Thoughts about Conjectures&Refutations

Topic Summary:
Talk about parts Conjectures & Refutations by Karl Popper.

A thread for commenting on C&R. I started doing this in my mini-goal thread.

This is a place to continue, having met my mini-goal.
Happy for others to jump in with their own comments on it.

CF Relevance:

I was reading chapter 16 where Popper talks about Marx. It’s interesting reading someone who knows something about Marx (and treats him respectfully) as I’ve only seen people talk about Marx in catch phrases and memes which had left me with the impression that it wasn’t something to take seriously. I had no idea that it included attempts to make scientific predictions (even if they’re flawed). The casual Marxists seem to do him a disservice.

I think I’m more inclined to take people who knowledgeably talk about Marx seriously, having read Popper’s explanation (and criticism of it). I think before I’d have made a mistake in being dismissive.

I’m not convinced to go and read Marx myself. I expect that Popper’s explanation of Marxism is fair, and don’t expect that I’ll be debating any studied Marxists. But if it becomes relevant to me I would expect more value from reading it than before, even if I end up disagreeing with it.

I just want to mention that I have been re-reading the first few chapters of C&R but I have never read past chapter 2. I think that I will be posting some questions about C&R in the new general philosophy questions topic because it’s unbounded, so there’s more opportunity for criticism. It’s kinda funny. I’m smiling because this is an example of the sort of mini-dilemmas that I have experienced with trying to figure out where to post questions. I think I will post in this topic if something comes up that I can comment on productively but for my own questions I feel better or more comfortable with posting on the more open-ended topic that I started. I think it feels better for me because it’s more open in terms of topic and criticism.

I’ve read most of chapter 18 now. I think it’s very interesting.

I think it strikes a chord with me as Utopian thinking and justification for violence is something I’ve seen/heard from a lot more people I’ve interacted with, and I’ve thought about Utopian thinking somewhat before in another context.

I’ve only skimmed it (reading as audio book) so far and I’m going to finish reading the chapter and do some more in-depth analysis with the physical book before commenting more. I’ll use this as a grammar tree exercise too.

I’ve read the audio book chapter 18 a few times now and will gradually dig into the chapter in some more depth.

I’m going to use this as an exercise for paragraph trees too.

Starting with the first paragraph of Chapter 18. It’s a very long paragraph! I’ll start by breaking it down into sections.

##Section 1: Premise

There are many people who hate violence and are convinced that it is one of their foremost and at the same time one of their most hopeful tasks to work for its reduction and, if possible, for its elimination from human life. I am among those hopeful enemies of violence. Not only do I hate violence, but I firmly believe that the fight against it is not at all hopeless.

##Section 2: Obstacles

I realize that the task is difficult. I realize that, only too often in the course of history, it has happened that what appeared at first to be a great success in the fight against violence was followed by defeat. I do not overlook the fact that the new age of violence which was opened by the two World wars is by no means at an end. Nazism and Fascism are thoroughly beaten, but I must admit that their defeat does not mean that barbarism and brutality have been defeated. On the contrary, it is no use closing our eyes to the fact that these hateful ideas achieved something like victory in defeat. I have to admit that Hitler succeeded in degrading the moral standards of our Western world, and that in the world of today there is more violence and brutal force than would have been tolerated even in the decade after the first World war. And we must face the possibility that our civilization may ultimately be destroyed by those new weapons which Hitlerism wished upon us, perhaps even with the first decade after the second World war; for no doubt the spirit of Hitlerism won its greatest victory over us when after its defeat, we used the weapons which the threat of Nazism had induced us to develop.

(that’s still very long, but I don’t see a really good way of splitting it as it’s very interconnected)

##Section 3: Conclusion

But in spite of all this I am today no less hopeful than I have ever been that violence can be defeated. It is out only hope; and long stretches in the history of Western as well as of Eastern civilizations prove that it need not be a vain hope - that violence can be reduced, and brought under the control of reason.

Then breaking it down into nodes:

Section 1:

Some notes on my choices:

  • In some context’s, the writer’s personal opinion of violence would be irrelevant (an unimportant/modifier type detail) but as this is the context for a chapter on the subject I think it’s a primary point.
  • For this section I didn’t think there were any appropriate uses of variables.
  • Overall, I’m not really happy with how this came out, I have a sense of something being wrong with it but can’t tell quite what. I think it would be easier with a more direct motive->action->conclusion sort of section, but I think there has to be a good way of approaching a section like this.

I’m going to pause doing these here and come back to the others after doing some more thinking and looking into paragraph trees.

Breakdown of my stages before getting to the final nodes:

1 Like

I think I’m overreaching trying to do paragraph trees. I did not do very well with my first attempt, so I’m going to step back to looking at grammar.

I found Elliot’s English Language, Analysis & Grammar article helpful to understand the grammar better.

I’m starting with this sentence from C&R Chapter 18.

I realise that this task is difficult now! I wasn’t sure how to break the sentence down at first so I tried looking for a sentence analyser to help and found this:

It’s pretty complicated but it seems to have explanations for everything so I’m going to try to use it. I got this output with the sentence.

To start with just breaking the clause down:
“I” - subject pronoun (referring to the noun “Karl Popper”)
“realize that the task is difficult” - predicate

Then breaking the predicate down:
“realize” - action verb
“that” - I was stuck on this one, however the analyser says this is a conjunction, so I looked up it’s usage and found a conjunction definition which makes sense (item 13 in the list on the link).

(used to introduce a subordinate clause as the subject or object of the principal verb or as the necessary complement to a statement made, or a clause expressing cause or reason, purpose or aim, result or consequence, etc.):
I’m sure that you’ll like it. That he will come is certain. Hold it up so that everyone can see it.

So “that” is a conjunction introducing the subordinate clause “the task is difficult”, and the subordinate clause is the noun of the main clause.

Then breaking the subordinate clause down:
“the” - determiner adjective restricting “task” to a single task (from the context of the paragraph the task is: the elimination of violence from human life)
“task” - subject noun of the subordinate clause
“is” - linking verb
“difficult” - adjective modifying the noun “task”

It was quite a lot of work doing this and I had to look up a lot of stuff, but I’m pretty sure I got it right and am happy to keep putting this much work into each sentence (though I’m confident I will get faster pretty quickly, most of the rules seem pretty simple). I expect I’ll keep needing the help of the sentence analyser for a while.

