The Epistemology of Living Organizations

Presentation by Bill Hall to The Philosophy Forum, Sunday October 5, 2013

This presentation is based largely on material drawn from a hypertext book I am writing: Application Holy Wars or a New Reformation - A Fugue on the Theory of Knowledge.

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lev.lafayette's picture

Reading this encouraged me to have another look at Popper's "Objective Knowledge" as it was indeed many years since I looked over it (over twenty at least!), although I have also had the opportunity to recently review "The Open Society and Its Enemies" and have read "The
Poverty of Historicism" several times, even if it find further disagreement with it! (Most recently these were utilised in The Philosophy
Forum discussion on Dialectics., Indeed, simultaneous to this discussion I am defending Popper's gradualism in a utilitarian forum. It's seems that the second half of 2013 has been "Popper intensive" for me.

The question being addressed is whether Popper's "third world" consists of "the ontological domain of that knowledge that is inertly codified on/in the structure of a persistent substrate" or the intersubjective world of shared symbolic values (as I would present it).

The issue comes about because Popper uses it a bit in both fashions. Initially a distinction is provided between "first, the world of physical objects or physical states; secondly, the world of states of consciousness or mental states, or perhaps of behavioural dispositions to act; and thirdly, the world of objective contents of thought, especially of scientific and poetic thought and works of art"(p106).

By the following page this third world is elaborated; ".. I will argue that the most important inmates of this world are critical arguments, and what may be called - in analogy to a physical state or to a state of consciousness - the state of discussion or the the state of a critical argument; and of course, the contents of journals, books, and libraries." (p107)

Note that Popper adds the contents of 'journals, books, and libraries' in addition to discussions and arguments. That is, 'discussions and arguments' are part of his 'third world' independently of them being inertly codified in a persistent substrate.

"[P]roblems, theories, and arguments as such" to Popper make up 'objective knowledge' (in his somewhat unusual language, as he doesn't use the word 'intersubjective) distinct from knowledge or thought in the subjective sense (p108-109).

Now certainly Popper goes on to show that books contain "third world" contents (p115), but the books and other physical representations are not all this world consists of. One can slip into this argument perhaps because of the analogy Popper uses (e.g., a bird's nest remains a bird's nest even if never used as such), but the analogy is meant to reflect (as stated a couple of pages prior) that "the third world is a natural product of the human animal, comparable to the spider's web" (p112).

Skipping over the historical review and Popper's own epistemic considerations of the importance of truth over meaning (another tangent
for another day), the difference is presented quite clearly in the the following chapter where he notes that Plato provided a precursor to his
notion of a "third world":

"For although Plato clearly recognized the third-world character of his Ideas, it seems that he did not yet realize that the third world contain
not only universal concepts or notions.. but also mathematical truths and propositions... and, in addition, all kinds of non-mathematical
propositions or theories....

And in so far as language contains information, in so far as it says or states or describes anything or conveys any meaning or any significant message which may entail another, or agree or clash with another, it belongs to the third world. Theories, or propositions, or statements are the most important third-world linguistic entities" (p156-157)

I think that final remark should clear up any notion that Popper's 'third world' can only consists of knowledge "inertly codified on/in the structure of a persistent substrate", in favour of the proposal that it instead consists of the broader category of the intersubjective world of shared symbolic values.

(References to Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge : An Evolutionary Approach, Oxford University Press, 1972)