Popper’s third world

In my last post, I raised the following question in the context of TOCA:

(DFN-EXP-EMBODY-KNOWLEDGE-?) What does it mean for an expression to embody knowledge?

I didn’t find a lot to help me in the opening chapter I’ve been writing about here for some time. But thankfully, I’ve been reading faster than I’ve been blogging, and recently hit a section that should help me out.

It turns out, to my surprise, that this notion of embodiment is largely Popperian. In the third section of TOCA, Habermas introduces the Popperian notion of a “third world” of objective semantic contents.

We may first distinguish the following three worlds or universes: first the world of physical objects or physical states; secondly, the world of states of consciousness, or of mental states, or perhaps of behavioral dispositions to act; and thirdly, the world of objective contents of thought, especially the scientific and poetic thoughts and of works of art. (Popper, “Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject,” in TOCA, 76)

According to Habermas, Popper sees these three worlds as ontologically distinct. Apparently, the objective existence of the third world is intended to provide a way for objective science to proceed without dependency on a subject–which would, I suppose in Popper’s opinion, pollute the project. To this end, it is necessary for there to be both “embodied” and “unembodied” semantic contents:

Popper distinguishes between explicit semantic contents that are already embodied in phonemes and written signs … and those implicit semantic contents that are not yet “discovered,” not yet objectivated in carrier objects of the first world, but are simply inherent in already embodied meanings.
These “unembodied world 3 objects” are an important indicator of the independence of the world of the objective mind. Symbolic formations are, it is true, generated by the productive human mind; but though they are themselves products, they confront the subjective mind with the objectivity of a problematic, uncomprehended complex of meaning that can be opened up only through intellectual labor.

Habermas goes on to correct Popper’s story and especially its application to sociology. But I suspect that he finds the metaphysical commitments here OK. Unfortunately, those commitments spook the hell out of me. To put my cards on the table: I’m currently a physicalist as far as the mind/body debate goes, for reasons that I think are best elucidated in Papineau’s Thinking about Consciousness, so I already disagree with the the distinction between Popper’s first and second worlds. And the third world? Well, I think it can be reduced back down to causal relations as well.

None of this is to say that I think Habermas’ project is fundamentally misguided. But I do think it would be easier to work with it if I could work out some adjustment to a more plausible metaphysical story.


1 Response to “Popper’s third world”

  1. November 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    If you like, reinterpret the three worlds in Habermas to represent an external, internal, and social world.

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