My time at LSE, Part 1

How many of we ELT old timers started our working lives thinking we’d end up teaching English? None of us, right? We were a motley crew to be sure, and we mostly fell into L2 teaching as an almost romantic option, a defiant “Up yours!”  gesture towards the beckoning careers offered by the professions.

But what might have been? We might have been contenders! In my case, I might have been an academic in the philosophy department of LSE. Here’s the story.

I started my B.Sc.(Econ) degree at LSE in 1963. I lived with 4 other freshers in a flat in Hampstead that Mick Jagger, LSE student, had just vacated. (Just BTW, Jagger later gave lots of money to pay for lawyers to defend those wrongly accused, including me, of the Angry Brigade’s daft doings.)

I  got through the first year exams, chose to specialise in International History, and quickly realised that I’d made a bad choice: too much emphasis on too many facts. So I asked if I could transfer to the philosophy department, even though they only took post grads. After some fairly difficult negotiations, I was  accepted. I was the first undergraduate ever to be admitted to the philosophy department of LSE.

Early on in my second year, I was busy doing non-academic stuff. I was President of Debates, President of the Jazz Society, and President of the Anarchists Club. Being President of Debates was great: I met lots of very famous people who came to speak, and I took them all to dinner afterwards at the Waldorf. I remember dining with Anthony Burgess (that’s him, above), Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster. after a debate on “God is dead”. The dinner was awkward, to say the least. Once we’d shoved the archbishops into taxis outside the Waldorf, Ingrams, Burgess and I went drinking in the pubs in nearby Fleet Street. Ingrams was delightful company and so was Burgess, bless him. But Burgess was, I must say, just a bit too far gone too quickly. Burgess, dear messed up, brilliant Burgess,spent his whole life drunk: he  woke up drunk and reached for a drink. Just by the way, Hemmingway was nothing like the mad drinker he’s portrayed – I drink more than he did, and I’m nowhere even close to Burgess. Anyway, in my opinion, Burgess’ later stuff was terrible; he should be remembered not for the awful Earthly Powers, but for the much lighter, less pretentious, more enjoyable Enderby novels, and, above all, for Nothing Like The Son.  

The jazz duties were harder. Getting jazz musicians to turn up at mid-day events is notoriously difficult, and getting them to behave once there is even more demanding. We held sessions in the Shaw Library, a really lovely room on the top floor, and they were always packed out. The best session I remember was a very young Gary Burton on vibes, who played with 3 session guys and blew us all away.

As for the anarchist club, I invented it, appointed myself president, got a notice board put up alongside all the other society notice boards (more than 30 of them) and pinned on it the only 2 notices it ever had.

Notice 1: Comrades! The inaugural meeting of the Anarchist Club will be held on Friday 12th November, 1pm, Room E413.

Notice 2: Comrades! The first meeting of our club was a total success: nobody turned up.

LSE Philosophy Department 1964

The teaching staff of the philosophy department of LSE in 1964 comprised John Watkins, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Joseph Agassi, Alan Musgrave, and a few others. Popper was a living legend and even though Watkins was nominally in charge, Popper ruled the roost like a sick old cockrel. He was old, ill, bad-tempered, rude, and paranoid. The only time I got on with him was when I presented a paper to him, Lakatos, Musgrave, Feyerabend, Bartley and a few others, where I criticised Khun (the paradigm man), stressing the difference between the sociology of science and scientific method. I made some cheap shots, and Popper loved them. In general, he made it clear that he didn’t like me, and deliberately ignored me.

Everywhere Popper went he was escorted by his secretary and a succession of people running behind him trying to record everything he said. The first time I went to a lecture of his, after about 5 minutes he shouted “Somebody’s trying to kill me!” This was in response to a student who had lit up a cigarette right at the back of the very big room he was lecturing in. The offender was pounced on, hustled out of the room, and Popper, once reassured, droned on. “No Smoking” notices and vetting of those who went to his lectures quickly followed.

I never heard Popper say anything remotely interesting – not once. He was a boring tyrant, the very last person you’d want to be around, unless you were trying to get ahead in the department. Even then university life was very political – it made working in industry look innocent. As a work place, there is nowhere more fiercely competitive, more ruthlessly self-seeking  than a university. I worked with some truly exceptional people, it was exhilarating  trying to keep up with them, but that doesn’t make me forget the back-biting crap, the culture of lies and deceit that permeated university life. I might add that, from what I see, things have only got worse.

