Hayek as a critical rationalist

F A Hayek: Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy  by Peter Boettke of the George Mason  University is hot off the press. The subtitle signals three phases in Hayek’s career, first   fundamental economic theory from roughly 1920 to 1940, then the function of reason and knowledge in society from 1940 to 1960 and then restating classical liberal principles informed by economics and his views on rationality and justice.

He toured Australia in 1976 and some of the talks that he delivered explained what he was doing in his “abuse of reason” project after  he turned from  his major work on economics at the end of the 1930s. His target was “constructivist rationalism”, the mindset that recklessly claims to know more than is actually possible. In his view this was the abuse or pathology of reason that underpinned the utopian vision of socialism and central planning and many other adventures of tyrants and demagogues from time immemorial. It has been described as “the idiocy  of  ideology”. Another target was “scientism”, that is the application of (misguided) ideas about the methods of physics in the social sciences.

This article is an edited version of a paper about the tour and some of the material remains for general interest, especially for Australian readers.

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. 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 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 and unemployment was 6 per cent during Hayek’s visit.  Those figures were unprecedented in the years preceding the Whitlam administration. There were also major issues to be resolved regarding monetary policy and the then-fixed exchange rate.

There were high hopes for the Fraser administration in conservative circles and 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 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 reforming for productivity. At the end of the paper there is an account of Hayek’s meeting with Prime Minister Fraser.

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 hysterical tenor of criticism of the so-called New Right from political conservatives and also the Labor Party and the left. A decade later the Labor administration led by Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating  initiated  some significant reforms along the lines suggested by the ‘new right’ (strictly speaking the “dries’ in the Liberal Party) and they were so unpopular among Labor voters that many traditional Labor seats were lost to the Liberal (Conservative) party in the state of  New South Wales in the election of 1988.   (They were regained at the next election).

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 it pre-dated the Mont Pelerin Society that Hayek formed in 1947.  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”. The autobiography of H. “Nugget” Coombs (1981), the most influential advisor to Labor and Liberal governments over many years, showed 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”.

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 had yet to gain enough support to make an impact in State or Federal elections. 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 abuse 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 account of the meeting (another addition at the end of the paper) 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 “abuse 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.

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 (now called populism in a derogatory sense by people who disagree with majority opinion).

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 ).

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’”.

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. 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 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.

 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.

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.

Ronald Kitching on the tour

The great Nobel Prize winning economist/social scientist F. A. Hayek made a month long lecture tour of Australia in October 1976. There is a bit of an inside story to this tour which so far few know about. Hayek was invited to Australia for a lecture tour by economist Mark Tier. However, Hayek, at that time, had to decline, but as circumstances changed and as he did not know anybody else in Australia, he wrote a note to Sydney Economist/Barrister Roger Randerson, whom he once tutored at The London School of Economics, saying that he could squeeze in a month before going on previously scheduled visits to New Zealand and Japan.

Roger and I were good mates so he rang me with the good news. I then suggested to Roger that he immediately write back to Hayek and ask what his fee would be. I can still quote the answer. Hayek replied saying: “Should first class return airfares be provided for my wife and myself both internationally and nationally, and first class accommodation be provided for us, and also providing that my lectures are confined to no more than two per week, there will be no fee.”

Roger estimated that the total cost would be approximately $25,000. As he was well connected in the commercial world and I was well connected with the Australian Mining Industry, we thought that it would be an easy matter to get the tour underwritten. So we set off to see what we could do. After a week’s travelling and lobbying, I could not find a single executive willing to undertake part in such a “revolutionary” activity. I returned to my home rather dispirited about it all. I rang Roger to see how he was doing.

He replied to my query, “My boy, nobody wants to know me. They are all running for cover.” I then went on to say that the average answer I got was, “We cannot be seen to be endorsing the right wing views of such a radical figure.” He replied that that was precisely the response he got too. So, I said, “Bugger it all Roger, I’ll underwrite the tour myself.” He replied, “I won’t see you do that m’boy, I’ll go you halves.”

So, with that settled, I suggested that we again go around the traps, and, seeing the tour was underwritten by somebody who wished to remain anonymous, try to see what could be raised for the venture. We were ably assisted in this effort by Mr. Ref Kemp, Director of The Institute For Public Affairs in Victoria, Mr. Viv Forbes in Brisbane, and Mr. R. H. (now Sir Robert) Norman OBE of Cairns.

Roger later published a booklet titled Social Justice, Socialism and Democracy featuring three of Hayek’s [1979b] most important lectures on the tour. In that small book he said: ‘Many publicly spirited citizens, institutions and organisations donated, (numbering no fewer than 62, in sums ranging from $50 to $2,000) towards the visit, but no list is given because some wish to be nameless. Their generosity is, however, gratefully acknowledged.’

