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Knowledge and Hypothesis [Absolutism vs Relativism; Certaintism vs Tentativism; implications for education]

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets]. Footnotes in the original publication were placed at the bottoms of the pages. But in this webpage the footnotes are gathered at the end to make this webpage more easily readable, so that sometimes-lengthy footnotes do not impede the flow of thought in the body of the text.


Kenneth R. Conklin, "Knowledge and Hypothesis" [Absolutism vs Relativism; Certaintism vs Tentativism; implications for education], paper read to annual national convention of Philosophy of Education Society, Nashville, April, 1977. Published in PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION 1977: PROCEEDINGS OF THE THIRTY-THIRD ANNUAL MEETING OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION SOCIETY, ed. Ira Steinberg. Worcester, Mass.: The Heffernan Press, 1977, pp. 111-119.


Knowledge and Hypothesis

(First Concurrent Session)

Kenneth R. Conklin
Braintree, Massachusetts

Some philosophers, whom I shall call structure believers, claim there are Absolute Truths. They believe there is a cosmic structure, a blueprint for the universe, a set of standards existing outside of people which people cannot influence but to which people are ultimately accountable. The cosmic structure is the sort of thing indicated by Plato's World of Forms, Kant's noumenal realm, and God.

Other philosophers, whom I shall call game players, claim there are no Absolute Truths. They believe people confront a universe containing only realities that can be studied scientifically, or perhaps containing only what scientists agree to postulate. People are free to choose or invent what they wish, and right or wrong are judged according to the rules people adopt for playing the language game (grammar), the business game (economics), the social game (mores and laws), etc.

The ancient dispute between structure believers and game players can be conceptualized by the metaphysical question, "Are there Absolute Truths?" Obviously, the two possible answers to this question are "Yes" and "No," giving rise to the structure believer and game player positions, respectively.[1] But there is another basic dispute whose importance has only recently been gaining widespread recognition. This modern dispute can be conceptualized by the epistemological question "Can we have knowledge?" or perhaps more precisely "Can we be certain of our commitments?" Obviously there are two possible answers to this question. Those who answer "Yes" I shall call the certaintists, while those who answer "No" will be called tentativists.

There are both certaintists and tentativists among the structure believers, and both can also be found among the game players. In this essay I shall try to sketch each of the four possible philosophic orientations and indicate some of their similarities and differences with regard to educational policy and practice. In particular, I shall focus upon the educationist dispute between those who advocate strict control of the curriculum accompanied by externally imposed discipline, and those who advocate a laissez faire romantic neohumanism.

Most structure believers believe not only that Absolute Truth exists, but also that people can know the Truth. At least some people sometimes can know some of the Truth. Plato's candidates to become philosopher kings go through an educational program which helps them learn to do abstract thinking and focus their attention upon increasingly

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higher levels of reality until finally the Form of the Good itself is "seen" or known. Saints and religious leaders in all cultures and historical periods have claimed divine inspiration as the guarantee for their knowledge. Kant says Truth is difficult to grasp, and is known only indirectly through unselfish moral action or nebulous aesthetic awarenesses.

Among the structure believer certaintists there is some dispute over whether those who know the Truth can speak it. Religion is usually based on what a small number of knowers have spoken. Thus, Jews and Christians believe that God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone for Moses to deliver to his people, while Roman Catholics believe that popes are able to speak ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals with a guarantee of infallibility. Perhaps the most important stimulus to the development of movable-type printing was Martin Luther's belief that what the prophets had written in scripture should be available for the masses to read. And for those who could neither read nor rely upon their own inner light, the memorization of written catechisms would give some familiarity with what the authorities said was true.

