Myth of the Framework: Why Conflict Must Never Be Eliminated

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 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 soft 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. I think this is the essence of DAMU blogs, for example, and to a lesser degree (in my opinion anyhow) part of the appeal of the Bloggernacle as a whole. It’s also part of the appeal for the faithful for going to Church. 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 in this post, “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)

Questions for Discussion

I’ve given my own views of ‘tolerance’ elsewhere. See if you can define what you mean by the word.

According to my suggested definition of ‘tolerance’ how ‘tolerant’ are our ‘bloggernacle’ discussions in general? It’s interesting, but many of the posts people find the most hurtful I consider to be tolerant.

Now re-answer that question with your own definition.

Are my views of ‘the Myth of the Framework’ consistent with M*’s new moderation policy? Why or why not in your opinion? (I believe they are, personally. I’ll refrain from explaining why to stimulate conflict. 😛 )

8 thoughts on “Myth of the Framework: Why Conflict Must Never Be Eliminated

  1. Bruce, I’d like to answer this question by telling a short story. When I first started commenting on the Bloggernacle about seven years ago, I had recently been baptized and was filled with the Spirit. Being a curious soul, I decided to go on the internet and see what other Mormons thought and wrote about. I discovered the early Bloggernacle and a while later started writing for M*. I was appalled by many of the things people wrote. I felt it was my responsibility to correct all these bad things people were writing about the Church. I continued in constant conflict until one fine day when I read something written by Kaimi Wenger that opened my eyes. He wrote (more or less): “you do not have authority over those people with whom you disagree. They can write what they want, and it doesn’t affect you. It is not your job to correct them and bring them back to your supposedly orthodox position.”

    This really struck me like a thunderbolt: he was completely correct, and I had never considered this. It is NOT my job to go around correcting incorrect behavior. If I disagree, I can do so politely and then just go on my merry way.

    This was important for several reasons that are relevant to this post: 1)by interacting with somebody with different viewpoints, I *was* able to learn something completely new that I had never considered 2)it helped me create a different viewpoint of tolerance 3)it took the burden off my shoulders and put it elsewhere 4)it helped me create a framework for disagreeing in a more tolerant way.

    Now, having said all that, I really think only about 5 percent of all of the conversations on blogs involves people open-mindedly considering other points of view. I hope that there are others (the silent majority?) who read and do not comment and are open-minded. But my perspective is that 95 percent of the people who comment have already made up their minds before even reading the post and only read it with the intent of coming up with ways to refute it. So, in that kind of atmosphere, is it possible for people to have fruitful discussions? My experience says probably not, but I still hold out hope for that 5 percent and that unknowable silent majority.

  2. Pingback: Popper’s Response to Kuhn | Wheat and Tares

  3. Excellent post. David Stove had a lot to say about this:

    Their intellectual temper is (as everyone remarks) the reverse of dogmatic, in fact pleasingly modest. They are quick to acknowledge that their own opinion, on any matter whatsoever, is only their opinion; and they will candidly tell you, too, the reason why it is only their opinion. This reason is, that it is their opinion.


    The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no other reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed.

  4. Mark D,

    I must be missing it, but I don’t understand the second quote. Please explain further.

  5. Stove is criticizing the argument that claims because our thoughts are limited by our culture, perception, cognitive frameworks, etc. that we cannot know things the way they really are. The result of such arguments is, for example:

    The Kuhnian is scandalized if you call a current scientific paradigm `true’ or an earlier one `false,’ or if you say that the later one is `probably nearer the truth’ than the earlier. Paradigms are incommensurable, he tells you, and no special authority attaches to one which governs a field of science now. And why must we accept this astounding and sordid democracy of paradigms? Why, just because, in any field, even the best scientific knowledge which is current now, or at any time, is always rigidly constrained within the limits imposed, by the paradigm prevailing at the time, on scientific knowledge.

    Taken seriously this sort of thing results in subjective idealism, the position “in which objects are nothing more than collections (or bundles) of sense data in those who perceive them”.

  6. Geoff, thanks for sharing your story. I began blogging with a similar approach. I know I still do too much of that, but realizing the truth of what you/Kaimi shared has made a difference for me.

    My experience does reflect what you say, though, and I think it’s more a statement of human nature than just about blogs. I think it’s human nature to fight rather than really discuss in productive ways. Fight or flight is a pretty strong response mechanism. As such, I think conflict for conflict’s sake doesn’t do much good, imo, except invite us continually to seek to overcome that part of our natures.

    Makes me think of _The Anatomy of Peace_ which imo is a fantastic book for understanding the heart of conflict and why we often don’t get very far in our relationships and communication.

  7. Hi Bruce:

    I guess I’m not sure whether or not I agree with Popper, because I’m not sure what he’s saying. Does he mean (or at least, do you read him as saying) that you need not have any common assumptions at all, whatsoever?

    I think it’s obvious that you don’t have to have a complete framework in common, or you would have very few things upon which to disagree and therefore nothing to discuss. Conversely, the more you disagree on, the more you might have potentially to learn from each other. But I also suspect that the fewer assumptions you have in common, the harder it is to understand one another.

    Taken to its logical extreme, does it not seem that if you had no assumptions in common, it would be nearly impossible to understand one another? For example, what if you could not even agree on the meanings of words?

    However I have a feeling I’m not quite getting it. I would appreciate it if you would clear up whatever misunderstandings you may perceive in my comments.

  8. Agellius,

    You happened to make this comment at a very bad time, so I forgot to respond to you.

    Yes, you basically ahve it right. If two groups have nothing in common, how much could they really communicate, right?

    But Popper’s point is that it wouldn’t be zero. He gives an example (apparently true example) of two civilizations that had vastly different moral standards on whether or not you should eat your dead. (I’m not making this up.) A ruler pulled both together and forced them to see that the other civilization / tradition was just as convinced of theirs as they were of their own.

    While probably very little was ‘communicated’ in the traditional sense, both were, at a minimum, forced to see that what they considered obvious and beyond question was in fact disbelieved by someone else.

    Therefore the ‘dialog’ was ‘fruitful’ and in fact some progress was made towards communication between the two cultures, i.e. coming to realize the the other culture even existed.

    So Popper would agree with you that very little communication would take place, but would disagree that therefore that means you have ‘little to discuss’ or that it would be ‘unfruitful’ to try.

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