I had planned to start doing grammar trees as well with this (making my own rather than relying on the analyser’s output), but I’ve looked into those and they seem to have a lot more things I need to learn. I’m going to continue just looking at the grammar until I can do it without needing to look a lot of things up.

I’m going to aim to continue this analysis on one sentence per day on average.

Next sentence:

This is much longer and more complex than the last one. I definitely need the syntax analyser I linked before to help. A big way it helps me is by identifying what the usage of the word are when I can’t tell, then I can look that up in Elliot’s grammar guide to understand the connections. Unfortunately the analyser has a character limit and can’t take the full sentence, so I’m going to simplify the sentence so I can enter it into the analyser.

Simplified sentence:
“I realize that, only too often in the course of history, it has happened that success was followed by defeat.”
(my shortened substitution in bold, my intuition is that it maintains the overall structure so the analyser should be able to make sense of it in the same way)


I’m not going to include screen caps of the constituent tree any more as I’m not working on grammar trees yet.

Sentence analysis

“I” - subject
“realize” - action verb
“that” - conjunction introducing the subclause
(skipping the comma-delimited aside for a moment)
“it has happened that success was followed by defeat” - a subclause which is the object of the sentence

Here I wasn’t sure how to describe the use of commas, so I looked at this article (which I found linked in the earlier grammar article).

So “only too often in the course of history” is a modifier aside phrase, it applies to the subclause. It’s a fairly important aside; the sentence would lose information about how often “success was followed by defeat” without it.

Aside analysis

“only too often in the course of history”
“only” - this is being marked as a “null link” and being ignored by the analyser, I think this is because it’s not a literal usage of “only”, and “only too” is common phrase which operates (in this case) as an adverb,
“too” - part of the adverb phrase “only too”, modifying “often”
“often” - this is the main adjective of the aside, the sentence would still make sense if this was the only word in the aside
“in” - preposition relating “the course of history” to “often” (I checked the analyser here to identify it as a preposition then Elliot’s grammar guide to better understand what that means)
“the” - determiner restricting “course of history”, meaning the one and only course of history
“course” - noun
“of” - preposition relating “history” to “course”
“history” - noun

Subclause analysis

Even with the aside removed the full sentence is still too long to analyse at once. So I’m going to try entering just the subclause for analysis as it’s own sentence:
“it has happened that what appeared at first to be a great success in the fight against violence was followed by defeat.”

Analyser output:

“it” - subject noun, in this case the event that the hypothetical object of the sentence has in fact occurred
“has” - verb, but…
“happened” - This is marked as a null link by the analyser, I think because “has” and “happened” are both verbs and it doesn’t have a way to interpret that. I looked into this and found this explanation of using “has happened” which I think makes sense. It seems like “has” is being used like an adverb to imply the happening is current or in recent history (which makes sense in this context referring to the rise and fall of Nazism).
“that” - conjunction introducing the sub-subclause as the object
“what appeared at first to be a great success in the fight against violence was followed by defeat.” - sub-subclause

Sub-subclause analysis

The analyser seems to have gotten this wrong owing to the double verb “has happened”. I’m going to try re-analysing just the sub-subclause.
“what appeared at first to be a great success in the fight against violence was followed by defeat.”

The analyser seems to have parsed the sub-subclause without any problems.

“what appeared at first to be a great success in the fight against violence” - the subject noun phrase
“was” - linking verb, past tense, saying “followed by defeat” happened to the subject and it was in the past
“followed” - past participle, an adjective affecting “defeat” specifying that it came after the subject
“by” - preposition connecting “defeat” as the thing which followed the subject
“defeat” - object noun

Then analysing the subject noun phrase of the sub-subclause:

“what appeared at first to be a great success in the fight against violence”
“what” - I think this is a determiner
“appeared” - participle affecting noun phrase(1)
“at” - preposition indicating the appearance happened at a time
“first” - the time at which the appearance happened
“to” - preposition
“be” - infinitive verbal because it’s preceded by “to”

I don’t think I can explain these better currently. I have in mind something like “appeared at first to be” is an adjective phrase applying to noun phrase (1).

“a great success in the fight against violence” - noun phrase (1)
“a” - determiner limiting to a single incidence
“great” - adverb modifying “success”
“success” - adjective
“in” - preposition connecting “great success” to the noun phrase (2)

“the fight against violence” - noun phrase (2)
“the” - determiner specifying a specific fight, start of noun phrase (2)“the fight against violence”
“fight” - the main word of (2) and the main subject noun of the subject noun phrase
“against” - preposition indicating the preceding word “fight” is in opposition to the following word “violence”
“violence” - noun


This was a very complicated sentence. Looking ahead I think the next few sentences will be easier, then the last two sentences will be even more complicated. I’ll keep working on these. I might break the last really long sentences into multiple posts depending on how long it takes to analyse them.

I a lot of these I was working out by looking up definitions of the words which included what the usage was, or by searching for the word in Elliot’s grammar guide. The syntax analyser helped in cases where I couldn’t find the answer in the grammar guide, but it does get stuff wrong so it needs to be used with care.

The part “what appeared at first to be” was the hardest part to work out and my confidence that I correctly analysed that part is low. I might need to read more about infinitives. Otherwise I’m happy with the result.

It feels weird that when a word modifies an adjective, it’s called an adverb.

Looks like you’re trying to learn two things at once: Popper and grammar.

It may be easier to separate them. I think the grammar work is getting so much attention that you’re probably not really learning about Popper while doing it. If you were going to focus on learning grammar and pause learning Popper, are these the ideal sentences to practice with? Or would you use some easier sentences?

That last sentence was a lot of work in one go, probably more at once than is effective for learning. I got pretty tired by the end and my sense is effective learning drops off pretty fast with tiredness.

The three sentences following that one are shorter and I’m guessing easier so I want to continue as I have been; I think those three are a reasonable step down and I don’t want to make analysis too much easier or I’ll find it boring.