There are some structure believer certaintists who claim that although Truth can be known it cannot be spoken. Absolute Truth pertains to a level of reality separate from the world of daily events, while words and actions occur in that world of daily events. Therefore, Absolute Truth cannot be spoken or unambiguously acted out. Indeed, the speakability of a Truth is inversely proportional to its degree of importance or absoluteness.[2] The view that Truth exists and is knowable but unspeakable gives rise to some interesting problems in educational theory and practice, such as the question how it is possible for one person to teach another, or what it means to give help, or how we can know whether another person knows something.[3] But these issues are exceedingly complex and go beyond the scope of the present essay.

The view that Truth exists but cannot be known with certainty is what I am calling the structure believer tentativist position. Obviously, if Truth cannot be known with certainty then it cannot be spoken with certainty. Since they believe Truth exists and is vitally important, the structure believer tentativists are usually as zealous about pursuing Truth as the certaintists. But since Truth cannot be known or spoken with certainty, the tentativists are equally zealous about not committing themselves to particular doctrines. Rigid adherence to particular doctrines would be regarded as a form of idolatry. In the pursuit of Truth the traveling en route is not merely half the fun -- it is all the fun since (by hypothesis) we can never arrive. Each individual must be free to pursue his own path to Truth, and to proclaim whatever tentative hypotheses seem personally reasonable from time to time. Since man's finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite, one task of education is to teach people humility. Education must help people learn to detect errors, to be skeptical, to keep an open mind, etc.[4] I later shall say more about the corresponding educational program.

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Truth might be unknowable if it were an organic entity, growing or unfolding with the passage of time. Even if Truth is full-grown and permanent from the standpoint of eternity, we who are immersed in transitory mortality must see it from our changing partial perspectives. Thus rigid doctrines, even if accurate at one time, are bound to become outdated. There is a moral imperative to search out trends and anticipate future perspectives on Truth for guidelines in shaping present activities. We should actively assist the birth of the future. The names of Hegel and Marx come to mind as structure believers who view Truth as organic in this way. Education would have the task of raising the consciousness of the masses to an awareness of the inequities and oppression of the existing order. A study of historical patterns might help students understand the dynamics of social change and anticipate the next stage in the cycle of history.

I previously defined game players as people who claim there are no Absolute Truths. People are free to choose or invent what they wish, and right or wrong are judged entirely according to humanly made rules. If there are no Absolute Truths, then there is no knowledge. Thus, it would seem odd for a game player to be a certaintist. But game player certaintism has indeed occurred, and has been responsible for some of the most significant events in history. Someone who believes there are no absolutes might feel free to adopt whatever opinions he wishes. Having cynically chosen a commitment for no reason other than its attractiveness or usefulness to him personally, he may then decide to impose that commitment upon the rest of the world. Perhaps such a person is motivated by a quest for power, greed, lust, or some psychotic need for security or social approval. Hitler comes immediately to mind, along with some leaders of the medieval Inquisition.

Game players usually see nothing wrong in using whatever arguments a listener might find persuasive -- that's an effective strategy for winning the game. So it is not surprising to find Hitler quoting Kant, Stalin quoting Hegel, or powerful church leaders quoting Jesus to support murder for personal gain and mass persecutions for ideological gain. It is said that the Devil gleefully quotes scripture. Game player

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certaintists regard education as a propaganda medium. They have developed behavior modification for individual brainwashing, and public relations or advertising techniques for shaping mass opinion. Both structure believers and games players can be found among the certaintists. But structure believer certaintists seek to be wise, benevolent, and lead by charisma and love; whereas game player certaintists are dogmatic, ruthless, and lead by force or fraud.

Perhaps most game players are tentativists. Since they believe there are no Absolute Truths, they also believe it is important to be open-minded, adjust to changing circumstances, let each person do "his own thing," "roll with the punches," etc. The stereotype politician is a game player tentativist, who changes his stands on issues to reflect the changing opinions of his constituents. Game player tentativism is embodied not only in the self-correcting political mechanisms of democracy, but also in the self-correcting economic mechanism of the free enterprise market system. The theory of evolution postulates that nature is a game player tentativist, trying out various species in various environments to see which ones are most successful. Game player tentativists favor the free school, the open classroom, the child-centered curriculum, the inquiry method of teaching, and group projects involving democratic decision making.