Despite the fact that Popper himself had long since run out of interesting ways to spin his one contribution to the philosophy of science (there is an asymmetry between proof and falsification), and despite the numbing effect that his hopelessly ill-informed, ill-considred book The Open Society and it’s Enemies was having on Sociology departments worldwide, the philosophy department at LSE in 1964 was buzzing. And that was thanks to Imre Lakatos.

Lakatos was crazy, wonderful, brilliant. He was a powerhouse, a great antidote to Prof. Watkins, and it was Lakatos who gave the department its energy.  He was tall, thin, angular, always in a hurry: a nerrvous dynamo. It was great fun to walk with him as he moved like a nervous fox through the corridors of LSE, giving quick nods to those who said hello to him, talking incessantly. He was absurdly intense: everything was important.  Copernicus, well he got a lot more right than people realise..; Did you see her, my God what a bust, I mean really; Who the hell do these students think they are anyway?; How I hate sociology students, you notice how they’re all girls?, Because I mean how can Kuhn say that about Copernicus?  I loved him, and so did most of those who worked with him, even though he was prickly and often very rude .

Lakatos worked with Popper for years (showing unusual patience, I reckon),trying to rescue Popper’s work from mounting criticism, even before Kuhn showed up. Lakatos accepted that there were problems with Popper’s “Falsifiability Criterion”. Popper said, following Hume, that you can’t prove that a theory is true, but you can prove that it’s false. Critics said that if it’s allowed that a theory is refuted by a single instance of empirical data, then no theory would survive. In the history of science all major theories have been refuted time and time again (in the sense that they have contradicted the evidence of the day), especially in their early stages. The extreme version of the falsifiability criterion, where one instance of negative data is enough to refute a theory, became known as “naive falsifications” and is now generally rejected.

When I was with him, Lakatos was still wrestling with all this, and he was helped by the arrival of Paul Feyerabend, the finest scholar I ever met, and more about that later. In 1964, Lakatos was working on a theory of “research programmes”. His theory, never really complete, was published in various stages in the 1970s. It addressed the problem of theory choice: given two rival theories, is there any rational way of choosing between them?  Lakatos eventually suggested that Popper’s theory should be amended by shifting the problem of appraising theories per se to the problem of appraising a historical series of theories, which he called “research programmes”’, and by changing the falsificationist rules of theory rejection.

Lakatos called the essential theory under investigation in any research programme the “hard core theory”, and he named two different “heuristics” working inside the same research programme: a Negative heuristic, which essentially called on researchers not to attack the hard core theory, and a Positive heuristic which encouraged improvements to be made in the auxiliary hypotheses, which Lakatos referred to as “the refutable protective belt”. The research programme involved working on “the belt”, and leaving the core assumptions alone: you opt out of the programme if you attack the hard core.

When Lakatos published all his stuff about this in the 70s, he claimed that his work solved the problem of identifying the part of the theory that is responsible for the falsification (since it cannot be in the hard core), and at the same time, allowed for choice among rival theories: bold new hypotheses on the belt can be subjected to tests, and the better theories will be those that survive such tests. The essential criterion for assessing rival programmes is progress: the more progressive programme is better. If the modifications to the auxiliary assumptions result in new predictions, and if the predictions of novel facts are corroborated, then the programme is progressive.  On the other hand, a research programme is considered to be degenerating (as opposed to progressing) if those working on it do no more than add untestable ad hoc auxiliary assumptions in order to save its core, and that these merely account for already known facts.  When a stage is reached where one research programme is degenerate, and another is making good progress, then the degenerate programme must be jettisoned.

But it doesn’t work, does it!

Let’s leave a discussion of why it doesn’t  work, and go back to the LSE. We move to 1965 and the Kuhn versus Popper confrontation in London. I was in the second row. The background below is from my book (Jordan, 2004)

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) argued that most scientific activity takes place under the domination of a theory which define the domain of research in a particular area, the procedures researchers should follow in their experiments, and the criteria by which they test and evaluate the theory. Kuhn labels this dominant theory, and the set of assumptions it generates a “paradigm”, and he refers to those periods of time where a paradigm dominates as “normal science”.

But, Kuhn argues, there are also periods when science enters into a revolutionary period, and there is then a “paradigm shift”.  One clear example in the twentieth century is when relativity theory and quantum mechanics replaced Newtonian physics to become the new paradigm.  In revolutionary moments the research methodology of scientists is very different from that of “normal science”: it is chaotic, contradictory and fragmentary, but on the other hand these are often very exciting times to live in.  Sooner or later however, the new paradigm is established, and scientists go back to their work, which is more mundane perhaps, but usually more productive.

