until some of the confusion surrounding the notion of evolution and its application is clarified, the potential for further misdirection exits. If evolutionary theory is to be extended to the explanation of cultural phenomena, archaeology as a discipline will have to play a major role in its development.’ (Dunnell 1980, 37; italics added)

I share with Popper an enthusiasm for evolution and feel that, if properly applied, can describe not just biological and cultural development, but, as Popper adhered, to knowledge itself. Likewise, I agree with Dunnell that a lot of misunderstanding surrounding evolution is evident in archaeology (and other subjects beside), and this has arisen for a number of reasons. Dunnell notes:

‘if evolution is taken to mean what it does in the sciences, it has yet to be systematically applied in either sociocultural anthropology or archaeology. The approach represented by cultural evolution is a social philosophy directly derived from the tradition of Herbert Spencer and the early anthropologists and is unrelated to Darwinian principles. As a philosophical rather scientific approach to the explanation of variability by change, it is an inappropriate model for a scientific archaeology. On the other hand, modern evolutionary biology and Darwinian evolution do provide the elements of a suitable explanatory structure. Evolutionary biology cannot, however, be applied unamended and uncritically to cultural phenomena, be they ethnographic or archaeological’ (Dunnell 1980, 37).

One of the principle problems seems to be the idea that evolution equals adaptation. This is not the case at all, and as Dunnell (1980) points out, ecological and evolutionary ideas seem to have become confused. Evolution is a result of selection, or failure to solve problems. In biology, the evolution of animals by natural selection fits with the evidence; in applying evolution to archaeology we must immediately realise that natural selection of minimal relevance to Homo sapiens. The use of fire, tools, and symbolic communication made the environment an almost redundant issue in successful survival and reproduction of individual members of human groups. Social and cultural selection has been the rule throughout the human past.

To understand how evolution works, one must understand what is being selected and what kind of selective pressure is being applied. Once we understand that any structural change arises from selection it becomes clear that every structure consisting of, or created by, living organisms is subject to evolution.

To gain a more coherent picture of evolution we can consider the different levels it works at. The individual is an evolving being – not in terms of genetic evolution, but in terms of psychological and sociological evolution. Our identity is selected by our experiences; what we think and what we do define how we are, but the results of our actions, and the results of other peoples actions in response to ours, change how we view ourselves. The species as a whole is evolving also, and there are many levels in between which are all undergoing evolution within the larger system.

We can therefore talk in terms of evolutionary units, from the individual, up through various intra-social groups (kin, profession, class, etc), to the cultural and extra-cultural (species).

I have mentioned above that evolution may be non-genetic – individuals do not change at the genetic level during their life, but in psychological and sociological terms they do, and such change, being the result of some form of selection or innovation, can be described as ‘evolution’. Of interest to the social sciences is the fact that cultural evolution can only be described in non-genetic terms, for culture is not ‘a being’ and therefore is not comprised of genes, so the cause of change within a culture cannot be genetic.

4.I Identity and Expression

[T]he expressionist theory of art is empty. For everything a man or an animal can do is (among other things) an expression of an internal state, of emotions, and of a personality. This is trivially true for all kinds of human and animal languages. It holds for the way a man or a lion walks, the way a man coughs or blows his nose, the way a man or a lion may look at you, or ignore you. It holds for the ways a bird builds its nest, a spider constructs its web, and a man builds his house. In other words it is not a characteristic of art. For the same reason expressionist or emotive theories of language are trivial, uninformative, and useless.’ (UQ 62; italics in original)

All observation is theory-laden. This creates a particular problem for archaeology because our theories may be different from the theories of the people we are studying. And if our theories are different, the meaning we ascribe to our observations will be too. This is of obvious concern when it comes to making interpretations of past material remains; if we identify an artifact as being a tool when it was actually a status symbol, the interpretation of the artifact’s context will be mistaken.

Looking beyond the problem of theory-laden observation, we must seek to recognise what it is that we are observing. If all expression is an expression of identity, as Popper argues above, then all the cultural residues found in the archaeological record are expressions of identity. A change in expression – in the shape of tools, the design on pots, hunting techniques, extra-cultural trade relationships, etc. – is therefore a change in identity. To understand the identity of a phenomena we have to know what its place is within the system of which it is a part; we must understand its context. The study of the relationship between context, behaviour and identity should be a continuing concern of archaeological study. Principally, we are dealing with areas of ethnoarchaeological, anthropological, sociological and psychological consideration, and it is to these subjects we must turn to provide appropriate theories from which archaeologists can build models of contextual logic. Some movement in the right direction has been taken by Earle (1991), whose behavioural analysis in terms of economic, evolutionary and cultural rationality appears similar in concept to the idea of contextual logic. Leeuw (1989) has made an excellent contribution with the distinction between a posteriori – closed, causal, analytic – perceptions and a priori – open, probable, synthetic – perceptions. Archaeologists usually view the past in a posteriori terms, whereas social agents, being rooted in the present but acting towards future goals, see their situation in an a priori way. Leeuw adds to this observation with psychological research to build a picture of cognitive decision making based on contextual risk analysis, which is used to explain the appearance of innovation. Leeuw’s research is an excellent example of expanding archaeology to include applied understanding from other social sciences, and paves the way for the fuller development of systems of contextual logic.