The distinctions between structure believer and game player, and between certaintist and relativist, are very important but often overlooked in modern philosophy. For example, the views of certain existentialists are vague with regard to these distinctions. All existentialists seem to agree that human beings have difficulty deciding what they want. Existentialists agree that choices must be made and that rational processes are too limited to indicate with certainty which choice would be best. Existentialists agree that facing up to the fact of inevitable death is vitally important in stimulating honest self-appraisai and genuinely decisive choice. But why is rationality limited? Why does anxiety and acceptance of death promote valid choosing? Is man cast adrift in a chaotic universe? If so (game player), does anxiety help because it promotes decisive permanent commitment (certaintist) or because it forces actions whose consequences lead to particular self- awarenesses and small-scale revisions in self-concept (tentativist)? Or perhaps there is a cosmic structure (structure believer) from which human existence alienates us. In that case, anxiety might force someone to strip away the superficial veneer of daily life and obtain a revelation of his true identity (certaintist). Or else anxiety could force us to choose particular actions which lead us to discover particular facets of our pre-existing personality under the circumstances of this period of life (tentativist).[5]

The philosophy of Karl Popper as interpreted by some of his American educationist followers is also vague on the issues of structure believer vs. game player. There is no doubt that Popper and his followers are tentativists. In a sense, tentativism is the whole of their philosophy (they call it "fallibilism"). But their vagueness on the dispute between

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structure believers and game players affects the internal validity of their philosophic system as well as the applications of the system to educational theory and practice.

Popper and his followers say that certainty is impossible. Therefore we have only a collection of hypotheses. We cannot prove any hypothesis is true, but we can criticize and test our hypotheses to eliminate the false ones. If a hypothesis has been subjected to severe criticism and still remains unrefuted, then we are entitled to accept it temporarily as though it were true. But we must always be open to considering new criticisms which may force the rejection of any particular hypothesis. Science and society make progress by overthrowing old hypotheses and tentatively adopting new ones that can withstand all known criticisms, that are able to be tested, and that seem likely to survive future criticism.

Certaintists know that knowledge is possible. But Popper and his followers hypothesize that there can be only hypotheses. The trouble is that they believe this particular hypothesis with all the certainty appropriate to knowledge. Popper and his followers are dogmatic about their skepticism -- they are proud of being ignorant.[6] The only way dogmatism could be intellectually acceptable is if it occurs as a natural outgrowth of absolute knowledge; i.e., if one is so certain of what he knows that the certainty justifies the irrevocable holding and proclaiming of some doctrine. But no follower of Popper could claim to have such knowledge, and no believer in critical rationalism would cite one thing as a justification of another. Thus a Popperite's dogmatic commitment to skepticism is irrational: it is not something he would seek to justify, and it is not something he will ever allow to be successfully criticized. Popperites also fail to see that there is no way of refuting a hypothesis without accepting some other hypothesis offered as a rejecting criticism. That is, we cannot be certain a hypothesis is false any more than we could be certain it is true. The infinite regress of justifications of justifications in classical rationality is matched by an infinite regress of criticisms of criticisms in Popperian rationality. Accepting hypotheses that are well justified is logically identical with rejecting hypotheses that are effectively criticized, since the effectiveness of criticism is a matter whose acceptance can be debated.

In view of the practical limitations and logical equivalence of classical justificational certaintism and Popperian critical tentativism, the most significant difference between them might well be their difference in outlook. Popper and his followers seem sure we will never have knowledge, so they are always looking for criticisms to reject currently accepted hypotheses. The Popperian attitude toward life is to be suspicious and skeptical, to criticize everything, to seek flaws and expose errors. They believe there can be no hope of actual success, but only the avoidance of failure or the minimization of the losses that occur as a result of failure. Popperians frequently talk about the fact that progress is made when faulty hypotheses are replaced by better ones, but their basic commitment to tentativism makes it impossible for them to be

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sure whether new hypotheses are actually more true than the ones that were rejected.

