What is the relationship between Karl Popper’s epistemology, the ideas of David Deutsch and Taking Children Seriously?

It is quite possible to take your children seriously without ever having heard of Karl Popper’s epistemology. I had never heard of Karl Popper until I met David Deutsch. David and I were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, because, she said, we had “the same educational philosophy”: we were both opposed to coercing children. We were both opposed to compulsory schooling and to coercive education more generally. We both took the view that children are people with as much right to control their lives as we have to control ours. We both believed in freedom irrespective of age. We were both optimists and fallibilists.

I had been dismayed by the negative reactions I had been getting when speaking about my ideas about children, so meeting David was a breath of fresh air.

In our first meeting, David suggested that I read Karl Popper’s Objective Knowledge, but I did not see how it was relevant until David explained. It was David Deutsch who first saw that Popper’s fallibilist evolutionary epistemology has profound implications for education.

In those early days, I read of all Karl Popper’s books, and others’ books and papers about Popper’s ideas, and I sought out and talked to all the Popperians I could find in the world (academic philosophers and friends and students of Popper). What I noticed was that David’s take on the implications of Popper’s epistemology for how children should be treated, was in no way shared by any of the eminent Popperians I met. They were just as vigorously opposed to children being in control of their lives as non-Popperians.

They were positively scathing when I suggested that Karl Popper’s criticism of the authoritarian ‘who should rule?’ idea applies as much in education and families as it does at the level of society. They remained unpersuaded when I pointed out that whilst tradition is very important and valuable as Popper said, the idea that parents should keep on doing to their children what their parents did to them, is an argument against error correction, against progress, against the growth of knowledge. (Most did not accept that that was what they were saying, but they were!) They did not see that being alive to the danger of power and authority includes being alive to the danger of parental power and authority. More than one eminent academic philosopher made the fallacious circular argument that children are children as an argument for paternalism.

This was long before David’s first book was published, and my impression is that David’s books have significantly shifted Popperian critical rationalist thinking, such that now, it is quite common to find Popperians who, having been influenced by David, are open to the idea of taking children seriously. But when I started talking to Popperians thirty-something years ago not a single one agreed with David’s take on the implications of Popper’s epistemology.

It was David Deutsch who first saw that Karl Popper’s general idea of how a human being acquires knowledge – by creating it afresh through bold conjectures and the elimination of error – applies equally to non-scientific types of knowledge such as moral knowledge, and to unconscious and inexplicit forms of knowledge, and that it applies as much to the acquisition of existing knowledge as it does to the creation of entirely new knowledge.

David points out that there are tantalising side-remarks about education and learning in most of Karl Popper’s works. For instance:

The inductivist or Lamarkian approach operates with the idea of instruction from without, or from the environment. But the critical or Darwinian approach only allows instruction from within – from within the structure itself.

[…]

I contend that there is no such thing as instruction from without the structure. We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them, or by inferring them inductively from observation, or by any other method of instruction by the environment. We use, rather, the method of trial and the elimination of error. As Ernst Gombrich says, “making comes before matching”: the active production of a new trial structure comes before its exposure to eliminating tests.”

–Karl R. Popper, 1994, The Myth of the Framework, pp. 7-9,

Then there is that beautiful dream Popper had, of “a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to”. (Karl R. Popper, 1977, Unended Quest: An intellectual autobiography)

And so many beautiful statements like the following:

““[T]he human situation with respect to knowledge is far from desperate. On the contrary, it is exhilarating: here we are, with the immensely difficult task before us of getting to know the beautiful world we live in, and ourselves; and fallible though we are we nevertheless find that our powers of understanding, surprisingly, are almost adequate for the task – more so than we ever dreamt in our wildest dreams. We really do learn from our mistakes, by trial and error. And at the same time we learn how little we know – as when, in climbing a mountain; every step upwards opens some new vista into the unknown, and new worlds unfold themselves of whose existence we knew nothing when we began our climb.

Thus we can learn, we can grow in knowledge, even if we can never know – that is, know for certain. Since we can learn, there is no reason for despair of reason; and since we can never know, there are no grounds here for smugness, or for conceit over the growth of our knowledge.”

– Karl R. Popper, 1945, 2011, The Open Society and Its Enemies, [both volumes in one Apple Book], Volume II: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, 1961 Addendum, 11: Social and political problems, pp. 1054-1055

See the Quotations page for many more Karl Popper quotations that will make you want to read more Popper.

However, as many a Popperian used to point out to me, Karl Popper also said a lot of stuff that is definitely not consistent with Taking Children Seriously. He was notoriously anti-television, for example, warning that it is “seducing innocent little ones” and calling for heavy regulation and licensing:

“[T]elevision has an enormous power over human minds, a power that has never existed before. If we do not restrict its influence, it will go on leading us down a slope away from civilization, making teachers powerless to do anything about it. And at the end of the tunnel there is nothing but violence. I began to sound these alarms four or five years ago, but they have not had any effect. I know that no one wants to stop this terrible power.”

– Karl Popper, from a 1993 interview published in Italian in L’Unità on 25th January, 1994, currently available in English in Karl Popper, 1997, The Lesson of This Century – With Two Talks on Freedom and the Democratic State

But still, it was Karl Popper who coined the term ‘the bucket theory of the mind’ in his devastating epistemological critique in Objective Knowledge (1972, 1979, Appendix 1: The Bucket and the Searchlight: Two Theories of Knowledge, pp. 341-361), and I have found that critique incredibly valuable in my thinking about taking children seriously, as readers of this site will see. I have even been known to criticise Karl Popper and David Deutsch (and indeed myself!) for statements likely to be interpreted in a bucket-theory-of-the-mind way, amongst other things.

I consider myself a huge admirer of both Karl Popper and David Deutsch, as you can see from reading this site. Both have been big influences in the evolution of my thinking. When you are a parent on the sharp end, in a culture that has yet to drop paternalism with respect to children, it really helps if you know deep in your soul that problems are soluble as David Deutsch said, that knowledge growths through conjecture and criticism as Karl Popper said, and that coercion impedes the growth of knowledge, as David says.

See also, my Oxford Karl Popper Society talk Taking Children Seriously: a new view of children.

For further/background reading, I highly recommend David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity and the following books by Karl Popper:
Conjectures and Refutations
The Open Society and Its Enemies (both volumes)
In Search of a Better World
The Myth of the Framework
Objective Knowledge

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘What is the relationship between Karl Popper’s epistemology, the ideas of David Deutsch and Taking Children Seriously?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/what-is-the-relationship-between-karl-poppers-epistemology-the-ideas-of-david-deutsch-and-taking-children-seriously/

Leave a comment