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John W. N. Watkins

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Title: John W. N. Watkins  
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John W. N. Watkins

Watkins in 1985

John William Nevill Watkins (31 July 1924, Woking, Surrey – 26 July 1999, Salcombe, Devon) was an English philosopher, a professor at the London School of Economics from 1966 until his retirement in 1989 and a prominent proponent of Critical rationalism.

In 1952, he married Micky Roe (one son, three daughters).

Military service

In 1941, aged 17, Watkins passed out in the First Division from the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and went straight into the wartime Navy. He served in destroyers, escorting Russian convoys and the battleship carrying Churchill back from Marrakech.

In 1944 he was decorated with the DSC for torpedoing a German destroyer off the French coast, part of an action which defeated the only remaining surface force that might have interfered with the Normandy landings.[1]

Academic career

Reading Friedrich von Hayek's Road to Serfdom (1944) on his destroyer aroused his interest in attending the LSE where Hayek taught. A First in Political Science and a prize-winning essay won him a Henry Ford Fellowship to Yale, where he graduated MA in 1950. Then he returned to the LSE as Assistant Lecturer in Political Science.

Watkins had attended Karl Popper's lectures at the LSE in logic and scientific method "and had fallen under his spell".[2] 1958 he shifted from the Government Department to Popper's, being appointed Reader in Philosophy. Imre Lakatos joined them in 1960. Watkins and Lakatos edited the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Watkins was President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science from 1972 until 1975. When Popper retired in 1970, Watkins took over his Chair.

At an international symposium on Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge held in London in 1965[3] Watkins replied to a paper in which Thomas S. Kuhn had compared his own theory of scientific revolutions with Popper's falsificationism. He saw a clash between

"[Kuhn's view of the scientific community] as an essentially closed society, intermittently shaken by collective nervous breakdowns followed by restored mental unison, and Popper's view that the scientific community ought to be, and to a considerable degree actually is, an open society in which no theory, however dominant and successful, no 'paradigm', to use Kuhn's term, is ever sacred."[4]

Watkins wrote classic and much-anthologised papers about the influence of metaphysics on science, about methodological individualism, and about historical explanation. In 1965 Watkins published Hobbes's System of Ideas, in which he demonstrated that Thomas Hobbes's political theory follows from his philosophical ideas. His most important work was Science and Scepticism, published in 1984. In it he tried "to succeed where Descartes failed",[5] and show how science could survive in the face of scepticism. In his book Human Freedom after Darwin, posthumously published in 1999, he returned to a problem that had long occupied him.

After his retirement in 1989, Watkins played a leading role in establishing the Lakatos Award in the Philosophy of Science as the pre-eminent scholarly distinction in the field, honouring his former colleague Imre Lakatos who had died, aged only 51, in 1974.[6]

On 26 July 1999, eleven weeks after completing his book Human Freedom after Darwin, Watkins died of a heart attack while sailing his boat, Xantippe, on the Salcombe estuary, South Devon, England.[7]


  • Alan Musgrave: Obituary: Professor John Watkins, The Independent, 5 August 1999
  • J. Worrall: Obituary. John Watkins (1924-1999), British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 50 (4), pp. 787–789.

Selected bibliography


  • Hobbes's System of Ideas: A Study in the Political Significance of Philosophical Theories. London 1965 (Hutchinson); LSE reprint 1989, ISBN 978-0-566-07038-9
  • Science and Scepticism. Princeton 1984 (Princeton University Press), ISBN 978-0-09-158010-0
  • Human Freedom after Darwin: A Critical Rationalist View. London 1999 (Open Court), ISBN 0-8126-9407-4


  • Against 'Normal Science'. In Imre Lakatos/Alan Musgrave (eds.): Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge., London 1970 (Cambridge University Press), ISBN 0-521-07826-1, pp. 25–37.
  • Ideal Types and Historical Explanation. In Alan Ryan (ed.): The Philosophy of Social Explanation, London 1973 (Oxford University Press), ISBN 0-19-875025-0, pp. 82–104.
  • The Unity of Popper's Thought. In Paul A. Schilpp (ed.): The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Book I. La Salle, Illinois 1974 (Open Court), ISBN 0-87548-141-8, pp. 371–412.


  • Catalogue of the Watkins papers held at LSE Archives


  1. ^ Alan Musgrave: Obituary: Professor John Watkins, The Independent, 5 August 1999.
  2. ^ Musgrave, loc. cit.
  3. ^ See Imre Lakatos/Alan Musgrave (eds).: Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. London 1970 (Cambridge University Press).
  4. ^ Lakatos/Musgrave loc. cit., p. 26.
  5. ^ Quoted in Musgrave, loc. cit.
  6. ^ Musgrave, loc. cit.
  7. ^ See Human Freedom after Darwin, London 1999, p. ix.
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