Myth of the Framework: Why Conflict Must Never Be Eliminated

This is a historical post.

In my last post, I mentioned that I subscribe to Karl Popper’s ideas about “The Myth of the Framework.” So what is this Myth about Frameworks anyhow?

The Myth of the Framework Defined

Karl Popper describes the “myth” like this – and please note that you’ve probably not only heard this before, but likely you’ve said it before:

The myth of the framework can be stated in one sentence, as follows. A rational and fruitful discussion is impossible unless the participants share a common framework of basic assumptions or, at least, unless they have agreed on such a framework for the purpose of the discussion. (Myth of the Framework, p. 34-35)

Right along with Popper, I’m going to pull out my “bull” (and by that I mean “baloney”) detector and it goes off right away.

Popper spares no expense talking about the sort of damage this pernicious belief has caused:

Some people… think that what I describe as a myth is a logical principle, or based on a logical principle. I think, on the contrary, that it is not only a false statement, but also a vicious statement which, if widely believed, must undermine the unity of mankind, and so must greatly increase the likelihood of violence and of war. This is the main reason why I want to combat it, and to refute it. (Myth of the Framework, p. 35)

Whoa! Strong words! Could this view of “incommensurable frameworks” (as Kuhn would put it) really be that bad?

I absolutely believe so. To understand why, we have to realize that this is actually a natural extension of Karl Popper’s views on Conjecture and Refutation. To summarize (poorly) knowledge is only gained through conjecture and refutation. Or in other words, the human race only advances through conflict. That conflict is, hopefully, not violence, but rather mutual criticism. But even if it is violence, that’s superior to the alternative of enforced orthodoxy.

I hold that orthodoxy is the death of knowledge, since the growth of knowledge depends entirely on the existence of disagreement. Admittedly, disagreement may lead to strife, and even to violence. And this, I think, is very bad indeed, for I abhor violence. Yet disagreement may also lead to discussion, to argument, and to mutual criticism. And these, I think, are of paramount importance. I suggest that the greatest step towards a better and more peaceful world was taken when the war of swords was first supported, and later sometimes even replaced, by a war of words. (Myth of the Framework, p. 34)

Whoa again! The way to a peaceful future was through war of swords? Is this guy serious?


The Logical Fallacy of the Myth of the Framework

But isn’t that Myth of the Framework sort of true? Isn’t it true that people tend to talk past each other if they don’t share a common intellectual framework? Popper is not denying this:

Let me say at once that the myth contains a kernel of truth. Although I contend that it is a most dangerous exaggeration to say that a fruitful discussion is impossible unless the participants share a common framework, I am very ready to admit that a discussion among participants who do not share a common framework may be difficult. A discussion will also be difficult if the frameworks have little in common. and it will be the easier the greater the overlap between the frameworks. Indeed, if the participants agree on all points, it may turn out to be an easy, smooth, and rational discussion – though perhaps a little boring.

But what about fruitfulness? In the formulation I gave of the myth, it is a fruitful discussion which is declared impossible. Against this I shall defend the directly opposite thesis: that a discussion between people who share many views is unlikely to be fruitful, even though it may be pleasant; while a discussion between vastly different frameworks can be extremely fruitful, even though it may sometimes be extremely difficult, and perhaps not quite so pleasant (though we may learn to enjoy it.) (Myth of the Framework, p. 35)

This, then, is the point. If you get a bunch of like minded people together and they share ideas with one another, it’s often very pleasant. This is part of the appeal for the faithful for going to Church or Liberals all hanging out online together. We like to be agreed with and we dislike confrontation and conflict.

But it’s that very conflict we need to be seeking out if we are to advance! Yes, it can be respectful conflict if we will be tolerant of each other. But, as I said elsewhere, “the first touchstone of ‘tolerance’ [is] that it must preserve conflict.”

What benefit can we gain from conflict?

I think that we may say of a discussion that it was the more fruitful the more its participants were able to learn from it. And this means: the more interesting questions and difficult questions they were asked, the more new answers they were induced to think of, the more they were shaken in their opinions, and the more they could see things differently after the discussion – in short, the more their intellectual horizons were extended. (Myth of the Framework, p. 36)

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