After the three shorter sentences there’s a big sentence (starting with “I have to admit that”) and finally one REALLY big sentence starting with “And we must face the possibility”. Depending on my progress with the three shorter sentences I may decide that it’s a bad idea to continue on to the two big sentences, and seek out alternatives.

One flaw I’m more aware of in my writing is being unclear with nouns by using “that”, “them”, “those”, etc too often. My sentences are coming out longer from being more explicit with nouns. I guess I’ll be able to shorten sentences again as I practise.

I have gotten off-topic from Popper. With the rate I’m getting through sentences it may be a while before I make any actual comments on Popper (besides comments like: he writes really long sentences). I don’t know how long it will take for me to complete analysis faster, it might be weeks before I make substantial comment on Popper’s ideas if I try to make significant progress learning grammar first.

It might be worth moving my posts here focused on grammar and my paragraph tree post to a separate thread, then I can return here when I want to make on-topic comments and it would be less messy if I want to comment on Popper as well as learning grammar.

I made an attempt at this sentence. I thought it was hard and I’m not confident about the tree. The series of non-finite verbs, “to be”, “was”, and “followed”, are tough to place and tough to identify as finite or non-finite. The second “that” is hard to parse. It looks like it’s role is to be a subordinating conjunction which connects what “happened” with the following clause. Also, there’s lots of prepositions and other modifiers that are tricky to place, or identify what they’re modifying.

EDIT (to block quote):
From Conjectures and Refutations by Karl Popper:

I realize that, only too often in the course of history, it has happened that what appeared at first to be a great success in the fight against violence was followed by defeat.


[realize [I] [that [has [it] [happened [that [appeared [what] [“to be” [success [a] [great] [in [fight [the] [against [violence]]]] [was [followed [by [defeat]]]]]][at [first]]]]] [often [too [only]] [in [course [the] [of [history]]]]]]]]

Please edit the blockquote so it attributes that text to Popper not MetaCreation. (Either quote MetaCreation quoting Popper, using nesting levels, or quote Popper directly.)

The way it shows up currently is misleading:

I tried the sentence without pre-reading:

I ended up with 3 sections b/c I didn’t know what was coming and how it fit together. I just finished doing most of the words without worrying about how to combine stuff or getting the tricky parts right. This took around 5min.

Then I worked on figuring out the structure using only relevant words (finite verbs and anything clause-conjunction-like). I tried two versions then stopped to consider which to use.

It probably would have been a little faster to pre-read the sentence then figure out the basic structure then add in the other words afterwards, but it didn’t make a big difference. Just making a tree without pre-reading works better with most sentences (which are simpler) and I didn’t know how hard this one would be so I just jumped in (knowing that rearranging isn’t a big deal).

Then I made a final tree by combining my sections based on my new understanding of the structure:

My total time was around 12min (I started a stopwatch maybe a minute after starting and got 10:41). I didn’t double check stuff, so most of the tree is mostly based on my subconscious knowledge since I only stopped to consciously think about stuff a little bit. I used more conscious thinking for the main structure – in general if there’s more than one conjunction then I can’t rely on my automatizations as much. I haven’t yet compared my results to what anyone else posted. The 12min time doesn’t include writing this forum post (which was quick too).

EDIT: correction: for the second forward reference, the subject for that “was” is “what” not “fight” in my final tree. I wrote “fight” when i was just trying to quickly find a noun for the subject and i never updated it using my final understanding of how the sentence actually worked.

Looking at @Fire’s tree, the first thing I noticed is my “often” subtree doesn’t make sense modifying “realize” when I think about the actual content/meaning. Having it as an introductory modifier for the verb in the next clause (“has”), like Fire did, looks right to me.

Fire has “appeared” as a finite verb which doesn’t work. Then his “was” ends up in a kinda random spot with no conjunction. I did start to read “appeared” as a finite verb in my initial reading but I recognized that was problematic when I got to “was”. So “appeared” is a past participle modifying the “what” which is harder to tell because “appeared” has a lot of modifiers of its own.

In “I clicked the link and what appeared was a cat.” it’s easier to see that “appeared” is just a modifier on “what” because it’s just a single-word sub-tree. (“What” is sometimes a relative pronoun – a conjunction-like-thing – but not here. Fire’s tree agrees with mine on the “what” acting like a regular noun here.)

I didn’t check all the details for differences. Fire can check that.

I’ve noticed that quoting doesn’t always capture all quoting levels correctly. I think that’s why your pre-edit quote came out wrong.

Using your example, from selecting in my post like this:

The quote comes out like this, incorrectly attributing it to the writer of the post and missing the additional quote level:

So the quoting needs to be manually edited in case like this, where a nested quote is being quoted without any of the surrounding post.

For example if you include the preceding line it quotes correctly, so if you quote like this:

Then you get this:

I started analysing the next sentence, but pretty quickly started getting tired. I think I’ve got a “too many unknowns” overwhelm which my subconscious is raising as an argument but I’ve got a habit of persisting through that and trying to proceed anyway. In other words: I’ve been trying to do something which I have unanswered criticism of.

So I think I have a problem of my subconscious identifying overwhelm, but consciously trying to push through it and complete tasks anyway. I think this might be related to my problem of overreaching getting overwhelmed in life in general. I think this is a really important problem I need to fix as I want to start making progress more effectively and enjoy learning more.

So I’m going to stop doing grammar analysis of Popper here. I’m going to continue it in another thread with easier examples.

I’ll come back to this thread later/another day and actually talk about Popper.

Quotes are from Conjectures & Refutations Chapter 18.

A rationalist, as I use the word, is a man who attempts to reach decisions by argument and perhaps, in certain cases, by compromise, rather than by violence. He is a man who would rather be unsuccessful in convincing another man by argument than successful in crushing him by force, by intimidation and threats, or even by persuasive propaganda.

I think this is an important attitude, and one that a lot of people learn to oppose as children when parents rely on force, threats, or lies to get “desired” behaviour from their children.

