Hayek in Australia 1976

Between 3 October and 6 November 1976, F.A. Hayek spent five busy weeks in Australia with more than 60 appointments, seminars, informal meetings and formal presentations (Appendix 1). He and his wife travelled almost the full length of the east coast from Cairns and the Barrier Reef in Queensland to Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide in the south with excursions to the country in Victoria and Queensland. Roger Randerson, a finance journalist and economics commentator, masterminded the tour.

The suggestion of a tour arose in 1975; but Hayek (1899-1992) did not pursue that proposal until he accepted an invitation to visit Japan late in 1976 and indicated to Randerson that he could fit in a short Australian tour. Initial inquiries yielded no major sponsors for the tour so Randerson (1912-1991) and Ronald Kitching (1929-2011) underwrote the costs. Eventually some sixty donors contributed sums ranging from AU$50 to AU$2000.

The political situation, 1976

The central issue in Australian politics was the willingness and ability of the newly-elected Liberal and Country Party coalition led by Malcolm Fraser to regain control of the economy after the big spending and other initiatives of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) administration under Gough Whitlam (1972 – 1975). Inflation peaked at over 15 per cent in 1974: unemployment was 6 per cent during Hayek’s visit. There were also major issues to be resolved regarding monetary policy and the then-fixed exchange rate.

The political debate was soured by the resentment of Labor Party supporters following the 1975 Constitutional crisis which the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, resolved by dismissing the Whitlam government (11 November) and appointing Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. The Liberal-Country Party coalition won the resulting general election in a landslide (13 December).

There were high hopes for the Fraser administration in conservative circles; some progressives were alarmed by a rumour that he was a reader of Ayn Rand. That was before it became apparent that Fraser was the kind of conservative who Hayek (1960, Appendix)  had in mind when he wrote “Why I am not a conservative” – a man more concerned with holding political power than limiting it and prepared to protect existing industries rather than sweeping away obstacles to free development.

A little-noticed chapter suggested that the conservative side of Australian politics at the 1974 election was less market-oriented than the Labor Party (Ray 1974).  Consequently, Hayek’s views were not music to the ears of Prime Minister Fraser (or the elders of the Coalition government), as indicated by recollections of their meeting (Appendix 2). Milton and Rose Friedman (1998, 431-432) received much the same reception from Fraser (then leader of the Opposition) when they visited Australia in 1975.

 The climate of ideas, mid-1970s

In the mid-1970s, interventionism dominated the formation and discussion of public policy. The strength of interventionist tendencies on the both sides of politics can be seen in the tenor of criticism of the so-called New Right a decade later when the Labor administration led by Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating  initiated  some significant deregulation.

For many years the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Melbourne was the major source of informed economic commentary on the conservative side of politics. Formed in 1943 – pre-dating the Mont Pelerin Society (1947) – it functioned as a check on the socialist agenda of the Australian Labor Party. J. Walter (1988) described how the war provided the incentive for central planning and the federal public service doubled in size Australia between 1939 and 1945: “Curtin’s reform-oriented ALP government in 1941 caught the imagination of the intelligentsia who saw it as the vehicle for the new order”. Walter drew on the autobiography of H. “Nugget” Coombs (1981), the most influential advisor to Labor and Liberal governments over many years, to show how the new order would be based on central control of the economy, using the Keynesian insights to deliver sustained economic growth with full employment and other social benefits.

It was not only ALP supporters who were impressed by John Maynard Keynes. Much the same happened to the some leaders of the non-Labor forces, chief among them the remarkable mover-and-shaker, Herbert Gepp, who formed the IPA and charged C. D. ‘Ref’ Kemp with the task of producing a program for it. This work turned out to be a major source of ideas for the new Liberal Party under Prime Minister Robert Menzies (1943-46; 1949-1966). According to Walters (1988), “By the late 1930s Gepp, like Coombs, had discovered Keynes, and begun to propound a version of neo-Keynesian economic planning. Unlike Coombs, however, he drew the line at anything that looked like collectivism”.

Walter’s account is supported by Kemp’s (1988) contribution to the same volume and by John Hyde’s (2003) later research.  The Keynesian synthesis of private ownership and state planning provided a framework of ideas that the social engineers and the business community could share, even while they disagreed on details. This framework included a highly interventionist function for the state, and neglected the microeconomic foundations of productivity. Much of the institutional framework had been put in place by the first Federal Government in the early years of the twentieth century with tariff protection for industry and central wage fixing for the workers.

Classical liberalism and libertarianism had practically no profile in Australia – until in 1975 a new party with a libertarian program and aroused a deal of disbelief but little electoral support. First called the Workers Party – heightening disbelief -, later the Progress Party, and currently the Liberal Democratic Party, it has recently won a seat in the Federal Senate. In 1976, the pros and cons of economic rationalism or deregulation were not yet significant topics for public discussion, and there was still a serious battle to be fought on the conservative side of politics before the agenda of deregulation achieved full support in the Liberal Party at the end of the 1980s.

Hayek’s Australian tour came some time before the network of academics, the new think tanks and the “backbench Dries” of the Liberal Party achieved some traction in the debate on public policy. For example the flagship of the new thinktanks, the Centre for Independent Studies, was not even a drawer in Greg Lindsay’s filing cabinet when Hayek visited, although it rapidly progressed and three years later published some of the papers that Hayek (1979a; 1979b) delivered on the tour.

 Hayek on Tour

Hayek arrived two years after sharing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal for their work on money, economic fluctuations and the institutional analysis of economic phenomena. In a remarkable piece of synchronicity, in June 1974, a small group of American economists convened at South Royalton, Vermont, for the first of a series of meetings which started the revival of the Austrian School of Economics. Hayek’s most recent major works were the three-volume Law, Legislation and Liberty: Rules and Order (1973), The Mirage of Social Justice (1976a) and The Political Order of a Free Society (1979c); plus Full Employment at Any Price? (1975), Choice in Currency (1976b) and Denationalisation of Money (1976c).

The Law, Legislation and Liberty trilogy were products of his “pathology of reason” project that commenced with The Road to Serfdom (1944) and extended to his last book The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988).  The three major speeches that he delivered on the tour drew upon that work which was primarily philosophical and political in nature. In ‘The Atavism of Social Justice’, delivered at the University of Sydney, Hayek (1979a, 15) pursued the controversial theme that dominated much of his mature work, that our instinctive moral sentiments were formed at a time when our ancestors lived in small bands and the ethos of sharing has been recruited in modern times to support the idea that justice is all about redistribution of wealth. The result is a push for systems and institutions which politicise and undermine the classical principle of equalitarian justice, and also impede the generation of wealth which is required to improve the lot of everyone in the long term. At the conclusion of the talk he very briefly made a crucial point about evolutionary theories and competition for “survival of the fittest”. His analysis had little to do with “social Darwinism” and competition between individuals; he was concerned with the sustainability of social and political orders and in this context the main benefit that we obtain from competitive selection is “the competitive selection of social institutions.”

‘Socialism and Science’ was delivered to the Canberra branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand (Hayek 1976e). Wolfgang Kasper’s (Appendix 3) account of the meeting conveys a sense of the excitement of the event and the responses aroused from all sides. Hayek established a good rapport with the audience and delivered a line that “brought the house down”: “I have been ill and I have tried old age. It was not to my liking! Who has the next question?”

Hayek (1976e) mentioned some of the issues addressed in the “pathology of reason” project, namely the unhelpful theories of science and rationality that he labelled “scientism” and “constructivism” respectively. He examined the way that socialists attempted to quarantine their ideas from scientific appraisal and he went on to another aspect of the project concerned with rationality and the formation and appraisal of social norms and moral rules. His position in The Fatal Conceit (1988, 21) aroused concerns that his interest in social institutions had led him away from political individualism in the direction of collectivism and some passages in this paper stand as a partial corrective to that perception. Against the genuine collectivists whose efforts to apply reason to generate new moral codes hark back to primitive instincts, he argued: “The [classical] liberal must claim the right critically to examine every single value or moral rule of his society…Our moral task must indeed be a constant struggle to resolve moral conflicts, or to fill gaps in our moral code … [towards] the order of peace and mutually-adjusted efforts, which is the ultimate value that our moral conduct enhances. Our moral rules must be constantly tested against and if necessary adjusted to each other, in order to eliminate conflicts between the different rules, and also so as to make them serve the same functioning order of human actions.” The purpose is to promote rules of the social game that tend to generate peace, freedom and prosperity.[i]

Rules to promote freedom and democracy were the focus of Hayek’s (1979b) speech to the IPA (Sydney Branch) on ‘Whither Democracy?’ He articulated serious doubts about the sustainability of democracy as long as the notion of “majority rule” is not corrected by devices to minimise the risk of a tyranny of the majority. This has pressing contemporary relevance as the advance of welfare state entitlements has created a great deal of debt and doubts are raised about the capacity of any political party to find the will and the popular support required to make the system sustainable.

Hayek’s (1976d) extempore address at the IPA Annual General Meeting (taped and published in the IPA Review) dwelt on economic themes and revealed that Hayek’s longstanding connection with the Institute “played a considerable role in the development of my writings… I received an invitation to contribute an article to your Review. I wrote up for that purpose, which otherwise I would never have done, a diagnosis of the then existing situation…under the title ‘Full Employment, Planning and Inflation’ [1950].” He claimed that his analysis at that time essentially predicted the kind of outcomes that eventually emerged as “stagflation” in the 1970s, quoting the conclusion of the 1950 paper: “It must appear more than doubtful whether, in the nature of democratic institutions, it is possible that democratic governments will ever learn to exercise that restraint, which is the essence of economic wisdom, of not using palliatives for present ills which not only create worse problems later but also constantly restrict the freedom of further action”.

Hayek obtained significant public exposure on the weekly current affairs TV program ‘Monday Conference’ (11 October 1976) which was shown nationwide on the free-to-air public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).  This aroused strong reactions from supporters; and a persistent Marxist critic, University of Sydney Associate Professor of Economics Debesh Battarcharaya, received equally enthusiastic endorsement from the other side of the “house”.  Battarcharaya elicited from Hayek one of the memorable takeaway lines of the tour “I don’t want to trade discourtesies with you.” Robert Moore presided over the proceedings and maintained a balance of voices in the exchanges which enabled Hayek to range over many aspects of his social, political and economic ideas. One of these was the theme of his ‘Whither Democracy’ address, voicing concern that the erosion of authority by special interest groups would cause serious problems and this will discredit democracy.  But he insisted that “What has failed is not democracy as such, it’s a particular form of democracy which we have had.”

 Out of the public eye

There were many – mostly off the record – private engagements. The details of Hayek’s meeting with Prime Minister Fraser have not previously been reported (Appendix 2).

Hayek and his wife went off-the-beaten track into the countryside. A trip to a Victorian forest enabled them to hear – and more rarely – see the famous lyre birds.  On his visit to Melbourne, Hayek and his wife stayed for some days at the home of C.D. (Ref) Kemp and Mrs. Betty Kemp at Mount Macedon. Mrs. Hayek, with her interest in astronomy, was keen to see an eclipse and Mt. Macedon was expected to be a good vantage point. In the event, clouds prevented a sighting. The Sydney Morning Herald (25 Oct 1976) reported: “Thousands of scientists and amateur astronomers, stationed at centres along the band of totality, were largely thwarted by the heavy cloud cover of much of south-eastern Australia on Saturday”.

Kemp had had a long acquaintance with Hayek’s thought and The Road to Serfdom had been one of the intellectual inputs into the work of the IPA, where Kemp had been economic adviser and then Director.  The IPA Review from the late 1940s published articles by Hayek which Ref Kemp had sought out.  The Kemps and the Hayeks got on well together and greatly enjoyed each others’ company. Hayek’s favourite room was the library. Ref Kemp recalled that Hayek took Tolstoy’s War and Peace off the shelves and commented that, in his view, this one was the best translations.  Hayek inadvertently allowed his cigarette to burn a mark on a small polished coffee table in the library: the Kemps ever after referred to it as ‘the Hayek table’ and refrained from repolishing it.

Ron Kitching hosted the Hayeks on his farm and provided an opportunity to come to grips with a giant bull named ‘Inflation’: “When he arrived we had a celebratory drink of his favourite tipple, Johnny Walker Black Label. ‘When ever I drink this brand of Scotch,’ Hayek announced, ‘I get ideas beyond my station’. He was a past master at putting people at ease. He then noticed hanging on the wall of the bar, a large picture of a magnificent Brahman Bull I owned. He asked about the Bull, so I told him he was a prize winning show bull which I had nicknamed ‘Inflation’ as he would not stop growing. He weighs 2,500 pounds in his working clothes. Hayek laughed and said that he knew a bit about inflation and that he would like to meet this one. Next day I took him down the paddock and took several pictures of him and the bull.  He was delighted to have a bit of fun. The caption of course was to be ‘Hayek’s Got Inflation By The Balls’” (Appendix 4).

Impact and outcome of Hayek’s visit

The major public record of the tour is a Centre for Independent Studies Occasional Paper containing the three major speeches with some information about Hayek and a brief account of the tour including the partial itinerary (Appendix 1). Hayek wrote the Preface with a graceful tribute to Randerson who organised the visit and “…was guide, philosopher and friend to Mrs. Hayek and myself; and finally crowned his efforts by editing these lectures and seeing them through the press.”

Hayek’s (1976d; 1976e; 1979d) address to the IPA appeared in the IPA Review as did his paper on ‘Socialism and Science’. A version ‘Whither Democracy’ was published as ‘Can Democracy be Saved?’ in Quadrant, November 1976.

A survey of four daily newspapers, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Age and The Australian Financial Review revealed no mention of Hayek and the tour. The Sydney Morning Herald (15 October 1976) announced Friedman’s Nobel award on the front page and that was an opportunity to mention that a recent Prize winner was in the country at the time. Another place where the Hayek tour could have been noted was The Australian Financial Review (5 October 1976) which ran a story on Myrdal, Hayek’s co-recipient.

The impact of the visit is impossible to assess. Later in the decade, Hayek would have found many more interested listeners as the forces for reform became better organized and more articulate. There is no doubt that his ideas energised many of the people engaged in the push for reform – but it took more than a decade and a change of government to achieve real progress to a more open and competitive economy.

 Appendix 1 Itinerary

In the absence of a full itinerary, the following events are extracted from Randerson’s 1979 notes on the tour.

On the public record

6 October: “The Atavism of Social Justice” (9th R. C. Mills Memorial Lecture, Sydney University).

8 October: “Whither Democracy?” (address, IPA, Sydney).

11 October: ‘Monday Conference’ (ABC TV).

19 October: “Socialism and Science” (address, Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, Canberra branch).

Ex tempore addresses and academic seminars

14 October: official lunch (hosted by the University of Queensland University Vice-Chancellor; plus a combined seminar of Queensland and Griffith Universities to discuss “The Use of Knowledge in Society”).

20 October: address on “The Errors of Constructivism” (33rd Annual Meeting of the IPA, taped, transcribed and published in the IPA Review).

21 October: after-lunch talk on “Liberalism” (La Trobe University).

25 October: address on “Competition as a Discovery Procedure” (at Melbourne University for all the Melbourne universities, Melbourne, La Trobe and Monash).

27 October: address (to a lunch organized by the Victorian branch of the Economic Society).

2 November: combined seminar to discuss Hayek’s (1976b; 1976c) Choice in Currency and Denationalization of Money (at the University of New South Wales for the three Sydney universities, Sydney, New South Wales and Macquarie).

3 November: seminar on “Full Employment At Any Price?” (Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education).

Business, official and political

Discussions with The Commercial Banking Co., Bonds Coats Patons Ltd and ICIANZ Ltd.

Lunch with Enterprise Australia and Fortune (Aust) Pty. Ltd.

Seminar on inflation with the New South Wales Confederation of Industry.

Separate meetings with Prime Minister Fraser, Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, and Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Privately entertained by the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick

Meetings with the designer of the Australian central bank, Sir Leslie Melville, and the public health administrator, Sir Raphael Cilento.

 Off the beaten track

On the farm with the bull named ‘Inflation’ (Appendix 4).

The lyre bird excursion (an informal account provided by a professional associate of Ref Kemp who travelled with Kemp and Hayek to a forest on the outskirts of Melbourne to hear the lyre birds. They had the unexpected good fortune to see a pair of the birds which are more often seen than heard).

The astronomy excursion to Mount Macedon (an informal account was provided by associates of Ref Kemp and his wife).

Appendix 2. Hayek’s meeting with Prime Minister Fraser

This account is based on personal communications with Roger Randerson (late in his life) and, more recently, with officers who served in the Commonwealth Public Service and the Prime Minister’s office at the time.

The meeting between Hayek and the Prime Minister occurred on 18 October 1976.  Hayek went to Parliament House accompanied by Roger Randerson; they were met on their arrival by a Prime Ministerial staffer.  Whilst waiting for Fraser to finish his previous meeting, the group chatted about Friedman’s recent Nobel Prize: Hayek declared himself to be very pleased.  It was mentioned that The Constitution of Liberty had been the subject of seminars in the Melbourne University Liberal Club during the 1960s; Hayek responded that “you never know the influence of your work. Sometimes you write and it seems to have no effect at all”.  Fraser emerged from his office and, after introductions, the party went into the Prime Minister’s Office accompanied by another of Fraser’s staff.

Fraser had discussed Hayek’s visit with his staff beforehand and received a written brief but it was apparent in the meeting that his mind was still on the issues of the previous meeting. After they sat down and exchanged pleasantries, Hayek opened the conversation by broaching the subject of the exchange rate, then under intense discussion, and asked the Prime Minister why it should not be allowed to float? Fraser responded by asking what further action would be necessary if this were done, but Hayek disclaimed enough detailed knowledge of the Australian scene to answer the question.  Fraser seemed unwilling to pursue the matter and Randerson commented that he had not suggested to Hayek that he raise the issue. Fraser courteously replied that he did not imagine that Professor Hayek needed people to tell him what to say.

Hayek, attempting to discuss a broader subject, turned to the issue of social justice: it was, he stated, a misleading and unsatisfactory term which encouraged the growth of government welfare spending.  Fraser responded sharply: “What do you do when aboriginal children are dying?”  Hayek suggested that the government should consider a minimum income system, to avoid the obvious problems of the current system which simply encouraged special interest pressures for more spending.  Fraser responded that this underestimated the common sense of the people, and that he had taken a strong stand himself in condemning politicians who kept promising new spending. Hayek responded that the system for deciding these matters was itself flawed and needed to be changed.

In the short time allowed for the meeting, Fraser did not attempt to engage his visitor on the major issues he was facing, despite the opening provided.  He had expressed interest beforehand but it appeared that the Prime Minister had not read the brief prepared by his staff, and the opportunity to engage one of the great minds of the modern era in a serious policy discussion was passed over by the Australian leader.

Appendix 3. Wolfgang Kasper on Hayek at the Australian National University (prepared at the request of the present author).

In 1969, I had visited Hayek several times when he recuperated in a sanatorium in the Black Forest in Germany and I was a staffer of the German Council of Economic Advisors. By 1976, I had moved to the Australian National University (ANU), and found the atmosphere among the social scientists there not very congenial, to say the least. They were mostly neoclassical model builders or left-wing economic historians, most of whom might not even have heard of Austrian economics. But they were all very sure that they belonged to the noble religion of do-gooding reform and that the sacking of Whitlam was a gross injustice.

It was against this background that the news of Friedrich Hayek’s visit came as a great and very pleasant surprise! Hayek was to speak at ANU in the big Coombs Lecture Theatre (named after ‘Nugget’ Coombs). When I turned up in the company of a businessman friend, the auditorium was already quite packed. I saw only few of my fellow economists from ANU in the audience, but many vaguely familiar faces from the Treasury and – oddly – the Canberra Fabian Society.

Then, Hayek – a gangly old fellow – began to speak after an introduction that assumed few in the audience had even heard his name. I do not even recall the contents of his address only that it was lively and the audience were spell-bound. My businessman friend (and Chris Caton, then of Treasury, who sat next to us) loudly approved of what was said, but some around us began shaking their heads. Hayek clearly hailed from a different intellectual universe than the model builders, who were trained to assume ‘perfect knowledge’.

After the talk, the questions came mostly from several senior civil servants, some of whom were eager to use our eminent visitor to score policy points. Hayek obliged in his good-natured and clear way. I do not believe that he changed minds of the ‘Whitlam tribe’, but he did much to cheer and reinforce those who shared his basic worldview and his understanding that economics is about a dynamic game to search and test useful knowledge. Well after the habitual closing time for such public events, the questions and answers were keeping the big audience spell-bound. The chair (it may have been John Stone from Treasury, I am not sure) pointed out Hayek’s advanced age, his recovery from serious illness and politely suggested we come to a close. Hayek interrupted him cheerfully: “Yes”, he said in his Vienna-accented English, “I have been ill and I have tried old age. It was not to my liking! Who has the next question?” This brought the house down! With hindsight, I know that this remark was one of his standard party quips at the time – but he certainly won over the hearts of the audience, though possibly not their minds.

His Canberra show was fondly remembered by those present, including the majority who were unable to jettison their old beliefs in favour of thinking in terms of Austrian-evolutionary economics.

[i] Hence the need to adopt a continuous “rules of the game” approach to social and political arrangements, in the way that the rules of the game of football can be adjusted to make the game safer for the players and more attractive for the spectators, the rules of the road are modified to facilitate traffic flow and reduce accidents, and the rules of scientific method can be tuned to promote the growth of knowledge. That was the little recognized thrust of Popper’s approach to science which Ian Jarvie (2001) called “the social turn”. The conscious and critical “rules of the game” approach that Popper introduced in to the philosophy of science is the counterpart to Hayek’s “rules of the game” approach to the social and political order. That approach is an alternative to the traditional methods which either focus on the “essentialist” effort to determine the essential meaning of the key concepts or the “historicist” or “genetic” approach to determine where the rules came from and where they are going in future. Wittgenstein and his followers made much of “forms of life” and games, especially “language games”, and if they had adopted a critical, problem-solving approach to social problems, and the function and consequences of institutional arrangements, they could have supported the projects of Popper and Hayek.


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A tribute to Ian C Jarvie

Following the Agassi collection which is anticipated in May, some friends of  Joe and his colleague Ian Jarvie are compiling a collection for Ian.

My contribution will explore the implications and application of the social turn which Jarvie identified in Popper’s first published work between 1935 to 1945. What does this mean for Popperian exegesis and what sort of program is required to consolidate and extend Jarvie’s insights? What reactions followed The Republic of Science, what manner of criticism and commentary has  been published and what work has been done along the same lines.

I will suggest that the “rules of the game” approach is a unifying feature of Popper’s work in science and politics, and a shared feature of Popper and Hayek’s approach to politics and social reform. It could have led to a shared program with Wittgenstein and his followers if they had used his “games” idea in a critical and problem-solving approach to genuine issues in philosophy and the world outside the window.

