Dahrendorf, R  Remarks on the Discussion of the Papers by Karl Popper and Theodore Adorno

[This is Dahrendorf's account of the original conference organised by the German Sociological Association at Tubingen on the logic of the social sciences, which was to feature keynotes by Popper and Adorno. These conference papers form the core of the actual book on the Dispute, although, as Popper says, the order of presentation of papers in the book is quite different, and instead of his paper coming first, as it did at the conference, it now appears halfway down and after a lengthy introduction by Adorno! Dahrendorf offers a series of comments that any sociologist trying to read critical theory will immediately identify with!]

The conference arose when it became obvious that there was a big split among sociology teachers focusing on methods but also theories and political commitments  [it was the Sixties after all]. However, neither Popper nor Adorno focused particularly well on the methods of the social sciences, especially at first.

To the amazement of some participants, Popper and Adorno even seemed to agree on some points -- for example that sociology should not be divided sharply from philosophy. Of course, they disagreed about what philosophy was. The same goes for their notion of criticism -- a critical theory of society for Adorno versus a content-free methodological procedure for Popper. Popper thought this method spanned social and natural science, but Adorno saw important differences between the social and the natural worlds -- the former offers material which is already mediated by language and culture. Dahrendorf sees the ghosts of Kant and Hegel behind this dispute.

Both main spokespersons rounded upon an absent  'third man'-- positivism, or sometimes empiricism. In this, they seemed to ignore many actual problems faced by empirical sociologists. This revealed  '"an extraordinarily narrow conception of the empirical and an extraordinarily broad conception of theory"' (quoting Weippert, 126). Science seemed to consist mostly of the formulation of theories, with experience used only to test them. Popper argued that science did not proceed by amassing facts and using them to generalise theories -- that would be induction, but  '"There is no observation without hypothesis"' (126). For Adorno, empirical studies were equally problematic and insufficient  [presumably on classic marxist grounds that these would only study epiphenomena as well as being 'restricted' etc]. In neither case were the problems of actually doing concrete research in sociology discussed. For Dahrendorf, empirical research does not just test theories but finds things out, and this empirical activity best describes what sociologists actually do.

Other themes were introduced by the other discussants, but the most frequent one turned on the issue of value judgments and value freedom. Some participants saw this issue as continuing from the great discussions of the early 20th century  [the methodenstreitt]. However, neither Popper nor Adorno seemed to want to focus on this particularly, although it might have been a better theme to focus the issues besetting actual German sociology.

It became clearer that the position of the different speakers were not to be easily reconciled --  'one must doubt whether Popper and Adorno could even agree upon a procedure with the aid of which their differences could be decided' (128). The main difference that emerged at the end was clearly a political one.

Adorno admitted that he had  '"retreated to a pre-Marxian position... Societal reality has changed in a manner such that one is forced back almost inevitably to the standpoint of Left Hegelianism... because... the theory developed by Marx and Engels has itself, in the meantime, taken on a completely dogmatic form... [and]... has itself become an atrocious ideology which serves to justify the most wretched practice of the suppression of mankind...  [Also]... the notion that through the theory, and through the enunciation of the theory, one can immediately stir people and arouse them to action has become doubly impossible. This results from the disposition of men who... can no longer be aroused by theory in this way, and results from the form of reality which excludes the possibility of such actions which  for Marx seemed to be just around the corner. If today one behaved as if one could change the world tomorrow, then one would be a liar"' (129).

Popper remained far more optimistic, because he was advocating a piecemeal procedure for social change. This was a pre-Hegelian liberal position.  '"The conceit that we know such an overwhelming amount about the world is what is false... we know nothing and therefore we must be modest; and since we are modest, we can be optimists"' (129).

For Dahrendorf, these statements, coming only at the end of the conference, revealed new possibilities for the connection between the procedures of sociology, between its epistemological positions and various moral and political principles. However, questions like this were simply left open. The topic proved inadequate to focus the controversies. The participants themselves did not attempt precise clarification of their positions, or illustrate it with discussions of particular theories or particular relationships between the theoretical and empirical, or between theory construction and empirical research. The participants themselves also seemed unable to discuss their particular interests [no surprise there, surely].

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