There are many difficulties impeding the rapid spread of reasonableness. One of the main difficulties is that it always takes two to make a discussion reasonable. Each of the parties must be ready to learn from the other. You cannot have a rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting you to being convinced by you. In other words, there are limits to the attitude of reasonableness. It is the same with tolerance. You must not, without qualification, accept the principle of tolerating all those who are intolerant; if you do, you will destroy not only yourself, but also the attitude of tolerance. (All this is indicated in the remark I made before–that reasonableness must be an attitude of give and take.)

I have the impression that most people do not want to reasonably discuss. If they discuss at all they seem to want to state their ideas then disengage and go about their business (or in worst cases, be insulting/demanding with people who don’t agree with them).

I don’t know if that’s accurate though. Hypothetically if a lot of people are pessimistic about debate and expect other people to be pessimistic about debate, that would result in lots and lots of people not even trying. In that situation even if someone is interested in being reasonable their expectation that other people will not be is so high that it’s not worth trying. People could on a grand scale want to reasonably discuss but be so pessimistic about it that they never do.

Then the obstacle isn’t so much convincing people to be reasonable, but convincing people that you’re reasonable. Maybe I’m hoping for too much there.

When discussion seems hopeless I guess tribalism, coercion, manipulation and other unreasonable things seem like more effective ways to complete goals.

I think I have said enough to make clear what I intend to convey by calling myself a rationalist. My rationalism is not dogmatic. I fully admit that I cannot rationally prove it. I frankly confess that I choose rationalism because I hate violence, and I do not deceive myself into believing that this hatred has any rational grounds. Or to put it another way, my rationalism is not self contained, but rests on an irrational faith in the attitude of reasonableness. I do not see that we can go beyond this. One could say, perhaps, that my irrational faith in equal and reciprocal rights to convince others and be convinced by them is a faith in human reason; or simply, that I believe in man.

This seems odd. I don’t know why Popper didn’t try to rationally explain why violence is bad here. He seems to be embracing some irrationality in his thinking.

Maybe there’s a lack of goal behind is thinking. I don’t know Popper very well yet, his writing seems to be about how to think and pursue truth but I don’t recall reading anything about what that is good for. If he doesn’t have a clear idea of a purpose behind thinking well I guess it would make sense that he doesn’t really know why reasonableness is good and violence is bad and has this answer of faith instead. Maybe the answer is that he thinks mankind is the good and has faith in mankind.

I think mankind is the best thing that exists. Humans are the only known beings that can change their minds and decide what is good and what is bad and actually change the world to that end. To do that most effectively I think reasonableness is necessary to discuss possible ideas and identify the best ones rather than entrenching mistakes. I think violence as a solution for conflicts is bad because it gets in the way of discovering the best ideas.

I’ve written enough for now. The chapter goes on to start talking about Utopianism. I’ll continue reading and write some more about that in a later post.

Continuing reading chapter 18.

As well as writing my thoughts this time, I’m also going to try writing summary notes about each passage I comment on.

Note I have skipped some passages, I’ve focused on the passages that I think are most central to the point or that I have other comments on.

I think we can describe Utopianism as a result of a form of rationalism, and I shall try to show that this is a form of rationalism very different from the form in which I and many others believe. So I shall try to show that there exist at least two forms of rationalism, one of which I believe is right and the other wrong; and that the wrong kind of rationalism is the one which leads to Utopianism.

There are at least two forms of rationalism. The wrong form of rationalism leads to utopianism.

I guess this is roughly the divide between Critical Rationalism and Rationalism. Or possibly just one distinguishing feature between Critical Rationalism and other forms of Rationalism.

An action, it may be argued, is rational if it makes the best use of the available means in order to achieve a certain end. The end, admittedly, may be incapable of being determined rationally. However this may be, we can judge an action rationally, and describe it as rational or adequate, only relative to some given end. Only if we have an end in mind, and only relative to such an end, can we say that we are acting rationally.

For an action to be rational it must have an end and make best use of the means to achieve that end.

I agree with this. I think without an end there is no way of measuring what the correct course of action to reach it. I think people generally (possibly always) have some sort of end to their actions, but they don’t often recognise it or lie about what it is. A lot of people lie and say their actions have no point, I think these people have some sort of end supplied by intuition (such a “fun”). Sometimes people pretend to not have a purpose (serving another end - social signalling by some standard of being “edgy” or “fun”).

In the [case of political action for improving some law of the state it] will be rational only if we first determine the final ends of the political changes which we intend to bring about. It will be rational only relative to certain ideas of what a state ought to be like. Thus it appears that as a preliminary to any rational political action we must first attempt to become as clear as possible about our ultimate political ends; for example the kind of state which we should consider the best; and only afterwards can we begin to determine the means which may best help us to realize this state, or to move slowly towards it, taking it as the aim of a historical process which we may to some extent influence and steer towards the goal selected.

So for political action intended to improve the state to be rational, it must have an end in mind.

I think this makes sense too. I’m including this as I think it’s a main point of the section I’m reading.

Now it is precisely this view which I call Utopianism. Any rational and nonselfish political action, on this view, must be preceded by a determination of our ultimate ends, not merely of intermediate or partial aims which are only steps towards our ultimate end, and which therefore should be considered as means rather than as ends; therefore rational political action must be based upon a more or less clear and detailed description or blueprint of our ideal state, and also upon a plan or blueprint of the historical path that leads towards this goal.

A rational and nonselfish political action requires a blueprint of an ideal state and the path leading to that goal. This is Utopianism.

I don’t think I agree with this. I think these is some unstated additional premise behind Utopianism beyond what has been said so far. I think the premise is something about assuming infallibility - that a plan, once set, must be unwaveringly followed.
(Note Popper does go on to reveal this premise a bit later which I get to later in this post.)

That [Utopianism] is self-defeating is connected with the fact that it is impossible to determine ends scientifically. There is no scientific way of choosing between two ends. Some people, for example, love and venerate violence. For them a life without violence would be shallow and trivial. Many others, of whom I am one, hate violence. This is a quarrel about ends. It cannot be decided by science. This does not mean that the attempt to argue against violence is necessarily a waste of time. It only means that you may not be able to argue with the admirer of violence. He has a way of answering an argument with a bullet if he is not kept under control by the threat of counter-violence. If he is willing to listen to your arguments without shooting you, then he is at least infected by rationalism, and you may, perhaps, win him over. This is why arguing is no waste of time–as long as people listen to you. But you cannot, by means of argument, make people listen to argument; you cannot, by means of argument, convert those who suspect all argument, and who prefer violent decisions to rational decisions. You cannot prove to them that they are wrong. And this is only a particular case, which can be generalized. No decision about aims can be established by purely rational or scientific means. Nevertheless argument may prove extremely helpful in reaching a decision about aims.