This is a very uncritical commentary on The Republic of Science.


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‘Brexit’ and the Political Ideals of the Open Society

Rod Thomas

Preface, acknowledgements, lament, dedication and disclaimer

This paper was written in the months preceding the so-called ‘Brexit’ referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom ought to remain a member of the European Union. It uses starred (*) endnotes to incorporate any post-referendum information that is pertinent to its contents. The rudiment of its analysis of Brexit first appeared in a letter to Standpoint magazine Issue 82, May 2016. A shortened version of the paper informed presentations to faculty of the Department of Law, Northumbria University, UK on 30th June 2016 and to the 11th Philosophy of Management Conference, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, UK on 17th July 2016. It was also discussed in two on-line seminars on The Future of Science and the Open Society hosted by Dr Mark Notturno of the Interactivity Foundation, USA on 9th July 2016 and 26th February 2017. I am grateful for the comments and criticisms that I received at these various events.

In October 2016, the paper was submitted for publication in the European social and political philosophy journal Res Publica. The editors of Res Publica rejected the paper for what I consider to be inappropriate reasons: one of their referees used their anonymous status to defame me, whereas the other declared the paper’s argument to be ‘unpersuasive’. Most lamentably, one referee discounted the paper’s contents on the grounds that Sir Karl Popper’s ideas about democracy and the Open Society are ‘now largely ignored by political philosophers, social theorists, and historians’. Thus, I dedicate this paper to those who were more willing to engage with democracy and Popper’s idea of the Open Society: the volunteers to the various campaign organisations in the Brexit referendum. Finally, I thank Mark Notturno and Rafe Champion for their efforts to create forums to discuss critical rationalism outside the all too often censorious confines of academia. I thank Rafe especially for his kind offer to post the paper on this web site.

The responsibility for all of the opinions expressed in this paper rests solely with the author and not with any other persons whom he may know, or with any organisations or institutions with which he is associated.

Copyright © Rod Thomas 2016-2017. All rights reserved.


The exegesis of a famous work in social and political philosophy may be made interesting by explaining the problem that engaged its author. It may be made doubly interesting by applying the philosophy to a contemporary issue. That two-fold agenda, when successfully addressed, may also demonstrate the lasting value of the work and that the problem that it sought to investigate is in some sense perennial. This paper pursues such an agenda by supplying an exegesis of Karl Popper’s famous work on social and political philosophy: The Open Society and Its Enemies. It uses a recently published collection of Popper’s previously unpublished or uncollected papers on social and political philosophy to elucidate the work’s themes, contents and problem situation. It also applies its central ideas to a contemporary issue: the referendum on so-called ‘Brexit’, held on 23rd June 2016, to decide whether the United Kingdom ought to remain a member of the European Union. The exegesis that is thereby supplied offers a third outcome of contemporary interest: an unqualified philosophical defence of ‘Brexit’.


This paper considers a philosophy of management for a society and its state institutions: openness and democracy. It has an opposite with which it may be contrasted: closure and tyranny. This formulation was the basis of Sir Karl Popper’s (1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]) two-volume work: The Open Society and Its Enemies. Both sides of the dichotomy reflect political ideals for the individual life and the historical life of a society; but I shall argue that the political ideals of openness and democracy are peculiar because they represent a kind of anti-ideal ideal. This approach to political philosophy is illustrated by a contemporary issue: the referendum held on June 23rd 2016 to decide whether the United Kingdom (UK) ought to remain a member of the European Union (EU). The referendum is commonly referred to as the referendum on British exit from the EU, or ‘Brexit’.1* I shall propose that the Brexit debate and the political ideals of the Open Society and democracy illuminate one another. By which I mean that the reasons for the Brexit referendum occurring may be better understood when viewed through the lens of Popper’s social and political philosophy, and Popper’s social and political philosophy may be better understood by applying it to the Brexit debate.

Philosophising the Brexit Debate

Some commentators seem to look upon the Brexit debate and the politics of the UK more generally in disbelief or incomprehension. Let us consider, purely by way of illustration, Brexit – The Politics of a Bad Idea, edited by David Gow and Henning Meyer (2016). It is a collection of essays by leading academics, former Commissioners of the European Union, journalists and public policy analysts. It presents EU membership as “… the foundation of the ‘open society’ Britain has become… one of the main guarantors of our civilization… to be defended at all costs” (Liddle 2016, pp. 8-9). Brexit, in contrast, is dismissed as a ‘bad idea’ (Gow and Meyer 2016) that is supported by ‘thin arguments’ (Liddle 2016, p. 3). Worse, Brexit is not only a bad idea, it is ‘… among the worst ideas of the century’ (Andor 2016, p. 20).

Unfortunately, the contributors to this collection fail to address the question of why this ‘bad idea’ has endured rather than been criticised to destruction. The editors seemingly attribute this to ‘… the poor quality of debate on a topic as complex as EU membership’ (Gow and Meyer 2016, p. 1).2* Whatever the reason, they were deeply unsettled by the prospect of the Brexit question being subject to a referendum. For that is to:

… risk that this crucial vote is decided not on the basis of the best available information and analysis but on gut feeling and short-term mood swings. This is no way to decide upon fundamental issues of democracy and sovereignty for years to come (Gow and Meyer 2016, p. 1).

Elsewhere, other commentators are similarly unsettled.3* One analyst, writing on-line for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has suggested that the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland ought to become an independent nation raised the question of ‘…whether a democratic system is beneficial or detrimental to the governance of a country made up of many nations’ (Suetyi 2014). Another on-line Carnegie commentator lamented the Brexit referendum as being symptomatic of ‘… an unpleasant nationalism, which interprets everything in terms of the greatness of Britain’ (Wollard 2016).

Admittedly, it might seem excessively democratic of the UK government to have asked its people to decide whether they wanted the UK to remain a member of the EU so soon after establishing, by means of a similar referendum, that the people of Scotland wished to remain a part of the UK. But it is not the short interlude between the two referendums that seems to animate these commentators. On the contrary, my own sense is that what troubles some is that these decisions place their faith in a philosophy of open society and democracy. They seem unsettled by the fact that the decisions are significant and are being made by means of a democratic referendum that is itself preceded by an open critical discussion. Indeed, although they mostly refrain from explicitly saying it, it seems obvious that some think that democracy enabled one of the worst ideas of the century to be posed as a referendum question—an idea so bad that its adoption jeopardizes civilization and open society.

Forewarnings of the rise of such post-democratic sentiment were issued long ago (Siedentop 2000; Crouch 2004; Oborne 2008; Hitchens 2009). Post-democracy, however, was the term coined by the political economist Colin Crouch (2004) to describe a society in which the institutions of democracy become a formal shell for the closed broking arrangements of the politico-economic elite comprising politicians, banks, multi-national corporations, inter-governmental bodies, lobbyists and media organisations. Anti-Democracy, of course, would dispense with even the formal shell.

How should one view this situation? Is a democracy, with the power to both appoint and dismiss its leaders, an acceptable form of control on the management of a society and its state institutions? Is a society that asks of each and every enfranchised adult that they think critically about, and take a measure of responsibility for, the social laws and arrangements under which they live, a society that asks too much of its people? In place of the burden of asking all to share in this strain, is it not more desirable to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling a society, or even a multitude of societies, to established decision-makers and authorities who know what is best for everyone? What kind of society would that be? And how do anti-democrats convince a democratic people to transit from one kind of state to the other?

Seventy-one years ago, Karl Popper’s (1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]) The Open Society and Its Enemies posed pretty much exactly the same set of questions. That resonance raises further questions of interest: whether that book’s problem situation is in some sense perennial and whether it thereby contains ideas of lasting value. All importantly, would answering any of these questions help to explain why so many Britons refuse to endorse the political project of the European Union? Or is their thinking simply predicated upon a bad idea?

The Open Society and Its Enemies

Karl Popper’s (1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]) The Open Society and Its Enemies is widely regarded as an important contribution to twentieth-century social and political philosophy and it remains in-print to this day. In his intellectual biography, Popper (2002a [1974]) described how he left Austria in 1937, first staying in England before accepting a lectureship in New Zealand. It was in New Zealand, against the distant back-drop of the tragedy enveloping Central Europe, that he wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies (OS&E).

The book, which Popper (2002a [1974], p. 131) described as his ‘war effort’, complemented an earlier series of papers on the methodology of the social sciences (Popper 1944a; 1944b; 1945);4 but neither work directly mentioned the war. It is a book that different readers might take very different lessons from. This is not because it is hard to understand or because it was written for the benefit of a specialist audience. On the contrary, it is written in a simple and direct style that ‘…presupposes nothing but open-mindedness in the reader’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. vii). Yet as the Popper scholar David Miller (2006, p. 13) noted ‘…the text teems with arguments; the abundant notes, on a huge range of peripheral topics, only add to the profusion of thoughts’. Indeed, Popper later said that he regretted not explicitly stating in the book ‘what it was all about’ (2012 [2008], p. 132; see also Popper (2012 [2008], chapter 16). Consequently, discerning what exactly OS&E is all about—as opposed to what a particular chapter is about—presents a significant problem to an exegete.

Recently, however, this difficulty has been considerably eased. After The Open Society (Popper 2012 [2008]), edited by Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner, assembles a collection of previously unpublished or uncollected papers on social and political philosophy that Popper authored in the period 1940-1994. This collection, which is largely drawn from archival sources, includes correspondence, lectures and draft papers that illuminate the themes, contents and problem situation of OS&E. Thus the exegesis of OS&E that is presented here is informed by this complementary volume and especially its chapter 14—a previously unpublished manuscript of an untitled talk that Popper gave, seemingly in 1946 to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and possibly elsewhere, and its chapter 16—various drafts of the preface to the American second edition of OS&E that were written in the period 1948-1950. Taken together, they offer an additional insight into what Popper’s own nutshell exegesis of OS&E looked like, the problem situation that it sought to address, and what, precisely, Popper considered to be the enemies of the Open Society: not the personage of Plato, Hegel and Marx, but the ideologies of ‘historicism’, ‘collectivism’ and ‘irrationalism’.5

That said, my reading of OS&E, at least as a work of social and political philosophy, is that it is a defence of two political ideals: open society and democracy. By an open society, Popper meant ‘…a form of social life, and the values which are traditionally cherished in that social life, such as freedom, tolerance, justice, the citizen’s free pursuit of knowledge, his right to disseminate knowledge, his free choice of values and beliefs, and his pursuit of happiness’ (Popper 2012 [2008], p. 240; see also (1966a [1945], chapter 10 §VIII). And by ‘democracy’ he meant something equally specific: a form of government in which the rulers can be dismissed by the ruled without violence or bloodshed (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 7 §II; see also Popper 2012 [2008], chapter 41).

Furthermore, I think that these ideals reflect ideals for the individual life and the historical life of a society; but they are peculiar because each reflects a kind of anti-ideal ideal. This is because they are sceptical as to whether there is a single ideal life for all men and women, just as they are sceptical as to whether there can be an absolute and unchanging ideal society and state.6 Consequently, the political ideal that is embodied by openness is the freedom of men and women to discover their own ideals whilst respecting and tolerating the ideals of others. And the political ideal that is embodied by democracy is not that the people should rule, it is that the people should have institutional methods that are capable of dismissing political leaders without resort to violence and bloodshed—a capability that becomes especially ideal when the political leadership of a state seeks to close down openness.

Yet how does a move to close down an open society succeed? This is the question that implicitly made OS&E pertinent to understanding the European politics of its time. It is also the question that makes the book pertinent to understanding the European politics of today.

Volume I of OS&E (Popper 1966a [1945]) begins with an epigraph taken from Samuel Butler’s (1872) Erewhon:

It will be seen… that the Erewhonians are a meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose, and quick to offer up common sense at the shrine of logic, when a philosopher arises among them who carries them away… by convincing them that their existing institutions are not based on the strictest principles of morality.7

Popper (2012 [2008], chapter 24) later revealed that he selected it in order to stress the perennial tendency of intellectuals to lead an attack on the Open Society. Such attacks, he argued, are not made by appealing, as is widely supposed, to wickedness; what they appeal to is ‘moral enthusiasm’ (Popper 2012 [2008], p. 234).

But the moral appeal, whatever its particular form, is the dressing to the main course. This is an offer to fulfill a powerful psychological desire: to artificially close down or arrest change within society. In place of the discomforting demands of having to adapt to the constant change that is generated by the freedom of the Open Society, a leader and/or their intellectual guru offers something that is more secure, more prosperous, more innocent, more romantic or more beautiful (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 10 §II). An open society thereby closes itself down: its people surrender to what Popper called ‘the strain of civilization’ (1966a [1945], p. 176). Instead of taking personal responsibility for their own life and its contribution to the historical life of their society, the individual averts the responsibility by passing it to those who offer a perfected and ideal arrangement, one that supposedly harmonizes the society and each individual’s contribution to it, whilst also arresting those developments that threaten the perfected ideal. And of course, there may be little to no need for democratic accountability in such an arrangement; for the coming of the perfected arrangement may be presented as being inevitable, or its requirements may be presented as being only understandable by the intellectual or established leadership elite. The enemies of the Open Society thereby successfully replace the political ideals of openness and democracy by those of closure and tyranny.

The principal philosophies that OS&E presented as the enemies of the Open Society were those of Plato, Hegel and Marx to whom Popper attributed a series of ideas that he thought to be supportive to closure and tyranny, most notably what he called: ‘historicism’, ‘collectivism’ and ‘irrationalism’; but also corollaries such as ‘messiahs’, ‘prophets’, ‘principles of leadership’, ‘philosopher kings’, ‘noble lies’, and ‘utopianism’. These ideas do not always form an alliance—although they may do so. By a form of insinuation, OS&E thereby suggested that these ideas had become the intellectual armoury of the totalitarian political projects of the book’s time—the ideological enemies of the Open Society and a form of anti-democratic politics that it must at all costs oppose (Popper 1966a [1945], Introduction; 2012 [2008], chapters 14, 16). To Popper, they were also the ideologies that a philosophy for post-war reconstruction had to at all costs avoid (Popper 1966a [1945], p. vii, Introduction; 2012 [2008], chapters 14, 16).

It is beyond the scope of this paper to engage with Popper’s multi-faceted argument in very much detail. Neither is it feasible to offer a detailed discussion of how Popper located the aforementioned ideas in the philosophies of Plato, Hegel and Marx, nor of how his analysis was received by adherents of those philosophies.8 But, for the purpose of this essay, it is important to discuss the meaning of these terms as Popper presented them. By implication, if Popper’s diagnosis is correct, a society that values openness and democracy will be deeply suspicious of any political project that carries the slightest whiff of closure and tyranny. This is a fundamental reason why, or so I shall argue, so many Britons refuse to endorse the political project of the European Union. And it also explains, at least to my satisfaction, why they are right not to do so. Let us consider the nature of the EU’s political project in these terms.

Anti-Democratic Politics

For Popper (1966a [1945], p. 124; see also 2012 [2008], chapter 41), there are two types of government. Firstly, those in which the rulers can be dismissed by the ruled without violence or bloodshed; that is to say those with democratic institutions that are capable of doing this. Secondly, those in which the ruled cannot do this; that is to say an anti-democratic dictatorship or a tyranny.

To emphasise the point that in a democratic institutional arrangement a government must face a ‘day of judgement’, Popper was fond of citing Pericles of Athens: ‘Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it’ (1966a [1945], p. 7; 2012 [2008], p. 368). And if a post-democratic political class emerges, in which the politicians of different political parties are wholly interchangeable because their policies are essentially all the same, then the people of the Open Society, if they sufficiently value a tradition of democracy, may try to found a new political party. Much thereby depends upon the vigilance and strength of character of a people in upholding what is often nothing more than tradition.9

For all of their imperfections, the Open Society and the institutions of a democracy are therefore bulwarks against any political class seeking to reduce politics to a closed process of entreaties, broking, negotiations, cronyism and ‘Danegeld’ arrangements. This was memorably summarised by the socialist British Parliamentarian Tony Benn (1998) when he said that democracy poses 5 little questions to the powerful:

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

This is, in my view, a fundamental reason for the Brexit referendum occurring. The EU has long been accused by Brexit campaigners of being anti-democratic by design: its government is not formed from an elected Parliament, cannot be collectively dismissed by a demos, mostly does not have its legislation initiated by those who are elected to its European Parliament, and has a judiciary that is increasingly empowered to override the law of its democratic member states wherever it finds it to be contrary to EU law. As an institutional structure, the EU declares itself to be ‘unique’ (European Union 2016). But even those who favor the creation of a federal European government that is elected by a unified European demos—a United States of Europe—concede that this is unlikely to happen any time soon. Indeed, the EU’s present institutions were described by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister and a supporter of the project of European Union, as being:

…designed purposely to ensure that laws could be passed without any serious scrutiny by any sovereign parliament vested with the authority of democracy’s final arbiter, the people (Varoufakis 2016, pp. 223-224).10

Indeed, the EU’s institutional structure is so hard to understand that it is probably fair to say that hardly any members of the British general public fully understand it. Nonetheless, I very much doubt that many Britons would find the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon’s Article 8b provisions on the democratic principles of the EU to be satisfactory (European Union 2007). For instance, that ‘citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament’—the Parliament, one should remember, from which the EU’s executive leadership are not selected. Nor, I suspect, do they feel particularly enfranchised by their democratic entitlement to submit, as an individual and if accompanied by at least 999,999 others from a significant number of EU member states, a proposal to the European Commission that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties—all of which are predicated upon an ever-closer union of the EU’s member states. And then there are the reports of the mind-boggling ‘back-room’ deals that precede the ‘election’ of the President of the European Parliament (Waterfield 2014).

Of course, the famous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on European Union does permit the holding of a Brexit-style referendum on withdrawing from the EU and this is an exercise in popular democracy. But one should note what is being permitted. It is not that a popular referendum may be used to advise the elected representatives or rulers of a democracy to dismiss another set of elected representatives or rulers. What is permitted, and what the Brexit referendum may initiate, is that a member state may ‘withdraw’ from the Union and seek to negotiate an agreement for the arrangements for its withdrawal, or failing that, leave without such a negotiated agreement. In other words, the EU permits a member state to decide to exile itself or be banished.

What a significant number of Britons do seem to feel is that they are increasingly ‘governed by Brussels’, but they do not understand how, or even why, they are governed by Brussels, nor why the supposedly sovereign UK parliament that they do elect cannot change the way that they are governed by Brussels, or rather, why they cannot do so without first getting the approval of a multitude of rulers from other EU member states and EU bodies that they cannot name, did not elect, and cannot dismiss. Those embedded within this semi-closed system of government do not even seem to recognize the potential damage done to its public image when they openly characterize it as a process of entreaties, broking and bargaining (House of Commons 2015; Tusk 2015; 2016). And Britons could only wonder at the complete indifference of the EU’s leadership when a party wishing to withdraw the UK from the EU effectively won, by any commonly-used measure, the UK elections to the European Parliament in 2014 (BBC News 2014). Indeed, it was only the prospect of further electoral success for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in the 2015 general election of representatives to the UK Parliament, that seemingly brought matters to a head—not through any EU-led initiative, but with the decision of the more mainstream Conservative Party to include a manifesto pledge to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU and subsequently hold a referendum on Brexit (The Conservative Party 2015).

But an anti-democratic politics, according to OS&E, usually goes hand-in-hand with the move to close down an open society. Surely, the EU, as a project of post-war reconstruction, was not informed by the philosophies that inspired totalitarianism. Did it not bury historicism, collectivism and irrationalism alongside their corollaries of ‘messiahs’, ‘prophets’, ‘principles of leadership’, ‘philosopher kings’, ‘noble lies’, and ‘utopianism’?

Sadly, I think not.


‘Historicism’ is a doctrine that comes in a variety of guises (Popper 1957; 1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]; see also Gellner 1964). In its more elaborate forms it presents the history of a society, or group of societies, as being governed by a natural law of succession, or by laws of historical development. In its simple forms it presents human history as having an intrinsic meaning, or as unfolding according to an inexorable law of historical destiny, or very simply that a chosen people, or a class of people, or a group of peoples, has a destiny or fate.11

A historicist doctrine typically places historical events into a developmental series by using a deterministic theory that purports to explain the series, or it gives the events a meaning or justification. Thus it makes history in the traditional sense of a chronicle of events almost superfluous to the historicist account of that history. No matter how tragic and unfortunate the events may be, they are always simply the conditions on which the remorseless logic of a supposed ‘law of destiny’ or ‘law of development’ sets to work. In other words, And the Weak Suffer What They Must (Varoufakis 2016). For this reason, Gilbert Ryle memorably described historicism as the ‘Juggernaut theory of history’.12 It presents a picture of a society as if it were a train travelling along a track, with individual persons aboard it, all inevitably bound to arrive at a terminus station called ‘Collective Destiny’.

My own sense is that the juggernaut theory underwrites the commonplace and long-established political talk of Europe having a ‘destiny’, of there being a ‘two-speed’ and ‘multi-speed’ Europe, of there being an engine unit of ‘Kern Europa’ etc. Indeed, the EU, and its forerunner institutions, have explicitly flirted with a historicist narrative to justify the Treaty of Rome’s (European Economic Community 1957) objective ‘…of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. This is most clearly present in the Solemn Declaration on European Union agreed by the Heads of State of the then European Economic Community’s members in Stuttgart in 1983.13 This solemnly declared that:

The Heads of State or government, on the basis of an awareness of a common destiny and the wish to affirm the European identity, confirm their commitment to progress towards an ever closer union among the peoples and member states of the European Community (European Community 1983). 14*

Popper returned again and again to attack the perniciousness of historicism in his writings (Popper 1957; 1966a [1945], chapter 22; see also Popper 1994, chapter 7; 1997, chapters 1, 2, 5; 1999, chapters 10, 12; 2012 [2008], chapters 8, 33). Throughout his life, he classified Karl Marx as a most influential historicist theorist, often calling historicism ‘the Marxist trap’ (Popper 1999, p. 133).15 He argued that historicist doctrine traps the individual in moral chains. The supposed inevitability of factual events enables the taking of personal responsibility to be averted. And surely, all are better off swimming with the tide of history, than foolishly attempting to hold it back. Indeed, if something is widely perceived to be inevitable then it is also close to inevitable that those who resist its coming will be dismissed as swivel-eyed cranks, gadflies, or fruitcakes. Even more damningly, such individuals may be judged as unnatural, wicked, or criminal. In a nutshell, historicist morality reduces moral standards to current and prophesied future facts; it invites a ‘moral positivism’ or ‘moral futurism’, or that ‘Coming Might is Right’ (Popper 1966b [1945], p. 206 [emphasis in original]; see also 1966b, p. 393).