A game player might define "progress" as a subjectively perceived increase in happiness, or perhaps as the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. Surely there could be no absolute standard for personal happiness or social justice. Thus Popper and his followers seem to be game players when they do work in the social sciences: they favor piecemeal tinkering rather than holistic control,[7] and tentative tryouts rather than permanent commitments.[8] They favor the self-correcting mechanisms of democracy, the open classroom, and the child-centered curriculum.

However, a structure believer might define "progress" as a closer approach to Absolute Truth. Scientific theories and social policies would make progress when they imitate or embody the Cosmic Structure more closely. Popper and his followers seem to be structure believers when they do work in the physical sciences. They seem to believe there is a blueprint to the universe, and that the ultimate purpose of scientific inquiry is to discover this blueprint. As tentativists they believe we can never actually possess the blueprint, but still they think it makes sense to search for it and to define progress as a more or less straightforward progression.

One Popperite, Joseph Agassi, was troubled by the apparent contradiction between believing a goal is unattainable and yet believing it is worth pursuing, and wrote a fascinating essay in defense of pursuing unattainable goals.[9] Unfortunately Agassi seems to endorse a game player view that it is expedient to believe in the existence of the blueprint since such belief spurs the successive revisions in world views which we call "progress." A structure believer would say it is reasonable to pursue a goal if the goal represents objective reality, and the fact that a goal is unattainable for human beings would not make it less worthy of pursuit (its unattainability would only illustrate the limitations of human capacity and the contrasting greatness of God). But a game player would assess the reasonableness of pursuing a goal strictly in terms of the human consequences of the pursuit, and would defend the pursuit of an unattainable goal only on the grounds that the pursuit itself is pleasurable or generates products useful to the pursuit of other pleasures. By taking what appears to be the latter, game player view, Agassi apparently contradicts his structure believer commitments to the existence of the blueprint.

Earlier it was mentioned that the most significant difference between classical justificational certaintism and Popperian critical tentativism might well be their difference in outlook or attitude. The Popperian attitude toward life is to be skeptical and suspicious, to criticize everything, to seek flaws and avoid errors. Better to avoid failure than to

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take risks for possible success! With such an outlook despair would seem more appropriate than hope.

The classroom atmosphere in a school operated according to Popper's theories might very well be superficially joyful. Following the classroom management proposals of Professor Ronald Swartz,[10] such a school would be characterized by democratic decision making, open classrooms, child centered curricula, teacher as facilitator rather than taskmaster. But following the curriculum of Popperite Professor Henry Perkinson,[11] students in each subject would study the history of human failure. Science students would learn what hypotheses had been proposed and why they were rejected; social studies students would learn what systems of social organization had been tried and why they failed; literature students would discover how various types of personality in the characters of various stories meet failure because of their shortcomings; or on a more advanced level, students of literary form would study the shortcomings of various modes of plot organization or character development. The main transferrable outcome of such a curriculum could be a student attitude of skepticism, mistrust, risk-avoidance, and possibly despair toward the entire human enterprise.

Perhaps healthy skepticism and mistrust are good things for students to develop. Indeed Professors Swartz and Perkinson argue that the development of such attitudes is essential if we wish to avoid dogmatic teaching and totalitarian social patterns. One might even say that students need to be made skeptical: they need to be indoctrinated into tentativism.

As a structure believer certaintist I know that Truth exists and that sometimes some of it can be known by some people. But most of the time most of us do not have knowledge. At best we often have right opinion and sometimes knowledge, while at worst we mistake wrong opinion for right opinion or knowledge. My outlook can be characterized as hoping and working for the best, while the Popperian outlook is doubting and working to avoid the worst. Some Popperites, such as Professor Swartz, seem to say not only that knowledge is impossible, but also that we can never be completely correct on any particular issue even by unaware accident. But this extreme tentativism is prima facie untenable, and may be simply a case of enthusiastic verbiage or misspeaking.