There is no scientific way of choosing between two ends.
Some people like violence.
It’s impossible to argue with people who use violence in response.
Argument may help reach decisions about ends.

I’m a little confused by this paragraph.

I’m not sure about ends not being reachable scientifically. I’m guessing the idea behind this is: the reason you can’t determine ends scientifically is that you can’t measure the result until you have the result.

I’m also not sure why the fact that some people like violence is related. Guessing again, I think this means something like: there are pro-violence people in the state (or at least, you can’t guarantee there aren’t) so making a decision that requires all of the state to be involved is rationally impossible as some members may oppose it violently.

That the Utopian method, which chooses an ideal state of society as the aim which all our political actions should serve, is likely to produce violence can be shown thus. Since we cannot determine the ultimate ends of political actions scientifically, or by purely rational methods, differences of opinion concerning what the ideal state should be like cannot always be smoothed out by the method of argument. They will at least partly have the character of religious differences. And there can be no tolerance between these different Utopian religions. Utopian aims are designed to serve as a basis for rational political action and discussion, and such action appears to be possible only if the aim is definitely decided upon. Thus the Utopianist must win over, or else crush, his Utopianist competitors who do not share his own Utopian aims, and who do not profess his own Utopianist religion.

A state can only be aimed at one Utopian blueprint.
Competing Utopianists with different blueprints must be convinced or crushed.

So from the Utopianist perspective, there is only one correct form for society. Others with competing views must be convinced or coerced into conforming with the one view.

A hypothetical integrating with some previous passages:
A politician wants to take rational political action. They have a specific vision for society and want to implement it. They try to make changes towards their vision. Some people in the state disagree with the changes and can not be convinced. The politician then must force dissenters to comply to pursue their Utopian vision.

I think this is roughly what Popper is saying, but I don’t think I agree that it’s accurate. A politician in that situation could continue trying to convince people of their Utopian vision. Though I think it would be very very hard to convince every member of the state to agree with it and keep agreeing with it. I think maybe there is another unstated premise about Utopianism in this chapter, something about it being urgent to proceed? Maybe something like: A Utopianist sees society is bad and it must be changed and it’s harmful not to change it?

The use of violent methods for the suppression of competing aims becomes even more urgent if we consider that the period of Utopian construction is liable to be one of social change. In such a time ideas are liable to change also. Thus what may have appeared to many as desirable at the time when the Utopian blueprint was decided upon may appear less desirable at a later date. If this is so, the whole approach is in danger of breaking down. For if we change our ultimate political aims while attempting to move towards them we may soon discover that we are moving in circles. The whole method of first establishing an ultimate political aim and then preparing to move towards it must be futile if the aim may be changed during the process of its realization. It may easily turn out that the steps so far taken lead in fact away from the new aim. And if we then change direction in accordance with our new aim we expose ourselves to the same risk. In spite of all the sacrifices which we may have made in order to make sure that we are acting rationally, we may get exactly nowhere–although not exactly to that ‘nowhere’ which is meant by the word ‘Utopia’.

Utopian construction takes time. Things might go wrong or things might change so progress is slowed or even reversed.
It may become apparent that the Utopian vision is flawed, changing to a new Utopian vision will only being the same process again and potentially run into similar problems.

I think this reveals another premise between Popper’s idea of Utopianism. Something about scale, it must necessarily have a certain amount of changes which will result in it taking a substantial amount of time to create.

I do think this is a reasonable interpretation of “Utopian”. I don’t think someone who says “if we change this one thing which is quick and easy and harmless we’ll be living in a Utopia!” could reasonably be called a Utopianist, even if that would make society flawless by their standards. In normal conversation if someone mentioned Utopian thinking I would have assumed it would include large scale changes. I didn’t in this case as Popper was building from a specific premise (a kind of Rationalism) so I didn’t want to assume.

If I were to give a simple formula or recipe for distinguishing between what I consider to be admissible plans for social reform and inadmissible Utopian blueprints, I might say:
Work for the elimination of concrete evils rather than for the realization of abstract goods. Do not aim at establishing happiness by political means. Rather aim at the elimination of concrete miseries. Or, in more practical terms: fight for the elimination of poverty by direct means–for example, by making sure that everybody has a minimum income. Or fight against epidemics and disease by erecting hospitals and schools of medicine. Fight illiteracy as you fight criminality. But do all this by direct means. Choose what you consider the most urgent evil of the society in which you live, and try patiently to convince people that we can get rid of it.

To distinguish between admissible social reform and inadmissible Utopian blueprints: Aim at elimination of concrete miseries, rather than establishing happiness by political means.

My thoughts:
I think this is in principle a good way to approach political change.

So, my understanding of Utopianism as Popper describes it, including my guesses at unstated premises:

  • Based in Rationalism.
  • Includes sweeping, large-scale changes across the state.
  • Must be done urgently, to the point of coercing dissenters.

I guess I still consider that “Must be done urgently” is not fundamentally part of Utopianism. I think a very patient Utopianist who wants to convince everyone to join in, including convincing everyone who changes their mind during the process, is theoretically possible. But when it comes to effective political action, I don’t think such a person could realistically every achieve anything except maybe in a very small group of people.

So the comparison between admissible social reform and inadmissible social reform is between effective political actions.

This section on Utopianism ultimately argues taking an incremental approach in politics (solve some solid misery today, rather than constructing an elaborate plan that will solve everyone’s miseries eventually). It claims that Utopianism requires violence and will be highly error-prone which will require more violence (and I agree that attempting a Utopian vision in any sort of useful timeframe does require violence).

Political action should be taken incrementally to tackle individual concrete issues, rather than planning complex sweeping changes to solve everything.