The Hayek visit was a co-operative private enterprise. Indeed it had to be, because approaches at high levels for concessions from government owned or controlled internal and external airlines were refused.

There were complaints from high level “intellectuals”, that the visit was everything from a white washing of dangerous capitalist ideology, a political plot of ever devious Jews, to a “bankers plot”. Hayek incidentally was a non-practising Catholic. Hayek was in great form and he appeared as Guest of Honour on the hour-long Monday Conference with Robert Moore, and televised by the ABC network in all states on 11 October 1976.

In addition, in total he kept no less than 60 appointments, including visits to heads of state, seminar and lecturing engagements. A very heavy schedule for anybody, but at that time Hayek was 76 years of age. He was in scintillating form.

Roger decided that in the middle of the tour he would give him four days off on the Atherton Tableland. I had a spacious home there and as half of my six children were away at boarding school, we had ample room to accommodate Roger, and Professor and Mrs. Hayek.

When he arrived we had a celebratory drink of his favourite tipple, Johnny Walker Black Label. “Whenever 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,” I told the small gathering present.

Hayek laughed and said that he knew a bit about inflation and that he would like to meet this one. I told him that compared with the inflations he had witnessed, that this one was rather tame and that my boys jumped on to his back in the paddock. “I even jump on his back when he is in the yard and I can climb up the rails to do so,” I told him. “Well, while I am here, I would like to meet him, ” Hayek exclaimed. So I put that on the agenda.

I got this bright idea that I’d put the bull in the yard, get a step ladder, put Hayek on the bull, (if he agreed), and take a picture, which would carry the caption, “Hayek’s on Top of Inflation”. I told my wife and that was the end of it. She would not under any circumstances countenance such a move. “What if the Professor fell off and was injured,” and all of that sort of chatter. So that project was abandoned.

Nevertheless Hayek still wanted to meet the bull. Next day I took him down the paddock and took several pictures of him and the bull when another idea popped into my head and I quietly mentioned it to him. He was delighted to have a bit of fun. The caption of course was to be “Hayek’s Got Inflation By The Balls.”

Well, the old boy was delighted. He was quite at home with animals and had palled up with the bull, which was an easy matter with this particular animal. So he posed and I took the picture. He predicted that if the Americans got hold of a copy, the picture would become famous.

I am happy to announce that I recently heard from Dr. Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute in London. He told me that at a recent luncheon in her honour in London, Mrs. Thatcher, much to her delight, had a picture presented to her of her favourite Economist/Philosopher and with Inflation by the balls.

Hayek’s grand-daughter, who was present, read out the story.

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Notes on Thomas Trzyna’s book Karl Popper and Literary Theory: Critical Rationalism as a Philosophy of Literature

This is an academic defence of the rational and humanistic tradition in literary studies that is out of favour in the universities at present where the humanities and social sciences have been radically politicised by the left. There may not be much readership for this book on campus but it is a welcome and much-needed contribution to explore Popper’s critical rationalism in literary studies.

The aim is to demonstrate how a robust critical framework can help the reader to find more in the books they read. The first part of the book is concerned with critical frameworks and the second consists of close readings of several particularly interesting and complex works of fiction.

The centrepiece of the first part is the comparison and contrast of James Battersby’s philosophical framework with critical rationalism as expounded by Karl Popper and William W Bartley. Bringing Bartley’s work to attention is a significant contribution in itself because grasping Popper’s “non-justificationist” or non-foundationalist approach as explained by Bartley can be revelatory in understanding where Popper is coming from. Popper’s falsificationism – the insistence that scientific systems must be susceptible to refutation by empirical tests – is only one aspect of the critical method. The objective of the method is to form critical preferences for one proposition or theory or interpretation rather than another – preferences that can change in response to new evidence and new arguments. This is a more fluid and flexible approach to complex materials than the over-simplified interpretation of falificationism that demands decisive knock-down decisions to resolve differences of opinion.

Trzyna (page 51) cites Battersby:

“a large part of this prospective project…would be concerned with showing that some schemes are demonstrably truer, more right, and better than others and that some statements within a given scheme are right, fit and true and some are wrong, unfit and false”.

