Monday, January 25, 2010
Rime Leaves on Fir Tree, Helsinki, 2010.
Sir Karl Raimund Popper is one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. He's best known for his ideas about distinguishing true propositions from false ones; what he called falsifiability and critical rationalism. However, the piece of his philosophy that most influenced me was that of nominalism as opposed to essentialism.
In Popper's view, Western philosophy went into the woods with Plato, and has yet to find its way out. Plato famously expressed his view in his parable of the cave: that the things we think of as concrete, real objects are in reality only shadows cast by the eternal, unchanging ideas of those objects. For Plato, a chair is any object that embodies the idea, or essence, of chair-ness.
In Popper's view, this way of looking at the world leads you to ask entirely the wrong questions. You start hunting for ideas, and then hunting for the essence of those ideas. You ask "What is the essence of justice?" or "What are the fundamental laws that drive history?" or "What is the essence of a perfect political system?" From that, you get everything from St. Augustine's New Jerusalem to Hegel's Spirit of History to Marx's dialectical materialism to Hitler's catalogs and hierarchies of "races" and all that that led to. (Not to mention endless Internet flame wars about semantics, which must have amused him no end, assuming he got on-line toward the end of his life.) These views Popper dubbed Platonic essentialism.
Popper proposes a profoundly different way of looking at the world. He called it nominalism. With it, he stood Plato on his head. Ideas have no independent existence or intrinsic value. Reality is a continuum. Ideas -- words, concepts, definitions -- are arbitrary categories we impose on them. We need them in order to be able to think and communicate, but they're only useful to the extent that they help us formulate and express ideas.
"If words and definitions are arbitrary," you might ask, "how can any two individuals understand what they're talking about?"
To answer this question, Popper starts out by pointing out that we're not starting from scratch -- to do so would be another essentialist misstep. We already have a language. We already agree about what words and structures in it mean, to an extent that meaningful communication is perfectly possible, most of the time anyway. That means that a lot of the time we don't need to bother much with definitions; we just write and talk, read and listen. However, especially when dealing with complex topics, we do run into this problem. This is precisely when arguments about semantics start, and ultimately lead nowhere except, occasionally, volumes upon volumes of incomprehensible books gathering dust in university libraries.
Popper's solution is simple and elegant: why not just negotiate the definition of each problematic concept as we go, in the context in which it's being used? We don't need to find the definition of "Justice" when talking about, say, whether universal health care is a human right. We only need a definition that's good enough for that discussion. If the discussion shifts, we can adjust the definition as we go. The point is that there ain't no such thing as big-J Justice; there's only justice and injustice, the definitions of which are fluid and dependent on context -- and both of which are, ultimately, human inventions. All we need to do is agree on the terms we're using for the purposes of the discussion.
When I first came across the Buddhist concepts of anatta, anicca, and paticca-samuppada -- no-self, impermanence, and dependent origination -- I was struck by how similar they were to Popper's ideas on nominalism. The Buddha, too, says that there are no eternal, abiding, unchanging essences, that everything changes and is in motion, and that everything is connected to everything else; that words and concepts are nothing more than products of the discriminating mind; a prison of our own construction.
Professor Popper and the Buddha set out to solve entirely different problems -- Popper, the conceptual difficulties that Western thought, especially science and society, was struggling with in the mid-20th century; Buddha, the problem of suffering. Yet both visited the same place, 2500 years and a couple of continents between them. Wild!
For more, see Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1-2. It's available, at least in part, on Google Books; they're also available for purchase in most major bookstores on-line and off, albeit at a pretty absurd price. Your friendly local university library should also carry them.