— Biography, with a Modest Proposal
In our inﬁnite ignorance we are all equal.
—Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations:
The Growth of Scientiﬁc Knowledge
In the writing of Donne's biography, according to Helen Gardner, “conjecture is required.” Karl R. Popper, concerned with the growth of scientiﬁc knowledge, also relates his notions about conjecture to inquiry in the humanities, especially in areas where conjectures cry out for refutation. 1. In early modern English and English historical studies we are accustomed both to making conjectures—often quite wild ones—and to deprecating conjecture as “speculation, ” something unseemly and futile. In taking both these positions, scholars in the ﬁelds of English and history are not different from many in the sciences and indeed in the history of science. To all of us, Popper makes two perhaps startling but important points: on one hand, knowledge cannot advance without conjecture—trial and error is the universal mode of achieving knowledge; and, on the other hand (but not paradoxically), the best use of any conjecture is to refute it. Only through the refutation of conjectures can knowledge be advanced.
Popper understands rational inquiry, whether in the sciences or the humanities, as a process in which we try to ﬁnd out about the actuality and situation of things by means of guesses that are subject to discussion and revision. These guesses or conjectures are never ﬁnal truths, but are to be tested through discussion and criticism, as a means of getting nearer to the truth. Rational inquiry so understood allows for “bold conjectures” such as have been felt to characterize the tradition of scientiﬁc and rational inquiry distinguishing Western civilization. “In this rationalist tradition bold changes of doctrine are not forbidden. On the contrary, innovation is encouraged, and is regard-____________________