Trzyna correctly notes that Battersby is wavering between “truer, more right and better” and the uncompromising “wrong, unfit and false”. Taking on board the language of critical preference allows for degrees of fitness and unfitness, better and worse interpretive frameworks and better and worse interpretations. The analysis becomes richer in the light of “perspectivism” (looking from different angles) which allows for separate appraisal of various aspects of a work, so one poem might be robust in versification but articulate a morally depraved theme while another might also be brilliant in rhyme and metre but deal with a trivial theme such as a pebble on a path rather than a major moral or intellectual challenge like the great tragedies of Shakespeare and Racine.

Trzyna broached the very important topic of interpretive frameworks using the example of the poet Anne Finch (1661-1720) who injected what came to be known as romantic elements (dwelling on shades of moods) into her poetry that was initially shaped by the Augustan classicism of the period. Wordsworth discovered her some time later and saluted her “proto-romanticism” to acknowledge her “full worth” (38). The suggestion is that Anne Finch did not have the stature or influence in her time that was warranted by her achievement, partly because her work did not fit the Augustan paradigm and no doubt also for other reasons including her gender.

Trzyna notes the previous work of DeSalvo and Creed using Popper’s “three world” theory of objective knowledge to focus on the contents of the work as an object for public or intersubjective appraisal rather than an expression of the feelings of the author. Surprisingly little has been made of Popper’s theory of language because it links in an interesting way with his theory of objective contents of thought. More on that in another post.

Moving on to Trzyna’s close reading of selected works where the idea is to promote the enjoyment and understanding of literary works rather than deconstructing them. This is where the rubber of critical theory meets the road of living works of literature. The question is, does the theory help the reader to extract more from the works including enjoyment and a sense of spiritual elevation? This is no simple question because literary works have very different things to offer and some challenging and confronting books are not obviously enjoyable or inspirational. This applies to several of the pieces that Trzyna selected for his study.

The first is a densely layered and disturbing short story by Jean Toomer from a book about his first trip to the Deep South of the United States. The theme of the story is hidden menace and the unresolved mystery of prostitute and her dead child. Trzyna describes how the students in a small class read and reread the few pages of the story testing different conjectures about the meaning and implication of various passages in the text. The process was rewarding in coming to grips with the complexities in the work but no consensus emerged.

There is a chapter on the novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding and his meditations on the problem of forgiveness. Forgiveness was more than a literary concern for Fielding because in this time on the bench as a magistrate he had occasion to sentence at least one criminal to hang. He was also pressing for more humane conditions in prisons and the abolition of public executions in addition to developing a police force and making provision for the poor.

In “Le Clezio, ,Levinas, Popper and the Problem of Parmenides” Trzyna explored works by Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio and Emmanuel Levinas and their fascination with the ideas of Parmenides. The CR connection is that Popper was also a deep student of Parmenides. Le Clezio is an academic and also a prolific of more than forty books that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 2008. He was described as “an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”.

Le Clezio’s body of work speaks to the concerns of colonialism and the marginalization of disadvantaged groups such as North Africans in Europe. He travelled extensively in North Africa and explored the varieties of Islamic faith. At some stage he moved from France and lives in New Mexico after some time with a tribe in Mexico. The novel Desert that Trzyna selected for close reading is a densely layered mediation on the nature of being and personal identity, set among desert tribes.

Levinas (1906- 1995) is an equally complex case because he is Lithuanian-born with Jewish ancestry, he grew up in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution and now he is a French national writing in French. He was an academic and did not write fiction. He is distinguished for work on Jewish philosophy, existentialism, ethics, phenomenology and ontology. His work is only explored briefly in this chapter to record his interest in the complexities of the self-aware mind in relation to issues of death and infinity.

Trzyna pursued hs Popperian analysis in “J. M. Coetzee and The Childhood of Jesus” where he touched on two novels, Elizabeth Costello (2003) and The Childhood of Jesus (2013). The first touches on themes of mathematics, radical vegetarianism and the satire of Thomas Swift’s Gullivers Travels. The dystopian theme persists in The Childhood of Jesus which appears to be an elaborate satire on Christianity or maybe Christianity misunderstood.

The issue of interpretation is pursued in relation to Shakespeare’s most problematic play Timon of Athens. This was probably written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton and there are questions about whether it should be in the Folio, how often it was performed and whether it was left unfinished with various aspects of the plot and the character of Timon left incomplete.

