Stephen Hicks on Popper

Stephen Hicks’ book Explaining Postmodernism has been endorsed by Jordan Peterson and is popular among many of his followers. I’m not going to address most of the book. I’m going to stick to addressing what Hicks claims about Popper (Hicks, Stephen R. C.. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Kindle Locations 1417-1424). Kindle Edition):

By the middle of the century, the dominant conclusion about perception was that it is theory-laden. The biggest names in the philosophy of science—Otto Neurath, Karl Popper, Norwood Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, and W. V. O. Quine—despite wide variations in their versions of analytic philosophy—all argued that our theories largely dictate what we will see. [97] Putting their point in Kant’s original language, our perceptual intuitions do not conform to objects but rather our intuition conforms to what our faculty of knowledge supplies from itself. This conclusion about perception is devastating for science: If our percepts are theory-laden, then perception is hardly a neutral and independent check upon our theorizing. If our conceptual structures shape our observations as much as vice versa, then we are stuck inside a subjective system with no direct access to reality.

Hicks cites “Objective Knowledge” by Popper, p. 68 n. 31, p. 72 and p. 145. In the note Hicks cites Popper writes:

The epistemological realist is right, in my view, in insisting that all knowledge, and the growth of knowledge – the genesis of the mutation of our ideas – stem from ourselves, and that without these self-begotten ideas there would be no knowledge. He is wrong in failing to see that without elimination of these mutations through our clashing with the environment there would not only be no incitement to new ideas, but no knowledge of anything. (Cp. Conjectures and Refutations, especially p. 117.) Thus Kant was right that it is our intellect – its ideas, its rules – upon the inarticulate mass of our ‘sensations’ and thereby brings order to them. Where he was wrong was that he did not see that we rarely succeed with our imposition, that we try and err again and again, and that the result – our knowledge of the world – owes as much to resisting reality as to our self-produced ideas.

So Popper’s position is that we can have knowledge of the world because our attempts to impose interpretations on it fail and we can learn from the failures. Hicks’ ideas about Popper are contradicted by the first paragraph he quotes from Popper. He doesn’t discuss Popper further anywhere else in the book. Hicks doesn’t understand Popper and ignores information in sources he cites that contradict his ideas. RIP.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

2 Responses to Stephen Hicks on Popper

  1. Missing the point says:

    this guy misses the point in curious fashion.

    Hicks correctly places both Kant and Popper within this intellectual tradition which appreciates we cannot know absolute truth.

    While Popper argues we certainly can approximate it, postmoderns simply take the criticism and dive head-first into relativism and thus all manner of self-contradiction and degeneracy.

    Hicks is attempting to explain postmodernism, not Popper, or Kant… I don’t understand how someone could honestly fail to comprehend this.

    • Hicks made a specific claim about Popper that is false according to the source Hicks cited. Hicks could have explained Popper’s actual position and then said that the postmoderns were lying or misinterpreting Popper if that’s what they’re doing but he didn’t. This is a problem with Hicks’ book.

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