Michael Lessnoff’s essay on The Political Philosophy of Karl Popper, a consideration.

Could this excerpt from Mr. Lessinoff’s essay, published in 1980, considering the political philosophy of Popper, offer the possibility of a telling critique of Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’?

He does not, of course, deny that some generalizations hold only in certain
historical periods, but he does deny that historical epochs are so sharply divided from one another that there can be no valid cross-historical sociological laws.And of course he denies any necessary succession of historical epochs, and more especially the validity of absolute prophecies of future epochs, or even of future trends. In place of the total, but predictable discontinuities of the historicist picture, Popper sees history as a complex pattern of continuity and unpredic-table change, a process that can be partly influenced by deliberate human choices and interventions which however cannot themselves be predicted.

Popper’s objection to historicist prophecy, then, rests most basically on his
belief in human freedom, that is, on a difference between the human and the
inanimate worlds. Anyone who does not believe that this difference exists will not be convinced by that argument. However, Popper has also given another argument which rests on the difference between absolute prophecies and conditional scientific predictions.15 Scientific laws, we saw, have the form ‘All As are B’, from which can be derived the conditional ‘If A, then B’. Thus, one can predict that, if A occurs or is the case, B will occur or be the case; but one cannot, on the basis of a scientific law, predict absolutely that B will be the case. It is true that scientific knowledge does license what appear to be absolute predictions in certain cases – such as typhoons, eclipses, and the phases of the moon – some of which even relate to the distant future. All of them, however, are really dependent on the existence of some specific initial conditions. In certain cases, there may be good reason to believe that the initial conditions will exist: thus, one may reason, ‘If A is the case, B will be the case; but A will be the case; hence, B will be the case.’ The conclusion is an absolute, unconditional prediction. But such a conclusion from scientific laws can be justified (that is,the existence of specific initial conditions can be assumed) only in relation to relatively simple, isolated systems – isolated from interactions that might relevantly alter the initial conditions – such as the solar system (the main natural arena for unconditional scientific predictions). Even here the predictions should strictly be accompanied by a proviso that they are conditional on the continuing isolation of such a system. And a society, at any rate, is not such a system.

I believe this argument against historicism is somewhat confused. Popper’s
idea seems to be that scientific laws, by virtue of their universal form, always
license conditional predictions, but license absolute predictions only in relation to simple, isolated systems. However, the truth surely is that even the conditional predictions derivable from scientific laws can be made only in relation to relatively simple, isolated systems. These predictions really have the form, ‘If A occurs, B will occur, if other things remain equal’. In complex natural systems we cannot say whether other things will remain equal or not – whether some other new factor will affect the outcome. As Popper himself remarks, sufficiently isolated natural systems are rare, and hence, in general ‘it is only by the use of artificial experimental isolation that we can predict events.


I find the fact that not any scholar, that I am aware of , used Michael Lessnoff’s insights, as an invaluable rhetorical frame, for constructing a critique of Fukuyama’s original essay, that metastasized into a Straussian World Historical Melodrama, not just puzzling, but offers clear evidence that American intellectual culture exists within what Daniel T. Rogers names ‘The Age of Fracture’.

Political Observer

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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