Individuals act to survive and reproduce (although certainly that is not all they do), but they do not generally act to evolve. But evolution is the result of the actions of individuals. The relationship between individuals and their culture is mediated through group membership; ‘In a sense each one of us belongs not to society at large but to groups that are, in turn, embedded in society. Thus, if we wish to understand ourselves, or our society, we must understand groups’ (Forsyth 1990, 12). An understanding of group dynamics can give us an insight both into the structure of society and into the way individuals organize and co-ordinate their activities. Each group contributes to the culture as a whole, but each can also act as a separate evolutionary unit. Competition and affiliation between groups can have a drastic affect upon the evolution of a culture.

4.J The Spearhead Model of Cultural Evolution

The discussion so far has been of a general nature, and directed towards general theory building. Using the guidelines above I will offer here an explanation of a particular cultural phenomena; the evolution of pristine states.

Popper (OK 272-280) advanced a theory of ‘genetic dualism’, or ‘the spearhead model’, to explain the evolution of complicated biological organs. Here I will attempt to adapt this theory to cultural evolution and apply it to the archaeological record.

Popper’s spearhead model is based on the supposition that there are different classes of genes; anatomy controlling genes (a-genes) and behaviour controlling genes (b-genes), which may be subdivided into p-genes (controlling behaviour preferences or tendencies) and s-genes (controlling skills). Popper suggests that there may be ‘intermediate’ genes which have mixed functions, but does not include them in his theory. Popper suggests that organisms can evolve b-genes to allow variability in behaviour. The evolutionary potential of this is explained as follows:

‘certain environmental changes may lead to new problems and so to the adoption of new preferences or aims (for example, because certain types of food have disappeared). The new preferences or aims may at first appearing the form of new tentative behaviour (permitted but not fixed by the b-genes). In this way the animal may tentatively adjust itself to the new situation without genetic change. But this purely behaviour and tentative change, if successful, will amount to the adoption, or discovery, of a new ecological niche. Thus it will favour individuals whose genetic p-structure (that is, their instinctive preferences or “aims”) more or less anticipates or fixes the new behavioural pattern of preferences. This step will prove decisive; for now those changes in the skill structure (s-structure) will be favoured which conform to the new preferences: skills for getting the preferred food, for example.’ (UQ 174)

In Popper’s model, changes to the p-structure (preferences) occur before changes to the s-structure (skills), which occur before changes to the a-structure (anatomy). In other words, physical evolution only occurs after behavioural evolution.

Humans are able to adapt to new environments quickly because they can use tools and manipulate the environment so that anatomical changes are not necessary for adaptation to occur; changes to the p– and s-structure do not need to lead to anatomical change. However, cultural norms and taboos play a role in shaping which preferences and skills are developed; this is the basis for my modified theory. I assert that the social structure of a culture controls the behaviour of the members of that culture, and new forms of behaviour (changes in the s-structure) require social legitimation through cultural preferences (p-structure). Politics and ideology are the source of behavioural legitimization in social groups, so I argue that political and ideological change precedes change in social form – i.e. social structure. Ideology is the cultural spearhead, as preferences are the biological.

This theory therefore contradicts the historical materialist argument made by Trigger (1993). Trigger asserts that ‘early civilizations with differing economic and sociopolitical systems had evolved a fundamentally similar set of religious beliefs’ (Trigger 1993, 110), confirming his faith in ‘a materialist analysis of human behaviour’ (Trigger 1993, 110), and indicating that he feels economic and sociopolitical evolution occur prior to ideological developments. The interesting theoretical point in Trigger’s analysis is that his original expectations when he began his study were for limited economic structures and greater variation in sociopolitical organization and religion (Trigger 1993, 110). The evidence therefore contradicted his theory, but instead of abandoning his theory he re-aligned its predictions, adopting what is obviously an immunizing strategy (see 1.E).