There are a few more pages to the chapter which do add more to this and I will explore more another time, but I think this covers the central point of the chapter so I wanted to cover these passages at once.

Continuing chapter 18 where I left off:

But do not try to realize these [admissible plans for social reform] indirectly by designing and working for a distant ideal of a society which is wholly good. However deeply you may feel indebted to its inspiring vision, do not think that you are obliged to work for its realization, or that it is your mission to open the eyes of others to its beauty. Do not allow your dreams of a beautiful world to lure you away from the claims of men who suffer here and now. Our fellow men have a claim to our help; no generation must be sacrificed for the sake of future generations, for the sake of an ideal of happiness that may never be realized. In brief, it is my thesis that human misery is the most urgent problem of a rational public policy and that happiness is not such a problem. The attainment of happiness should be left to our private endeavours.

Do not try to realise social reform with a distant ideal. Do not allow beautiful dreams to distract you from suffering that is happening now. The suffering of the current generation shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of potentially avoiding future generations suffering. Human misery is the most urgent problem of a rational public policy.

It is a fact, and not a very strange fact, that it is not so very difficult to reach agreement by discussion on what are the most intolerable evils of our society, and on what are the most urgent social reforms. Such an agreement can be reached much more easily than an agreement concerning some ideal form of social life. For the evils are with us here and now. They can be experienced, and are being experienced every day, by many people who have been and are being made miserable by poverty, unemployment, national oppression, war and disease. Those of us who do not suffer from these miseries meet every day others who can describe them to us. This is what makes the evils concrete. This is why we can get somewhere in arguing about them; why we can profit here from the attitude of reasonableness. We can learn by listening to concrete claims, by patiently trying to assess them as impartially as we can, and by considering ways of meeting them without creating worse evils.

It is not very difficult to agree on the most intolerable evils, and on the most urgent reforms. Such agreement is easier than agreeing on some social ideal. For the evils are with us and are being experienced every day. Those who experience them can describe them to those who don’t. This means we can argue about the and profit from reasonableness. We can consider ways of tackling concrete claims without creating worse evils.

My first take on it not being very difficult to reach agreement was that I disagree, considering the state of partisan politics. I think it’s also exponentially more difficult to get agreement the bigger the population that decisions are being made about.

Considering the context of reasonableness a bit more, I’d agree with it not being so very difficult to reach agreement with reasonable people. I think there is a big shortage of reasonableness. But I still consider it more difficult the bigger the population that decisions are being made about.

There are six more paragraphs left in this chapter, which I want to continue writing summaries and thoughts about. I’m finding it fairly difficult to write summaries of these. I want to finish doing so for this chapter, but I think when I have finished I will continue doing this sort of analysis on shorter/simpler books.

Correction, seven more (two very short).

Continuing where I left off.

(context from previous paragraph: concrete evils)

With ideal goods it is different. These we know only from our dreams and from the dreams of our poets and prophets. They cannot be discussed, only proclaimed from the housetops. They do not call for the rational attitude of the impartial judge, but for the emotional attitude of the impassioned preacher.

Ideal goods are different. They are only known from dreams. They can only be proclaimed, not discussed. They require an emotional impassioned preacher rather than a rational impartial judge.

I don’t think I’d explain this concept in this way. I think it maybe doesn’t take the people arguing for ideal goods so seriously. (I don’t think it’s misleading, owing to the context, but I don’t like likening interlocutors to preachers.)

I think the issue with concrete evils vs ideal goods is better understood in terms of fallibility and assumptions. I think Occam’s razor (choosing the option which requires the least assumptions) is helpful in considering it. The further forward into the future your planning goes, the more assumptions you have to make e.g. about how well stages of a plan will go in sequence, about the success of the stages, about how many unknown problems exist, about what new knowledge will be created. Even with extensively developed and precise science predicting the future is problematic.

The Utopianist attitude, therefore, is opposed to the attitude of reasonableness. Utopianism, even though it may often appear in a rationalist disguise, cannot be more than a pseudo-rationalism.

Utopianism is therefore opposed to reasonableness. Utopianism may appear rationalist but is pseudo-rationalism really.


Utopianism and scientism seem to go hand in hand. I think people who have the mindset that science can be “settled” (i.e. can be finally infallibly proven) would be less thoughtful of all the assumptions that go into future planning. Scientism may be a cause of Utopianism.

What, then, is wrong with the apparently rational argument which I outlined when presenting the Utopianist case? I believe that it is quite true that we can judge the rationality of an action only in relation to some aims or ends. But this does not necessarily mean that the rationality of a political action can be judged only in relation to an historical end. And it surely does not mean that we must consider every social or political situation merely from the point of view of some preconceived historical ideal, from the point of view of an alleged ultimate aim of the development of history. On the contrary, if among our aims and ends there is anything conceived in terms of human happiness and misery, then we are bound to judge our actions in terms not only of possible contributions to the happiness of man in a distant future, but also of their more immediate effects. We must not argue that a certain social situation is a mere means to an end on the grounds that it is merely a transient historical situation. For all situations are transient. Similarly we must not argue that the misery of one generation may be considered as a mere means to the end of securing the lasting happiness of some later generation or generations; and this argument is improved neither by a high degree of promised happiness nor by a large number of generations profiting by it. All generations are transient. All have an equal right to be considered, but our immediate duties are undoubtedly to the present generation and to the next. Besides, we should never attempt to balance anybody’s misery against somebody else’s happiness.

What is wrong with the apparently rational argument for Utopianism? Yes we can judge the rationality of an action only in relation to some end. But the rationality of a political action can not be judged only by a historical end. It does not mean we must consider every social or political situation with a preconceived historical ideal. Instead if happiness and misery are among our ends, then we must judge actions in terms of immediate effects as well as possible ends. We must not argue that a social situation is a means to an end because it is transient. All situations are transient. We must not argue that misery of one generation is a means to the end of the happiness of later generations; regardless of the amount of happiness or the number of generations benefiting. All generations are transient. All should be considered, but our immediate duties are to the current and next generation. We should never balance misery against happiness.

This is part of wrapping up the chapter and laying out final conclusions, so does not work well in isolation. I don’t think I have much more to add which I haven’t already said.

