Popper, Otto Selz, and the Rise of Evolutionary Epistemology

David Bawden (City University of London, London, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 1 August 2004




Bawden, D. (2004), "Popper, Otto Selz, and the Rise of Evolutionary Epistemology", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 60 No. 4, pp. 476-478. https://doi.org/10.1108/00220410410548171



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Of all twentieth‐century philosophers, Karl Popper has often been claimed as having most relevance to the information sciences, most particularly in Brookes' assertation that Popper's epistemology could serve as a philosophical foundation for information science (Brookes, 1980). Although Popper's influence has waned, and his views have been criticised in various respects, he remains a significant contributor to the intellectual framework supporting studies in documentation. Additional studies of his work, particularly those which shed light on his epistemological views, are therefore to be welcomed, and examined for their relevance to Popperian approaches to information and knowledge.

The present book, by a professor of the History of Philosophy and of the Cognitive and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Groningen, is a scholarly analysis of one aspect of Popper's thought: the way in which his views on his evolutionary epistemology and objective knowledge developed in the early years of his professional life. Specifically, he sets out to show that Popper's ideas owe much more than has been recognised to the German psychologist Otto Selz, and the linguist Karl Bühler, Popper's mentor. “[A]ny proper appreciation of Popper's greatness”, ter Hark argues, “has to concede that his centrally important evolutionary epistemology springs especially from early German psychology and psychology of knowledge” (p. 23), and in particular from the Würzburg School.

Though interesting to historians of philosophy, and to Popper afficionados, it is not immediately clear that this would have much relevance to the information sciences. However, it seems to me that this book presents material which gives an unusual and worthwhile perspective to those interested in Popper's epistemology as a useful way of analysing and understanding documentation processes and systems.

It is a very detailed, thorough and scholarly work, based on a consideration of the philosophical, psychological and linguistic studies of the early part of the 20th century in Germany: the “intellectual soil” in which Popper's thought grew, the “late bloom of a typical European psychological and philosophical tradition that has been almost extinguished by history” (p. 156). Ter Hark clearly has comprehensive understanding of this intellectual milieu, and of his subject, much of the book being based on a painstaking analysis of Popper's unfinished 1927 doctoral thesis.

It is generally assumed – because Popper tells us so – that his epistemology, and in particular his idea of a “third world” of objective knowledge, draws on the early thought of a number of philosophers, particularly Plato, Kant, Bolzano and Frege. Ter Hark argues persuasively that an additional influence, arguably greater and certainly closer to hand, is to be found in early 20th century German linguistics, and particularly the work of Selz and Bühler. Neither of these are very well known figures. Selz, in particular, is a largely unknown figure, and ter Hark seeks to provide some recognition for him. His obscurity stems from a number of factors, from which ter Hark notes increasing marginalisation “owing to his unremitting criticism of colleagues but also to his formidably complex style of writing”. His major work, Zur Psychologie des produktiven Denkens und des Irrtums (1922), of which ter Hark writes that “no other contemporary book could remotely equal [it] in volume and laboriousness of construction”, sold less than 250 copies, and was translated only into Chinese. As a non‐Aryan, he was forced out of academic life by the rise of Nazism, and died a victim of the holocaust in 1943. Bühler is little better known, though Popper notes that he “learnt much” from him (Popper, 1993, p. 73).

Ter Hark makes it plain in several places that he believes that Popper's own account of the intellectual antecedents of his developing epistemology, particularly as stated in his autobiography, Unended Quest, and in other autobiographical writings, do not do justice to the influence of the prevailing thought in psychology (particularly child psychology) and linguistics. There are, as the author delicately puts it, and number of “narrative errors” (p. 16). He does not speculate as to why this might be. Was Popper, for whatever reason, seeking to distance himself from his mentors, or, whether consciously or not, to make his ideas seem more revolutionary than they were?

The book is arranged in six closely argued chapters, with copious references. The first chapter sets the scene, considering Popper's thought in relation to early German psychology, and showing some seeming contradictions in various papers and autobiographical writings. The second describes the Würzburg School, and the third the school reform movement and associated thinking in child psychology. The fourth deals in detail with the work of Otto Selz, and its influence on Popper, with Selz's views on declarative memory, “knowing that”, appearing strikingly modern. The fifth and sixth chapters then turn to show how these influences may be seen in Popper's view of the psychology of knowledge, and on his evolutionary epistemology and the mind‐body problem. Ter Hark produces convincing arguments that the idea of “World 3”, only introduced formally into Popper's work at a much later stage, is foreshadowed by some of the content of his 1927 dissertation, and that clear analogies can be seen between this and Selz's thought.

It is the sixth (and last) chapter which is of most relevance and interest for the idea of Popper as a philosopher of the information sciences, and which makes this book of more than historical interest. Ter Hark's assertion is that Popper's epistemology, including the idea of World 3, has to a degree been misunderstood, both by his supporters and his detractors, because they failed to appreciate the significance of its roots in psychology and linguistics. In particular, the failure to appreciate some of the crucial differences between Popper's world of objective knowledge – imperfect, dynamic, and including psychological entities such as “problems” – and Frege's “third realm” of thought, has been detrimental to the reception of his ideas. In particular both those such as Bloor who have argued that much of what Popper explains by World 3 can be expressed more simply in terms of social processes, and those such as Grove and Grobler who oppose this “sociological reading”, miss some of the point, by failing to appreciate the psychological basis of Popper's ideas.

This is an excellent book. Not only will it be on enduring interest to Popper scholars, but it should stimulate a better understanding of his epistemology, and its relevance to documentation.


Brookes, B.C. (1980), “The foundations of information science. Part 1: philosophical aspects”, Journal of Information Science, Vol. 2, pp. 12533.

Popper, K. (1993), Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, revised ed., Routledge, London.

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