Karl Popper and the Evolution of Scientific Knowledge
The individual appears for an instant, joins the community of thought, modifies it -- and dies; but the species, that dies not, reaps the fruit of his ephemeral existence.
-- A.S. Byatt, Possession
T he troubled twentieth century had brought strange eddies into the stream of social-scientific thought. The irrationalism and subjectivism implied by certain of the ideas of Nietzsche, Bergson, Husserl and Sartre -- and the authoritarian current in Marxism -- seemed to promise either escape or permanent solutions to people who were everywhere in crisis. These ideas threatened to gain ascendancy over the rationality and realism of Durkheim, Santayana, Russell and Huxley, and the liberal-democratic and scientific impulse of Dewey and Mead. During the decades from 1920 to the end of the century it seemed at times that social theory had lost its way in a morass of intellectual nihilism and moral relativism.
However, a few voices remained steadfast in support of the potential of human reason and the ideals of freedom and justice. Arendt and Fromm, from within existentialism, saw the danger to humanity in that movement's essential pessimism and amorality. Piaget spoke up strongly for the universality of science. Another effective voice was that of Karl Popper. He was a courageous proponent of rationality and common sense in an age of intellectual dishonesty; of the open society in an age of totalitarianism; and of a revolutionary perspective on the nature of scientific knowledge in an age when science was increasingly misunderstood and feared.