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The Central Mistake of Historicism: Karl Popper on Why Trend is Not Destiny

Philosophy can be a little dry in concept. The word itself conjures up images of thinking about thought, why we exist, and other metaphysical ideas that seem a little divorced from the everyday world.

One true philosopher who bucked the trend was the genius Austrian philosopher of science, Karl Popper.

Popper had at least three important lines of inquiry:

  1. How does progressive scientific thought actually happen?
  2. What type of society do we need to allow for scientific progress to be made?
  3. What can we say we actually know about the world?

Popper’s work led to his idea of falsifiability as the main criterion of a scientific theory. Simply put, an idea or theory doesn’t enter the realm of science until we can state it in such a way that a test could prove it wrong. This important identifier allowed him to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

An interesting piece of Popper’s work was an attack on what he called historicism — the idea that history has fixed laws or trends that inevitably lead to certain outcomes. Included would be the Marxist interpretation of human history as a push and pull between classes, the Platonic ideals of the systemic “rise and fall” of cities and societies in a fundamentally predictable way, John Stuart Mill’s laws of succession, and even the theory that humanity inevitably progresses towards a “better” and happier outcome, however defined. Modern ideas in this category might well include Thomas Piketty’s theory of how capitalism leads to an accumulation of dangerous inequality, the “inevitability” of America’s fall from grace in the fashion of the Roman empire, or even Russell Brand’s popular diatribe on utopian upheaval from a few years back.

Popper considered this kind of thinking pseudoscience, or worse — a dangerous ideology that tempts wannabe state planners and utopians to control society. (Perhaps through violent revolution, for example.) He did not consider such historicist doctrines falsifiable. There is no way, for example, to test whether Marxist theory is actually true or not, even in a thought experiment. We must simply take it on faith, based on a certain interpretation of history, that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are at odds, and that the latter is destined to create uprisings. (Destined being the operative word — it implies inevitability.) If we’re to assert that the there is a Law of Increasing Technological Complexity in human society, which many are tempted to do these days, is that actually a testable hypothesis? Too frequently, these Laws become immune to falsifying evidence — any new evidence is interpreted through the lens of the theory. Instead of calling them interpretations, we call them Laws, or some similarly connotative word.

More deeply, Popper realized the important point that history is a unique process — it only gets run once. We can’t derive Laws of History that predict the future the way we can with, say, a law of physics that carries predictive capability under stated conditions. (i.e. If I drop a ceramic coffee cup more than 2 feet, it will shatter.) We can only merely deduce some tendencies of human nature, laws of the physical world, and so on, and generate some reasonable expectation that if X happens, Y is somewhat likely to follow. But viewing the process of human or organic history as possessing the regularity of a solar system is folly.

He discusses this in his book The Poverty of Historicism.

The evolution of life on earth, or of a human society, is a unique historical process. Such a process, we may assume, proceeds in accordance with all kinds of causal laws, for example, the laws of mechanics, of chemistry, of heredity and segregation, of natural selection, etc. Its description, however, is not a law, but only a single historical statement. Universal laws make assertions concerning some unvarying order[…] and although there is no reason why the observation of one single instance should not incite us to formulate a universal law, nor why, if we are lucky, we should not even hit upon the truth, it is clear that any law, formulated in this or in any other way, must be tested by new instances before it can be taken seriously by science. But we cannot hope to test a universal hypothesis nor to find a natural law acceptable to science if we are ever confined to the observation of one unique process. Nor can the observation of one unique process help us to foresee its future development. The most careful observation of one developing caterpillar will to help us to predict its transformation into a butterfly.

Popper realized that once we deduce a theory of the Laws of Human Development, carried into the ever-after, we are led into a gigantic confirmation bias problem. For example, we can certainly find confirmations for the idea that humans have progressed, in a specifically defined way, towards increasing technological complexity. But is that a Law of history, in the inviolable sense? For that, we really can’t say.

The problem is that to establish cause-and-effect, in a scientific sense, requires two things: A universal law (or a set of them) and some initial conditions (and ideally these are played out over a really large sample size to give us confidence). Popper explains:

I suggest that to give a causal explanation of a certain specific event means deducing a statement describing this event from two kinds of premises: from some universal laws, and from some singular or specific statements which we may call specific initial conditions.

For example, we can say that we have given a causal explanation of the breaking of a certain thread if we find this thread could carry a weight of only one pound, and that a weight of two pounds was put on it. If we analyze this causal explanation, then we find that two different constituents are involved. (1) Some hypotheses of the character of universal laws of nature; in this case, perhaps: ‘For every thread of a given structure s (determined by material, thickness, etc.) there is a characteristic weight w such that the thread will break if any weight exceeding w is suspended on it’ and ‘For every thread of the structure s, the characteristic weight w equals one pound.’ (2) Some specific statements—the initial conditions—pertaining to the particular event in question; in this case we may have two such statements: ’This is a thread of structure s, and ‘The weight put on this thread was a weight of two pounds’.

The trend is not destiny

Here we hit on the problem of trying to assert any fundamental laws by which human history must inevitably progress. Trend is not destiny. Even if we can derive and understand certain laws of human biological nature, the trends of history itself dependent on conditions, and conditions change.

Explained trends do exist, but their persistence depends on the persistence of certain specific initial conditions (which in turn may sometimes be trends).

Mill and his fellow historicists overlook the dependence of trends on initial conditions. They operate with trends as if they were unconditional, like laws. Their confusion of laws with trends make them believe in trends which are unconditional (and therefore general); or, as we may say, in ‘absolute trends’; for example a general historical tendency towards progress—‘a tendency towards a better and happier state’. And if they at all consider a ‘reduction’ of their tendencies to laws, they believe that these tendencies can be immediately derived from universal laws alone, such as the laws of psychology (or dialectical materialism, etc.).

This, we may say, is the central mistake of historicism. Its “laws of development” turn out to be absolute trends; trends which, like laws, do not depend on initial conditions, and which carry us irresistibly in a certain direction into the future. They are the basis of unconditional prophecies, as opposed to conditional scientific predictions.

[…]

The point is that these (initial) conditions are so easily overlooked. There is, for example, a trend towards an ‘accumulation of means of production’ (as Marx puts it). But we should hardly expect it to persist in a population which is rapidly decreasing; and such a decrease may in turn depend on extra-economic conditions, for example, on chance interventions, or conceivably on the direct physiological (perhaps bio-chemical) impact of an industrial environment. There are, indeed, countless possible conditions; and in order to be able to examine these possibilities in our search for the true conditions of the trend, we have all the time to try to imagine conditions under which the trend in question would disappear. But this is just what the historicist cannot do. He firmly believes in his favorite trend, and conditions under which it would disappear to him are unthinkable. The poverty of historicism, we might say, is a poverty of imagination. The historicist continuously upbraids those who cannot imagine a change in their little worlds; yet it seems that the historicist is himself deficient in imagination, for he cannot imagine a change in the conditions of change.

Still interested? Check out our previous post on Popper’s theory of falsification, or check out The Poverty of Historicism to explore his idea more deeply. A warning: It’s not a beach read. I had to read it twice to get the basic idea. But, once grasped, it’s well worth the time.