Popper in his youth had been a communist, but quickly lost faith with Marxism (UQ 31-38) and became a life-long critic of it and similar socio-historical theories. He was particularly keen to point out where Marxists altered their theories to suit the evidence, as Trigger has done here. Popper describes Marx’s theory of social revolution:

‘Marx asserts that every social revolution develops in the following way. The material conditions of production grow and mature until they begin to conflict with the social and legal relations, outgrowing them like clothes, until they burst. ‘Then an epoch of social revolution opens’, Marx writes. ‘With the change in the economic foundation, the whole vast superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed .. New, more highly productive relationships’ (within the superstructure) ‘never come into being before the material conditions for their existence have been brought to maturity within the womb of the old society itself.’ In view of this statement, it is, I believe, impossible to identify the Russian Revolution with the social revolution prophesied by Marx; it has, in fact, no similarity with it whatever.’ (OS2 109)

The course of the Russian Revolution goes counter to Marx’s theory on the following points: Marx’s theory predicted revolution in the most materially advanced countries, whereas Russia was technically and industrially far behind Europe and America before the revolution, and Marx also predicted change to primarily occur in the material conditions of production, but it was the political and ideological structure which altered first in the example of Russia.

The development of early states individually in different times and at different places can be seen as examples of convergent evolution. In biology, convergent evolution is defined as ‘the increasing similarity during evolution of two or more unrelated species. Example: the placental wolf of the northern hemisphere and its remarkable look-alike, the marsupial “wolf” of Australia’ (Wilson 1993, 395). State societies evolve convergently in that they arise from possibly quite distinct and different cultures but come to resemble one another in social structure to a remarkable degree, as Trigger’s examination records. In Popper’s terms, state society is a solution to social problems, and the spearhead model affirms that this solution is arrived at through changes in ideological preferences controlling cultural behaviour.

The problem which state evolution solves seems to be one of social stress; the need for the establishment of better political control for social regulation in the face of increasing population, specialization, complexity and/or extra-cultural trade links, added to which could be extra-cultural pressure in the form of neighbouring competitive communities. Leadership is shown to emerge in groups when they are of a large size or undergoing stress (Forsyth 1990, 220).

The condition of stress and/or risk in the role of the evolution of states seems an important one; the environmental circumstances of the known early states suggests that factors such as resource patchiness and seasonality contribute to the emergence of the appropriate social conditions.

The expression of state evolution under the spearhead model would be found in increasing centralization and formalization of ideology, with larger and more frequent material displays of political and ideological wealth. Examples of such expressions would be the construction of temples, the offering of votive gifts and rises in religious symbolic expression, and such expressions should be visible in the phase preceding and beginning the transition to state level. Indicators of social stress, increased population and/or technological and trade developments, should also be obtained.

In the absence of the predicted empirical observations in the archaeological record of early civilizations, the spearhead model would be refuted.

4.K Conclusion

A Popperian approach to archaeology seems to have a great deal of potential. Popper’s focus on evolution appears to meet a growing trend in archaeology to rationally consider Darwinian evolution as an explanation for cultural change (e.g. O’Brien 1996). Further research on the lines given above would go some way to providing a general theoretical framework within which particular models of cultural change and development would be explainable.

Popper’s Philosophy and Influence

But does it matter whether the Popperian approach to philosophy survives? No: not at all. That is, unless it is correct.’ (Bartley 1982, 275)

5.A Introduction

In this final, brief chapter, I wish to examine some of the themes behind Popper’s thoughts and the reception of his work by the academic community.

5.B The Unity of Popper’s Thought

Several attempts have been made to demonstrate a single underlying force behind Popper’s philosophy. Watkins (1974) has claimed that indeterminism is the basis of Popper’s outlook, suggesting that Popper’s view on this shaped his falsificationism and evolutionary theories. Popper did not agree with this interpretation, and instead emphasised criticism as the basis of his philosophical approach (RC 1053).

Kiesewetter (1995) notes that Popper ‘was a moral person, and perhaps we can learn more about his cosmology, his methodology, and about his philosophy in general if we probe into some of the ethical foundations of his life and thinking’ (Kiesewetter 1995, 275). Kiesewetter examines the early influences on Popper’s life; his childhood in Vienna, the event of World War I, his relatives and friends, and the intellectual works he read. Kiesewetter brings to special attention the affect of Josef Popper-Lynkeus (a distant relative of Popper’s; a social reformer, member of the Monists of Vienna, one of the founders of the Allgemeine Nährpflict (‘an organization which sought to be an advocate in emphasizing the foundational physical and social needs of every individual and the State’s responsibility in seeking to guarantee these basic rights’ (Kiesewetter 1995, 277))), Bertha von Suttner (international pacifist; awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905), Fridtjof Nansen (explorer, oceanographer, statesman and humanitarian; awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922) and the philosopher Immanuel Kant, on Popper’s ethical growth.

While agreeing with Kiesewetter that ethical considerations were a principle motivating force behind Popper’s philosophy, they do not explain the actual work Popper produced. I think Popper’s philosophical writings are best seen in the context in which they were produced; Popper was interested in offering solutions to particular philosophical problems. His work in this respect was part of the continuing growth of knowledge and a comment on the concurrent philosophical debates.

