Letter: Popper's critical scientific legacy

Sir: Rom Harre's obituary for Professor Sir Karl Popper (20 September) gives a respectful but misleading account of his significance for the contemporary scene. It is clear that Harre would want to put Sir Karl behind us. But this is only because he stresses the 'rationalist' side of Popper's philosophy of critical rationalism at the expense of its 'critical' side.

For someone who has been uniformly portrayed as a Thatcherite logic-chopper, it is surprising that Popper should have spawned some of the most wide- ranging and critical intellectuals in our time, especially Paul Feyerabend, the self-styled 'epistemological anarchist', who died this past February.

People who know of Sir Karl's work only through popularisations often fail to realise that while Popper was a great admirer of something called 'science', he approved of few of the modern enterprises that pass under that name. This was because he took the essence of science to be 'the method of conjecture and refutation', which is something that can occur only when scientists are free to critically scrutinise each other's claims without worrying about whether they will be published or be funded on their next grant.

Like Feyerabend, Popper believed that scientists corrupted their essence once science started to become wrapped up in the interests of business and the state. Although Popper was never as explicit as Feyerabend in calling for the divestment of 'Big Science' from state support, that is a natural outgrowth of his philosophy. Popper did not merely oppose 'collectivism' and 'historicism' in society, but in science as well.

Few philosophers in this century have had the nerve to try to tell scientists what they should be doing. Popper and his students have been the exception. Whether one agrees with Popper's particular ideal of science or not, his life stands as an exemplar of intelligent engagement with an enterprise that has come to play an increasingly important, and often disturbing, role in our lives.

Yours faithfully,


Professor of Sociology

and Social Policy

University of Durham


20 September