Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

A systematic pretense of an inability to understand

This response by Popper to the Frankfurt School critique of his approach in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology was recently posted to the philosophy sub-reddit, under the title “Could someone help me find an article by Karl Popper mocking the Frankfurt School?” (subtitled “It was posted here a few months ago and I believe it was by Karl Popper, poking fun at Frankfurt School philosopher’s terrible writing style”), which seemed really gross to me. More so after I actually read Popper’s article. I put enough work into my response to his response that I thought I’d post it independently.


Responding to The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, Popper sustains, to use Habermas’ description of the positivists’ attitude, “a systematic pretence of inability to understand” (see this article from the book Popper is responding to). This pretense is nowhere better animated than in his snarky, obtuse, and wrong interpretation of a phrase by Adorno which he takes as his principal example.

Adorno says, as Popper translates it:

“Societal totality does not lead a life of its own over and above that which it unites and of which it, in its turn, is composed.”

Popper claims to think the sentence is just making the obvious / deliberatively inert claim that…

“Society consists of social relationships.”

Generously, that captures half of it. What Adorno is actually saying, is something like…

“Society IS its constitutive social relationships. Its “life” is defined by them, but at the same time, these social relationships are shaped into a coherent totality by it. Neither society, nor its constitutive relationships have any /external/ reference point from which to found self-criticism.”

I’ll grant that that’s a lot to read from this sentence, but if you actually read the article, without pretending to be stupid as a textual interpreter (which is how Popper seems to understand being “objective”), you’ll see that these ignored meanings absolutely have a seat in the above sentence. But to break things down, there are two key elements of Adorno’s original meaning that Popper loses:

  1. The implicit time dimension. The relationship between society and its constitutive relationships is a dynamic, dialectical one (meaning that it’s shaped by ongoing implicit and explicit debates). Saying “society consists of social relationships” does nothing to capture this time dimension that’s so critical to Adorno’s thinking.
  2. That there’s nothing else that defines society’s ideational dimension but its internal, dialectical relationships’ interpretations of material reality. Popper’s formulation leaves open the possibility that we may stumble on interpretive “hypotheses” emerging spontaneously from nowhere really at all (“”We all get our values, or most of them, from our social environment; often merely by imitation, simply by taking them over form others; sometimes by a revolutionary reaction to accepted values; and at other times—though this may be rare—by a critical examination of these values and of possible alternatives.” p. 159). He has no proposed account of what could found these “rare” “critical examination” of values, and no interest in seriously “critically investigating” the “possible alternatives” for what might motivate such critical examinations when they occur (a project that, by contrast, is at the heart of Frankfurt School Critical Theory—Habermas’ Public Sphere book is exactly a critical examination of this problem).

Stripping 2 follows naturally from stripping 1. You can’t provide an account for the rise of criticism without admitting a historical dimension. Popper has no interest in incorporating history into his positive thinking. Why? Because it complicates matters too much, revealing the social world as that much more dynamic and complex than the nicely controlled lab conditions of the natural sciences that he fancies to emulate.

His quasi-fetishistic elevation of the natural sciences above the social sciences is obvious, and obviously not particularly rationally grounded: “In the so-called social sciences and in philosophy, the degeneration into impressive but more or less empty verbalism has gone further than in the natural sciences.” (160) — Even taking his “more or less empty” accusation at face value, why, Karl? Because, for whatever reason, social scientists are more concerned with impressing people than natural scientists? Why is that? Because they’re just worse people? No investigation, or recognition of a responsibility to justify the claim is forthcoming. How scientific.

By contrast, any Frankfurt Schooler will tell you right away: the here operative difference between the natural and social sciences stems from the reality that social problem are rendered that much more complicated to study because the social scientist herself is implicated in them. While the natural scientist has the luxury of looking at her object through the microscope’s viewfinder, the social scientist is in the petri dish. She must therefore do as much work to control for herself—understand her place within the dialectic, and the biases that her position introduces—as she must actually analyzing the social phenomena that interest her.

I encourage those interested in this debate to actually read what Popper is responding to (translations of the relevant essays from the book are available here). But don’t follow Popper’s lead and pretend to be stupid as you do so.

It’s also a straw man to claim that Habermas and Adorno have no interest in the natural sciences (as Popper strongly implies in his concluding paragraph). If Adorno wasn’t interested in the natural sciences, why would the Dialectic of the Enlightenment begin with a broad and serious engagement with Bacon? If Habermas wasn’t interested in science, would he have used it as a model how we should respond to post-modernism? Adorno and Habermas, like Marx and Engels, recognize science and technology as essential tools for social emancipation in the context of modernity, but they have a real concern, following Weber, about ideology that raises these tools above the human subject.

Ultimately, Popper’s response, IMHO, is pretty flimsy. He may like to be breastfed, but I don’t think it’s a mark against the Frankfurt School that they don’t oblige him. Our social discourse plays enough to the passified and lazy who read only to affirm their preconceived ideological views.

I tend to think of the best of the Continental thinkers as taking the attitude described by William Carlos Williams in January Morning:

All this — was for you, old woman. I wanted to write a poem that you would understand. For what good is it to me if you can’t understand it? But you got to try hard —

[hat tip to Starnino for that]

To paraphrase, if we’re going to talk, let’s talk like adults, and like it’s worth something. Amirite? Amirong? Why?


Find the pretty limited but interesting discussion the above provoked here. The most substantive exchange was this one:

Snuki: So would it have been OK for Popper to paraphrase Adorno as saying: ‘Society is constitutive societal relationships and no more. These develop in time”?

Discursor: “… These/—meaning society AND its constitutive societal relationships—/develop /dialectically/ in time” might be okay, provided he was prepared to then offer a fair definition of what dialectics are to Adorno.

Snuki: I do think that Adorno is needlessly obscure. I mean, if the paraphrase I gave is OK then he really could have done it in a simpler way. Of course, he admits to obscurity, but claims it is a feature, not a bug. I think it is a bug.

Discursor: His concern is that it’s very easy to obliviously or exploitatively misunderstand something that’s put too simply. Readers are not challenged to actually reflect on the text critically. Considering the vulgarization of Nietzsche’s much more readable philosophy at the hands of his sister and the Nazis, I don’t blame him.

Snuki: I know, he wants the reader to experience interpretation as a creative act. (Derrida stole that justification from Adorno). Personally I think clarity leaves you less likely to be misunderstood, not more. But anyway.

Discursor: I don’t think it’s prudent to generalize. For some things, yes, simplicity (clarity is a pre-loaded word) does reduce the odds of being misunderstood, but I think for complex and politically charged topics to which readers can be expected to bring very powerful preconceptions and biases, simplicity often amounts to vulnerability to interpretive exploitation. EDIT: As a sidepoint, “interpretation as a creative act” isn’t really what Adorno’s about. He’s still a modernist. He’s more about interpretation as a critically engaged act.


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