Indeed, for the moral futurist, the right thing to do may not be to sit back and wait for the inevitable to happen. They may decide that their duty is to aid its coming and lessen the birth-pangs—to act as a midwife.16 And, of course, if a belief in a supposed historical common destiny becomes the official ideology of a society’s state institutions, then that belief will hold implications for persons within that society. This is because the power of the State’s institutions will make the belief a force, even if the belief is false. The established institutions of the State will promote the rightness of the historicist prophesy. Cue the various inter-governmental Treaties of European Union, all uncritically premised on the ‘solemn’ assumption that there is a European identity, that the people of Europe share a common destiny tout court, and that the peoples of Europe must submit themselves to the doctrine of Acquis Communautaire.17

That historicist morality became a feature of the Brexit debate seems, at least to me, also a matter of the historical record. Indeed, voting to remain in the EU was explicitly presented by its supporters to be the ‘moral’ choice because of the economic opportunity and security that it supposedly guaranteed as compared to the unknown economic risks and insecurities that were attributed to the Brexit option. In the words of the UK Prime Minster, David Cameron (2016):

The economic case is the moral case—for keeping parents in work, firms in business, Britain in credit, the moral case for providing economic opportunity rather than unemployment for the next generation. Where is the morality for putting that at risk for some unknown end?… It is the self-destruct option.

Moreover, the purported ‘moral case’ was quantified in the very best traditions of moral positivism. By assuming that the UK would be unable to negotiate any favorable trade deals whatsoever under the Brexit scenario, HM Treasury successfully managed to construct an econometric model that estimated the opportunity foregone by a Brexit option to equal £4,300 of GDP per household after 15 years (HM Government 2016).18 Political standards of good government were thereby entirely reduced, Erewhonian style, to a measurement of the value of economic production.


Like historicism, ‘collectivism’ also comes in a variety of guises (Popper 1966a [1945]; see also O’Neill 1973). In its most simple form it presents itself as tribalism or ‘… the emphasis on the supreme importance of the tribe, without which the individual is nothing at all’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 9). To Popper, a tribal society exhibits a ‘… magical or irrational attitude to the customs of social life’, one that ‘… lacks the distinction between the customary or conventional regularities of social life and the regularities found in nature’; for instance, one ‘…with the belief that both are enforced by a supernatural will’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 172). A tribal society is therefore rigid: its social conventions, customs and regulations are not open to critical consideration, evaluation or discussion. The individual’s social position is largely prescribed by custom and their social action may be proscribed by taboo. Hence changes to the way of life within a tribal society are infrequent: ‘… taboos rigidly regulate and dominate all aspects of life’ (Popper 1966a ([1945], p. 172). This is what Popper meant by ‘the Closed Society’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 57).

But tribalism is a simple and natural form of what Popper more generally called ‘collectivism’: “… a doctrine which emphasizes the significance of some collective or group, for instance ‘the state’ (or a certain state; or a nation; or a class) as against that of the individual” (1966a [1945], Chapter 1 fn. 1). Moreover, collectivist doctrines are often based upon the psychological desire to artificially close or arrest change within a society, supposedly alleviating the uneasiness of ‘the strain of civilization’ by returning to the security, innocence and beauty of a tribal society (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 176). A Closed Society may therefore be either naturally closed as per the tribal society, or artificially closed through the adoption of a collectivist doctrine. And a collectivist doctrine that seeks artificially to close a society will embody a moral standard. In a nutshell, ‘the criterion of morality is the interest of the state’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 107 emphasis in original).

Popper argued that collectivism, with its emphasis on the primacy of some abstract whole—the tribe, the State etc—may connect with a historicist doctrine via the corollaries of ‘holism’ and ‘utopianism’ (Popper 1957, p. 17, p. 46; 1966a [1945], p. 80, p. 157). Holism is the idea that a social group, or a people, is more than the sum total of its members, more than the persons who comprise it.19 But historicists, with their idea that a society moves as a whole toward a destiny or fate, are inclined to interpret ‘whole’ as ‘the totality of all properties or aspects of a thing, and especially of all the relations holding between the constituent parts’ (Popper 1957, p. 76). Popper (1957) held such a notion to be confused, for wholes in that sense, can be neither described nor studied because their content is infinite. Hence, the doctrines of historicism and collectivism travel to the terminus station of ‘Collective Destiny’ on a train called ‘Holistic Jargon’. Furthermore, in a historicist prophesy, the destination point of ‘the whole’ may be a perfected ideal: an Ideal State or a utopia.

Popper (1966a [1945]) classified Plato as a most influential collectivist theorist and a historicist of sorts. He opposed what he regarded as Plato’s doctrine of tribal collectivism, and his historicist sociology of how to arrest the degeneration of the Greek City State, with a doctrine of ‘individualism’. The latter, in contrast to the former, emphasizes the supreme importance of the individual man and woman and his or her conscience (Popper 1966a [1945], p.100; (2012 [2008], chapter 7). Popper regarded individualism as a component to ‘humanitarianism’, or the doctrine that there is a basic ‘unity of mankind’ and that there are no natural divisions between, for instance, Greeks and barbarians, free men and slaves (Popper 1966a [1945], Chapter 5 fn. 13), or for that matter Europeans and non-Europeans, or the British and the rest of the world. He contrasted the jurisprudence of a humanitarian individualism with what he called the ‘totalitarian justice’ of Plato’s tribal collectivism (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 6). For Popper, individualism produced an ‘equalitarian’ concept of justice, characterized by no one being above the law and all being subject to the same law; a law that is administered impartially to all in the same courts (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 6). Today, this doctrine is usually summarized by the phrase ‘the rule of law’, at least in the jurisprudence of English law.20

For Popper, the doctrine of a humanitarian individualism places only those constraints on individual freedom that are necessary for social co-existence, whilst allowing all to share in those advantages of social life which membership of a state may offer and the protection of liberty may afford.21 In a nutshell, ‘… the State is to exist for the sake of individuals and not… the individual for the sake of the State’ Popper 2012 [2008], p.66 emphasis in original). Popper therefore presented humanitarian individualism and equalitarianism as ‘fundamentally a liberal theory’ (Popper, 1966a [1945], p. 111). He contrasted it with what he considered to be Plato’s authoritarian collectivism and his holistic perfectionism and utopianism. To Popper, Plato defended inequality on the basis of the natural privileges of natural leaders. The famous Platonic philosopher kings, with their access to the eternal Forms, were placed by Plato above all ordinary men.22 They alone had access to the form of the Ideal State—the utopian blueprint for the organisation of the whole of society. Hence only the messianic elite can devise a political programme to perfect society, by harmonizing all of its elements, arresting unwanted change, and protecting the actual state from degeneration. Consequently, the individual’s purpose is to do whatever is deemed necessary to maintain and strengthen the philosopher king’s leadership of the collective. Popper (1966a [1945], chapters 6, 7, 8) proposed that other Platonic principles and doctrines follow as corollaries. Notably, a ‘principle of leadership’: that nobody, not in the smallest matter, should be without a leader telling them, via rules and directives, what to do and how to do it. And the doctrine of ‘the noble lie’: that the leadership elite may tell whatever lies that are deemed necessary to implement the Ideal State.

My own sense of the EU is that it is a taboo-laden, collectivist, utopian project very much in the tradition of Platonic political philosophy. To pursue a project of ‘ever closer union’ amongst the peoples of Europe is to pursue an undefined objective for an indefinite collective. It may therefore, in my mind, quite properly be called both holistic and utopian. To insist that the undefined objective be pursued no matter what its implications are revealed by experience to be is to make its definition or limitation taboo. To establish a European court and treaty-based system of law that penetrates inside the EU’s member states and takes precedence over national laws, often guided by the supreme goal of pursuing an ‘ever-greater union’, is not to dispense justice in the interest of an individualist humanitarianism, it is to pursue an authoritarian collectivism. For the individual may now be taken to exist not even for the purpose of their own state, but for the purpose of constructing a superstate. Even the crushed and destitute individuals of Greece have their role to play in creating such a superstate, whereas those who do not share the idealised vision, and use democracy to campaign against it, are labeled ‘déserteurs’ (Juncker 2016). And although the Ideal State is not one based upon an obvious form of nationalism, or the political principle that the political and the national unit should be congruent (Gellner 1983), it is, in my mind, based upon a misplaced or confected form of nationalism, one that seeks to create a political unit where no national unit previously existed. For the political project of European Union can hardly be unproblematic in its anti-nationalism and it is extremely uncritical to view it as some form of ‘little goody two-shoes’ in that regard. Indeed, thinking about nationalism presents a serious philosophical challenge (Agassi 1999). My own sense is that a project of European Union cannot avoid either being a peculiar form of nationalism or a peculiar form of internationalist imperialism. It may be interpreted as Europeanism and this is manifest in the fact that the EU has a flag, anthem, motto and diplomatic corps in addition to it being a protectionist customs union. Indeed, whereas the general principle of nationalism can, at least in theory, be asserted in a non-chauvinistic, universalistic way, that is compatible with a basic doctrine of the ‘unity of mankind’, by simply saying that a plurality of human cultures and social conventions adds to the diversity of the world and may each and all freely trade with one another and have its own body politic, it is not clear, at least to me, that a Europeanist nationalism does this. Ab initio, it seems to assume that all forms of nationalism, except its own form, are dangerously chauvinistic and egoistic. And it infers from this that the right thing to do is to chip them away through a process of harmonization and homogenization. Thus viewed, the EU’s supposed anti-nationalism is merely another seductive form of Erewhonian morality.

If this is an accurate diagnosis, then the Platonic principle of leadership might also fall into place. Cue the EU’s infamous bureaucracy of directives and regulations on everything from the prohibition of powerful vacuum cleaners [regulation 666/2013] and incandescent light bulbs [directive 2005/32/EC], to the way that prices must be marked on goods for sale [directive 98/6/EC], to the way that goods ‘that appear to be other than what they are’ must be presented [directive 87/357]. And cue the philosopher kings who must supply this leadership: the 28 unelected Commissioners of the EU. And cue perhaps the adoption of the doctrine of the noble lie—given the many quotes attributed to the architects and leading figures of the EU that suggest exactly this.23


The political ideals of the Open Society have far-reaching consequences. A skepticism as to whether there is a single ideal life for all men and women, or whether there is an absolute and unchanging ideal form of society and state, a respect and tolerance of all but the intolerant—these are all at odds with the idea that life, society and state must be constructed, reconstructed and directed by some superior intellect in possession of a blueprint design. The anti-ideal ideals of the Open Society mean that there are no values that can unquestionably justify their imposition on others, for there is no way to determine the ultimate ends of political action purely by rational means (Popper 2002b [1963], chapter 18; 1966a [1945], chapter 9). Quite simply: different men and women may value different ends. A politician may use rational argument to clarify the consequences of their political programme and this may assist each to make a decision as to whether they support it—at least it may amongst those who value argument and are willing to listen. But a politician cannot use rational argument to determine conclusively the acceptability of those policies. And what each individual chooses to support and do with their lives is what helps shape the individual and collective future; it is not determined by that future. Our futures are actively shaped by the collective inter-personal critical endeavour—by our learning from others and from our experience, and by the exercise of our always fallible critical reasoning and decision-making autonomy.

This is how Popper (1966b [1945], chapter 24) connected his social and political philosophy to his theory of knowledge and rationality: the philosophy that he and his followers called ‘critical rationalism’ (Popper 1966b [1945], p. 232; see also Notturno 2000). Theories, statements, political programmes are not themselves rational, they cannot be justified as true or right by being derived from what is written upon a foundation stone or from what is uttered by some supposedly super-rational authority. What may be rational is our attitude toward them. As Popper’s colleague William Bartley III later put it:

A rationalist becomes one who holds everything—including standards, goals, criteria, authorities, decisions and especially any framework or way of life—open to criticism (Bartley 1990, p. 238).

To think otherwise, for instance to insist that the ultimate ends of political action can be formulated as an unquestionable principle, or as a preamble to a EU treaty whose contents are placed beyond the reach of criticism, is ultimately the equivalent of adopting an irrationalist attitude. For only taboo, or an appeal to passion, or a resort to power or violence, can quell or coerce those who disagree with it.

The Brexit referendum was a long time in the making, but it seems obvious to me that the UK’s relationship with the EU has been beset, throughout its history, by a fundamental clash of attitude toward the problem of rationality.24 This may be illustrated in many ways. For instance, whereas one might say that the modern attitude of the British toward what it means to be British, is to not to take too seriously the question of what it means to be British, membership of the EU required, as previously noted, the UK’s one-time government to make a solemn declaration affirming the British people’s European identity. And whereas a fundamental feature of the UK’s unwritten constitution is that there is no law that a UK Parliament cannot change by the ordinary process of legislation, one can hardly say that the European Parliament, Commission, Council and treaty-based system of law operate on a similar principle. To many Britons, these institutions seem to operate on the principle that if progress to ‘ever closer union’ has a benefit it is used as a justification for more of the same, and if it fails to produce an immediate benefit then… it is used as a justification for more of the same. The disconnection between these differing attitudes to rationality was conspicuous when the UK government developed its own methodology for critically testing the implications of joining the single currency Euro-zone (Potton and Mellows-Facer 2003). This involved an appraisal of the implications in the form of 5 tests that were very different to the so-called ‘convergence criteria’ that the EU’s Maastricht Treaty insisted upon and, despite the subsequent course of history in the southern European member states, ostensibly still insists upon. Indeed, the European Commission’s (2015) attitude to problem solving and learning from experience may be gauged from its publication entitled A Short Guide to the Euro. It details a timeless solution and an ideal end: that the euro and economic and monetary union ‘…allow our economies to function more efficiently and effectively, ultimately offering Europeans more jobs and greater prosperity’. Thus far, this is difficult to reconcile with the lived experience of millions of Europeans.25

Go, tell the Spartans, passerby,

That here, by Spartan law we lie.


The political project of the European Union may have been conceived as a response to the darkest chapter in European history. Its architects may have acted with the very best of motives, seeking to reconstruct European politics in a way that ended any prospect of further wars between the nation states of Europe. The EU is therefore easily presented as a very laudable and very moral enterprise that is in the very best traditions of peaceful co-operation and civilized conduct.

But this essay has argued that it is nonetheless a project which is impregnated with the very philosophical ideas about politics, history and society that its architects ought to have sought to escape from. Its architects were conscious of their philosophical problems, but not of their philosophical prejudices. These prejudices were the ideologies that Karl Popper diagnosed and exposed in The Open Society and Its Enemies: historicism, collectivism and irrationalism. Their handmaiden is an anti-democratic politics. His was a diagnosis of the past that is also a diagnosis of our own time. Perhaps it is even a diagnosis for all of time, or at least until the day that the last democratic people of the last Open Society surrender to the ‘strain of civilization’ and are seduced by ‘…an intellectual who convinces them that their existing institutions are not based on the strictest principles of morality’. And indeed, most strikingly in the Brexit debate, if popular commentary is in any way accurate, it is the non-intellectual and non-expert classes who are democracy and the Open Society’s stalwart defenders.

Brexit is therefore not among ‘the worst ideas of the century’. Rather, it may be interpreted as the most recent and best reaction of a democratic and critically-minded people to the worst ideas of the last century and of the many centuries that came before. It may be interpreted as a reaction to the perennial ideologies of historicism, collectivism and irrationalism: a reaction to anti-democratic politics and the enemies of the Open Society.

And I suspect that Popper, being someone with a perspective on philosophy and history that was beyond the reach of most, foresaw the essential problem. In 1992, seven months after the Maastricht Treaty on European Union (European Union 1992) was signed, he made a brief speech when aged 90 to mark the passing of his former colleague Friedrich von Hayek. In it he offered these interesting remarks:

Hayek’s books about the legal framework are full of thoughts about the protection of legal institutions. His thoughts recall the problem situation and the atmosphere of the founders of the American constitution. I fear that few care nowadays for these problems…The neglect of Hayek’s ideas can be gauged by their lack of influence upon the plans for a United Europe, with an executive bureaucracy in Brussels, without a clear responsibility to any democratic control, and a parliament in Strasbourg without any competence to control the all-powerful bureaucracy. I think we should learn from our mistakes and start again, very simply with sovereign democratic states bound by treaties of close cooperation and mutual assistance, and a programme for the defence of peace.

It is clear that the architects of the current plans for Europe have not studied Hayek – not even the founding fathers of the American constitution. But I fear that their ideologies make it somewhat unlikely that they will turn to these vitally important sources. Our dreams, if any, should not be of a strong Europe, but of a peaceful and civilized Europe (Popper 2012 [2008], pp. 409-410).


1*        On a turnout of 72.2%, the referendum result was declared as 17,410,742 (51.9%) to leave the EU and 16,141,241 (48.1%) to remain in the EU. See, The Electoral Commission (2016).

2*        The returns to the Electoral Commission later revealed that the referendum campaign was the most expensive in British history: £16,152,899 being spent in support of a ‘Remain’ outcome and £11,534,426 being spent in support of a ‘Leave’ outcome. See, The Electoral Commission (2017).

3*        The unease has continued. For instance, after the referendum, The Royal Institute of Philosophy broadcast a facilitator-led discussion between four British philosophers: 3 supporting ‘Remain’ and 1 ‘Leave’. The discussion addressed the question of whether the EU referendum was a truly democratic process and whether the outcome of the vote should in some way be ‘resisted’. See, The Royal Institute of Philosophy (2017).

4          The papers were later published in book form as Popper (1957).

5          I acknowledge Joseph Agassi’s (2010) review essay of After the Open Essay which contains many interesting remarks on exegeses and on the important contribution that Shearmur and Turner’s edited collection has made to the understanding of Popper’s social and political philosophy.

6          The question of whether man is perfectible is one of the central issues of traditional philosophy. See John Passmore (1970) for a detailed discussion of its long history, which also reaches sceptical conclusions.

7          Butler’s story describes a civilization called ‘Erewhon’ whose morality and logic is characterised by reversals when compared to that of England. For instance in Erewhon children are held responsible for their own birth; illness is punished as a crime, whereas crime is treated as an illness; debate about the rights of animals and vegetables leads to hunger etc.

8          For a brief survey see Keuth (2005, part II).

9          Popper’s social philosophy presents traditions as playing ‘…a kind of intermediate and intermediary role between persons (and personal decisions) and institutions’ (Popper 1966a, Chapter 7 fn. 7* [emphasis removed]). See Popper (2002b [1963], chapter 4) for a further discussion.

10       Yanis Varoufakis’s And The Weak Suffer What They Must? (2016) supplies a compelling history of the EU, the establishment of the Eurozone single currency area, and the background to his own resignation as Greek finance minister after he refused to accept that the terms of the Eurozone’s bail-out of his bankrupt nation respected its sovereignty.

11       It ought to be noted that Popper (1957, p. 17) distinguished ‘historicism’ from what he called ‘historism’. To him, ‘historism’ was the doctrine that theories and opinions reflect the predilections and interests of a historical period. As such, Popper accepted historism and he often argued that understanding a social and historical context may be relevant to understanding the theories and ideas that are developed within it. See, for example, Popper (2002b [1963], chapter 2). Unfortunately, other writers use the term ‘historicism’ to represent what Popper called ‘historism’ creating the prospect of terminological confusion. For a discussion, see Page (1995).

12       See the publisher’s blurb to the fifth paperback edition of volume 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1966a). It quotes Ryle’s (1947) review from Mind. Gilbert Ryle was one of the leading figures of British twentieth-century philosophy.

13       Confusingly, the communiqué was issued on behalf of the ‘European Community’ which at that time did not formally exist. The Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (or Common Market) in 1957. It was renamed the ‘European Community’ by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 and became one of the so-called ‘three pillars’ of the ‘European Union’ that the Treaty also established —the others being concerned with intergovernmental cooperation. The institutions of the European Community were abolished and absorbed into the European Union as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007.

14*     The outcome of the referendum on Brexit has of course destroyed the continued feasibility of presenting an ‘ever-closer union’ as ‘the destiny’ of Europe. In the aftermath, the EU Commission had to completely rethink how to present not only the historical evolution of the European Union, but also the options for the EU’s future development. These are detailed in the EU Commission’s (2017) Whitepaper on the Future of Europe. Reflections and Scenarios for the EU27 by 2025. To give a flavor of its contents, ‘kern’ or ‘core’ Europe is rephrased, George Bush style, as ‘a coalition of the willing’. Nonetheless, old habits die hard. Given the document’s title, the EU Commission seemingly thinks that the UK is leaving the continent of Europe and not just the EU.

15       But as noted a historicist theory need not resemble that of Marx, Engels etc. Marxism may be viewed as replacing the destiny of a chosen people, or the destiny of a nation, with the destiny of the working class (Agassi 1999).

16       Cf. Karl Marx (1867): ‘And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement—and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society—it can neither clear by bold leaps; nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs’.

17       The term is French and means ‘that acquired by the community’. The doctrine of acquis communautaire asserts that the provisions of the various treaties on European Union, and EU law more generally, has primacy and prevails over any member state’s national law and constitutions. The doctrine is applied via the European Court of Justice.

18       It would seem that some place this report in the pantheon of UK government sponsored ‘dodgy dossiers’ (Blake 2016). Another respected British economics commentator classified the report as being in the tradition of those produced by George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (Halligan 2016).

19       Popper (1957) held this idea to be unobjectionable if it was a shorthand label for the idea that special properties or aspects may emerge from an organised structure of relations. Economics has long studied such phenomena. In more recent times, system dynamic and complexity scientists have specialized in understanding it across all kinds of natural and social domains.

20       See, for example, Bingham (2010).

21       For Popper, this does not entail laissez-faire economics. See Popper (1966b [1945], chapter 17 §III).

22       Indeed, on Popper’s reading of Plato’s Republic, the only person fully qualified to join the ranks of the Philosopher Kings is Plato himself (Popper, 1966a [1945], chapter 8).

23       The quotes nearly always lack proper citation. But see, for example, Anonymous (2014).

24       It is beyond the scope of this paper to do so, but one might even formulate an argument that this clash of attitude has its origins in differences between the so-called ‘Continental’ and ‘British’ versions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Deutsch (2012) summarises the clash with the formula that the Continental Enlightenment was utopian because its philosophes and aufklärer thought problems to be soluble but not inevitable, whereas their British counterparts thought problems to be both soluble and inevitable because each solution begat new problems. Interestingly, Deutsch (2012, p. 66) presents Karl Popper as ‘the twentieth century’s foremost proponent of the British enlightenment’, even though Popper was born in Austria. See also, Porter (2001, chapter 6) for a study of how differences in the constitutional polities of the European nations produced different Enlightenment experiences.

25       For an overview of the impact of the Euro currency union on several of its participant nations, including ordinary persons, see Hewitt (2013).














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The Author

Rod Thomas is employed as a senior lecturer by a UK University. He has published several articles on Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy of critical rationalism in the journals Philosophy of Management and the Cambridge Journal of Economics.

