The Bucket Theory of The Mind

Popper discusses the “Bucket Theory of Mind” in the book Objective Knowledge. David Deutsch and fans mention this theory all the time, often talking about how traditional schools are based on this false theory. So I was a bit surprised when I realized that the way Popper explains the theory is a bit different (though there is some overlap) with how Deutsch utilizes the idea.

The commonsense theory [of knowledge] is simple. If you… wish to know something not yet known about the world, we have to open our eyes and look around. …Thus our various senses are our sources of knowledge

I have often called this theory the buck4et theory of the mind. …Our mind is a bucket which is originally empty, or more or less so, and into this bucket material enters through our senses… and accumulates and becomes digested.

…it does not matter whether we are or are not born with some ‘innate ideas’ in our bucket — more perhaps in the case of intelligent children, fewer in the case of morons. The important thesis of the bucket theory is that we learn most, if not all, of what we do learn through the entry of experience into our sense openings…

Among the many things which are wrong with the bucket theory of the mind are the following:

(1) Knowledge is conceived of as consisting of things, or things-like entities in our bucket (such as ideas, impressions, sensa, sense data, elments, atomic experience…

(2) Knowledge is, first of all, in us: it consists of information which has reached us, and which we have managed to absorb.

(3) Here is immediate or direct knowledge; that is, the pure unadulterated elements of information which have got into us and are still undigested. No knowledge could be more elementary and certain than this.

Popper goes on to explain that due to the above mistakes, people see knowledge as passively received:

Thus knowledge, so far as it is free from error, is essentially passively received knowledge; while error is always actively (though not necessarily intentionally) produced by us, either by interfering with ‘the given’ or perhaps by some other mismanagement: the perfect brain would never err.

(4) …we have a practical need of knowledge of somewhat higher level: of knowledge which goes beyond mere data or the mere elements…

(5) Ideas or elements are associated if they occur together; and, most important, association is strengthened by repetition.

Objective Knowledge, p. 60-62

Popper does go on to claim that this theory permutates pedagogy, “It still plays a part in theories of teaching…”

Now it’s not too hard to see that Popper’s version of the Bucket Theory of mind is really a form of empiricism. He admits this: “…what I call the commonsense theory of knowledge is something very close to the empiricism of Lock, Berkeley and Hume…” (p. 63)

This doesn’t seem similar to the Deutschian version of the bucket theory of mind. That version, if I understand it correctly (and perhaps I don’t) is about how most pedagogy is based on the assumption that learning is a passive experience whereas Popper’s epistemology suggests that one must actively participate in learning via conjecture and refutation. About the closest I see that idea in the Popper version is #3 where it talks about knowledge being “passively received” via the senses. But in that case, Popper seems to be referring to specifically the idea of “empiricism” where knowledge comes in passively via the senses as a perfect and infallible way to receive knowledge. This does not strike me as the same as the Deutschian version of ‘passive’ reception of knowledge where empiricism isn’t even referenced.

In short, I do not think how Deutsch defines ‘the bucket theory of mind’ is more than tangentially related to how Popper understood the theory. They are effectively two entirely different theories (with some minor overlap) under the same name.

I think the next question is if modern pedagogy is based on either version of the bucket theory of mind. While I have no idea what pedagogy was like in Popper’s day, I see nothing at all to suggest to me that modern pedagogy is based on empiricism with its idea of perfect reliable knowledge coming in through the senses. So modern pedagogy does not seem to be based on Popper’s bucket theory of mind, at least.

How about the Deutschian version?

I think we could probably point to lectures as perhaps matching somewhat with the idea of ‘passive learning.’ But in all honesty, this is about the most I could find in modern pedagogy that matches the Deutschian bucket theory of mind. Yes, modern pedagogy still uses lectures. Yes, lectures often assume a certain amount of ‘passive learning’ by listening.

But lectures made up such a tiny part of learning in my Georgia Tech Master’s degree. The vast majority of the learning came through active participation — usually projects. And all modern pedagogy teaches the need to accommodate many learning styles. I’m not sure even lectures are truly in any way ‘based on the bucket theory of mind’ as far as I can tell since they usually include active elements as well (asking questions in a classroom and mini-quizzes in online delivery.)

Perhaps it was different in the past, I’m not sure. And perhaps I misunderstood the Deutschian version of the bucket theory of mind — I could not find a good written source to reference to be sure I was understanding it correctly. But my initial impression is that Popper understood the bucket theory of mind one way, Deutsch adapted it to be something different, and neither is the basis for modern pedagogy.

A Later Note

I expressed some of the above thoughts on Facebook and Bruce Caithness and he had some interesting thoughts on the implications of the Bucket Theory of mind that differed from how the Deutsch version uses it:

I think some of the “active” teaching ideas for curricula are simplistic and miss Popper’s point that ALL learning is active…

In a nutshell, I ask, if all learning is by error correction then why would we assume that all teaching should be structured in a particular way? Students are active learners. What is necessarily wrong with some rote teaching and even attempts to indoctrinate particular values?

Malachi Haim Hacohen, “The Young Popper, 1902 – 1937: History, Politics and Philosophy of Science in Interwar Vienna”, in Shearmur and Stokes “The Cambridge Companion to Popper” (2016):

“In his 1931 piece, ‘Memorization from the Perspective of Self-Activity’ – an essay reflecting already Selz’s influence and Popper ‘s breakthrough in the philosophy of science – Popper slaughtered another holy cow of the reformers. Most school reformers believed that traditional schools emphasized tedious memorization. ‘Self-directed activity’ was their alternative to memorization. Popper suggested that reformers ought to rethink their position. Memorization was neither a product of continuous imprinting on a passive mind nor a matter of obsolete school training. This view reflected the mistaken belief in association. It assumed that meaningless sensations and impressions, imprinted on the mind, somehow increased gradually in complexity to form thoughts. But psychological association was nothing but a legend. Memorization was a complex intellectual operation. It required a discriminating mind that simplified a mass of material and selected among an infinite number of facts. The mind reorganized them into meaningful thought-structures, making them manageable for the memory. Memorization was a matter of ‘learning how to learn’, a worthy goal for the reformed school. The reformed school, which sought the students’ active participation in learning, was superior to traditional schools in developing memorization capabilities (Popper 1931).”

Joe Barnhart also:

“Popper’s theory of learning not only allows for indoctrination but requires it. Many humanists have been perpetually ambivalent about whether or not to indoctrinate the young into humanistic views and values. Indeed, some humanists in the past seem to have believed that objectivity or openness of mind required weak indoctrination. From the perspective of Karl Popper, by contrast, indoctrination should be thorough, not in the sense of shutting off all criticisms but in the sense of being done competently and by someone who is informed and articulate.

Popper sees the importance and necessity of indoctrination. Without it, there could be no education or objective inquiry. Humanists need to understand more clearly that each generation needs to be indoctrinated in humanistic values if these values are to be improved and passed on from generation to generation.

Although indoctrination is an absolutely essential ingredient of education or objective inquiry, it is never a sufficient ingredient. Indoctrination moves toward education only as it is combined with openness to criticism and to rival indoctrinations, views, conjecture, theories, and doctrines. Such openness of inquiry gives humanists hope that their humanistic convictions, commitments, and beliefs will in the future be even more profoundly articulated and more effectively communicated.”

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