Kuhn mixed a historical analysis with an epistemological one, and, while it is part of Kuhn’s argument that the two are mutually dependent, it is important to be aware of the two strands.  Kuhn argued that Popper was prescribing what scientists should do, and ignoring what in fact they actually did.  While, said Kuhn, Popper was right to criticise the Vienna circle (right, that is, to say that scientists were not in the business of simply observing things), he was wrong to say that they tried to refute theories.  What scientists do, according to Kuhn, depends on the historical moment.  In periods of normal science, they work in a more or less inductive way, using empirically-based studies, experiments and tests, looking for confirmation of the dominant theory, seeking to expand its reach, repairing problems that experiments turn up, etc..  In revolutionary periods scientists work in confusion, often swayed in their choice between those rival theories fighting for paradigm status by totally irrational considerations, and rarely, if ever, following the methodology proposed by Popper.

During a period of scientific revolution there is typically a conservative group who try to stick to the old paradigm, often because, having used it for a long time, they are comfortable with it, and a rebel group, often much younger, whose thinking has not been moulded by the old paradigm. Again, one is strongly reminded of the current dispute going on in SLA research, and it is hardly surprising that the “rebels” see themselves as progressive, or that they should emphasise the political nature of the conflict.  But the crucial consideration for Kuhn, and the key argument for the relativist camp in SLA and elsewhere, is that this conflict cannot be rationally resolved: the claim is that the old guard will just die out and fail to attract new adherents.  In Kuhn’s opinion, the process by which the new paradigm is established is irrational.

Unlike Popper, who sees a cyclical development in the history of science and is convinced that this ensures progress, Kuhn says that the new paradigm is established in a completely open-ended way that has nothing to do with rational choice or with a respect for, or even awareness of, progress.  There can be, says Kuhn, in the periods of paradigm shifts, no rational reasons for preferring one theory over another.  As Kuhn puts it: “There is no higher standard than the assent of the relevant community.” (Kuhn, 1962: 98)  Hence, Popper notwithstanding, there is no continuity, and no progress in science.

Kuhn’s account of the development of science culminates in his notion of the incommensurability of theories which are formulated under the umbrella of different paradigms. Theories formulated under the new paradigm are so different from the older theories that there is no justification for saying that the new theories follow on from their predecessors.  Different paradigms are not, according to Kuhn, commensurate – Newtonian physics is not commensurate with Einstein’s Relativity theory, for example.  When Newton and Einstein speak of matter, energy, time, etc.,  they are speaking about different things, and thus there is no rational way of choosing between them.  The suggestion is that the researcher’s observations, experiments and tests on so-called empirical data are crucially affected by the theories they believe in, that is, most of the time, by the paradigm theory.  Kuhn gives the example of chemists’ acceptance of Dalton’s atomic theory, which at first was in conflict with some experimental results.   Not only did they ignore the negative evidence, they reported chemical compositions in different ways (as ratios of integers rather than as decimals) and, in Kuhn’s words “beat nature into line. …. The data itself had been changed, and the chemists were now working in a different world” (Kuhn, 1962: 135).

So now here comes the confrontation, in 1965, when Popper gets his stuff together and Kuhn falls apart.

Actually, I think that’s enough for now. To come in Part 2: Who won the Khun versus Popper debate? Lakatos invites Paul Fererabend to give a series of lectures at LSE; Feyerabend struts his stuff and gives the best series of lectures ever witnessed in the Old Theatre of LSE;  we all get drunk;  Feyerabend persuades me to stop revising, go fishing and let Heather take the finals in my name; Lakatos’ programme bites the dust; Laudan thinks he has the answer ; and lots more.


19 thoughts on “My time at LSE, Part 1

  1. Hi Geoff,

    Very interesting stuff, a couple of comments. Lakatos’ theory sounds interesting, and I’m reminded of two things.

    First, Pragmatists like William James have a somewhat similar notion, that a theory is useful in what it produces, and whether it is useful to people, which is an extremely dangerous idea in the real world IMO because it can lead to things like dodgy dossiers ‘proving’ evidence of weapons of mass destruction leading to the Iraq War.

    Also, there are theories which have had terrible effects but which have spurned whole heaps of policies and real-world consequences (especially in the social sciences), one being cultural deprivation theory – the idea that working-class children, or children from ethnic minorities, suffer from “cultural deprivation” in some form i.e. working-class parents don’t speak to their kids. (These claims don’t stack up, or the studies used to back them up are deeply flawed.) So my question to Lakatos would be: What if the ‘hard core’ theory is wrong?