Contact: rod.thomas@unn.ac.uk

Posted in open society | 9 Comments

Summary of Popper’s lectures at the LSE

For many years Popper delivered a series of 15 lectures as an introduction to the philosophy of science. They were designed for undergraduates but many other people attended.

While Popper was alive Mark Notturno started work on a reconstruction of the lectures based on transcripts of tape recordings.  Work stopped with 12 of the 15 completed.

When I look at the unsatisfactory books on the philosophy of science, I often wonder what a good book would look like. What would I write myself?  Of course Popper was not writing a book, he lectured without notes and the theme of each lecture was the same each year but he talked about what was on his mind at the time.

  1. Values

Welcome to the lecture. Do not expect too much because I am a very bad lecturer and the important part of learning is what you do yourself. Be free to interrupt and to criticize.

Degrees of understanding and levels of criticism.

The distinction between tentative criticism and serious criticism that is based on good understanding of the issue (but understanding can always be improved).

The wrong reason to go to university, to learn to speak impressively.

The proper reason is to find out how little we can ever know.

The overwhelming importance of simplicity and clarity.

We should try to educate people to tell the difference between a charlatan and an expert.

Confusing clarity with precision. Clarity and simplicity are ends in themselves but precision is context-dependent.

Second point for the day, on fast and slow reading. Not enough people recognize the difference between skimming and reading. And the first part of scientific method is the method of reading a book.

Don’t believe me, but do try to understand me and be prepared to argue, to criticize me and force me to clarify my views.

2. Scientific Method

No such thing. On the non-existence of subjects (just problems) and no such thing as a “scientific method” that can reliably deliver the goods. Demonstrated by Planck, a great scientist with only one great discovery, and Einstein failed to achieve his next great break for 40 years after his initial achievements.

The Webbs (founders of the London School of Economics), Mill and the idea that we start by collecting material.

Observe!  Observe what?

First thesis, science starts from problems, not from observations.

The problem with textbooks, lack of historical background and context.

The mythical origin of geometry – measuring fields on the Nile

Plato’s cosmology and the disaster of Euclid’s textbook, regarded as an authority rather than a report on work in progress at the time.

Revealing Popper’s secrets, the four-step schema.

Problem -> Tentative Solutions -> Error Elimination by Criticism and Testing -> New Problems

  1. Problems

Repeating the basic message of the course – starting with problems.

Finding problems: known problems, problems that you find, the problem of starting with problems that are too hard.

Solving a problem should create more problems.

How to find solutions? No recipe (see Planck and Einstein above).

The historical approach (among others) but what about finding good ideas?

Still no recipe, just have ideas and criticize them.

The search for ideas by observation and the bucket theory of the mind.

Exams as a dipstick to find the level of knowledge in the brain.

Inborn knowledge, expectations and the active role of trial and error.

Preliminary criticism of induction, inductivism and the sunrise, refuted millennia ago by the discovery of the land of the midnight sun!

The resort to probability in place of certainty to prop up induction.

Inductivists like Carnap die frustrated but still calling for more work…

4. Diarrhesis

Why he does not believe in definitions.

How diarrhesis is different from the usual obsession with definitions.

He challenges the idea that useful discussion has to start with shared assumptions or presuppositions.

He argues that the more disagreement on assumptions, the better, citing 5th century BC Greeks vs Egyptians and other eastern cultures.

The corrosive effect of Marxism and Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge.

Culture clash and the piecemeal elimination of prejudices.

Aristotle, essences and the origin of the obsession with definitions (with reference to the handbook on good driving by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police).

The alternative approach, clarification, which he calls diarrhesis.

Two points, diarrhesis is only used when necessary and it is used for clarity, not precision.

The myth of the framework, people who stop learning, who think they have nothing to learn from people who have conflicting opinions.

5. Understanding

Breaking out of frameworks.

Killing bad ideas before they kill us.

Understanding and the four-stage problem-solving schema.

Start with problems rather than theories because the theory cannot be understood apart from the problem and this raises the question of understanding.

There is a school in social science which sees understanding as the unique feature of the social sciences.

Some quantum physicists deny that you can ever really understand.

The danger of teaching maths and science with no history of the problem situation – hence no real understanding.

The discovery of spectral lines in 1913 created the need for a statistical theory to account for probabilistic events at the quantum level: the need cannot be understood without a grasp of the evolving problem situation.

How do we understand the problem? By trying (and failing) to solve it.

The importance of making many mistakes in order to understand better.

The role of education to permit people to identify charlatans from experts .

The importance of serious testing and the history of science as refutations which created new problems and hence new science.

6. Cosmology

The lead up to Newton’s theory shows how science advances by the criticism and refutation of theories to explain the origin and structure of the universe (cosmologies and cosmogonies).

Our success in science is amazing considering how close we are to the ants and how far they are from having science and understanding of their situation.

Myths are the starting point, like the Maori myth of NZ being pulled out of the sea by a fisherman.

The first problem of critical (scientific) cosmology was to account for the stability of the fixed stars and the eccentric movements of some others, the wanderers, the planets.

The concentric crystal spheres led to the Ptolomaic system, then the heliocentric suggestion of Copernicus, then the equations of Kepler.

In the neo-Platonic religious background light had great significance: for cosmology that put the sun in the centre: for religion it meant letting light (God) into the churches, hence the gothic design with big windows replacing the Norman and Roman designs.

The geocentric and the heliocentric theories are completely equivalent with regard to observation.

What is wrong with armchairs for scientists?

7. Explanation

Science was inspired by curiosity and explanation can be seen as the historical aim of science.

Explanation is always deductive.

Other views on the aim of science – prediction and practical application (the American pragmatists).

The logic of deductive explanation from the explicans (the cause) which consists of a universal law plus initial conditions, to the explicandum (what was to be explained).

Explanations can be circular or ad hoc and science advanced as the demand for non-circular explanations became more strict.

Better ideas about explanation emerged to avoid charges of circularity and ad hoc explanations.

Aristotle founded the essentialist school of explanation, using “essences” which are supposed to represent the rock bottom of explanation, leaving no more questions.

Modern opponents of essentialism are usually instrumentalists or pragmatists.

Instrumentalists nowadays defend science but originally instrumentalism was a weapon used by the Church against science (Cardinal Bellarmino vs Giadorno Bruno and Galileo) against science! Similarly Berkeley used instrumentalism to criticize Newton’s science and also the calculus.

According to modern instrumentalists we make theories for prediction, in contrast, according to Popper we make predictions to test our theories.

8. Scientific Knowledge

Science begins and ends with problems.

P -> TS -> EE -> New P

This runs contrary to the expectation that science should end with less problems and more knowledge.

For standard epistemology real knowledge means justified true beliefs, that is knowledge which is (a) true and (b) which we have sufficient reasons to believe to be true.

Scientific knowledge never satisfies the most severe conditions and so we never know for certain, and we never know how long may be required to find that it is false.

Scientific knowledge has no authority, even though it is the best knowledge that we have.

The quest for authority became a quest for sources or criteria of truth, for knowledge with a pedigree.

Historically, there came a great desire to escape from dogmatism and rely on something other than Aristotle, instead to rely on senses and reason, however these became authorities in their turn.

Popper is in favour of reason and also in favour of evidence from the senses but neither can be regarded as authorities.

He is not concerned with sources or pedigrees. Science begins when a theory is presented for discussion and criticism.

He is happy for scientists to disagree, for problems to be open and the contest between theories to be undecided.

It is not a healthy situation where scientists are unanimous, that is most likely due to lack of imagination and criticism to generate new problems and rival theories.

In contrast Kuhn regards unanimity (the shared paradigm) as healthy and normal.

Science is revolution in permanence and criticism is the lifeblood of science.

9. Truth

Criticism or error elimination in the four-step schema is an attempt to eliminate what is false to strive to arrive at the truth.

Omniscience is not a practical aim of science, instead truth should be regarded as a REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE (following Kant).

Given the model of proof from maths and logic, epistemologists have been very keen to find a proof for the truth of scientific theories.

That led the search for a CRITERION – Descartes (clear and distinct ideas), Bacon (clarity and directness of perception).

The over-optimistic “manifest theory” of truth and its counterpart, the conspiracy theory of error. Failures of criterion theories of truth led to relativism, the corrosive form of skepticism – there is no such thing as truth.

Between the optimists and the pessimists, the pragmatists sought a middle ground in the success of theories.

Two other “middle ways” between optimism and pessimism, the COHERENCE and CONVENTION theories of truth.

Viennese efforts to get clear on various correspondence theories – Schlick and Wittgenstein.

Tarski’s solution, and the rehabilitation of the correspondence theory, using modern logic, to maintain the regulative idea of truth.

10. Falsity

More discussion of truth, Tarski and metalanguages.

The law of the excluded middle: unambiguously formulated statements are either true or false, no middle ground (proved by Tarski).

This is signaled as a preliminary statement in advance of the discussion of theories in economics and the social sciences in the next lecture, where we have to operate with theories that we know are false.

Same applies in astronomy where all our models are over-simplifications; the sun and planets treated as “masspoints”; the sun is not really an ellipsoid (it has craters and bulges); light exerts pressure on planets which is practically always neglected in calculations.

Reality is too rich to depict in a model, we abstract and select according to our problem and purpose at the time, and according to our theoretical knowledge at the time.

Our picture of the world is always defective, always false and over-simplified and always contains real mistakes in addition to the over-simplifications.

11. Social Science

A story: a critic of Popper’s views on Plato first stated that Popper was wrong to identify Plato as a forerunner of totalitarianism, then later he wrote that Plato was indeed a forerunner of totalitarianism and Popper’s criticism was misguided because totalitarianism is inevitable due to its strength and efficiency. Between the two criticisms the Russians launched sputnik into space, which triggered something like hysteria in the free world with a panic about the state of western education and science.

Speculations on things that could kill science: too much money, the publication explosion (good buried under bad), angling for money at the expense of good science, hostility of the mediocre to the producers because the unproductive fear they will miss out on the big money.

Hopeful signs (in those days of the 1950s) that many students and scientists were still more interested in learning than money.

Serious concern about the split in the social scientists between factfinders and theoreticians. The factfinders were dominant and made fun of the theorists but they had no theories worth testing and many became part of the advertising industry.

Moving on to the methods of the social sciences, first of all, is there a difference from the natural sciences, perhaps due to the “Oedipus effect” of predictions which become self-fulfilling?

He found that a similar effect could occur in the natural sciences using calculating machines.

He rejected the idea that the natural sciences are intrinsically more objective, the rationality of science depends on the free exchange of criticism (and is undermined when that is reduced).

“Objectivity consists in the clash of biases, not their elimination”.

Beware of anything that appears to be intuitively self-evident.

Another story: a scientist was investigating why the leaves of a plant twist to the left in New Zealand as opposed to the right in England. After working for a year on the problem he attended a Popper lecture, then he checked and found they twisted to the right. No problem!

Bacon on “confirmation bias”, seeing what our theories (prejudices) tell us to find. Bacon’s solution was the empty mind (no assumptions), Popper’s solution is to subject all assumptions to critical analysis, use observations as criticisms, not confirmations.

On the differences between natural and social sciences, for the most part the difference are not what people think they are, but there is a difference, and that is the use of the rationality principle.

12. The Rationality Principle (RP)

Hume, Rousseau and Freud on human irrationality.

Freud as a rationalist: we act rationally within the limits of our knowledge at the time AND understanding the cause of neurosis should result in a cure.

Popper’s rationality principle means explaining actions in terms of the situation (situational analysis).

Not a hypothesis to be tested, but a principle of method (a “rule of the game” of social science):

The rule: Try to explain things rationally.

The RP is the functional equivalent of a law of nature in a deductive explanation which starts with a situation (laws and initial conditions, the situation) and produces an effect, the action.

The RP “animates” the model that we make to explain the actions that generate social phenomena of all kinds (war, inflation, unemployment etc).

We know it is false because it is over-simplified, abstracted from the full complexity of the world, like our models and theories in the natural sciences.

The RP should not be confused with personal rationality which is the willingness to correct our ideas.

The RP is a principle of explanation and a heuristic, a guide on what to look for in social situations.

The next major point in the lecture is the nature and function of institutions – social, political, cultural.

Study of institutions raises all the most interesting and important questions in the social sciences. Among the institutions are traditions.

Traditions have an almost biological basis.

The various ways we learn – trial and error, imitation, systematic research.


Posted in epistemology | 2 Comments

Popper, Smith and Carl Menger’s economics

Karl Popper and Barry Smith on the Metaphysical Research Program of Austrian Realism and Carl Menger’s Economics.

An unpublished paper delivered at a conference on Austrian thought at the University of Texas (Arlington) in 2013. I don’t expect everyone or indeed anyone to read it right through – this is a way of getting the paper on line so I can send the link to interested people instead of attaching a word file to email.

Barry Smith located an Aristotelian or “Austrian realism” framework of ideas which underpinned Carl Menger’s economics. In Popper’s terms this framework is a “metaphysical research program”. The elements of the framework are replicated in the program that Popper elaborated in his long debate with the historicists, the positivists and the quantum physicists. Another parallel in the thinking of Popper and Smith is the theory of conjectural or fallibillistic knowledge. This paper argues that if Menger could have accessed a theory of that kind he might have advanced his program instead of turning to methodological issues after he wrote the first of several planned volumes of economic theory. Today, if the Aristotelian/Austrian/Popperian framework can be revived, the Austrian contribution to the mainline of economics will be better appreciated and economics may be more effectively integrated with sociology and all the disciplines of the humanities including law, politics, and cultural studies.

This paper is one of the products of a program to explore the synergy of the ideas of Karl Popper and the Austrian economists, especially in relation to the policy agenda of classical liberalism. This involves unpacking the implications and applications of several “turns” that Popper pursued in epistemology and methodology.

The synergy is obscured by some obvious differences, notably between Popper’s interventionist tendencies in economic policy and the laissez faire of the Austrians, and between Popper’s theory of conjectural knowledge versus the foundationalistic apriorism that Rothbard and Hoppe took from von Mises. The first is not a matter of philosophy or methodology and the second was resolved when Smith demonstrated that fallibillistic apriorism (equivalent to Popper’s conjectural knowledge) is an adequate platform for Austrian economics, so there is no need for the foundationalist variety (Smith, 1996).
The paper is organised as follows: first a section on the Popperian “turns”, then a section comparing the essential elements of the Aristotelian/Austrian framework that Smith found in Menger’s economics with Popper’s program. Then a section on the problems that Menger encountered in “the Methodenstreit” with the suggestion that a theory of conjectural or fallibillistic knowledge would have enabled him to press on with his theoretical program.

The Popperian Turns
The six “turns” are (1) conjectural or hermeneutic (2) objective, (3) against conceptual analysis or essentialism, (4) social or “rules of the game”, (5) biological or evolutionary and (6) metaphysical. These aspects of Popper’s thinking are not generally appreciated and they are seldom brought to the attention of students in the mainstream of teaching and research.

The conjectural, hermeneutic or non-justificationist turn means that Popper rejected the traditional concern of the theory of knowledge with the justification of our theories (typically our beliefs) by reference to some authority or foundational source of knowledge. The objective turn depicts knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, as a human product, spelled out for public inspection and criticism.

On the “anti-essentialist turn”, he did not accept that it is helpful to pursue extended analysis of concepts to “explicate” them or make them more precise. Against “essentialism” and the quest for linguistic precision he favoured clarity of speech and writing as a means to an end in the discussion of substantive problems, that is, the problems that concern working economists. “Never let yourself be goaded into taking seriously, problems about words and their meanings. What must be taken seriously are questions of fact, and assertions about facts: theories and hypotheses; the problems they solve and the problems they raise.” (Popper, 1976, section 7).

The social turn means taking account of the social nature of science and the function of conventions or “rules of the game” in scientific practice. Kuhn and the sociologists of knowledge are generally given credit for drawing attention to the social factor in science, however Jarvie in The Republic of Science (2001) identified what he called the “social turn” in Popper’s earliest published work, for example in Sections 4, 5, 9, 10 and 11 in The Logic of Scientific Discovery. The social turn also appeared in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society and its Enemies, first published in 1945 and in the final sections of The Poverty of Historicism. Wittgenstein and his followers could have made a contribution in this field if they had adopted a critical approach to the theoretical and practical implications of important real-life games, rules and conventions. For example they could have examined the impact of Keynesian economic policy on the convention of balancing State budgets or the shift in the concept of democracy from limited government under the rule of law to majority rule, and the erosion of responsible government by the “vote-buying motive”.

Biological themes can be found in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (dating from the original Logik der Forschung in 1935). “We choose the theory which best holds its own in competition with other theories; the one which, by natural selection, proves itself the fittest to survive.” (Popper, 1959, 108). That was only a hint of Popper’s interest in the biological approach which he revealed in the 1960s when he delivered a series of papers that are collected in Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Popper’s “metaphysical turn” attracted little attention although it is the most striking difference between him and the positivists. For this paper the most significant of the turns are the first, to address the blockage in Carl Menger’s program, and the last, to explain how unexamined metaphysical frameworks create winners and losers among research programs.

Against the justification of beliefs. In traditional epistemology the central concern was (and remains) the justification of beliefs. Philosophers persist with attempts to justify beliefs by various strategies including inductive logic and many texts do not even mention that Popper provided an alternative program. This can be described as a full-blooded “conjectural turn”, to claim that even our best theories may be rendered problematic by new evidence, new criticisms and new theories. This dates from 1935 and it anticipated the “hermeneutic turn” in the mainstream when the work of Kuhn and the modern French theorists made much of the theory-dependence of observations.

Attempts to justify beliefs generate an infinite regress. The alternative to the quest for justified beliefs is to form tentative critical preferences for theories (or policies) on the basis of their capacity to solve their problems and stand up to various forms of criticism, including experimental and practical tests. Bartley developed some of the implications of Popper’s “non-authoritarian” theory of knowledge and his “non-justificationism”. (Bartley, 1962, 1964, 1983). Smith’s exposition of “extreme fallibillistic apriorism” is also a theory of conjectural objective knowledge (Smith, 1996).

Metaphysical research programs. The metaphysical turn is a striking difference between Popper and the logical positivists, whose signature idea was to render all talk of metaphysics strictly meaningless. Popper developed the theory of metaphysical research programs during the 1950s as he worked on The Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery. It flows from the idea that we should look at the history of a subject, and its current status, in terms of its problem situations.

In science, problem situations are the result, as a rule, of three factors. One is the discovery of an inconsistency within the ruling theory. A second is the discovery of an inconsistency between theory and experiment – the experimental falsification of the theory. The third, and perhaps the most important one, is the relation between the theory and what may be called the “metaphysical research programme”.
By raising the problems of explanation which the theory is designed to solve, the metaphysical research programme makes it possible to judge the success of the theory as an explanation. On the other hand, the critical discussion of the theory and its results may lead to a change in the research programme (usually an unconscious change, as the programme is often held unconsciously, and taken for granted), or to its replacement by another programme. These programmes are only occasionally discussed as such: more often, they are implicit in the theories and in the attitudes and judgements of the scientists.
I call these research programmes “metaphysical” also because they result from general views of the structure of the world and, at the same time, from general views of the problem situation in physical cosmology. I call them “research programmes” because they incorporate, together with a view of what the most pressing problems are, a general idea of what a satisfactory solution of these problems would look like. (Popper, 1982, 161)

The idea of the program can be applied to Popper’s own work, to see it as the unpacking of the implications and applications of his key ideas to problems in many fields. This “programmatic” approach to research apparently anticipated both Kuhn’s “paradigm theory” and the methodology of scientific research programs. Leaving aside the question of priority, the decisive difference between Popper and the others is the critical approach. Criticism of the paradigm/hard core assumptions is not recommended by Kuhn and Lakatos but criticism is the lifeblood of Popper’s program and that applies to the metaphysical theories that constitute the MRP. So the most important function of Popper’s theory of MRPs is to invite and encourage criticism of framework assumptions and the critical comparison of the assumptions that animate rival programs.

Wong provided a striking and original example of Popperian program analysis in his critique of Samuelson’s demand theory and Birner explained the coherence and power of Hayek’s work by describing it as a program to pursue an evolving research agenda that he set from the beginning of his publishing career (Wong, 2006 and Birner, 1994).

The Aristotelian/Austrian Frameworks of Smith and Popper
Smith explored the philosophical roots of Carl Menger’s economics and he found a number of Aristotelian framework presuppositions which demarcated “Austrian realism” from German philosophy at the time (Smith 1990, 1995). The following account draws on Smith (1990), to spell out the “Austrian-Aristotelian” program and the extent of agreement with Popper’s program.

1. “The world exists, independently of our thinking and reasoning activities.” This coincides with Popper’s realism regarding the external world, and also mental entities, plus (in Smith’s words) “other sui generis dimensions, for example of law and culture”.

2. “There are in the world certain simple ‘essences’ or `natures’ or ‘elements’, as well as laws, structures or connections governing these, all of which are strictly universal.” Popper took a similar metaphysical view of the uniformity of the laws of nature which he depicted in his later work as “propensities”.

3. “Our experience of this world involves in every case both an individual and a general aspect.” Smith found both radical empiricism and essentialism in Menger and other Aristotelians such as Brentano. “Radical empiricism” here is simply an aspect of realism which does not imply the epistemology of empiricism (accumulation of sense impressions): it means that individual apples and atoms exist in addition to the universal laws that regulate their characteristics and behaviour. And Menger’s essentialism involved the search for causal laws, not protracted conceptual analysis which both Menger and Popper deplored (Menger, 1985, 37). Smith noted that Menger was concerned with a priori categories (‘essences’ or ‘natures’) which exist in reality and the task is to specify the structures and connections among such essences, for example between economic categories such as value, rent, profit, the division of labour and money.

Theoretical economics has the task of investigating the general nature and the general connection of economic phenomena, not of analyzing economic concepts and of drawing the logical conclusions resulting from this analysis. The phenomena, or certain aspects of them, and not their linguistic image, the concepts, are the object of theoretical research in the field of economy. (ibid, 37)

The theoretical scientist, then, has to learn to recognize the general recurring structures in the flux of reality. And theoretical understanding of a concrete phenomenon cannot be achieved via any mere inductive enumeration of cases. It is attained, rather, only by apprehending the phenomenon in question as a special case of a certain regularity. (ibid, 44.)

Menger’s “apprehensions” appear to be the functional equivalents of Popper’s conjectures which are the creative (but fallible) source of ideas.

4. “The general aspect of experience need be in no sense infallible (it reflects no special source of special knowledge), and may indeed be subject to just the same sorts of errors as is our knowledge of what is individual.” In a nutshell, knowledge of both particulars and universals is fallible and conjectural. Our perceptions, our intuitions and even widely accepted scientific knowledge can be wrong. This is the equivalent of Popper’s “conjectural turn”. Smith’s “fallibillistic apriorism” and Popper’s conjectural knowledge both stand against the strong form of apriorism that many people identify with Austrian economics.

