Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn’s Top Ten Conflict Tips

Karl Popper (1902-94) and Thomas Kuhn (1922-96)

One interesting intellectual tradition that contributes to conflict work is the Philosophy of Science especially as developed by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. I have wondered what they would have come up with if they had attempted to consense what advice they come up with on conflict handling:

  1. Set out to test and disprove your theory of reality
  2. Know that your existing paradigm may be wrong, but that you are probably going to operate within it unless and until a better theory comes along
  3. Crises for your theories are what drive improved understanding of reality along, so crisis is good in the long haul
  4. The critical first step in any conflict is the recognition that we have paradigms, rather than certain error free grip on reality, and we need to test them to get real about the conflict.
  5. Knowledge has a strong social character, which for Kuhn is inevitable and for Popper to be constantly challenged
  6. Kuhn sees the dominant paradigm as foundational, at least until it reaches a crisis
  7. Popper on the other hand, insists we hack away at the very plank we are standing on to see if it holds up. Neurathian analysis would apply Popperian hacking to the other planks until they were found to be at least for the time being resistant to falsifiability. We could then step onto one of them and hack at the original plank to try to falsify it.
  8. The synthesis of Kuhn/Popper might be to understand we are within a paradigm, with all the attendant risks of distortion on our grip on reality, but continually seek to improve it, test it and develop alternative paradigms in parallel.
  9. When faced with a deep and intractable conflict, we would do well to apply this approach to our own position and make sure it is the product of a realistic, meaningful and fully tested paradigm, without ever thinking that there is no room for doubt or further testing/questioning.
  10. Kuhn drew attention to the fact that there was a profound difficulty in the need to understand the world through two paradigms with radically different or incommensurable assumptions. Kuhn compares it to being bi-lingual and sees few scientists as being capable of this. Yet this skill is critical to conflict work. As is his idea of a gestalt shift, coming to see the world in a new way.I

OK so I am not sure they would agree on all the above.

So let me add: the mental capacity to see two paradigms simultaneously is essential to good conflict work and useful to mediation or any attempt to reach a higher level solution in the conflict between two world views, a clash of civilizations or whatever. Two world views are simultaneously held and neither accepted as rejected, but instead worked through and their implications and correspondence with the data in the situation established.

And I like the profoundly Popperian question: ‘what data would it take to change your mind?’

Popper’s approach: From http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2007/02/what_scientists_believe_and_wh.php


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn’s Top Ten Conflict Tips

  1. Pingback: Top Ten of our Top Ten Conflict Tips | Creativeconflictwisdom's Blog

  2. Ian Bron says:

    A very clever summary and synthesis of Popper and Kuhn’s relevance to the world outside science. I’m writing a paper on this subject, by the way, and would like to cite your list. Shall I call you creativeconflict, anonymous, or a real name (which you can send to my email at ian.bron@canadians4accountability.org.

  3. louploup2 says:

    Good post. I keep seeing Popper used by AGW deniers to refute the scientific validity of any and all published work supporting the theory that human GHGs are causing global warming and consequent climate change. Searching for some elucidation of why the deniers rely on Popper to claim Hansen, Mann, etc. are not real scientists led me here. There’s a good little piece on Popper and uncertainty here.

    I particularly like your focus on paradigms since AGW deniers seem particularly prone to an inability grasp the concept, or at least exhibit great fear facing the possibility (certainty?) that paradigms can shift. And especially that the current one (ones?) appear to be close to their lifespan.

    Some more in depth and direct analysis and discussion of these matters would be very helpful.

    • @louploup. Thanks. Of course the deniers don’t see that their denial is itself a paradigm, though not one that emerges out of the data but out of their pre-existing policy predilictions. Popper (whom I met once in Dillons the London bookstore: he caught me looking at Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ and just said: ‘Scientific revolutions, my arse…’ and stomped off.) is I think more radical than most people think, and probably more radical than he saw himself. Though I don’t then want to revert into post Modernist scepticism: see my posts on Post Modernism which seems to tip into infinite gullibility or ‘fashionable nonsense’…My test is from my career in manufacturing: does it work? So perhaps I am a Popperian Pragmatist?

  4. Hey great post! It’s really helpful – been looking for a source that wasn’t too long and complicated concerning Popper vs Kuhn (I’m pretty new to this area of study) and this was perfect 🙂 I would like to reference you in my paper if that’s okay with you and was wondering if I could use your real name. You can contact me on my student mail s11064760@student.usp.ac.fj Please let me know how you feel about this and I hope to hear from you soon – thanks again for the post!

  5. Pingback: Top Ten of our Top Ten Conflict Tips (Re-post #9) | Creativeconflictwisdom's Blog

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