The Popper, Kirk, and Lloyd Controversy Revisited the Traps of the "Historiography of Legitimacy"

Article excerpt

"Back to the Pre-Socratics" was the title of a lecture that Karl Popper gave in London to the members of the Aristotelian Society on Octo-ber 13, 1958.' On that particular occasion, al-though he declared that he would speak only "as an amateur, as a lover of the beautiful story of the Pre-Socratics,"2 he put forth a few inter-pretations to which Geoffrey Stephen Kirk and Geoffrey Lloyd, Cambridge University ex-perts on Greek classical culture, reacted quite strongly.

It was especially the concept of "science" applied by the Austrian author to the Pre-Socratics that led to a powerful and lasting controversy. Paying special attention to the nu-ances involved in Popper's interpretation, Donald Wiebe has underlined the fact that in Popper's view, the Pre-Socratics "are therefore not the founders of modern science but rather the founders of modern scientific rationality."3 Consequently, as we shall see, what Popper maintained in his discussion of Pre-Socratic philosophy was a type of rationality that in fact lay at the origin of the occidental world, "the only civilization which is based upon sci-ence."4

As Claudiu Mesaro§ has observed, Karl Popper sees in the Ionian school of thought a source of all questions and acquisitions of modern contemporary science.5 Indeed, in The Myth of the Framework (the source of Claudiu Mesaro§'s statement), 6 Popper's vision of the history of European science was based on the so-called "Greek miracle,"7 an event suppos-edly generated by the Pre-Socratics' rational reflections: "But what of the original Greek miracle-the rise of Greek poetry, art, philoso-phy, and science; the real origin of Western ra-tionalism?"8 Making use of similar rhetorical questions, Karl Popper concluded without any hesitation whatsoever that "our ideas of free-dom, of democracy, of toleration, and also the ideas of knowledge, of science, of rationality, can all be traced back to these beginnings."9 Obviously, in accordance with his personal perspective of critical rationalism, the idea of rationality seemed to him "the most funda-mental" idea. 10 However, he was not referring to a particular type of rationality, but to the "critical rationality" which contributed to the advancement of knowledge by means of a movement that would ensure checking previ-ous theories constantly-since only theories that can be "falsified" are truly scientific theo-ries.

The essay "Back to the Pre-Socratics" should thus be placed next to essays verifying the Greek origins of occidental rationalism. Popper's hermeneutical approach proves that the statement attributed to Henri Poincaré, i.e., "the scale creates the phenomenon,'"1 is actu-ally correct (in a flash of inspiration, Professor Christopher Buck called it the "Scalar bias"); 12 to be sure, since it is a premise that cannot be avoided by any critical interpretation, it can be verified in Popper's article too. In his endeavor to elucidate the significance of certain Pre-So-cratic fragments, he starts out by postulating that they were the representatives of a "simple straightforward rationality.'"* Its decisive ele-ment "is the critical attitude which, as I shall try to show, was first developed in the Ionian School.'"4 In Popper's opinion, this critical at-titude is common to almost all of Thales's suc-cessors.

For example, Anaximander, his brilliant follower, reached the conclusion that the shape of the earth is spherical rather than cylindrical precisely because he had taken over his prede-cessor's opinions in a critical manner, rejecting them and arguing in favor of a superior hypothesis:

Thus it was a speculative and critical argument, the abstract critical discussion of Thales's theory, which almost led him to the true theory of the shape of the earth; and it was observational experi-ence which led him astray. 15

Following the same path, that is, taking over critically their predecessors' working hypoth-eses, most thinkers of ancient Greece contrib-uted to the perpetuity of certain remarkable hy-potheses, a fact that may account for the emergence of many theories of the modern pe-riod. …


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