5. “We can know, albeit under the conditions set out in 4, what the world is like, at least in its broad outlines, both via common sense and via scientific method….Taken together with 3, this aspect of the Aristotelian doctrine implies that we can know what the world is like both in its individual and in its general aspect, and our knowledge will likely manifest a progressive improvement, both in depth of penetration and in adequacy to the structures penetrated. “

6. “We can know what this world is like, at least in principle, from the detached perspective of an ideal scientific observer. Thus in the social sciences in particular there is no suggestion that only those who are in some sense part of a given culture or form of life can grasp this culture or form of life theoretically.”
5 and 6 are further statements of realism and our capacity to learn more about nature and the social world with no concession to radical subjectivism or cultural relativism. That is consistent with Popper’s critical rationalism and his concern with the growth of knowledge.

7. “The simple essences or natures pertaining to the various different segments or levels of reality constitute an alphabet of structural parts. These can be combined together in different ways, both statically and dynamically (according to co-existence and according to order of succession).” No Popperian locution comes to mind which replicates that proposition which translates into a fairly uncontroversial statement about the existence of various levels of structural organization in nature.

Smith added three more points to demarcate the ideas of “Austrian realism” from the kind of ideas that dominated in Germany which are found in the their most influential forms in the work of Hegel and Marx.  8. “The theory of value is to be built up exclusively on ‘subjective’ foundations, which is to say exclusively on the basis of the corresponding mental acts and states of human subjects. Thus value for Menger in stark contrast to Marx is to be accounted for exclusively in terms of the satisfaction of human needs and wants. Economic value, in particular, is seen as being derivative of the valuing acts of ultimate consumers.”  9.”There are no ‘social wholes’ or ‘social organisms’.” And 10. “There are no (graspable) laws of historical development.”

Popper argued in favour of the points 8, 9 and 10 in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies. Smith’s ten points add up to a position that is very close to Popper’s metaphysics, his ontology and his epistemology. Smith argued that Menger formed his position from the version of Aristotelian thought that was circulating in Austrian circles. Popper developed his position in his lifelong debate with historicists, positivists, inductivists, instrumentalists, subjectivists and determinists, and his critique of the conventional (Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum theory.

Smith went on to suggest that the implications of the ten point program “
“do have a certain metaphysical cutting power.” And indeed they do, ruling out historicism (theses 2, 6, 8, 9 and 10) and positivism (theses 3 and 5), and “constructivism” and hermeneutic relativism as well (theses 1 and 5).

How Popper and Smith Could Have Helped Menger
“The Methodenstreit”, the ill-tempered debate between Menger and Schmoller of the “younger German historical school” started with Menger’s book on the methods of the social sciences (1883). It continued with sporadic exchanges between other members of the rival schools after the principals retired from the contest.
The point of this case study is to suggest that Menger was stuck for want of a theory of fallible or conjectural knowledge. He had to account for the foundations of scientific knowledge in economics and he did not succeed, being forced to resort to such devices as “the rule of cognition” to make his case in the face of difficulties with empirical evidence as the foundation. With the epistemological innovations furnished by Smith and Popper, Menger could have pressed on with his research program, elaborating and extending his basic insights and appealing to the explanatory power of his theories rather than justification by any special method of investigation.

The outcome of the Methodenstreit was inconclusive because neither party considered that they had anything to learn from the other. The debate has been sometimes depicted as a conflict of “theory versus history” or perhaps “induction versus deduction” but Menger did not disparage history, he just insisted that historical studies need to be informed by principles of explanation in the form of universal laws and the general theories which he and the “Manchester free traders” considered to be the core of the discipline. He perceived that the lack of interest in his Principles on the part of the historical school was a problem of methods.

 “In a word, the progress of science is blocked because erroneous methodological principles prevail…[supported by powerful schools]…clarification of methodological problems is the condition of further progress.” (Menger, 1985, 27)

Bostaph (1978) identified eight issues in the debate, ranging from the criteria for designating the various branches of the subject, through the role of theory in explaining events, to whether “necessary” or universal causal laws can be formulated and tested using empirical data. The central issue was the possibility of “causal realism” in economics, and the existence of universal general theories, which Schmoller and the historical school denied, insisting that laws of historical development  might be found, if at all, by accumulating historical data.

In addition to the personal vitriol in the exchange there are two major reasons why that issue was not resolved ; first, Bostaph explained that the protagonists and most of the subsequent commentators did not fully understood the epistemological issues that were at stake (Milford and Birner are notable exceptions). Second, Menger himself did not have a solution to the central issue, namely the justification or the basis or the rationale for accepting and using the laws that he postulated.

 “The conclusion that the differences between the position of the historicists and that of Menger were minor compared to the similarities seems wholly unsupported. The differences in epistemological beliefs were so great that the debate …was not resolved because the fundamental sources of the disagreement lay unidentified and (substantially) untreated by both factions. The epistemological points at issue are matters of crucial importance to anyone who attempts to be self-conscious about his own methodological choices…because an inappropriate choice can (potentially) lead to a lifetime of wasted effort.” ( Bostaph, 1978, 15)

In that paper Bostaph did not indicate what the more correct or helpful result of the debate might have been if the epistemological issues had been directly addressed. He considered that Menger did well to state his assumptions and prescriptions in such a thorough manner and to seek for a methodologically self-conscious economic theory.
“For these reasons alone, there is ample cause to be glad that Menger was drawn into a Methodenstreit and did publish his methodological and epistemological views. It is only to be regretted that his research work on these topics later in life has not been published.” (ibid, 15)

It is even more regrettable that Menger’s concern with methodology distracted him from completing the additional three volumes that were originally planned to follow Principles. Bostaph cited several sources in Hayek to suggest that this was the case. In a later paper, with the benefit of Smith’s account of the Aristotelian/Austrian realism that informed Menger, Bostaph was more specific about the core issue.

“Unfortunately, neither Menger nor Schmoller recognized [the conflict between Humean nominalism and Aristotelian/neoscholasticism] and so never debated the most fundamental issues that separated them – their strongly differing theories of concepts, or universals, and of causality.” (Bostaph, 1994, 460). Bostaph concluded that Menger pinned his hopes for establishing exact universal laws on a combination of abstraction and simplification to establish ‘typical’ economic phenomena and then to discover the connections between these phenomena. “An ‘exact’ or causal law was an absolute statement of necessity to which, Menger pointed out, exceptions were inconceivable because of ‘the laws of thinking’.” (ibid , 463)

That did not represent a satisfactory solution and Milford and Birner discussed Menger’s unresolved efforts to find a way forward. According to Milford “He [Menger] examined this epistemological position primarily with respect to two problems: the problem of concept formation and the problem of justifying strictly universal statements.” (Milford, 1990, 225). Menger did not accept what he called the “realistic-empirical orientation of theoretical research” whereby repeated observations lead to laws, as repeated sunrises may suggest a law regarding the daily appearance of the sun. He rejected that form of simple induction for reasons much the same as Hume’s famous critique “although strangely without quoting him.” (ibid, 227)

A process of abstraction from the observed phenomena is required to penetrate to the exact or strictly universal laws which lie behind experience. This calls for recourse to “the rule of cognition” which was never properly explained.

Exact research solves the second problem of the theoretical sciences: the determination of the typical relationships, the laws of phenomena…Exact science, accordingly, does not examine the regularities in the succession, etc., of real phenomena either. It examines, rather, how more complicated phenomena develop from the simplest…in their isolation from all other influences…[so with strictly typical elements, exact measure, and isolation from other factors ] on the basis of the rules of cognition characterized by us above [we] arrive at laws of phenomena which are not only absolute but according to our laws of thinking simply cannot be thought of in any other way but as absolute. (Menger, 1985, 61)
That left the issue unresolved, hanging on the question of the “rule of cognition”. Birner also examined how Menger ran into problems with the justification, verification or foundations for universal laws. “For Menger (and his contemporaries, with the possible exception of Whewell) the logical or epistemological problem of the relation between exact and empirical theory is a problem about the justification of knowledge: [how can knowledge] be given a foundation that is true beyond doubt?” (Birner, 1990, 250)
At this point Menger encountered the problem of induction, which he recognized as a serious matter.

Menger’s joint justificationist-inductivist theory of knowledge entails that abstraction is conceived of as a process rather than as the description of a set of hypotheses with particular properties, regardless of how they were arrived at. But Menger is not a naive inductivist. He is well aware of the logical problem that arises if one maintains that general, universally valid laws can be derived from a finite number of observation statements. (ibid, 250)

Menger turned to the construction of “pure” or idealised types as a way out of the dilemma but he never broke out of the inductivist framework and he was stuck on a fourfold predicament.

 Exact laws are: (1) not a prior truths; (2) nor the result of conceptual analysis; (3) nor are they empirical; (4) and they can be and must be justified. Item 3 seems to be unproblematic in view of Menger’s idea that exact laws are laws of ideal phenomena. But..Menger thinks that (5) exact laws contribute to our understanding of the real world…Menger’s justificationism-cum-inductivism makes it impossible for him to solve the epistemological level problem while at the same time maintaining both his methodological distinctions and his realism. (ibid, 251-2).

There is a desperately simple resolution to Menger’s central dilemma when we have the benefit of Smith’s fallibillistic apriorism and Popper’s theory of conjectural knowledge. These eliminate the demand for justification (in its strong form), that is, for certain foundations of theoretical propositions or a surrogate for certainty in the form of a numerical probability or degree of confirmation. Such warrants have yet to be provided despite the efforts of the logical positivists and the logical empiricists who followed them. The alternative is to evaluate theories in terms of their capacity to solve problems, to illuminate economic events, to permit the further elaboration of explanatory theories, to formulate effective policies, etc.

If Menger had not felt obliged to shore up the foundations of his system with a solution to the problem of justification, if he had simply appealed to the power and coherence of his approach, he could have pressed on with the extra volumes that he planned to complete the series after Principles. While the Methodenstreit performed a function in laying bare some issues in epistemology it did not produce a solution and the unresolved issues distracted Menger from his great task of theoretical development. The tools required to solve the espistemological problem only became available some decades later with Popper (1935, 1959) and Smith (1996).

It is suggested that the Aristotelian/Austrian framework which animated Menger’s economics and was reinvented by Popper is a robust alternative to the positivism and empiricism that became dominant in the philosophy of science in the twentieth century. Some of the tenets of the Austrian economists, but not the framework, were taken up by the mainstream of the profession, but as positivism rose in the 1930s and significant differences emerged between the Austrians and others, these differences were resolved in favour of the mainstream by weight of numbers rather than arguments. The framework assumptions of rival research programs could not be addressed effectively under the ban on metaphysics imposed by the positivists.

Frameworks include epistemological and methodological theories as well as ontological and metaphysical assumptions. One of the functions of frameworks is to create winners and losers. In economics the winners in the positivist/empiricist framework include general equilibrium theory, the “measure and model” approach, Keynesian macroeconomics, econometrics, mathematical game theory and the general demand for mathematical rigor. These developments isolated economics from the social sciences and humanities at large, and even from the world “outside the window”. If the Aristotelian-Austrian-Popperian framework can be revived, some alternative programs will thrive, especially the Austrians and the political program of classical liberalism. More important, the framework will facilitate the re-integration of economics, sociology, and all the disciplines of the humanities including law, politics, and cultural. The theory of conjectural or fallibillistic knowledge is an important addition to the Aristotelian/Austrian framework.

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Caldwell, Bruce (ed.) (1990: Carl Menger and his Legacy in Economics. London, Duke University Press.
Hahlweg, Kai and Hooker, Clifford Allen (eds.) (1989): Issues in Evolutionary Epistemology. State University of New York Press.
Hayek, Friedrich (1979): The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason. Indianapolis, Liberty Fund Press.
Jarvie, Ian (2000): The Republic of Science: The Emergence of Popper’s Social View of Science 1935-1945. Amsterdam, Ripodi.
Kuhn, Thomas Samuel (1970). “Reflections on my Critics”, in Lakatos and Musgrave, (eds.) (1970), pp. 231-278.
Lakatos, Imre and Musgrave, Alan (1970): Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. London, Cambridge University Press.
Menger, Carl, (1985): Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences with Special Reference to Economics. New York, New York University Press.
Milford, Karl (1990): Menger’s Methodology”, in Caldwell, (ed.) (1990), pp. 215-240.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1957): The Poverty of Historicism. London, Routledge.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1963): Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London, Routledge.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1972): Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. London, Oxford University Press.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1974): “Autobiography of Karl Popper”, in The Philosophy of Karl Popper (ed. P. A. Schillp), La Salle, Illinois, Open Court.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1970). “Normal Science and its Dangers” in Lakatos and Musgrave eds, (1970).
Popper, Karl Raimund (1974). “Intellectual Autobiography” in Schilpp, (ed.), (1974), pp. 3-181.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1976): Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography. Glasgow, Fontana/Collins.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1982): Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics. London, Hutchinson & Co.
Popper, Karl Raimund (1983). Realism and the Aim of Science. London, Hutchinson & Co.
Schilpp, Paul Alfred (ed.) (1974): The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Library of Living Philosophers Series. La Salle, Open Court.
Simkin, Colin (1993): Popper’s Views on Natural and Social Science. Leiden, Brill.
Smith, Barry (1990): “Aristotle, Menger, Mises: An Essay in the Metaphysics of Economics”, Caldwell, (ed.) (1990), pp. 263-288.
Smith, Barry. (1994): Austrian Philosophy. The Legacy of Franz Brentano. Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois, Open Court.
Smith, Barry (1996): “In Defense of Extreme (Fallibilistic) Apriorism”, in Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 12, pp. 179-192.
Wong, Stanley (2006): Foundations of Paul Samuelson’s Revealed Preference Theory: A Study by the Method of Rational Reconstruction. London, Routledge.

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Tribute to Joe Agassi 90 in 2017

Joe Agassi, intellectual irritant

This is a short form of a tribute to Joe Agassi, written for a collection to honour his 90th birthday in 2017. Authors were advised to go beyond Joe’s own contribution to pursue any avenues and applications of critical rationalism which will expand the critical and imaginative conversation about Popper’s ideas.

A paper by Joe encouraged me to cast caution to the winds and unpack the implications of Popper’s ideas on objective knowledge and non-justificationism without being distracted by the arguments about whether objective knowledge exists. As to his own contribution, I think his impact in economics has not been appreciated (certainly not by economists at large). He contributed directly in partnership with Kurt Klappholz and indirectly through his pupil Larry Boland who in turn mentored Stanley Wong. The story moves on to some little appreciated aspects and implications of Popper’s thoughts; the synergy between Popper and the Austrian school of economics; the role of the moral framework of society; his early engagement with the problem of paradigms (his criticism of conventionalism); his warning about the danger of Big Science; his influence on Gordon Tullock.  There is a reminder of the treasure trove of material on the website of Joe’s friend and collaborator Ian Jarvie. In view of their close partnership this is a tribute to Joe as well as to Ian. And last but not least, no tribute to Joe would be complete without a mention of his life partner and collaborator Judith.

Unpacking the content of ideas

“Somebody may be original in being systematic, even if he is not successful in his effort to be systematic” (Agassi 1968). The paper is about novelty in general, with Popper’s ideas as a major example along with avant garde art and some examples of scientific discovery. The takeaway idea is the notion of originality emerging from the simple discipline of being systematic about an idea or insight and taking it as far as it will go.

Prompted by that thought I embarked upon the task of drawing out the consequences of Popper’s theories of objective knowledge and “non-justificationism” across a range of problems and issues. The work on objective knowledge did not progress to publication and it lived on my website until it moved into the collection Reason and Imagination (Champion 2015). The following is a slightly edited form of the introduction and summary.

Objective Knowledge

This article is written to encourage literary intellectuals who may feel threatened by Lord Snow’s scientists who “have the future in their bones” and who know all about the second law of thermodynamics. People need to be reminded that we do not live by bread and technology alone; we live by the values, traditions and myths which are embedded in our literature and are studied in the humanities. Our intellectual heritage is a mix of good and bad ideas and if they are not subjected to ongoing criticism there is a risk that the bad may drive out the good. Popper’s task in The Open Society and its Enemies was to examine the work of some revered figures, notably Plato, to identify bad ideas which can be eliminated without necessarily damaging the status and reputation of the authors.

Popper’s theory of objective knowledge breathes fresh life into the study of values, myths and traditions. This theory goes to the root of the problems of the social sciences and the humanities. His ideas about world 3 of objective knowledge have aroused little enthusiasm up to date, reflecting perhaps the time that new ideas need to germinate and bear fruit. I will show how this theory illuminates and unifies problems in the scope and methods of philosophy, in some aspects of moral and political philosophy, in the theory of literature and criticism, in the social sciences and in psychology.

Section I contains some background on Popper’s ideas, explaining why they have not penetrated to the educated public. Section II sketches the theory of objective knowledge and some of its history. Section III treats Russell’s method of logical analysis and argues that the valuable part of this method consists of teasing out the objective content of scientific theories, not the process of clarifying concepts as is usually believed. Section IV argues that Wittgenstein’s “forms of life” may be regarded as the objective contents of traditions These traditions exert plastic control over our activities and they can be subjected to rational (critical) scrutiny as soon as we become conscious of them. Section V argues that morals have a similar kind of existence and this enables them to exert a plastic control over our actions. They cannot usefully be described as true or false, but the acceptance or rejection of specific values can be controlled by critical discussion and can be a matter of critical preference between alternatives. Section VI examines the nature of creative literature and shows how T.S. Eliot’s ideas about the social function of poetry can be illuminated by Popper’s theory. Section VII suggests that this theory can contribute to a model of explanation in the social sciences; this is explained with reference to Durkheim’s problem of social order and Weber’s problem of social change. Section VIII pursues the idea that psychology needs to be revolutionised by looking at the brain as an organ that enables us to interact with objective knowledge in the form of theories, traditions and values.


The concept of non-justificationism is peculiar to Popper and Popperians and it has made next to no impact in the academic community at large. Exceptions are Weimer (1979), Smith (1982), Butos (1987), Lester (2000) and Barry Smith’s exposition of fallibillistic apriorism (Smith 1996). Bartley in particular took on the idea and made it his own (1964 and 1984).

Again I followed Joe’s hint to pursue the implications of the idea in several directions. One is the theory of literature with a rejoinder to the deconstructionists (Champion 1989). They threatened to outflank their critics by their robust rhetorical techniques which ensure that they would be a force that rival schools of criticism would have to reckon with for some time to come. Prompted by Notturno (1984) I suggested that the rival schools do not need to be intimidated by the pretence of philosophical sophistication on the part of Derrida et al. but instead they should embrace the approach of critical rationalism and become united in self-criticism.

Another paper took up Hayek’s turn to non-justificationism in his last book The Fatal Conceit (Champion 2013a). A paper presented to the Australian Skeptics recruited non-justificationism for the cause of draining the swamp of prejudice and superstition by “cracking the dogmatic framework of western thought” (Champion 2015 Chapter 11). Yet another suggested a resolution to the “foundation of knowledge” problem which perplexed Carl Menger, the founder of Austrian economics  (Champion 2013b Appendix VI). Menger intended to follow his foundational work with more volumes but instead he wrote a polemic on methodological issues and did not continue the main line of his theoretical work. He wanted to account for the foundations of scientific knowledge in economics and he did not succeed, possibly because he lacked a theory of fallible or conjectural knowledge. Without the benefit of such a theory he resorted to devices like “the rule of cognition” to make his case in the face of difficulties with empirical evidence as the foundation. With the benefit of a theory of conjectural knowledge he could have pressed on with his research program, appealing to the explanatory power of his theories rather than justification by any special method.


The philosophy and methods of economics became a growth area in the 1980s but some years later a survey concluded that nothing of much value had emerged, although when Popper is read as a critical rationalist, his ideas are robust and relevant (Hands  2001).  The lost years which were dedicated to positivism, paradigm theory and the methodology of scientific research programs might have been saved if people had learned from Klappholz and Agassi (1959). They explained that Popper’s approach was all about robust criticism, with the implicit message was that there was no need for people to specialize in the philosophy and methodology of economics. People doing economics should be problem-centred, critical and imaginative, and that did not call for books, chairs and conferences on philosophy and methodology. From that perspective the new specialty of philosophy and methodology of economics could even be seen as a diversion rather than a contribution to the field.

Larry Boland is one of the more helpful contributors to that literature. He took an economics degree and found his way into a course of lectures from Joe which changed the direction of his philosophical thinking and his approach to his substantial work in economics (the irritant at work again). He mentored Stanley Wong who made a very significant contribution with his doctoral dissertation, a critique of Paul Samuelson’s demand theory (Wong, 1978, revised 2006). The book has a helpful Foreword by Mirowski which is available on line (Mirowski  2006).

Wong’s chapter on “understanding and criticism” is one of the clearest accounts of Popperian situational analysis in the literature.  He explained the situational constraints of a theoretical problem situation and he then looked at the theory of demand (supply and demand) as it evolved in recent times, especially in Paul Samuelson’s project from the 1930s to 1950.  Samuelson wanted to revolutionize the methods of economics by putting the theory of consumer preferences on a proper scientific basis, eliminating all non-empirical references in the theory. He received the Nobel Prize in economics for his efforts but Wong argued cogently that he did not succeed. The economics profession in general and Samuelson in particular went on as though nothing had happened but if Wong’s thesis is robust his critique of  Samuelson is a capital achievement, based on Popper’s ideas, transmitted through the influence of Agassi and Boland.

The Synergy of Popper and the Austrian economists

This is another example of following an idea to see where it leads. The idea in this case is that the most under-rated school of philosophy can empower the most under-rated school of economics and challenge the mainstream of economics to take the Austrians seriously. Popper’s ideas suggest that the Austrians are not vulnerable to the standard objection of the mainstream (the Austrians are not scientific) and they demonstrate that the supposedly scientific mainstream has got hold of the wrong end of the stick on the philosophy and methods of science.

An introduction to the Austrian school is necessary to explain why the synergy is significant, if true. The founding fathers in the 19th century were native-born Austrians but nowadays most of the “Austrians” are Americans. They represent about 2% of the economics profession and most economists know next to nothing about the Austrian program. The leading features of the school include methodological individualism, the origin of social institutions such as money as the unintended consequences of human action, the salience of dynamic competition and entrepreneurial innovation in the marketplace, the subjective theory of value, recognition of the time factor in social and economic processes, and the uncertainty of human knowledge. The most distinctive feature and the one that has created the most problems in gaining wider acceptance is the epistemological concept of strong apriorism which purports to establish the axioms of the discipline, independent of empirical studies. This aroused the ire of Samuelson who wrote, referring to several authors including von Mises, Frank Knight, Lionel Robbins. “Well, in connection with the exaggerated claims that used to be made in economics for the power of deduction and a priori reasoning…I tremble for the reputation of my subject. Fortunately, we have left that behind us.” Samuelson 1964)

The founding father of the school was Carl Menger (1840-1921), followed by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926) and Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk (1851-1914).  Major contributors include Knut Wicksell (1851-1926), Ludwig von Mises (1880-1973, Friedrich A. Hayek (1898-1994) and Murray Rothbard (1926-1995). Recent leaders include Ludwig Lachmann (1906-1990), Israel Kirzner (1930 – ) and a new generation including names such as Ebeling, Salerno, Rizzo, Caldwell, Boettke, Klein, Lewin, Koppl, Herbener,  with doctoral programs at GMU, Texas Tech, Baylor, West Virginia, Rey Juan Carlos Madrid, and Francisco Marroquin.