I don’t know Popper’s position on altruism vs. egoism, the talk of duty hints that he may favour altruism. I wouldn’t say anyone has a duty to their generation or the next generation. I would say that you can work to aid the current or next generation because it’s beneficial to the kind of world you want to live in.

With this the apparently rational arguments of Utopianism dissolve into nothing. The fascination which the future exerts upon the Utopianist has nothing to do with rational foresight. Considered in this light the violence which Utopianism breeds looks very much like the running amok of an evolutionist metaphysics, of an hysterical philosophy of history, eager to sacrifice the present for the splendours of the future, and unaware that its principle would lead to sacrificing each particular future period for one which comes after it; and likewise unaware of the trivial truth that the ultimate future of man–whatever fate may have in store for him–can be nothing more splendid than his ultimate extinction.

So the arguments of Utopianism are wrong. Future planning by Utopianists is not rational foresight. So the violence of Utopianism is evolutionist metaphysics running amok, hysterical philosophy of history, unaware that it will lead to sacrificing each future period for the one that comes next; and unaware that the future of man can be nothing more splendid than ultimate extinction.

The writing in this chapter has gotten very poetic.

I don’t understand what is meant by “an evolutionist metaphysics” here. Those words are not used together anywhere else in the book; “hysterical philosophy of history” seems like it might be a variant or expansion of “running amok of an evolutionist metaphysics” and I do understand that so I’ll think of it in those terms.

I think this paragraph raises a very important point that I don’t think is mentioned elsewhere. If you accept the philosophy that you should ignore suffering of the current generation for the happiness of the next generation, then what is there to stop that cycle from continuing forever with every generation miserable for the sake of theoretical next generation happiness? There isn’t anything to stop it. Utopianism can not succeed.

I’m not convinced by ultimate extinction doomsaying. Though yes there are many many unpredictable and uncontrollable ways humans could theoretically go extinct, I’m not convinced that it impossible to avoid them all.


Three more paragraphs to go.

Elliot recently pointed out that I was formatting paragraphs incorrectly so I’ve been paying more attention, I caught myself missing three paragraph line breaks in this post alone! There’s definitely some bad habit at work for it to happen so often. I have the notion that it’s some sort of formatting decision I made for myself wanting to distinguish between more or less closely related paragraphs. It doesn’t make any sense to use it publicly though (and may not be a good way even for my own notes - other separators would be clearer.)

I think this is badly written. I don’t think it’s clear what the last uses of “that” and “it” refer to. The last sentence is too long. The end of the last sentence isn’t very meaningful or conclusive. I think I wrote this badly because I was confused by the words and didn’t know how/was too tired to make much sense of them. A rewrite:

I don’t understand what is meant by “an evolutionist metaphysics” here; those words are not used together anywhere else in the book. “Hysterical philosophy of history” seems like it might be a variant or expansion of “running amok of an evolutionist metaphysics” but I don’t think I fully understand either phrase.

“Philosophy of history” is a common phrase which has some explanations (in easily found Wiki pages and university articles.) In this context I think it’s referring to causal relationships of historical events, and trying to make plans for the future based on identified patterns of the past.

“Evolutionist metaphysics” doesn’t seem to have a clear meaning. I can find uses of it, but no explanation of the exact phrase. I wonder if it’s some academic chaff that is accepted as having some sort of rough meaning or significance but never properly questioned. Guessing from the individual words I’d take it to mean something like thinking that concepts, things and/or ideas evolve in some sense. This doesn’t really seem significant or meaningful in context. I think I can best understand it as something like “philosophy of history”, like choices about the future evolve from the past? I don’t know.

“Evolutionist metaphysics” is described as “running amok” and “philosophy of history” is described as “hysterical” in this context. These modifiers are clearly being used in a similar way to say that the object being modified is in some way out of control or irrational.

Overall I think the meaning is something like: out of control and irrational attempts to control the future based on patterns identified in the past.

Back into the original context:

the violence which Utopianism breeds looks very much like the running amok of an evolutionist metaphysics, of an hysterical philosophy of history, eager to sacrifice the present for the splendours of the future

So my understanding of this clause is something like:
the violence which Utopianism breeds looks very much like an out of control and irrational attempts to control the future based on patterns identified in the past

Continuing my reading of chapter 18 where I left off:

The appeal of Utopianism arises from the failure to realize that we cannot make heaven on earth. What I believe we can do instead is to make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in each generation. A good deal can be achieved in this way. Much has been achieved in the last hundred years. More could be achieved by our own generation. There are many pressing problems which we might solve, at least partially, such as helping the weak and the sick, and those who suffer under oppression and injustice; stamping out unemployment; equalizing opportunities; and preventing international crime, such as blackmail and war instigated by men like gods, by omnipotent and omniscient leaders. All this we might achieve if only we could give up dreaming about distant ideals and fighting over our Utopian blueprints for a new world and a new man. Those of us who believe in man as he is, and who have therefore not given up the hope of defeating violence and unreason, must demand instead that every man should be given the right to arrange his life himself so far as this is compatible with the equal rights of others.

Utopianism is appealing because of a mistaken fantasy of making heaven on earth. We can instead gradually make life less terrible and unjust. Good can be and has been achieved this way. There are pressing solvable problems like helping the weak and sick and those suffering injustice, eliminating unemployment, equalising opportunities, and preventing international crime and war carried out by world powers. We might make progress if stop fighting over Utopian blueprints. Those who believe in man as he is and have hope of defeating violence of unreason must demand that man has the right to arrange his own life as long as it’s compatible with the rights of others.

This paragraph is a lot clearer than the last. I broadly agree with it.
I’m a little concerned that Popper advocates “stamping out unemployment”. I don’t know well what he means; I don’t think I have enough context yet. There are good ways that unemployment can be reduced (like reducing/eliminating minimum wage laws and restrictions, and reducing the bureaucratic burden of employers and small businesses) but I would describe this as “removing impediments to employment” rather than “stamping out unemployment”.

Two more paragraphs to go.