From my own point of view, the distinction between what is true and what is right is not a sharp one. Philosophy is the attempt to understand both; ethics and epistemology, logic and metaphysics, go hand in hand.

5.C Popper’s Influence

Popper’s philosophical works span more than sixty years, and his personal contact with other thinkers ranged from various members of the Vienna Circle to Bertrand Russell, Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein. Popper spent nine years during World War II at Canterbury University College, Christchurch, New Zealand, where he had the greatest impact intellectually and academically (Bartley III 1982). Popper was offered a readership at the London School of Economics in 1945 and became professor of Logic and Scientific Method at the University of London in 1949. During his academic career he had among his pupils Joseph Agassi, Ian C. Jarvie, Imre Lakatos, John W.N. Watkins, A.I. Sabra, W.W. Bartley, III and Paul Fayerabend.

Popper’s philosophy may be rooted in epistemology, science and mathematics, but it sheds light into metaphysics, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, history and (as I hope I have shown here) archaeology. In fact, any subject with a theoretical element can be enhanced by an application of Popper’s ideas. The question is not, therefore ‘how much can Popper teach us?’, but rather ‘how much can we learn?’.

One of Popper’s former pupils has commented on the key points of Popper’s intellectual approach:

  • You must have a problem, not a topic.
  • Do not try to be original. Find a problem that excites you. Work on it and take what you get.
  • You must want to communicate to your reader; you must be clear, never use big words, or anything needlessly complicated… Do not use logical symbols or mathematical formulae, for instance, if you can possibly avoid it. Know logic, but do not parade it.
  • It is immoral to be pretentious, or to try to impress the reader or listener with your knowledge. For you are ignorant. Although we may differ in the little things we know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.
  • Do not be attached to your ideas. You must expose yourself, put yourself to risk. Do not be cautious in your ideas. Ideas are not scarce: there are more where they cam from. Let your ideas come forth: any idea is better than no idea. But once the idea is stated, you must try not to defend it, not to believe it, but to criticize it and to learn from discovering its defects. Ideas are only conjectures. What is important is not the defense of any particular conjecture but the growth of knowledge.
  • So be scrupulous in admitting your mistakes: you cannot learn from them if you never admit that you make them.

(Bartley 1982, 252)

Popper himself was always keen to comment on the fertility of ideas, and how they could direct entire research projects (like. Darwinian evolution). His work is littered with insights and observations on life, and the clarity of his thoughts renders them easy to grasp and understand.

There is thus cause to wonder why Popper’s name is not as well-known, and his work not as well discussed, as that of Wittgenstein or Descartes, Einstein or Kant. Referring to falsificationism and Popper’s solution to the problem of induction, Miller notes that ‘Popper’s daring innovation continues to be widely misrepresented and misunderstood – if not deprecated as a barren form of skepticism, or even irrationalism, then depreciated for itself incorporating some principle or rule of induction’ (Miller 1982, 18). Jarvie remarks that:

‘Fashion, snobbery, academic prestige, eroded traditions of learning, irrationalism, dogmatism, conservatism, and feelings of threat are some of the many reasons why Popper’s own reception has not been as enlightened as a “literal” reading of his philosophy (as a description of the way things are in science) would lead one to expect’ (Jarvie 1982, 102-103).

Bartley comments that those who follow Popper’s approach:

‘hold no positions of influence, even in their own departments they are “marginal men”; they are widely dispersed and have no regular meetings and no official journals; they are not awarded research grants; their publications are sometimes blackballed; there is no bibliography of their publications, and these publications are scattered among many different journals throughout the world; many of their findings are not being utilized and developed; they have no graduate school (with the possible exception of the LSE) from which to generate new professional philosophers of their own persuasion, or to inculcate that “tacit knowledge” whose importance Polanyi emphasizes… Thus, if one were to restrict one’s attention to the profession, it would be difficult to be optimistic about the survival of the Popperian approach. For in the professional econiche that is conventionally thought to provide the route for the study, development, application, dissemination of ideas – that is, the system of graduate education – the gates are guarded and secured by an ideologically hostile professionalism.’ (Bartley 1982, 274).

It has only been a few short years since Sir Karl Popper’s death; it is too early to tell what affect his thoughts are to have on the future of science and philosophy. But in the present, Popper’s ideas are definitely not getting the attention they deserve.

5.D Conclusion

I have tried to present a fairly broad account of Popper’s philosophy while at the same time focusing on the issues of particular concern to archaeology. I have naturally selected the aspects of Popper’s philosophy which best matches my interests, and another approach may have produced a very different – but no less relevant – piece of work.

The study of Popper’s appearance in the archaeological record has left with me one important general consideration; if you are interested in a philosopher, read them in the original rather than relying on a second-hand account.


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