Early in the 20th century the Austrian ideas appeared to be firmly planted in the mainstream of the economics profession but the rise of Keynes and the logical positivists in the 1930s transformed the situation. After the war the Austrians became practically invisible until the movement staged a revival in the 1970s (Vaughn 1990). As to their scientific status, both positivism and falsificationism seemed to rule out the strong form of apriorism advocated by von Mises and after him Rothbard and the contemporary Hans Herman Hoppe.

Popper’s ideas support the Austrian school of economics in three ways. First, his account of the role of methodological conventions and the theory of metaphysical research programs shows that Austrian a priorism cannot be dismissed as “unscientific” as many critics suppose.  Some of the so-called a priori principles of Austrian economics can be regarded as working assumptions, either methodological or metaphysical postulates, of the kind that occur in all sciences. These need to stand up to criticism but they do not have to be directly testable or falsifiable. They are tested at one stage removed by their capacity to sustain testable theories, progressive research programs and effective advice on policy issues (Champion 2002, 2011).

Second, Popper’s method of situational analysis or the “logic of the situation” is remarkably similar to the approach advocated by von Mises in Human Action (1949) and by Talcott Parsons The Structure of Social Action (1937). All three were at work in the 1930s developing a framework for the study of economics and the other social sciences which could have:

  • maintained sociology and economics as an integrated discipline;
  • sponsored partnerships between economists and all students of social institutions – law, politics, literature, religion and cultural studies at large;
  • ensured that “high theory” and empirical studies informed, enriched and corrected each other;
  • contributed to good public policy, especially by monitoring the results of increased regulation and the erosion of “civic/bourgeois virtues”.

There was a window of opportunity for these three leading figures in their respective fields to form a united front across the disciplines of sociology, economics and philosophy to promote the ideas that they shared and to debate the issues where they disagreed. This did not happen, there was no united front and the defective ideas which all three identified in the 1930s became embedded in the rapidly growing community of academics and researchers after the war.

Thirdly, Popper propagated some metaphysical theories which provide a congenial framework for the Austrian approach. In a nutshell, Popper and the Austrians are metaphysical fellow travellers. Barry Smith found that Carl Menger used a set of Austrian/Aristotelian ideas as the framework for his ideas and the ten propositions which he used to define the framework have some overlap with Popper’s metaphysical research program (Smith 1990 1996).

Popper versus paradigms in the 1930s.

Popperian exegesis mostly dwells on his arguments with logicians so it took Jarvie’s Republic of Science to spell out what he called Popper’s “social turn” although it was signalled in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (section 5), in Chap 23 of The Open Society and section 32 of The Poverty of Historicism. The final section of chapter 1 Conjectural Knowledge in Objective Knowledge is especially helpful because it describes how Popper discovered a new range of problems after he realised that the quest for justification by way of verification was unsustainable. All theories are hypothetical (conjectural) because any or all may be overthrown although that process can take a long time if the adherents of the ruling program are unwilling to give it up. Popper used the term conventionalism to describe the attempt to retain an established theory against interloping novelties (Newton vs Einstein). This indicates that he was addressing the problems of paradigms long before Kuhn entered the fray.

He became alert to the way that theories can be “immunized” against criticism by means of ad hoc hypotheses, by shifting definitions, ignoring inconvenient observations and even by challenging the competence of rival investigators.  Kuhn added the string of incommensurability to the conventionalist’s bow and on politically sensitive issues there is recourse to the charge of ideological/political bias. In Popper’s view these conventionalist strategies raised the issue of the social nature of science and the norms, traditions and conventions of the scientific community “Thus I was led to the idea of methodological rules and…of an approach which avoided the policy of immunizing our theories against refutation.” (Popper 1972, 30).

The next step in the evolution of his ideas came as he applied the critical approach to the test statements of the empirical basis and he recognised the conjectural and theory-laden nature of observation statements. That in turn led to the recognition that all languages are theory-impregnated and that called for a fundamental change in our perception of empiricism which hitherto had located the solid foundations of knowledge in sensory inputs.

It also made me look upon the critical attitude as characteristic of the rational attitude; and it led me to see the significance of the argumentative (or critical) function of language…And it further led me to realize that only a formulated theory (rather than a believed theory) can be objective and to the idea that it is this formulation or objectivity that makes criticism possible; and so to my theory of a ‘third world’. (ibid 31)

Those very important paragraphs provide the pattern of Popper’s progress from demarcation and induction to the rules of the game, to theories of language and the ideas of objective knowledge and the evolutionary link between language and critical. As Jarvie demonstrated in The Republic of Science, all those themes were present in Popper’s first published work and it took a lifetime to draw out some of their implications.

What is to be done? Popper’s Leninist turn.

Popper’s rules for the “republic of science” can be couched in the language of political demands or proposals which he suggested to replace the language of essentialism and historicism in political philosophy. The essentialist explicates the concept of democracy or the state, and the historicist looks at the history of democracy or the state, while Popper and Hayek pose questions about what is to be done – what sort of government do we want, and how do we want to change leaders,  what do we consider to be the role of the state and the limits of state activity? Given this approach the task is to discover, formulate , and critically probe the implications and modify  those principles which function as the ‘rules of the game’ in social life  (Champion 2013c Chapter 5).

The ‘rules of the game’ range from the possibly innate rules of grammar, through the tacit knowledge of local traditions and folkways to the rules of games and other codified forms of procedure. They include the laws of the land embodied in common law, statutes and constitutions. This would be essentially an ecological study with the emphasis on unintended ‘downstream’ effects of changes in the prevailing order. This approach would supplement the methods of conceptual analysis and crude ‘positivist’ empirical description of social and political systems. It would have the theoretical advantage of linking disciplines and the practical merit of being continually in touch with problems and their possible solutions.

More on Ian C Jarvie

We can be grateful for Jarvie’s The Republic of Science and there is much more, some of it unpublished material on his website. The scope is remarkable, from studies of film to sociological research and a wide range of philosophical topics. There is a paper on Popper’s rationality and  situational logic with a long list of problems which Popper addressed in The Open Society (Jarvie 1999) and a tribute to Bill Bartley (Jarvie 1989-90b). In the Bartley paper he referred to Agassi’s stalwart championship of metaphysics and his criticism that The Logic of Scientific Discovery did not take enough account of the role of metaphysics in the history of science, something which Popper addressed later, perhaps in response to Joe in his capacity as the intellectual irritant!  One of the most unfortunate consequences of logical positivism was the relative neglect of important contributors in the field of metaphysics and the history of ideas such as R. G. Collingwood , Jacques Barzun and Arthur O. Lovejoy.

The Challenge of Big Science

The world of science changed out of recognition in Popper’s lifetime and it is clear from his unpublished lectures at the London School of Economics that he was very concerned about the emergence of Big Science, driven by government money.  President Eisenhower articulated similar concerns in his outgoing Presidential address (Eisenhower 1961).  “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocation, and the power of money is ever present.”

Popper speculated about some influences which could kill science, including the incentives offered to scientists by the newly available money for research. He foresaw a problem of too much money chasing too few ideas, the publication explosion (good buried under bad), angling for money at the expense of good science. In Section 32 of The Poverty of Historicism he advanced an institutional theory to account for scientific and industrial progress and he speculated about factors which might impede progress, such as government control of the laboratories and journals. He did not pursue his speculations but he inspired the outstanding political economist Gordon Tullock to write The Organization of Inquiry (1965). I am not aware of any reference to Tullock in Popper’s published work but some Austrian economists with an interest in Tullock found some 70 pages of correspondence between Popper and Tullock in the 1950s and ‘60s (David Levy personal communication). Tullock’s book sketched a scenario for the evolution of a field of research in a downward spiral to a point where it approached the state of pseudoscience resembling Lysenkoism in Russian genetics and plant breeding. When he wrote in the 1960s he thought that the social sciences were on that path but he considered that the natural sciences were sound. Affiliation: School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom ⨯

Popper on the Moral Framework and Religious Faiths

Popper was sceptical about moral philosophy, which he suggested could be mostly summed up in the Golden Rule. He acknowledged the importance of moral institutions and traditions, especially what he called the “moral framework” of society. In a paper delivered to the Mont Pelerin Society in 1954 he wrote:

Among the traditions that we must count as the most important is what we may call the ‘moral framework’ (corresponding to the institutional ‘legal framework’) of a society. This incorporates the society’s traditional sense of justice or fairness, or the degree of moral sensitivity that it has reached… Nothing is more dangerous than the destruction of this traditional framework. (Its destruction was consciously aimed at by Nazism) (Popper 1963 Chapter 17).

Another much-neglected part of the moral framework is the prevailing attitude towards work, business and the cluster of ideas which Deirdre McCloskey (2010) has labelled “the bourgeois virtues” such as honesty, the work ethic, business acumen, prudence and temperance.

European culture in classical and Christian times spurned work and the bourgeoisie. Yet from 1600 to 1800, startlingly, it developed a lively appreciation of the ‘bourgeois virtues’, from which came the stirrings of enterprise that made the modern world…But after 1848 the artists and intellectuals turned sharply against capitalism. From this, alas, came the events of 1914 and 1917 and all our woe. (McCloskey 2006)

Religions have been the main sources and foundations of moral frameworks and Popper held interesting and nuanced views about God and religion although he was loth to talk about them in public.  Late in life he consented to two interviews with rabbi Edward Zerin on condition that there should be no publication while he was alive. A small part of the transcript appeared in the Skeptic (US) in March 1998 and it is reprinted in a collection of papers (Popper, 2008, Chapter 5).

Another thought-provoking public contribution can be found in a lecture that he delivered in 1940 in New Zealand in a series of university extension lectures on ‘Religion: Some Modern Problems and Developments’.  One of his lectures is reprinted in After the Open Society (Popper 2008). He argued that the dispute between religion and science in the 19th century was a thing of the past because it was based on each side trespassing on the territory of the other. Science evolved out of the religious mythology that men first invented to explain the world and because most religions are “true belief” systems there is a strong and unhelpful residue of “true belief” in science itself.

Judith Buber Agassi and Charlotte Buhler

Joe Agassi has been a tireless intellectual irritant for the best part of a century. I have no doubt that a lot of the credit for his productivity and his good humour can be assigned to his equally indomitable companion for most of that long time. No doubt there will be other tributes to Judith in this volume, coming from people who have known Joe and Judith for many decades. As a feminist, a wife and a scholar she is in the mould of Charlotte Buhler, the wife of Popper’s most important teacher. She was a truly remarkable woman, as can be said of Judith and I hope they will both be remembered, along with their partners, Karl Buhler and Joe Agassi, the indefatigable intellectual irritant.


Agassi J 1968 The novelty of Popper’s philosophy of  science. International Phil. Quarterly 8, 1968.

Agassi J, Meidan A  2016 Beg to differ. The logic of disputes and argumentation. Springer.

Bartley W W 1964 Rationality versus the theory of rationality. In Bunge M (ed) The Critical Approach to Science and to Philosophy. The Free Press, New York:p3-31.

Bartley W W 1983 The Retreat to Commitment, 2nd edition. Open Court, La Salle Illinois.

Butos William N 1987 Rhetoric and rationality: A review essay of McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics. Eastern Economic Journal 13(3):295-304.

Champion R 1989 Towards constructive deconstruction. Critical Review, Winter :77-89. Revised 2005 http://www.the-rathouse.com/bartdeconstruct.html

Champion R 2002 The Austrian school of economics as a Popperian research program. Website http://www.the-rathouse.com/RC_PopperPaper.html

Champion R 2011 In defence of fallible apriorism and the Aristotelian program for economics. Nuova Civilta Delle Machine 1-2:69-88.    Draft http://www.the-rathouse.com/WritingsonMises/FallibleApriorism.html

Champion R 2013a Hayek, Bartley and Popper: Justificationism and the abuse of reason. In Leeson R (ed) Hayek: A Collaborative Biography. Part I Influences from Mises to Bartley. Palgrave Macmillan, New York:p213-225.

Champion R 2013b  Guide to The Open Society and its Enemies. Amazon.  https://www.amazon.com/Guide-Society-Enemies-Popular-Popper-ebook/dp/B00C6RHIGO/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1483093545&sr=8-2&keywords=rafe+champion.

Champion R 2013c  Commentary on Hayek. Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Commentary-Hayek-Critical-Rationalist-Papers-ebook/dp/B00E0L8AR0/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1482889945&sr=8-6&keywords=rafe+champion

Champion 2015 Reason and Imagination. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Reason-Imagination-thoughts-William-Bartley/dp/1507512112/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1483093591&sr=8-4&keywords=rafe+champion

Eisenhower D D 1961 Address to the nation http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/farewell_address/Reading_Copy.pdf

Hands D W 2001 Reflection without rules: Economic methodology and contemporary science theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Jarvie Ian C Website  http://www.yorku.ca/jarvie/

Jarvie Ian C 1989-90b Philosophy and Its Problems. http://www.yorku.ca/jarvie/online_publications/WWBIII.pdf

Jarvie Ian C 1999  Rationality and Situational Logic in Popper’s Scientific Work. http://www.yorku.ca/jarvie/online_publications/VIENNAWD.pdf

Jarvie Ian C 2000 The republic of science: The emergence of Popper’s social view of science 1935-1945, Ripodi,

Klappholz K, Agassi J 1959 Methodological prescriptions in economics. Economica 26:60-74.

Lester Jan C 2000 Escape From Leviathan. Macmillan, London.

Long J 1998 Lakatos in Hungary. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 28 (2):244-311.

McCloskey D N 2006 The discreet virtues of the bourgeoisie: How Europe after 1600 half escaped the ancient condemnation of economic life. History Today 56(9).           http://www.historytoday.com/deirdre-mccloskey/discreet-virtues-bourgeoisie

McCloskey D N 2010  Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Mirowski P 2002 Introduction to new edition Stanley Wong. The Foundations of Paul Samuelson’s Revealed Preference Theory.   http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

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Smith Barry 1990 Aristotle, Menger, Mises: An essay in the metaphysics of economics”. In Caldwell Bruce (ed) Carl Menger and his Legacy in Economics. Annual supplement to volume 22 History of Political Economy. Duke University Press, London:p.263-288.

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On Strict and Numerical Universality by Flemming Steen Nielsen

Popper on Strict and Numerical Universality

by Flemming Steen Nielsen


In his article, ”Evolutionistiske forklaringer og kritikken af historicismen” (Evolutionary explanations and the Critique of Historicism) (1), professor Mogens Blegvad raised a series of searching objections to Karl Popper’s famous critique of Historicism (2) – objections which any future treatment of historicism would do well to take into consideration. Not least, Blegvad described and criticised those of Popper’s arguments that are based upon his distinction between on the one hand stricly universal law-statements and singular statements of individual fact on the other. In the following (3) I shall attempt to clarify this distinction of Popper’s – a distinction absolutely central to his thought, but never really treated as such by his commentators and critics. Hopefully this could provide a basis for a detailed reply to some of Blegvad’s objections.


The main sources of the subject are Popper’s works Logik der Forschung (1934) and Die beiden Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie (written before Logik der Forschung but published in incomplete form as late as 1979). Die beiden … must be considered the best of these and gives us by far the the most complete description we now have of Popper’s views on the subject. Very naturally I shall base the following primarily on this work.

The first of the two problems of epistemology that Popper discusses in his book is the problem of induction, which he treats by first presenting his well-known falsificationist and fallibilist solution and then giving very detailed logical and transcendental critiques of various alternative solutions under the following five headings: (1) naïve inductivism, (2) strict positivism, (3) apriorism, (4) probability positions and (5) pseudo-sentence positions (”Scheinsats-Positionen”). He argues that the first four can be explicated and criticized in terms of a formulation of the problem of induction which in a traditional manner distinguishes between ”general” (”allgemeine”) and ”particular” (”besondere”) propositions. In connection with the fifth position, however, he finds it necessary to subject this very distinction to a closer examination. The expression ”pseudo-sentence positions” refer to epistemological positions which in order to circumvent the problem of induction assert that law-statements are not genuine sentences with truth-values, but instead a kind of ”formulae for the construction of singular sentences” (in analogy with propositional functions), or ”tools or instruments for the construction of prognoses, which cannot be true, false, or probable, but at most more or less useful.” (4)

To be able to examine the scope and validity of this view, Popper asserts, it is necessary to introduce a distinction between two kinds of synthetic, universal statements. The following example could illustrate this distinction:

(a) The trajectory of all stone’s throws (Steinwürfe) are parabolae, …

(b) the trajectory of all stone’s throws that have hitherto been measured are parabolae. (5)

There has been a tendency – not least in Classical Empiricism and Logical Positivism – to overlook the difference between these two kinds of statement, i.e. the difference between universal law-statements and empirical generalisations; but Popper in this respect like so many other respects follows Immanuel Kant. Like Kant, Popper insists that this distinction is indispensable for any attempt to characterize the theoretical, nomothetic sciences in an adequate way. Kant speaks about ”strenge Allgemeinheit” in the first case, and ”komparative oder angenommene Allgemeinheit” in the second. (6) Popper’s terminology is as follows: Statement (a) in our example is a (synthetic) strictly universal statement; statement (b) is a (synthetic), numerically universal statement. As we shall see, numerically universal statements strictly speaking are singular statements. (7)

Why do for instance Logical Empiricists overlook or reject the distinction? Popper’s explanation is that they tend to accept only such distinctions as can comfortably find expression in the their favoured logic, i.e. the logic of Principia Mathematica: ”Die Logistik”. But the distinction beween strict and numerical universality cannot be expressed in this Logistik, Popper insists. In our example both statements can be formalized as the so-called ”general” or ”formal implication”:

(Ax) (Fx  Gx). (9)

From a purely logical point of view the lack of the distinction is of no importance according to Popper; but for the purposes of epistemology and scientific methodology we most certainly need both kinds of statement.

As the statements both can be formalized as general implications, i.e. statements about all members of a class, of course the difference between tham cannot be a question of logical form. So it must be a question of (logical) ”content”, i.e. a difference between the concepts involved? In the statements. This means that we must similarly distinguish between universal and individual concepts. This distinction is, according to Popper, ”unambiguous and absolute.” (10)


It may surprise that Popper considers the distinction ”unambiguous and absolute”. An obvious objection would be the following: There is at least one sense of ”unambiguous” in which it would seem quite absurd to label it unambiguous. For is it not a fact that what in one context functions as an element of a class, i.e. as an individuum, in another might itself function as a class? If that is the case, would it not be more correct to characterize the distinction as ”relative”? Popper’s reply to this objection is: ”True, but irrelevant!”. A more thorough analysis of such terms as ”class”, ”element”, ”universal” etc. will make clear why:

The most important source of confusion in connection with these terms is that we confuse three different distinctions, namely those between (i) class and element, (ii) class and subclass, and (iii) universals and individuals.

Ad (i) It must be admitted that the distinction class/element is relative in exactly the above sense. For instance, the concept ”iron” could be viewed as a class of physical bodies with certain properties in common. On the other hand, any of these bodies can be viewed as elements of the class ”iron”. But ”iron” can of course in another context be viewed as an element, namely as an element of a higher class ”metal”, where ”metal” is the class of classes of certain physical bodies [the following manner of exposition is mine, not Popper’s]:


metal – iron – a piece of iron


Such a string of class/element-related concepts we call a type hierarchy. Popper gives us the following example:

Type hierarchy (the example taken from Carnap, though somewhat changed): ”My dog Lux” is an element of the class ”dogs living in Vienna”, that class itself an element of the class of ”dog-classes in Vienna”; ”my dog Lux” is, however, also a class, namely, whose elements are ”the states of the dog Lux”; a single ”state of Lux” is (according to Carnap) ”a class whose elements are points in the world of experiences” etc. (11)

Ad (ii) The distinction between class and element must not be confused with another distinction, namely that between class and subclass (Überbegriff/Unterbegriff), a distinction which is also relative:


mammals dogs the dogs of Vienna


A string of class/subclass related concepts is called a hierarchy of concepts (”Begriffshierarchie”):

Hierarchy of concepts: ”In Vienna living Alsations”; ”in Austria living Alsations” etc. … ”in Austria living dogs”; ”dogs” … ”mammals” … ”animals”.- All these classes are of the same type, which can be seen from the fact that my dog Lux is an element of any of these classes. (Or from the fact that you can construct the general implication: ”x is a Viennese dog” generally implies ”x is an animal”.) (12)

Ad (iii) The third distinction, that between universal and individual concepts cannot be illustrated in a similar manner as the two others. Examples are:


naval battle the battle of Trafalgar
star Sirius
needle this needle

It is Popper’s thesis, then, that this distinction is unambiguous and absolute in exactly the sense in which the two others are not so. It ”cuts through” the type- and concept-hierarchies in an unambiguous manner:

Right through the types and the extensions runs a boundary in such a way that it runs through every type so that every type is divided by it into two parts. This boundary divides the whole system of concept extensions into two, namely the domain of universals (examples: ”the race of dogs”, ”A large, brown dog”) and the domain of individuals (examples: ”the races of dogs in Vienna”; ”my dog Lux”).
Each of the two domains contains type hierarchies, contains classes and elements; and each of the domains contains concepts of greater and smaller extent.
This boundary between universals and individuals is according to the present point of view unequivocal: Whereas one and the same concept in different contexts can function as a class or an element, as well as as a broader or a narrower class, we must be able to answer the question whether it is a universal or an individual unambiguously. (13)

What this last assertion means I shall discuss in quite a detailed manner in section VII. But first I shall present something the Popper never gives us, namely a systematic illustration of the way in which the distinction universal/individual cuts through the two other distinctions:

A. Type hierarchy of universals:

¬¬¬¬_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _
”metal” as a class of classes of bodies
”iron” as a class of physical bodies
a physical body as the class of its states
the states of a class of molecules
_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _

B. Concept hierarchy of universals:

_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _
body of metal
body of heavy metal
body of iron
body of cast iron
_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _

C. Typehiearchy of individuals

_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _
the animal classes of Vienna
dogs living in Vienna
my dog Lux
the states of Lux
_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _

D. Concept hierarchy of individuals
_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _
in Europe living mammals
in Austria living Mammals
in Austria living dogs
in Vienna living dogs
_ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _


The distinction universal/individual cannot be defined in a non-circular way, Popper admits. Accordingly, he considers these concepts ”indefinable, logical primitives”. Nevertheless, it is possible to set up a ”simple and unambiguous criterion” for the application of them. There is an old logical rule to the effect that a given individuum cannot be characterized without the use of proper names or expressions functioning as proper names. This means that the individuum cannot be adequately characterized by general terms, but that proper names will have to be used. Universal concepts (Universalbegriffe) can therefore be defined as concepts which can be defined without the use of proper names, and individual concepts (Individualbegriffe) as concepts that need at least one proper name for their definition.

