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Popper and Xenophanes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2013


Karl Popper identified Xenophanes of Colophon (570–478 BCE) as the originator of the method of conjectures and refutations. This essay explores this claim, and the methods of both philosophers (section 1). Disparagement (ancient and modern) of Xenophanes has been misguided (section 2). Xenophanes, a critical rationalist and realist, pioneered philosophy of religion (section 3) and epistemology (section 4), but his method was not confined to falsificationism, and appears compatible with inductivism and abductionism (section 5). The method employed by Popper in interpreting Herodotus in support of his conjectures about Xenophanes is typical of the multiple-strand reasoning characteristic of the humanities, and is as much inductivist or abductionist as refutationist (section 6). Popper's theories about Xenophanes are convincing; but even if Popperians would claim that Popper's refutationism largely fits the natural sciences, his application of it to history is implausible, and conflicts with own practice (section 7). An appendix reflects on Popper's interest in cultured refugees.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2013 

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1 Popper, Karl R., Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963Google Scholar), 53. For Popper's understanding of realism and its basis, see Popper, Karl R., Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 3744Google Scholar.

2 Popper, Conjectures, 34–39, 69; Popper, Karl R., The Poverty of Historicism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957, 71–93)Google Scholar.

3 Popper, Conjectures, 117, 136–53, 187–8.

4 Popper, , ‘The Unknown Xenophanes’, in The World of Parmenides: Essays on the Presocratic Enlightenment (hereafter, WP), ed. Petersen, Arne F. with the assistance of Jørgen Mejer (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 3367Google Scholar.

5 Popper, WP, 54.

6 Popper, WP, 40–42.

7 Popper, WP, 33–34; Heraclitus, B40. (Like Popper, I am using the notation and numbering of pre-Socratic fragments employed in Diels, H. and Kranz, W. (eds), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin: Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1956Google Scholar)).

8 Aristotle, De Caelo, 294a21.

9 Popper, WP, 40.

10 Popper, WP, 41.

11 Popper, WP, 33; Cherniss, H.F., ‘The Characteristics and Effects of Presocratic Philosophy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 12, 1951, 319–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar; reprinted in Furley, D.J. and Allen, R.E. (eds) (1970), Studies in Presocratic Philosophy (London & New York, vol. 1, 128)Google Scholar; see 18.

12 Popper, WP, 47; H. Fränkel, ‘Xenophanesstudien I und II’, Hermes, vol. 60, 1925, 174–92.

13 Gottlieb, A., The Dream of Reason (London: Penguin, 2000Google Scholar), 53.

14 Popper, WP, 42.

15 Popper, WP, 42.

16 Popper, WP, 34.

17 Popper, WP, 54.

18 Popper, WP, 37.

19 Popper, WP, 37.

20 Popper, WP, 37–9.

21 Popper, WP, 36.

22 Popper, WP, 39.

23 Popper, WP, 44.

24 Popper, WP, 44.

25 Popper, WP, 43–5, 50.

26 Popper, WP, 48.

27 Nisbet, Robert, History of the Idea of Progress (London: Heinemann, 1980Google Scholar), 20, 37–46; Popper, WP, 33–35.

28 Popper, WP, 46.

29 Popper, WP, 48.

30 Popper, WP, 48.

31 Popper, WP, 48.

32 Popper, WP, 48.

33 Popper, WP, 48.

34 Popper, WP, 48.

35 Popper, WP, 48–49.

36 For Popper's sixth, seventh and eighth claims, see WP, 49.

37 See Karl P. Popper, Objective Knowledge, 13–21, 25–26, 29–30.

38 For Heraclitus, see WP, 35; for Socrates and Democritus, see WP, 50–51. See also WP, 50, on Xenophanes.

39 Popper, WP, 47–49.

40 Popper, WP, 45.

41 Popper, WP, 45.

42 Popper, WP, 46.

43 Popper, WP, 46.

44 Francis Bacon, The New Organon, I: XLVI; in Anderson, Fulton H. (ed.), The New Organon (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960Google Scholar), 51.

45 See Peirce, C.S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (8 vols; vols 1–6 edited by Hartshorne, C. and Weiss, P.), (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935)Google Scholar.

46 Herodotus I: 163–167; Popper, WP, 55.

47 Herodotus I: 163–167; Popper, WP, 55.

48 Popper, WP, 55.

49 Pythagoras’, in Cary, M., Denniston, J.D., Duff, J. Wight, Nock, A.D., Ross, W.D. and Scullard, H.H. (eds), Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949)Google Scholar, 751.

50 For Popper's further conjecture, see Popper, WP, 56; on Gomperz, see WP, 60, note 32 (a note added by Popper's editors).

51 Xenophanes, B8; translated by Popper at WP, 54.

52 Popper, WP, 55–56.

53 Popper, WP, 55.

54 Popper, WP, 60, note 33 (one of Popper's original notes).

55 Popper, WP, 55–56.

56 Popper, WP, 55–56.

57 Popper, WP, 56.

58 Popper, WP, 56.

59 Popper, WP, 56.

60 Popper, WP, 51–54.

61 Mitchell, Basil, The Justification of Religious Belief (London: Macmillan, 1973)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 See Popper, , The Poverty of Historicism (London: Routledge, 1957), 120130Google Scholar.

63 See Popper, Historicism, 135–9 and 143–4.

64 Popper, Historicism, 143–4.

65 Popper, WP, 56.

66 Popper, WP, 56–57.

67 See Magee, Bryan, Popper, London: Fontana, 1973Google Scholar.

68 Popper, WP, 59 and 93.

69 For Popper's somewhat disparaging references to Freud, see Popper, WP, 124, 204 and 239. There are more than twenty references in WP to Einstein; Popper compares him to Xenophanes at 50.

70 I would like to thank for their encouragement and comments on earlier drafts of this paper my former colleagues Michael Durrant, Richard Gray and Nick Shackel; my brother David Attfield; and the members of the Philosophy Seminar of Trinity St. David's University, Lampeter, to which an earlier version was presented in March 2013. I am also grateful to Anthony O'Hear for valuable suggestions which have significantly enhanced this essay.