    Lakotos’ theory of ‘research programmes’ also sounds like something F.A. Hayek might have used to reinforce his neoliberal economic theories. Hayek was also at the LSE then I believe – the battle between the Hayekians and Keynesians is very interesting too.


  2. Hi Paul,

    I’ve never really “got” W. James. What did he actually SAY? Anyway, I’m sure Lakatos wouldn’t have liked the comparison :-)

    Lakatos had no time for the social sciences, but your question was put to him a lot – not least by Popper who didn’t like Lakatos’ research programme idea at all. His reply was that time would tell.

    As for Hayek, he left LSE in the early 50s I think. I don’t quite get your point about his using the research programme idea to reinforce his economic theory. But I agree that the Hayek versus Keynes debates were very interesting. The LSE and Cambridge had quite a few tussles – including Popper versus Wittgenstein of course. There was a debate in 2011 at LSE which revisited the Hayek vs Keynes debates in an attempt to understand the 2008 crash. There’s a podcast of it here:


    • ‘time would tell’ Did Lakatos have a particualr time in mind, after which our present groping will be replaced by the illumination of certain knowledge? Did he have a theory of what that will be like? If not, then Paul is right, isn’t he? Lakatos’s position is equivalent to a pragmatist position.


      • Hi Patrick,

        “Time will tell” isn’t a satisfactory answer, but it’s better than it seems at first glance. The problem is how to be tolerant on young theories. Still, as I said, Paul is right to say that it’s unsatisfactory, tho I still don’t think it’s a question of pragmatism.


  3. Philip Mirowski, in Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste (p.68), talks of the esoteric vs. the exoteric version of neoliberalism:

    “What I shall refer to here is the proposition that an intellectual thought collective [referring to Hayek and the neoliberals] might actually concede that, as a corollary of its developed understanding of politics, it would be necessary to maintain an exoteric version of its doctrine for the masses–but simultaneously hold fast to an esoteric doctrine for a small closed elite…”

    There might be some comparisons to be drawn between the esoteric vs exoteric, and Lakatos’s ideas.


  4. I am also, to say the least, uneasy about a paragraph heaping praise upon a scholar who is reported as saying, in the same paragraph, ‘ Did you see her, my God what a bust, I mean really; Who the hell do these students think they are anyway?; How I hate sociology students, you notice how they’re all girls?’ I am aware that times change, but still.


    • In every person, there is an arsehole, and the greatest legends and heroes of history are no exception.

      Whatever his views on gender, they had no bearing on the strength, or otherwise, of his arguments. To claim otherwise is to commit ad hominem.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your remark “In every person…” is, of course, literally true, Robert, but apart from that it doesn’t have much worth, does it? “Nobody’s perfect” is less “colourful”, equally trite. In any case, I was discussing people as much as their ideas, so I think comments on Lakatos as a person are perfectly fair. I share the widely held view that Lakatos was a thoroughly likeable man, who I’m sure, had he lived longer, would have adapted to the modern demands of political correctness.


    • In reply to your unease, Patrick, Lakatos said a lot worse things than that in private, and so did most people I know who lived in the 60s, including me. Times have changed, as you say. If you still choose to be offended, then you must find exploring the past very uncomfortable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Geoff

        Well, yes, thinking about the past makes me as uncomfortable (nay horrified) as does thinking about the present and thinking about the future (hell, especially the future!). You don’t feel the same? I grant that the casual sexism of an academic half a century ago comes quite a long way down the list of things to get upset about. To what extent a person bears moral responsibility for attitudes and actions that were widely regarded as unobjectionable at the time is of course a difficult and thorny one.


      • Hi Patrick,

        I certainly feel uncomfortable thinking about the future, but not because of the unguarded sexist/racist/offensive things people say to each other. If we spent less time getting upset by careless remarks people make, and more time fighting those in power who use carefully cleaned and crafted sound bites to “communicate”, I’d feel a bit less so.

        I know – that’s a very cheap shot 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This makes fun reading, nice. Why not “a very brief history of philosophy of a very special time as witnessed by me” type of book. We would actually read it.


  6. Thanks for this Thom. I discussed the philosophy of science and the LSE trio in my book “Theory Construction in SLA”, but I guess that’s hardly most people’s idea of fun 🙂


    • Hi again, your book is on the waiting list. Just got the Benjamins title on Interlanguage (Han and Tarone) and waiting for the Long’s SLA and task-based teaching to finally get here…and then I am reading up on the neo-liberal stuff…my poor budget. This is close to home in S-Am where I have lived for the last 17 years. Few things can be more interesting and challenging than teaching the “imperialist language” and stay clean.


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