The term ”proper name”, however, is itself indefinable, he admits, but it is possible to say quite a lot about how to use it in a fruitful and satisfactory way:

A proper name is a sign which if necessary can be directly attached to the object (for instance like a dog tag) and which if necessary is used once and for this object only. (If the object is such that an actual attachment is impossible – for example a name of a country and things like that – the proper name nevertheless can be ascribed to the nation’s borders; or it can be defined by veritable proper names like ”The Conference of February 8., 1893” [….]). Proper names are at the same footing as (demonstrative) references like ”this dog”, ”today” etc. 14)

Two ”guiding propositions” can be formulated in order to make quite precise the relation of irreduceability among universals and individuals:

(1) An individual object cannot unambiguously be characterized in its individuality by universal concepts alone, i.e. without proper names.
(2) A universal cannot be defined solely by proper names or by a class of individual concepts.


Guiding proposition (1) can be explained in the following manner: Let’s take the individual thing ”Lux”. If we attempt to characterize the dog Lux in general tems – i.e. universals – we soon discover that what we end up with will always be a class – not an individuum. We might try describing Lux as a poodle, a black poodle, a two years old poodle etc.; but unless we use proper names the result will always be a class. In fact, even if we narrow our description so much that only a single dog (or even no single dog) actually exists, we will only have arrived at a ”kind” of objects – a class!

By contrast, we can easily characterize an object in an unambiguous manner if we introduce proper names og terms functioning as proper names, for instance ostentative expressions. For instance, we can refer to it by applying expressions like ”Lux”, ”my dog Lux”, ”the dog which in 1930 carried dog tag no. 17948” etc. Even if we make use of space/time coordinates the use of proper names is implied:

Especially definite specifications of space and time make unambiguity possible. This is an important point. One must not overlook the fact that it must be specifications of a particular place or a particular moment of time; these again always involve proper names. The point of origin of a space/time coordinate system can only be determined by proper names (for example Greenwich or the Birth of Christ) or – what is actually the same – by direct (”demonstrative”) reference. (Only a reference to an ”individual coordinate system” specified in this way could work as ”principium individuationis”). Also, a particular human being, for instance Napoleon, can be characterized in an unambiguous way by giving his place and time of birth: but thereby individual concepts are being used. (15)

Two important aspects of Popper’s concept of an individual concept might seem to conflict with ordinary usage. First, he stresses that an individual concept according to his chosen way of speaking doesn’t have to be a well-defined physical body. Thus he considers ”The Battle of Waterloo” an individual concept , whereas ”iron cube with sides of 1 cm” is a universal concept. (16) Secondly, an individual concept need not refer to single ”objects”. ”All persons leaning out of a window in Copenhagen just now” or ”all persons who have ever been leaning out of this window” are individual concepts according to his definition. They need proper names or indexical terms to be formulated.


Analogously, according to the second guiding proposition universal concepts cannot be defined by proper names or by reference to a specific class of individuals. This principle is of the greatest epistemological importance – not least because it implies that even if universals may stand in a class/element-relation to individuals they cannot be ”reduced to” or ”constituted by” concrete classes of individuals.

Although we find this point expressed both in Die beiden … and in Logik der Forschung, I prefer illustrating it by the far more elegant and clear treatment in the important article ”The Demarcation Between Science and Metaphysics” from 1955. (17) Here Popper has collected his arguments against Rudolf Carnap’s various theories of demarcation and meaning. In his critique of what he calls ”Carnap’s first theory of meaninglessness” Popper attempts to show that Carnap presupposes a particular, extremely simple kind of radical nominalism which can be shown to be untenable. According to this, all non-formative words (i.e. all words which are not logical constants) are names. This implies that not only proper names like ”Fido” are names, but that even a word like ”dog” strictly speaking is a kind of name, namely the name of, for instance, Fido, Candy and Tiffin. In a language constructed according to this assumption the meaning of general terms is given by an enumeration of the individual things denoted, i.e. through an enumerative definition. However, such a language can be shown to be totally inadequate as the language of science, Popper objects. This is because it has the absurd property that all its sentences are analytic – either analytic truths or contradictions. No synthetic sentence can be formulated in it, simply because the truth or falsity of all its sentences can be decided by a simple inspection of the enumerative definitions giving the meaning of the non-logical words used:

That this is so may be seen from our example. ”Fido is a dog” is true because Fido was one of the things enumerated by us in defining ”dog”. As opposed to this ”Chunky is a dog” must be false, simply because Chunky was not one of the things to which we pointed when drawing up the list defining ”dog”. Similarly, if I give the meaning of ”white” by listing (1) the paper on which I’m now writing, (2) my handkerchief, (3) the cloud over there and (4) our snowman, then the statement ”I have white hair” will be false, whatever the colour of my hair may be.
It is clear that in such a language hypotheses cannot be formulated. It cannot be a language of science. And conversely, every language adequate for science must contain words whose meaning is not given in an enumerative way. Or, as we may say, every scientific language must make use of genuine universals, i.e. of words, whether defined or undefined, with an indeterminate extension, though perhaps with a reasonably definite intensional ’meaning’. (18)

This also shows that any attempt to define universals enumeratively from individuals is doomed to failure. Let me add here that it would be no use to try a definition like such as ””dog” =def. ”Fido, Candy, Tiffin and all things similar to these”. For even a cat or a turtle are similar to Fido, Candy and Tiffin in some respects, of course. And a suggestion like ””dog =def. ”Fido, Candi, Tiffin and all things similar to these in respect to dogness” would of course lead us right back into the use of a universal concept.

These considerations are also destructive of any idea of a ”logical process of abstraction” which is supposed to make it possible for us to move from individual to genuinely universal concepts, although of course there is a method by which we can construct classes through ”abstraction” (- but these classes will remain individual concepts). (19) In fact we would do well to stop talking about a ”method of abstraction” or a ”process of abstraction” and to speak instead of a problem of abstraction in analogy with the classical problem of induction. The problem of induction arises from the relationship between singular end strictly universal statements. Strictly universal statements, according to Popper, are such that only involve universal concepts. Singular statements are such that involve at least one individual concept. The problem of abstraction, accordingly, is a problem about the relationship between universal and individual concepts. Both problems underline the hypothetical, tentative, almost groping nature of human knowledge. In science we work with genuine, strictly universal law-statements. These cannot be verified from our singular, experiental statements. Analogously, we have to make use of genuine, universal concepts; but we have no method – by way of ”reduction”, ”constitution”, or ”explication” – for once and for all securing an entire arsenal of absolutely unambiguous and, at the same time, concretely applicable universal concepts.


Now let us return to the question about what Popper might mean by characterizing the distinctions between universal and individual concepts – as well as that between universal and singular statements – as unambiguous. Some of his formulations might give the impression that what is meant is that a simple inspection of what we could call ”the grammatical character” of a given formulation makes it possible for us to decide once and for all whether a statement is strictly universal or not. The frequent talk of ”proper names” points towards an interpretation like that. Despite the somewhat heavy-handed formulations used by Popper when introducing the distinction in a general way, many of his later formulations make it clear that he has a more subtle view in mind. Far from maintaining that the grammatical form unambiguously reveals the universal or individual character of a statemement, he is quite aware that interpretation involving context almost always is necessary.

For instance, he points out, it is not possible simply to say whether a word like ”pasteurized” is an individual or a universal concept; for of course it can function as both:

”Pasteurized” can be defined either as ”treated according to Louis Pasteur’s instructions” (or something like that), or as ”heated to 80 degrees Celsius and kept at that temperature for ten minutes”. By the first definiton ”pasteurized” is an individual concept; by the second it is a universal concept. (19)

So context is decisive: In a historical discussion of the historical development of medical science, the expression might well be used as an individual concept, while in a theoretical discussion of the resistance of various micro-organisms it would be natural to use it as a universal concept. Another of Popper’s examples is the following, which introduces what we might call ”intended meaning”:

The use of the word ’mammals’ as an example of a universal name might possibly cause misunderstanding. For words like ’mammal’, ’dog’, etc., are in their ordinary use not free from ambiguity. Whether these words are to be regarded as individual class names or universal class names depends upon our intentions: it depends upon whether we wish to speak of a race of animals living on our planet (an individual concept), or of a kind of physical bodies with properties which can be described in universal terms. (20)

Both examples show that when Popper characterizes the distinction between individual and universal concepts as unambiguous he certainly does not think of ”unambiguity of a formulation” – a kind of unambiguity which would make it possible for us unambiguously to decide the question by sheer inspection of sentences. On the contrary, both ”pasteurized” and ”mammal” are ambiguous in that sense. We might express this important difference by saying that while the distinctions admittedly are ”grammatically ambiguous”, they are asserted by Popper to be ”logically unambiguous”. Exactly for that reason it is important to distinguish between their strictly universal and their individual uses. Popper might be said to defend the logical distinction by simply challengeing any opponent to explicate these and similar examples without applying it. In fact, this is exactly what Popper does in the epistemologi, methodological and metaphysical parts of his philosophy. Let me conclude this paper by illustrating this by offering a few more examples.


In The Poverty of Historicism Popper stresses the importance of distinguishing between theoretical and historical sciences. Theoretical physics is, of course interested in finding and testing universal laws; the historical sciences are interested in actual, singular, or specific events, rather than in laws and generalisations. (21) A historical explanation takes all kinds of universal laws (for instance those of economics) for granted when attempting to explain its singular statements. Both kinds of science use the hypothetical-deductive model when trying to offer, test, and predict causal explanations:

In the sense of this analysis, all causal explanations of a singular event can be said to be historical in so far as the ’cause’ is always described by singular initial conditions. And this agrees entirely with the popular idea that to explain a thing causally is to explain how and why it happened, that is to say, to tell its ’story’. But it is only in history that we are really interested in the causal explanation of a singular event. In the theoretical sciences, such causal explanations are mainly means to a different end – the testing of universal laws. (22)

The distinction is also, as might be expected, of great importance in connection with Popper’s discussion of the question whether the Theory of Evolution gives us reason to believe that there is such a thing as a law of evolution. Here Popper distinguished between (a) a theory about what might be called ”the Darwinian or Neo-Darwinist mechanism of evolution” and what he calls (b) ”the hypothesis of biological evolution” as a theory about an individual, though enormously complex occurrence. (23) (b) is not, as many seem to believe, a universal law, as many believe. Rather it must be viewed as a rather complex singular historical statement quite analogous to, for instance, ”Charles Darwin and Francis Galton had a common grandfather”. So even if an expression like ”all vertebrates” might look like a universal concept, in this context it is used as an individual concept, for ”all vertebrates” refers only to all vertebrates existing on Earth – ”… rather than to all organisms at any place and time which have the constitution which we consider as characteristic of vertebrates”. (23)

What we call the evolutionary hypothesis is an explanation of a host of biological and paleological observations – for instance, of certain similarities between various species and genera – by the assumption of the common ancestry of related forms. This hypothesis is not a universal law, even if certain universal laws of nature, such as laws of heredity, segregation, and mutation, enter with it into the explanation. It has, rather, the character of a particular (singular, specific) historical statement. (24)

This view of Popper’s might be seen as challenging anybody who disagrees to develop a version of the hypothesis of evolution in a form not using ”proper names or terms functioning as proper names”.

An analogous situation is found in a well-known cosmological debate between Popper, Adolf Grünbaum, and others. (25) At a particular stage of the discussion, Popper defends the use of egocentric particulars such as ’I ’, ’here’, and ’now’. Admittedly, they do not have a place in theoretical physics in a narrower sense; but this doesn’t mean that they don’t rightfully belong in cosmology:

”The present state of the surface of the moon suggests that …” is a phrase which is fully legitimate in science, though it is not likely to occur in theoretical physics. ”The present age of the universe” is a perfectly good term in cosmology, and one which it would be quite unnecessary and pedantic, if not downright misleaning, to replace by ”the age of the universe on October 14, 1970”. In other words, the past, present and future are perfectly good terms in cosmology and astronomy, two excellent examples of (to some extent historical) physical sciences. It is fully legitimate to remind the astronomer that what he observes, in certain cases, is the state of star 1,000 years ago, or of a gallaxy 100,000 years ago, where ”ago” is just a synonym of ”before the present”. The fact that these notions do not occur in theoretical physics, and that we replace them by names and dates in history, does not show that they are to be expunged.
Nor are they expungeable. It is perfectly true that astronomers can use coordinates instead of speaking of the Great Nebula in Andromeda. But the coordinates go back to the axis and equator of the Earth, to here-and-now terms. (The Earth changes its axis in time; and although we may speak of the north pole as the sky on ”October 14, 1970” we must not forget that ”October 14, 1970”, though in many respects preferable to ”now”, refers to a zero date which is highly conventional and anthropomorphic. Nobody claims to know even the precise year of the birth og Jesus Christ.)
Thus my thesis is that notions like ”the present” are needed, if not in theoretical physics, at any rate in physical science. But I want to claim even more. Theoretical physics uses all the time spatiotemporal variables; and without applications in which these variables are specified (in the last instance with the help of ”here and now”), they would have no reasonable function whatsoever. (26)

The importance of Popper’s distinction is seen elsewhere in his philosophical writings. To mention only a few examples, the impossibility of reducing strictly universal law-statements to a finite number of singular statements is of course decisive for his epistemological deductivism and fallibilism. The distinction is also used by him in his arguments concerning free will. (27) Likewise, of course, in his critique of determinism and in his radical emergentism with its daring idea that our natural laws might not, after all, be strictly universal because they after all seem to be the result of an ’evolution’ of our individual, open universe. (28)



Translated with some changes from: ”Begrebet streng universalitet hos Karl Popper”, FILOSOFISKE STUDIER, vol. 9, Copenhagen 1987, pp. 125-142, Copenhagen 1987.

Dedicated to Mogens Blegvad

(1) FILOSOFISKE STUDIER, vol. 5, Copenhagen 1982, pp. 7-32.

(2) See especially Karl Raimund Popper: The Poverty of Historicism, 1944-45, 1957; K.R.Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945.

(3) A shorter version of this paper was read at the Polish/Danish philosophical seminar, Copenhagen 1983.

(4) K.R.Popper: Die beiden Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie. Aufgrund von Manu-skripten aus den Jahren 1930-33 herausgegeben von Troels Eggers Hansen, Tübingen 1979, p. 159 ff.

(5) Ibid. p. 228.

(6) Immanuel Kant: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 2. Aufl. 1787, p. 3.

(7) In Logik der Forschung, § 13 Popper uses the expression ”spezifische Allgemeinheit” for Kant’s ”strenge Allgemeinheit”. In the English version (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959), he prefers the expression ”strict universality”.

(8) See for instance Rudolf Carnap: ”Eigentliche und uneigentliche Begriffe”, Symposion Vol. I, 1927; Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1928, p. 213.

(9) Logik der Forschung, § 14.

(10) Die beiden Grundprobleme, p. 234.

(11) Ibid. pp. 233-34.

(12) Ibid. p. 233.

(13) Ibid. p. 234.

(14) Ibid. pp. 234-35.

(15) Ibid. pp. 235-36.

(16) Die beiden Grundprobleme, pp. 238-41; Logik der Forschung, 4. Ausg. 1971, pp. 27-28.

(17) K.R.Popper: Conjectures and Refutations, 1963, Ch. II.

(18) Conjectures and Refutations, p. 226.

(19) Logik der Forschung, p. 37 note 1.

(20) The Logic of Scientific Knowledge, p. 59.

(21) The Poverty of Historicism, pp. 143-147.

(22) Ibid, p. 144.

(23) Ibid. p. 107 note.

(24) Ibid, § 30. For a closer treatment of this distinction as well as the problem of the respective falsifiability of these two kinds of ”theory of evolution”, see my ”Karl Poppers som evolutionistisk filosof”, (”Karl Popper as an Evolutionist Philosopher”) in: Niels Bonde, Jesper Hoffmeyer and Henrik Stangerup: Naturens historiefortællere, II: Udviklingsideens historie, Copenhagen 1987, Ch. 15.

(25) Adolf Grünbaum: ”Popper’s Views on the Arrow of Time” and Popper: ”Grünbaum on Time and Entropy” in Schilpp (ed.): The Philosophy of Karl Popper, p. 775 and p. 1143.

(26) Ibid. p. 1143.

(27) For instance, Die beiden Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie, Dritte Auflage pp. 481 ff; The Open Universe, pp. 41 ff, pp. 128 ff.

(28) The Open Universe, p. 143.

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Flemming Steen Nielsen: A Personal Recollection of Popper

From: Sandhedens Sider, Institute of Philosophy, Copenhagen, Autumn 1994

Happy Acquaintance With a Difficult Person
In memoriam Karl Raimund Popper, 26.7.1902-17.9.1994.

By Flemming Steen Nielsen

One morning a few weeks ago my friend Troels Eggers Hansen (theoretical physicist, editor of Karl Popper’s Die beiden Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie) telephoned to tell me that our friends in London had called to inform us that Popper had just died. The conversation which followed was not, of course, a particularly cheerful one. On the other hand it was not dominated by grief – rather by a quiet sadness and a strange feeling of emptiness (’one somehow feels like an orphan’ as Troels put it). After all it could hardly be considered very tragic when a person dies at the age of 92 – of sound mind till the end, and after an extremely eventful and productive life. Starting out as an out-of-work school teacher around 1920 and ending up a friend of and discussion partner with many of the world’s most brillant scientists; the creator of philosophical arguments and theories of wide-ranging importance; the inspiration of statesmen and cultural celebrities; knighted and highly decorated by nations and universities; and, not least, loved and admired by his many readers – this must surely have been a good life. The following days many thoughts and images whirled around in our heads: About the joy, many years earlier, of discovering the works of this amazing thinker; about the exciting days when ’a new Popper’ appeared in the bookshops or arrived by mail with his signature; about the fascination of meeting him in person etc. So when Sandhedens Sider asked me to write a few pages on the occasion of the death of this strikingly original philosopher I decided to offer some hints about those thoughts and images rather than attempting a solemn obituary.


On my way to a summer holiday tour in Jutland in June 1961 I looked in at the Institute of Philosophy, then situated at Copenhagen Cathedral Square, to look for one more book to bring with me (- I already brought Viktor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, (1946)). Here I came across a stout volume with the title The Open Society and Its Enemies, (1945). Who could resist a title like that? Not I, and so I brought that one too. Incidentally, Popper’s book complemented Kravchenko’s splendidly, so every day during the two weeks’ tour from one beautiful Jutland locality to another, some chapters of the one were read in combination with some chapters of the other. The horrible experiences of a Russian engineer under Stalin’s terror and his later escape to the West made acutely real and concrete the bloodshed and sufferings caused by the totalitarian state. And Popper’s diagnosis of the collectivist and utopian ideas from more than 2000 years’ philosophical tradition, which have constantly been used as standard ammunition against liberty and democracy – and resulted in world wars and tyranny – was enough to remove from my mind the few remnants of utopianism and ’philosopher king’-ways of thinking that might have survived many years’ discussions with my father or my wonderful history teacher at school.
Apart from the book’s passion and moral force – an emigrant to New Zealand, Popper began writing on the day of Hitler’s inclusion of his native Austria into the German Reich and finished the book during the War – it was its manner of arguing that made an impression on a young philosophy student. The book showed that it is indeed possible to do philosophy the old way: attacking important metaphysical, moral and political problems with substantial, general arguments. You have to remember that at the time of my first reading it there was a strong tendency within the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries to remove philosophy from its original cosmological and ethical context and into one of two directions: (1) Viewing it as ’linguistic analysis’; i.e. treating it as the study of pseudo-problems originating in a perverse misuse of ’ordinary language’ – problems that could only be cured, not solved, by a sort of linguistic psychoanalysis (see Ernest Gellner’s critical diagnosis of the phenomenon in his brillant Words and Things from 1959). Or (2) replacing philosophy by the construction of formal systems representing scientific theories and the ’evidence’ supporting them – often resulting in desperate inductionist or confirmation-logical attempts to clarify that elusive relation of ’support’. How refreshing on this background to encounter a philosopher who took a stance against these tendencies and explicitly chose to do philosophy in the traditional manner!
The Open Society shows how important the theory of knowledge is to political philosophy according to Popper. If, for instance, you accept an epistemology according to which we are able to reach authoritative, apodictic knowledge about both descriptive and normative questions you will quite naturally tend towards elitist and anti-democratic ways of thinking. If you reject the idea of expertise concerning normative questions, but all the same believe in the possibility of apodictally certain and detailed knowledge about societal processes, then what Popper dubs holistic utopian engineering, or at least central planning of the economy, will seem within reach and basically desirable – and the possible advantages of the rule of law and market economy will become invisible. And thus it is evident how indebted his philosophy of the open society is to the well-known ideas of his epistemology and philosophy of science. His view of knowledge as basically a trial-and-error process, his fallibilism, his model for testing, explanation and prediction, and his view of rationality as comprehensive critical discussion – all are ingredients of his critique of totalitarianism, revolutionism and historicist prophecy as well as his arguments for democracy, individualism and political reformism.