Popperian tentativism is the appropriate epistemological and practical guide whenever we are utterly devoid of knowledge. But Popperian tentativism becomes less appropriate as we make progress toward knowledge. While it is always important to detect and eliminate error,

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we must not allow a thoroughgoing Popperian mentality to mire us in despair. We are always entitled to hope for progress toward knowledge and to seek guidance from those whose progress is greater than our own.

Modern education (indeed, modern life) is powerfully influenced by two opposite errors. Some certaintists want to use the technology of control to indoctrinate children with their chosen "right" opinions. The structure believer certaintists tend to rely upon old-fashioned repression, while the game player certaintists prefer the new-fashioned techniques of behavioral objectives, behavior modification, accountability, voucher plans, performance contracting, etc. Not all certaintists favor indoctrination, however, and even for those who do the principle of ineffability serves to limit the scope and depth of possible indoctrination.[12] At the opposite extreme, some tentativists say that teachers and other adults have no special right to insist upon what a child should or should not do. These tentativists favor democratic classrooms and society in which children's votes count equally with adults'. Tentativist structure believers like Professor Swartz[13] hope that an adult's superior reasoning ability and experience will enable him to gain children's support and exercise leadership on behalf of good ideas. Tentativist game players claim that nobody's opinion is intrinsically better than anybody else's and we should rely upon the pure democratic right of the majority to make its opinion law.[14]

Neither rigid control nor laissez faire romantic neohumanism is acceptable. Education should be based on the premise that Truth exists and that different people possess different degrees of wisdom both on specific topics and in general. Students should learn the practical procedures of Popperian tentativism for self-protection under conditions of ignorance or uncertainty. The history of conjectures and refutations should be studied, with questions and criticisms encouraged in all areas. If we don't know what's true or right, we ought to take care to avoid error and to entertain hypotheses with undogmatic tentativism.[15]

At the same time education should inspire the quest for Truth. Since some people have made more progress toward knowing Truth than others, it would seem reasonable to establish a social, familial, and educational system in which leadership, authority, or power are given to people regardless of age in proportion to the degree of wisdom they

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possess. Criticism of those in power would certainly be welcomed (unless the amount and intensity paralyzes the leaders), and for four reasons: 1) It keeps a leader alert and encourages his own growth; 2) It provides a way for anyone to discover for himself how wise the leaders are; 3) It helps the leaders discover what is troubling their people and what might be needed to help them; 4) It could provide the beginning of Socratic questioning to initiate a newcomer into the quest for knowledge.

The notion that there are degrees of wisdom is corroborated by our increasing awareness of stages in human growth, or hierarchies of developmental needs. Some of these hierarchies can be verified empirically, such as the biological needs, psychomotor development, language acquisition, and the developmental stages in affect, cognition, and moral reasoning (Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson, Maslow, Kubler-Ross, etc.). Some of the hierarchies are the internal logical structures of the academic disciplines. Perhaps most important are the metaphysical or theological needs. We can use the technology of control most effectively and appropriately at the lower stages and in helping students with disabilities or special needs. But at the upper levels we must rely upon other methods. Teachers can use lower level needs as bait to focus student attention, and then switch the students into the pursuit of higher level objectives. The normally unethical bait-and-switch technique is justified here because it helps the student to ascend the levels of his own self-realization.[16] Space limitations prevent further elaboration of my recommendations, but those recommendations together with their theoretical supports can be found in a series of tape recorded lectures available commercially.[17]

[FOOTNOTES in the original publication were placed at the bottoms of the pages. But in this webpage the footnotes are gathered at the end to make this webpage more easily readable, so that sometimes-lengthy footnotes do not impede the flow of thought in the body of the text.]

1. For further delineation of the game player vs. structure believer dispute and how it affects theorizing about education, see Kenneth R. Conklin, "The Properties of Relevance Between Philosophy and Education," Educational Theory 18 (Fall 1968): 356-64.

