Thinkers on Conflict: Popper versus Kuhn

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.

Popper set some very high standards for scientific rigor. He wanted scientists constantly to set out to disprove their work. Any scientific theory to Popper is always in the state of being not yet disproved. There is something to be said for this approach of looking for data to contradict your beliefs rather than more data that supports them. It is not skeptical post-modernist chaos. Instead Popper is using potential conflict between a theory, its predictions and actual data about the real world to drive science forward.

Thomas Kuhn developed a theory of science that had more impact than Popper, but not always of positive nature. He thought that most of the time science (what he called Normal Science) operated within a set of given assumptions or Paradigms that were taken as given and not subject to testing. This therefore greatly restricted the extent to which Popperian disproof was actually happening. In fact, the Paradigm as conceived by Kuhn is a sort of fundamentalist orthodoxy about how the world is. Normal Science is to Kuhn the process of elaboration of the Paradigm or central theory in ever more detail. A whole generation of scientists grows up with a set of common assumptions and they exhibit strong resistance to any data that might call the central Paradigm into question.

In this view, theories are only questioned when they meet a crisis and cease to be consistent with experimental data. But in practice, Kuhn thought theories might only be replaced when the old guard dies out and a new generation replaces them who are not so invested in the old way of looking at things.

Popper and Kuhn are talking about scientific method, but they are really also potentially talking about belief systems. Indeed, some have commented that their approaches seem more like a philosophy of religious belief. Our beliefs are hugely important parts of our approach to conflict. Kuhn in particular saw knowledge as having a strong social character in terms of the need to bring order to an inherently divisive situation consisting of many self interested and fallible agents. Steve Fuller in his useful book ‘Kuhn versus Popper’ sees Kuhn as having triumphed over Popper in this field and sees it as a

great leap backward’: ‘after all who needs an explicit social contract for science when science’s own social relations constitute a natural aristocracy.

For Kuhn the scientific ideal is whatever has emerged as the dominant scientific community, and science has come to be justified more by its paradigmic pedigree than its progressive aspirations.

In terms of our conflict thinking, Kuhn is important for having drawn our attention to our working within paradigms that serve as short cuts and frameworks for our thinking. My friend Lisa M thinks, rightly in my view, that the critical first step in any conflict is the recognition that we have paradigms, rather than certain error free grip on reality.

Kuhn sees the dominant paradigm as foundational, at least until it reaches a crisis. 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 time resistant to falsifiability. We could then step onto one of them and hack at the original plank to try to falsify it.

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.  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.

For Kuhn, science is the adoption of a paradigm as a blueprint for future research, common work patterns and common standards to adjudicate knowledge claims. His normal science is little more than the fleshing out of the paradigm or puzzle solving. Scientific revolutions occur rarely and when the paradigm reaches a crisis, an alternative paradigm has begun to emerge and the shift between the two is quick and irreversible and often the result of an inter-generational shift: a gestalt shift, coming to see the world in a new way.

In contrast, Popper wanted to hold claims to knowledge to publicly accountable standards: in particular falsification, which he regarded as the core of science. When he looked, Kuhn couldn’t find much evidence of this falsification actually happening in practice. (In the rapidly emerging field of neuro-science, falsification seems rampant, which is why it is so intriguing!) He wanted contingent foundations: science anchored by exemplars. Popper saw this as uncritical and conformist. 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. If you are not capable of such ‘bi-lingualism’ you are unlikely to be able to solve profound conflict across cultural, religious or other major paradigm chasms.

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. It is not as in post-modernism that no narrative is privileged, but that for a time final judgement is suspended, so learning can take place and the parties come to know what they didn’t know they didn’t know.

Popper’s proactive strategy seems to me to have a stronger place in conflict work. His model of constantly challenging dominant scientific theories aims to render science more game-like, but it is not a zero-sum game. Indeed it is potentially a form of Darwinian evolution producing ever more strongly tested and realistic theories. Rational decisions about science cannot be taken unless we are sure that tests of theories are not biased towards the existing dominant theory. This means in conflict work, that we are constantly checking that our view of the how see conflict stands up to skeptical scrutiny. We don’t just assume what is convenient to our viewpoint as true. That is not to say we lightly cast aside a well tested view of how things are, but we need to some good reasons to doubt and perhaps have a better alternative in mind that tests better. For example the George W Bush White House was problematic in its decision making, not just because some of its approaches were mistaken, but because it had no doubt they were correct. The road to hell is paved with false certainty.