I had the priviliege of living at the old ”kollegium” (students’ dormitory) Regensen at the time. On returning there after my tour I told the other members of our ’Regens-club’ (a sort of small beer and debating society) – a physicist, a mathematician, an astronomer, a historian and a literature guy – about Popper, and we decided to study his Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934, 1959) together. One thing strikes me when I think back to our discussions about that book. The objection which nowadays in broad circles is considered an absolutely devastating refutation of it, and which has given rise to a series of ’new and better’ philosophies of science, never had an important place in our discussion. I’m referring to the objection that Popper’s view of testing as attempted empirical falsification af strictly universal theories, must be wrong because it is just as impossible to falsify a theory as to verify it – all because of the point made by Popper himself that it is impossible to give unambiguously applicable criteria for certain and unrevisable verification of observation statements (because they themselves must refer to strictly universal laws). We were aware of this objection, but did not take it seriously. As we read Popper’s book, it attempted to give a Logic of Science, i.e. a set of abstract rules and proposals for how we can make our theories as critisizable as possible, how we can compare their informative strength, which objections concerning initial conditions and auxiliary theories are relevant in a discussion about concrete test results, etc. etc. The analogy to the regulative application of formal logic’s schemata and principles to discussions in general seems clear. For this purpose we found Popper’s version of the hypothetico-deductive method eminently superior to for instance positivist-inductivist or con-ventionalist models of scientific debate. What we certainly could not read from the text was that it (1) presumed to describe how and why actual scientists actually choose or chose to believe in individual theories; nor (2) that it pretented to give us a set of unambiguous criteria to tell us when a given empirical theory is conclusively falsified. Could Popper really be supposed to think that he had given us a kind of touchstone – a veritable ’philosopher’s stone’ – which would make it possible for us to go around from laboratory to laboratory and authoritatively and conclusively in-form scientists about which particular experimental results must be considered firm and final, and consequently which theories are falsified once and for all? Of course not.
Popper also gave os (in ”Appendix X” as well as in the article ”Science: Conjectures and Refutations”) a psychological and logical critique of Hume’s idea of repetition as a basis for induction, as well as an effective, rational strategy against various phenomena we considered pseudo-scientific, for instance astrology, para-psychology, and Freudianism. Until then we had been forced to take shelter in the usual positivist critique that these theories couldn’t be verified empirically – some-how hoping that their proponents would not point out to us that neither could the best physical theories! Now we could attack them by arguing that they did not specify any possible phenomenon which – according to the theory itself – could not happen; or we could at least challenge their proponents to identify at least one possible event that they themselves would admit to be a decisive falsification of their theory if it ever happened.


Some years later I wrote Popper to tell him about my interest in his ideas as well as a little about the state of philosophy in Denmark. His reply was extremely kind and encouraging, although he gave me a – probably well-deserved – rap on the knuckles for a youthfully arrogant remark I had made about Niels Bohr’s philosophical efforts. Popper had met Bohr in Copenhagen at a congress in 1936 and had had a somewhat overwhelming conversation with him about the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. This led him to characterise Bohr as ”… everything a great man should be!”
In the summer of 1967 Troels and I finally got the opportunity to meet Popper at a congress for Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science in Amster-dam. At the opening cocktail party we went around eagerly looking for him – com-paring the many new faces with our only source: a perfectly awful portrait from a book about Popper, which made him look very angry and strangely Prussian. A poor little man who had some resemblance to this portrait, got visibly flustered by our youthful interest and almost fled the scene. Later we found out that he was an extremely nice professor fra Roumania, otherwise having a perfectly wonderful time in beautiful, free Amsterdam. Little did we know that Popper never attended occasions like that, but only lectures, seminars etc., where a total ban of smoking could be effectively upheld. Allergy or no allergy,- as one of his colleagues at the London School of Economics once told me with a wry smile, Popper’s insisting on his right to avoid tobacco smoke had at least excused him from taking part in countless dull faculty meetings.
Then came the great moment when we would be able to see and hear our hero. Strangely enough, Popper had been given the honourable task of giving the plenum talk. ’Strangely enough’ because the congress to our great surprise proved to be dominated by a not very pleasant cliquishness – a remarkably scientistic at-mosphere, as if we were a gathering of Logical Positivists in the Thirties. Incessantly, the tough-minded ’real’ philosophers distanced themselves from all the ’metaphys-icians’ (to be pronounced with a sneer) and all the formal-logical illiterates, i.e. more or less all other schools of philosophy.
Perhaps a brief remark may help to explain what followed: as hinted at in my title, Popper was by many of his philosophical colleagues thought to be a particularly difficult person. Bill Bartley’s article ”Ein schwieriger Mensch” elabor-ates upon this and explains it by the fact of his being extremely critical of his opponent’s often very superficial interpretations of his writings and by his never compromising in theoretical debates in order to politely smoothe out what he thought were genuine disagreements. In this particular gathering his conviction that he had ’killed Positivism’ hardly made things easier, of course (see his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest (1976), Section 17). His habit of mischievously doing the exact opposite of what his audience expected may have played a role, too.
For no sooner had the rather short man with the strongly marked features and a gentle smile sat down in front of the hundreds of participants before he started something like this: ’Today I’m going to set forward and defend a metaphysical theory in important ways similar to Plato’s Theory of Ideas and Hegel’s doctrine of the Absolute Idea.’ A shiver went through the audience and eyes glazed. ’What’s going on? Is he making fun of us?’ people seemed to ask. Well, he wasn’t; and for the first time we heard about Popper’s metaphysical theory of the three worlds: World 1, the physical world; World 2, the mental world; and World 3, the world of abstract entities and theories like for instance the natural numbers. These World 3-en-tities are created by World 2, i.e. our thoughts and our imagination; but when they have been thus created they possess a certain autonomy and objectivity. For instance, we evidently cannot place the prime numbers where we want them. Theories about World 1, too, are World 3-entities, but can be used to influence the physical world (think of nuclear physics and Hiroshima) – though not directly, only via World 2.
Next day I introduced myself to him. Great was my astonishment when he was immediately quite clear about who I was and about the content of our letters. ’Let’s get out of here’, he said, crinkling his nose at the tobacco smoke in the foyer of Hotel Krasnapolsky. He then took a firm grip of the sleeve of my jacket and led me out into the sunshine. So here I was, with this famous, busy and much sought after celebrity firmly attached to my sleeve, walking briskly round and round the central square of Amsterdam, with his eyes permanently fixed on me as he asked questions about my interests and plans, criticised my ideas, made suggestions, joked – as if the whole situation was the most natural thing imaginable. When, after about an hour, he was fetched for other duties by Imre Lakatos who in those days rather humbly functioned as a kind of secretary to him, the young Danish philosopher was sweaty and exhausted – the 65 years’ old still quite fresh and brimming over with energy.
On this as on other occasions I met him – in his and Lady Poppers beautiful home Fallowfield in Buckinghamshire, at the L.S.E., or elsewhere – Popper never wasted time on small talk or polite conversation: ’Here is some tea and some pastry, what’s the situation about drugs and Danish youth?’; or, ’Let’s get away from all these people, what do you say about Lakatos’ statement that Newtonian me-chanics is no more falsifiable than Freud’s psychoanalysis?’ these were typical Popper openings. A difficult person? Not in my experience. Perhaps a bit intense and demanding, in fact wonderfully so!
The delight of discovering Popper the philosopher was of course primarily one of living with his books – but also one of teaching his ideas. In Denmark we have been a handful of persons who by teaching his views at universities, peoples’ universities, peoples’ high schools, and also through various publications have done our best to make sure that his ideas did not remain unknown in this country. Already in the beginning of the seventies we must have had a certain succes. For when we made an official proposal that Popper should receive the Sonning Prize (’for Contribution to European Culture’), there was great support from many sides. He received the prize during his particularly successful and pleasurable stay in Copenhagen in 1973. At a solemn occasion in the University’s ’Solennitetssal’, professor of philosophy Mogens Blegvad gave an impressive motivation speech about Popper’s many contributions to European thought (’very well-informed’, Popper whispered to me). His own lecture was formed as a critique of the then as now extremely influential ideas of closed conceptional frameworks, the incommensurability of paradigms, and cultural relativism. The publication of Popper’s that comes closest to that lecture is the article ”The Myth of the Framework” from E.Freeman’s Schilpp-volume (see below). He also gave a seminar on the subject at the Institute of Philosophy.
Popper gladly accepted an invitation from my wife and me to take part in a less solemn occasion in our new home – not least because I mentioned to him that he could meet many students and others who actually knew his ideas, but had not been present at the grand dinner at the Hotel D’Angleterre or similar gatherings. Fortunately it was a lovely, sunny day as there would hardly have been room for all invited indoors. Popper went round for some minutes’ talk with almost every one present and seemed to enjoy himself enormously. During his four day’s stay in Copenhagen he gave the impression of being grateful for his reception in Denmark as well as for the considerable sum of money involved. His attitude to the honour and the host country was markedly different from that of two other philosophers who had received the prize: the Norwegian Arne Naess (Sonning Prize 1977) who not even gave a lecture or a seminar, and Bertrand Russell (1960) who wrote a friend before going to Copenhagen, ’We’re just going over to pick up the money and come straight back again.’ (R.Crawshay-Williams: Russell remembered, Oxford 1970, pp. 127-28).


Apart from the moral and intellectual strength of his critique of totalitarianism, collectivism, historicism, and utopianism (a critique which made many of my students burst out: ’If only I had known these arguments when I was on the defensive during discussions with my Marxist friends or fellow students!’) the aspect of Popper’s philosophy that has especially made an impression on the general public is that he was an ’old-fashioned’, rarely very technical thinker of the kind that non-professional philosophers are attracted to. His philosophical writings have a science-oriented but also common-sense character which makes it a pleasure to teach them. His approach is, as he often stressed himself, basically an ontological one: Is there, apart from material things, also such a thing as consciousness – if, indeed, there is such a thing as matter at all? Has the world always existed or has it had a beginning? Is it divinely created or perhaps just evolved from nothing? Does human consciousness have en influence on physical or economic reality, or is it in every detail determined by these? Do we have free will? Is our biological evolution teleologically directed towards a perfect final state; is it determined by an absolute ’law of evolution’, or is it a process of ’emergence’ involving real novelty? Do ’time’s arrow’ and the given ’now’ have ontological reality or are they the result of a human Anschauungsform? etc. etc.
But how can Karl Popper, being a well-known proponent of Positivism, express an interest in such metaphysical questions as these? – you might ask. In fact, Popper is not a Positivist at all. On the contrary, he is one of the greatest and most explicit critics of that philosophy. Not only does he refute Logical Empiricism’s criterion of meaningfulness with devastating reflexivity-arguments, but his view of scientific theories as systems of strictly universal statements makes evident the futility of its probability-inductivist attempts. A large part of his works are on metaphysics: In The Self and Its Brain (1977), (another lovely title, I think!) he critizises different versions of materialism and develops his interactionist Three World-Theory as well as giving interesting hints about how we humans have to ’learn to become selves.’ In The Open Universe (1982) and Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (1982) he takes on determinism: There is ample room for rational, free acts in a universe that shows its fundamentally creative and open character every time a new argument, a new work of art, a new theory, even a new piece of prediction, is created; for aren’t we ourselves a part of the Universe? In Realism and the Aim of Science, (1983) Unended Quest (1976), and Objective Knowledge (1972) he defends philosophical realism against phenomenalism, instrumentalism, relativism etc. In A World of Propensities (1990) we find an elegant survey of his view of objective probability and of his evolutionary metaphysics and theory of knowledge.
His views on evolution make his deductictivist theory of knowledge perfectly understandable. According to Popper’s version of Neo-Darwinism our bio-logical evolution is such that, at no point in Evolution, a ’direct (’Lamarckian’) instruction’ takes place from Nature to organisms. Analogously, we humans have no ”hotline” to reality in itself or to any other ’source of knowledge’. We have to do with a secular view of human knowledge, you could say. Mankind is episte-mologically alone in the world: we can never receive instruction or communication ’from outside’ to the effect that this or that set of statements are irrevocably true and certain or even that this particular theory is inductively probable to a certain degree. What, then, would be the rational strategy if this is our situation? Free critical dis-cussion of (logically speaking) freely invented hypotheses – metaphysical as well as scientific – but, importantly, a discussion not allowing typically ’philosophical’ objections to the effect that the opponent’s thesis has not been proven. For the demand for proof and the ideal of perfect certainty entail either logical circularity or infinite regression or irrational adherence to fundamental dogma. ’Apodictic certainty’ is not something inherently desirable, but something we can always get hold of, for instance through passionate subjective belief, effective censorship, immunisation of paradigms, or whatever. Paradoxically, if we strive to understand Reality, we will have to make do with fallible hypotheses and the critical comparison of fallible hypotheses.


In his later years, Popper concentrated his efforts in the fields of evolutionary epistemology and objective indeterminism; but his worries concerning the fate of Mankind led him now and then to speculations about politics and social matters. Among university philosophers he soon lost whatever influence he might have had (very little, he sincerely thought); but in broader intellectual circles he increasingly acquired the status of a sort of wise old man who was always worth listening to, not least because he – whether as a lecturer or as an interviewee – was often ready with surprising and often provoking statements. For example, he never accepted the common talk of the West’s, and especially USA’s, ’cultural imperialism’. That Western Civilisation in important respects is ’objectively superior’ to other cultures could be rationally argued, he said, as well as seen from the fact that individuals all over the world adopt it to an increasing extent or even vote for it ’with their feet.’ There is no question of compulsion there.
The greatest dangers for world peace, he argued, is the growing number of well-armed pocket-dictatorships (he unhesitantly supported the role of Western countries in the First Gulf War) and the spread of plutonium and nuclear scientists from the former Soviet Union. We must create international task-forces to fight this particular problem; and, in general, democracies must be ready to ’go to war for peace,’ as he put it. Areas of Free Trade is a good thing and ought to be steadily extended for the sake of peace and prosperity; but new, big state-constructions such as an European Union are definitely harmful.

There is some encouragement to be derived, I think, from the fact that one of the last tasks of this great philosopher of freedom was overseeing one more edition of The Open Society and Its Enemies – in Russian.

Further references.
Bartley, W.W.Bartley III: ”Ein Schwieriger Mensch: Eine Porträtskizze von Sir Karl Popper”, in: Nordhofen. E. (ed.): Physiognomien: Philosophen des 20. Jahrhunderts in Portraits, 1980.
James, Roger: Return to Reason. Popper’s Thought in Public Life, 1980.
Nielsen, Flemming Steen: ”En kritik af den totalitære statstanke”, in: Svend Erik Stybe (ed.): Politiske ideologier, 1972.
– – : ”Karl Popper som evolutionistisk filosof”, in: Hoffmeyer & Stangerup (eds): Naturens historiefortællere II: Fra Darwins syntese til nutidens krise, 1987.
– – : ”Begrebet streng universalitet hos Karl Popper”, in: Filosofiske Studier fra Filosofisk Institut, København Universitet, bd. 9, 1987.
Karl Popper: Conjectures an Refutations, 1963.
– – : ”The Myth of the Framework”, in: E.Freeman (ed): The Abdication of Philosophy. Essays in Honour of Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1976.
– – : In Search of a Better World, 1990.

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Railway lines of thought

One of the themes which I developed some years ago concerned the way ideas take hold and exert an influence on our thoughts and our research projects which is very hard to identify, to subject to critical appraisal and to change. I used the term “railway lines of thought” to capture the image of a vehicle that has to stay “on track” more or less regardless of the  wishes of the passengers.

The late Liam Hudson dropped onto the same theme in his wonderful book The Cult of the Fact and he gave me permission to reproduce several chapters on my web site. This material is now an appendix to the collection “Jacques Barzun and Others“. I urge you to read it!

Here is the Preamble to convey the flavor.

This is a book about professional psychologists and the visions they pursue. It expresses a growing dissatisfaction with the self-consciously scientific psychology in which I myself was trained – an activity that, increasingly over the last ten years, has taken on the air of a masquerade. It has been written in the hope that, somewhere behind the paraphernalia of false science and apparent objectivity, there lies the possibility of a more genuinely dispassionate study of human nature and human action.

Such a book is bound to some extent to be autobiographical; and it is bound also to concern itself not simply with the ‘facts’, but with the unspoken assumptions that we all use when deciding which facts are interesting, and which trivial, a bore…One must question not so much what university teachers think they teach, nor what students think they are learning, but the more subterranean traffic in ideals and prejudices that all powerful teaching institutions create, and that governs thereafter the intellectual lives their products lead.

In attempting this, I have set myself to transgress certain barriers that at present hem in academic discussion, and render much of it inconsequential. Each of these barriers takes the form of a distinction, persuasive but false. The first is that between Science and Art: my belief, unfashionable though this may still be, is that all arguments bearing on human life deserve to be heard within the same arena of debate. The second is between the Serious and the Frivolous: we are moving, if the tastes of the student body are any guide, from an era in which wit, like Art, has been seen as an irrelevant frill, into one – at once gloomier and more Teutonic – in which wit is outlawed as an affront to moral rectitude. The systematic, technical and cheerless are automatically preferred to the literate and humane. Although this new Calvinism satisfies simple psychic needs, I have written in defiance of it – also on the chance that the tide of piety is one that can still be turned.

Lying behind these false distinctions, and serving to unite them, is a further and more general distinction, itself false: that between Style and Content. In the entrenched sciences, it is possible to transmit the truth in prose that is as crabbed as it is evasive. But where foundations are shakier, style not merely limits what we find it natural to express; it is, in important respects, the very essence of that expression. For it is through our style, our mode of address, that we transmit all those messages that lie beyond the literal meaning of our utterance. And it is precisely on such ‘meta-messages’ that the focus of this book lies.

My account begins, conventionally, with the circumstances of its own conception. Also, less conventionally, with a foray into literary criticism, and into the history of a particular myth. This may seem at first sight irrelevant, a diversion. But if I have judged matters aright, this brief literary exploration heralds my main theme – Myths, Ancient and Modern – and also serves to identify the metaphorical nature of its own motive force: the spring that moves the mechanism along. My assumption is that human thought, before it is squeezed into its Sunday best, for purposes of publication, is a nebulous and intuitive affair: in place of logic there brews a stew of hunch and partial insight, half submerged. And although we accept that our minds’ products must eventually be judged by the puritan rules of evidence and insight – the strait gate through which they must pass – we seem in practice to draw what inspiration we possess from a hidden stockpile of images, metaphors and echoes, ancient in origin, but fertile and still growing. This work is no exception. Its energy is drawn from a clutch of human sentiments that, over and again down the centuries, have found expression in potent, metaphoric form. What these sentiments are, and what their relation is to a putative science of human life, should with luck become clearer as the narrative progresses.

To begin with, though, the story is simple enough – in fact, it has about it the beguiling air of a fable. In it, the intrepid young psychologist is packed off by his mentors across the deserts of ignorance and superstition. In mid-journey, with rations running low and a dead-line approaching, this outrider of the rational order is set upon – or so it seems – by the agents of unreason. Bloodlessly, as on the silver screen, his assailants tumble to the ground. But the dead will not lie still. They dust themselves down, and demand to be heard. Our hero finds that parley he must, and around the camp-fire all wax philosophical.

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Popper vs von Mises on the philosophy of science


A long thread on the Critical Rationalist facebook page began by drawing on  von Mises’s criticism of Popper in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science “he [von Mises] addressed the claim of Karl Popper that scientific propositions must be falsifiable. Although Popper was not a positivist, he intended his falsification criterion to separate scientific from non-scientific statements.”

That is not a helpful statement without providing an account of the problem situation which the positivists and Popper addressed. For the positivists, the use of the inductive method was a distinctive feature of science, but Popper considered that induction was logically incoherent.  Instead, he was looking for a convention make a clear distinction between (a) theories that claimed to be scientific (due to their alleged basis on evidence) which are nevertheless not refutable and (b) theories that do lay themselves open to falsification (in principle).

As described in The Guide to The Logic of Scientific Discovery,  he made a significant departure from the usual approaches to decide these matters, either by logical analysis or by observation of the way scientists work (the naturalistic approach). He articulated the “rules of the game” or “conventions” approach. This is closely related to his rejection of certainty as an aim of science . He introduced the theme of conjectural knowledge as a permanent feature of scientific theories and not a transient situation or a “bug” in a new theory, to be superseded by further investigation and “confirmation”.

His criterion of demarcation is a proposal for an agreement or convention. He noted that his convention will be rejected by people who think that science can generate a system of “absolutely certain, irrevocably true statements”.

The test for his proposals is to examine their logical consequences, and to explore their fertility in solving problems in the theory of knowledge and scientific investigation. Essentially, it is a test of practice and practical results.

One of the practical implications of  Popper’s criterion is that it can be used early in an argument to discover where the various parties stand on the use of evidence in the debate. It also prompts scientist to be constantly mindful of the importance of testing, with all that implies for the design of experiments and the attitude adopted towards adverse findings.

Popper’s program was radically different from the positivists, a fact obscured by people who can only see Popper’s falsifiability criterion as a rival of the positivists criterion of MEANING  (they royally confused the issue by taking up testability as a criterion of meaning, as though Popper was working on the same problem).

Part of the problem here is the great significance ascribed to Science in the wake of Newton, when Science gained the reputation for finding ultimate truths. Previously the terms science or scientific merely implied  systematic investigation with a view to  obtaining useful principles, and so there was the science of angling and every other thing.

Part of the power of Popper’s program was to get away from the hopeless quest of the positivists/empiricists for a criterion of meaning (or cognitive significance) and the attempt to save inductive logic. The falsifiability criterion had logical coherence which the verification  criterion lacked, and although falsification could not be decisive in practice, it did have the practical effect of pointing up the need for more critical attention to conventions to guide scientific practice (hence the program charted by Ian Jarvie).

One more important point: the focus of critical discussion for Popper was/were the laws of science, expressed as universal generalizations. That is what makes the logic of testing so strong (compared with verification).  I don’t understand how  a pure logical analysis  can demonstrate  that both the verification criterion and the falsifiability criterion are worthless.   What is the point of Popper’s demarcation principle, given the larger contours of his program? Where is the universal statement that is tested by the basic statement “there is a chair in this room”? Is it a universal statement of any interest in the real world of scientific investigation?

This is the original argument.

In point of fact, the criterion is worthless, since every statement comes out verifiable under it. Suppose that “p” is a non-controversially verifiable statement, e.g., “there is a chair in this room.” Let us take “q” to be a statement logical positivists reject as meaningless. A good example is one that Rudolf Carnap held up to ridicule when he called for an end to metaphysics. He cited the following from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927): “The not nothings itself.” I shall not attempt to explain this: one can see why Carnap presented it as a paradigm instance of a meaningless statement.

Does the verification principle eliminate it? Surprisingly, it does not. From p, we deduce p or q. (This step is non-controversial.) Assuming that a logical consequence of a verifiable proposition is itself verifiable, (p or q) is verifiable. Further, if p is verifiable, then the negation of p is verifiable; this principle seems difficult to question. Now, consider this argument:

p or q not -p ______ q
This argument is valid, and each of its premises is verifiable. Then, q is a logical consequence of verifiable propositions, and it, too, is verifiable. Clearly, if the verification criterion cannot eliminate “the not nothings itself,” it is not worth very much.

A falsification criterion fairs no better. If p is falsifiable, then (p and q) is falsifiable. Once more, not-p should be falsifiable if p is, though Karl Popper has implausibly denied this. By an argument parallel with that for verification, we conclude that q is falsifiable.

One might think that this is a mere trick, readily avoidable through slight modification of the principle. There have been many attempts to formulate a criterion that comes up with the “right” results, but so far all have failed to withstand criticism.

What is the “right result”  or the criterion for a “right result”?

Looked at in the context of testing (universal) scientific theories, what is wrong with the principle of falsifiability in logic and in practice for working scientists?  With scientifically relevant statements in place of the ps and qs in the argument above would the result still look like a knockdown victory over Popper’s arguments?
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