2. Kenneth Conklin, "Knowledge, Proof, and Ineffability in Teaching," Educational Theory 24 (Winter 1974): 61-67.

3. Kenneth Conklin, "Educational Evaluation and Intuition," Educational Forum 34 (March 1970): 323-32.

4. The Unitarian church provides an example of a religion which is structure believer tentativist. Unitarians are proud that they have no formal creed, other than respect for the rights of individuals to pursue Truth and to proclaim beliefs. The diversity of theological and social beliefs among Unitarians is startlingly wide, but all seem genuinely welcome. Unitarians enjoy lively debate as a form of recreation and as evidence of serious commitment to the pursuit of Truth not yet known and apparently unknowable. Although Unitarianism is a Christian sect, many Unitarians believe Jesus was no more divine than any other human has the potential of becoming, and some Unitarians consider it unimportant whether there ever was a historical, physically present Jesus. Once I had the privilege of serving as guest minister for a month at a Unitarian church. I devoted all my "sermons" to the topic of Unitarian creedlessness and the apparent conflict between pursuing Truth and believing it is unreachable. But my "parishioners" were quick to jump to the defense of their creedlessness, and agile in intellectual wrestling. Despite my official nonmembership they gave me authority to preside over their ceremonies (perhaps because they believe that all persons of good will are de facto Unitarians). Despite my unordained status they asked me to organize and preside over the baptism of two children, and observed my laying-on of hands with all the seriousness appropriate to baptism by a priest.

5. Kenneth R. Conklin, "The Pedagogical Cultivation of Crisis as an Aid to Self-Realization," cassette tape number 8 in Education for Self-Realization (Teaneck N. J.: Sigma Information).

6. Kenneth Conklin, "Fallibilism: A Terrible Mistake," Educational Forum 34 (November 1971): 35-42.

7. Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964).

8. William Warren Bartley III, The Retreat to Commitment (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962).

9. Joseph Agassi, "On Pursuing the Unattainable," Philosophical Foundations of Science, ed. R. J. Seeger and R. S. Cohen (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 431-44.

10. Professor Ronald Swartz of Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, has been publishing prolifically for several years. For examples of his work that are especially relevant to the present discussion, see Swartz, "Authority, Responsibility, and Democratic Schooling," The Cutting Edge 7 (Spring 1976): 8-19. See also Swartz, "Mistakes as an Important Part of the Learning Process," The High School Journal 59 (March 1976): 246-57. The footnotes in those two articles will lead to numerous other articles by Swartz and other followers of Popper.

11. Henry J. Perkinson, The Possibilities of Error (New York: David McKay, 1971). Also Perkinson, "Against Learning," Focus on Learning 4 (Fall/Winter 1975): 5-20.

12. Kenneth Conklin, "Knowledge, Proof, and Ineffability."

13. Ronald Swartz, "Authority."

14. The free school and de-schooling books of John Holt and Ivan lllich come to mind here.

15. As a structure believer certaintist I think there is much of value in the views of Popper and his followers if only we can separate the good from the bad. The good is due to the structure believer orientation that permeates much of Popperian thinking, especially in philosophy of science. What is bad is due to the game player overtones that come from insisting too strongly upon tentativism. My discovery of the good that is present in the Popper position has been stimulated by the continual friendship, patience, and integrity of Professor Ronald Swartz over a period of years. His specific proposals for education have often distressed me, but his calm, optimistic, sincerely humble pursuit of Truth convinced me that there must be some way that a Popperian tentativist can be a structure believer at the same time.

16. Kenneth Conklin, "Scientific Control vs. Humanistic Freedom: A Synthesis With Regard to the Discipline Problem," Focus on Learning 4 (Fall/Winter 1975): 21-27. This article provides extensive analysis of the hierarchies of needs or developmental stages, and the bait-and-switch technique.

17. See the series of tapes mentioned in ftn. 5. There are twelve hours of taped lectures in the series.

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