Given that many conflicts will cut across paradigm boundaries, then Popperian standards seem to be more promising as we stretch towards higher level solutions, rather than leaving each side comfortably entrenched within its respective dominant paradigm. For Popper, science is philosophy by more exact means: the kind of critical philosophy that proceeds by direct engagement, pitting one hypothesis against another counter hypothesis. There is a strong link between this and the tradition we have followed from Plato/Socrates to Hegel and Marx, despite Popper’s reservations about these thinkers.

Imre Lakatos took things a step further by seeing that you couldn’t just eliminate a theory, but had to replace it and that error elimination is a collective learning experience. Lakatos noted that Popper needs to predict. The conditions for dialectical engagement are that the two competing theories (like two sides in a conflict), whatever their fundamental disagreements on the structure of reality, must recognize their difference on some fundamental issue and agree a procedure to test this: some crucial experiment the outcome of which is binding on the participants. We can imagine this in a conflict situation and realize how rare this rigor is in reality. We really don’t have that sort of confidence in our positions that we would risk their falsification!

Incidentally, the Marxist Literary Critic Georg Lukacs talks about the destruction of reason, because of a failure to specify a standard of judgement that is independent of what is being judged and as a result the historically situated character of reason cannot be recognized, criticized and corrected. In conflict situations, applying this would involve much more adherence to jointly agreed criteria for decisions or for the collaboration that is the positive side of difference or even conflict.

Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift reminds us of a process of almost religious conversion and follows on from a period of crisis, schism, confusion and despair. It is particularly challenging because the initiates in a paradigm have been so steeped in it, that they do not question it except in the form of limited puzzle-solving. Popper found this unacceptable and from a conflict standpoint he is right. Belief let alone unconditional commitment, leads to totalitarian consequences whether in science, religion or politics. It is not what science should be about. Hypotheses need to be subject to strenuous testing with a genuine commitment to the truth and the courage to always challenge your own theories.

The price of acquiring any knowledge at all is that it will be somehow distorted by the conditions of its acquisition; hence criticism is the only universally reliable method.’

It is in the nature of Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm that it brooks no rivals, it holds a monopoly and so a scientist cannot really be under the sway of two paradigms. Applied to conflict this is profoundly unhelpful. The ability at least to interrogate rival views of the world is essential in deep conflict, and is not the same as eventually accepting both. Kuhn’s view also assumes no interregnum between the two, but a sudden decisive paradigm or gestalt switch.

Imre Lakatos says it well that intellectual honesty (and for that matter effectiveness in conflict) does not consist in trying to entrench or establish one’s position by proving it, but specifying the conditions that would falsify it. As Lakatos states it:

A science that tries to develop our ideas and that uses rational means for the elimination of even the most fundamental conjectures must use a principle of tenacity together with a principle of proliferation. It must be able to retain ideas in the face of difficulty and it must be allowed to introduce new ideas even if popular views should appear to be fully justified. This is similar to the biological evolution of species via mutations and fitness testing to prevent us from stagnating.’

Popperians and Kuhnians were in very real conflict as they seemed to have quite different views of the world, with quite different implications. However, they are in practice not so incompatible and their integration seems to promise a powerful tool in the conflict tool box. If we take Kuhn’s view of Normal Science as sociologically and historically correct in some sense, recognizing the huge economy of effort that it allows, then we can also recognize that it has a Popperian strand in it nevertheless. The process of peer review, duplication of experimental results may most of the time elaborate or confirm the existing Paradigm. In practice again and again science has found flaws in Paradigms and undergone what Kuhn calls Paradigm Shifts. So from time to time science goes Popperian and actually disproves a well established Paradigm.

In summary, what Popper and Kuhn have provided is a way for parties in a conflict to recognize their fundamental (and potentially very different assumptions about the world) as ‘merely’ different Paradigms in the Kuhnian sense of the word. Popper offers us a powerful pragmatic realism that prevents our Kuhnian insights sending us into solipsist Post-Modernist anything goes ‘narratives’. Instead we can ask any party in a dispute my favorite generative and dispute framing question:

What would it take to change your mind on this belief?’

This is a profoundly Popperian question that can be used in a very Kuhnian world! Imagine if policy makers and politicians proposing a policy actually stated the measures of its success and what would cause it to be disproved as a solution? ‘We are invading Iraq on the assumption that we will be welcomed by its people and if not, we have a strategy to cope with our assumption being wrong!’

Personal Footnote: Sometime in the mid 1970s I was browsing the Philosophy of Science section of Dillon’s the London University Bookstore. I pulled out Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for a look. A professorial type appeared alongside me and glanced at what I was reading: he said: ‘Scientific revolutions, my ass’ and walked off. It was Karl Popper.

Thomas Kuhn:

Karl Popper:


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).
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