I have found recent my grammar studies have helped with working out how to analyse the difficulty I had in my previous post. I may have gotten hopelessly confused if I hadn’t recently studied some grammar, though I still don’t have much confidence that I understood it correctly.

Continuing chapter 18:

We can see here that the problem of the true and the false rationalisms is part of a larger problem. Ultimately it is the problem of a sane attitude towards our own existence and its limitations–that very problem of which so much is made now by those who call themselves ‘Existentialists’, the expounders of a new theology without God. There is, I believe, a neurotic and even an hysterical element in this exaggerated emphasis upon the fundamental loneliness of man in a godless world, and upon the resulting tension between the self and the world. I have little doubt that this hysteria is closely akin to Utopian romanticism, and also to the ethic of hero-worship, to an ethic that can comprehend life only in terms of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’. And I do not doubt that this hysteria is the secret of its strong appeal. That our problem is part of a larger one can be seen from the fact that we can find a clear parallel to the split between true and false rationalism even in a sphere apparently so far removed from rationalism as that of religion. Christian thinkers have interpreted the relationship between man and God in at least two very different ways. The sane one may be expressed by: ‘Never forget that men are not Gods; but remember that there is a divine spark in them.’ The other exaggerates the tension between man and God, and the baseness of man as well as the heights to which men may aspire. It introduces the ethic of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’ into the relationship of man and God. Whether there are always either conscious or unconscious dreams of godlikeness and of omnipotence at the roots of this attitude, I do not know. But I think it is hard to deny that the emphasis on this tension can arise only from an unbalanced attitude towards the problem of power.

The problem of the true and false rationalisms are part of the larger problem of a sane attitude to our existence and limitations. ‘Existentialists’ who expound a godless theology are fixated on this problem. There is a neurotic and hysterical element to this emphasis on the loneliness in a godless world and the resulting tension between the self and the world. This hysteria is like Utopian romanticism and an ethic of life in terms of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’. This hysteria is part of the appeal. You can see that our problem is part of a larger one in the parallel of a split between true and false rationalism in religion which is far removed from rationalism. Christian thinkers interpret the relationship between man and god in at least two ways: the sane one is ‘Never forget that men are not Gods; but remember that there is a divine spark in them.’ and the other exaggerates the tension between man and God and introduces the ethic of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’. Sometimes, perhaps always, there is a dream of omnipotence behind this attitude. The emphasis on ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’ arises from an unbalanced attitude towards power.

I don’t yet have a good grasp on what “neurotic” refers to in terms of ideas. It seems like one of many words used in mental health circles that refer to some sort of pattern or phenomenon which they don’t understand very well.

My understanding of the ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’ idea is that it can make life simpler (less anxious, less uncertain, less unclear) if you are either dominant (has absolute unquestioned control) or submissive (has no control and does as directed). Resolving a conflict of ideas can be a lot of hard work and some people don’t want to put that work in. I think this is a very base, animalistic way of looking at life that hedonistically pursues happiness with no greater value or purpose and fits well with tribalism. But a lot of people do it. I think a lot of people avoid philosophy because it’s very much about constructing values and resolving conflicts of ideas, and they don’t have any values yet that it helps them build towards.

I don’t think it’s fundamentally something to avoid. When action is needed it can be useful. But action is not really urgently needed so often. People who are very anxious (or perhaps ‘neurotic’) and/or who are already subject to a significant mental load are vulnerable to seeing a more urgent need. To someone with that mindset, they have less mental resources to solve problems so everything seems to take longer and so is more urgent (as time seems more scarce.) I think a lot of politics and social media operates around overwhelming people and instilling a sense of urgency, and scrapes up people who are in this mentally loaded state to use them and simultaneously keeps them in a state of overwhelm and urgency.

This unbalanced (and immature) attitude is obsessed with the problem of power, not only over other men, but also over our natural environment–over the world as a whole. What I might call, by analogy, the ‘false religion’, is obsessed not only by God’s power over men but also by His power to create a world; similarly, false rationalism is fascinated by the idea of creating huge machines and Utopian social worlds. Bacon’s ‘knowledge is power’ and Plato’s ‘rule of the wise’ are different expressions of this attitude which, at bottom, is one of claiming power on the basis of one’s superior intellectual gifts. The true rationalist, in opposition, will always be aware of the simple fact that whatever reason he may possess he owes to intellectual intercourse with others. He will be inclined, therefore, to consider men as fundamentally equal, and human reason as a bond which unites them. Reason for him is the precise opposite of an instrument of power and violence: he sees it as a means whereby they may be tamed.

An unbalanced attitude to power is focused on power over the whole world including other men. The ‘false religion’ is obsessed with God’s power over the world, like the false rationalism is fascinated by the power of creating huge machines and Utopian worlds. ‘knowledge is power’ and ‘rule of the wise’ are expressions of this attitude which is about claiming power based on intellectual gifts. A true rationalist will be aware that his reason is owed to intellectual intercourse with others. He will so consider men as fundamentally equal and bound by reason. Reason is the means to tame power and violence, not wield them.

Intellectual humility is important. Without it, you can close your mind to new discoveries. An individual always has a finite amount of knowledge and an infinite amount of ignorance.

I’m not so sure about connecting ‘knowledge is power’ to a desire to claim power, I’ve taken it previous to just mean that knowledge is a tool to make change without any attachment to power hungry Utopianism. But I haven’t read Bacon very much, maybe there’s some other context.

Worship of academic achievements seems like another expression of the attitude of claiming power with intellectual gifts (and not essentially very powerful gifts).

I agree that without others I’d never have learned even a fraction of the valuable ideas I do now. But Popper seems to be describing this as owing other people in general some sort of debt as a result. I value other people and the potential good they all have, but I wouldn’t think of it as owing them anything.

I don’t have a sense of what Popper thinks of as a balanced attitude to power. I’d guess the critical difference to an unbalanced attitude to power is that he doesn’t desire power over people. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to have the power to enact change in the world - to create new things, build new things, make the world a better place.

That’s the end of chapter 18 and, for the time being, the end of my studies of C&R.

I have a sense that I could write shorter summaries with more practise. I haven’t done these much before and I’m still working out how to decide what is important to keep. I guess you could call it more exploration than practise while I’m working it out.