The longest reading is “The Eumenides: We Suffer into Truth”, a study of Jonathan Littell’s 2006 novel Les Bienevillantes that was translated as The Kindly Ones. The book runs to almost a thousand pages, won the most prestigious French literary awards and was translated into several languages. Trzyna suggests that the title is best translated by the name of the third play in the trilogy by Aeschylus The Eumenides however if you are not familiar with the story of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra , who killed his mother in order to avenge her murder of his father and was pursued by the Furies to punish him then the classical reference does not help.

https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-eumenides/summary

The book is a long novel written as the autobiography of a German who lived a seriously deranged existence before World War 2 and then participated in horrendous crimes in a death squad during the Holocaust. The exploration into the mental states of the protagonist continues after the war when he returns to a more or less normal life as a manager of a lace factory with a wife and grandchildren. The account of the brutalization that is summarized in Trzyna’s study does not encourage me to read the original! The deeper issues that concern the author are the human proclivity for evil and the capacity to survive it and resume normal existence.

“The Limits of the Theory: The Gospel of Mark and the Ineffable” is an excursion into biblical exegesis with some references to Willlam W Bartley and his account of the research on the historical Jesus in Retreat to Commitment. The last study is just three pages on “Patrick Modiano and the Bucket: a Note”. Modiano won the Nobel for literature in 2014. He has written some thirty short novels mostly concerned with imaginative constructions of aspects of his own life. Trzyna selected this work to illustrate the difficulty of interpreting work where there is no clear organizing principle, like the bucket of observations collected without a systematic purpose.

I have not read any of the books and so I am not in a position to comment on Trzyna’s comments. The complexity of the analysis defies paraphrase and I can only hope that some readers of this review may be tempted to sample some of the books cited.

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Commentary on the worldview of Pope Francis

Pope Francis and the Caring Society edited by Robert M Whaples, Independent Institute, Oakland Calif, 2017.

The question “is the pope a Catholic?” used to be rhetorical but tragically that is no longer the case in light of the concessions that Pope Francis may be prepared to make to the Chinese government. In early 2018 it seemed that he was  about to recognize the Communist Party as a spiritual authority with the power to appoint bishops in defiance of the wishes of the Church leadership in China. I am not sure where that has gone since but this is a chilling prospect for those who are aware of the brutal official suppression of Christians in parts of China in recent times.

This is not the first fire that Pope Francis has lit because he is probably best known for his damning comments on capitalism and markets. The contributors to this collection are inclined to be charitable and attribute these views to a genuine passion to help the poor and his experience of crony capitalism in Argentina. The free enterprise Independent Institute in the United States has responded with a collection of papers led by the late Michael Novak who wrote the Foreword not long before he died in February last year.

Many of the contributors are Christian believers and they have bent over backwards to embrace the dialogue (an awkward posture). They hope that he might be prepared to learn some economics like the Polish Pope John Paul. They work through the economic issues, especially the power of markets to liberate the poor provided that there is a framework of law and property rights and a vibrant civil society to support charitable giving.

One of the Pope’s most baffling blind spots is his opinion that absolute poverty is still growing around the world. This ignores the well documented advance of a billion or so people in India and China due to the move away from collectivism on the land and some other market-oriented reforms. The editor could have referred to Chile as the success story of South America due to the reforms put in place under Pinochet on advice from some free enterprise economists. These have been substantially retained under the relatively leftwing administrations which have ruled since Pinochet restored democracy.

One of the contributors charted the evolution of Papal economic commentary from John XIII in 1961 who wanted the greatness of a nation to be measured by its redistribution of prosperity, followed by Paul VI who called for a coordinated effort by wealthy nations to help the emerging nations. Twenty years later John Paul II demanded that “the market be appropriately controlled…to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied”. Benedict XVI likewise insisted that markets “must be intentionally put at the service of society” backed up by global government “with real teeth”. Pope Francis is both the first Pope from the developing world and from South America so not surprisingly he has recycled these corrosive and economically illiterate mantras with even more insistence and enthusiasm.

Samuel Gregg contributed an outstanding chapter “Understanding Pope Francis, Argentina, Economic Failure and the Teologia del Pueblo.” Like Michael Novak he has a deep appreciation of the affinity between Catholic social thought and the free enterprise school of Austrian economics, a topic which he pursued during a spell in Sydney at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney in the 1990s. The Austrians stress the vital role of the entrepreneur and the danger of easy money, Keynesian deficit budgeting and all kinds of over-regulation with red and green tape

Gregg provides an elegant and concise history of the melancholy decline of Argentina during the twentieth century from the high point when it was one of the richest nations in the world and Buenos Aires ranked with the great cities of Europe. The decline started in the 1930s and became precipitous after the war under the charismatic populist Juan Peron who roused the masses and in years of (mis)government entrenched a deep “class” divide in the nation: workers against the middle class, Argentines against foreigners, trade unions against employers.

By the 1980s the nation was in such dire straits that a Peronist Prime Minister Carlos Menem surprisingly embarked on serious liberal reforms. Much of this was on the right track but the vital element of labour market reform was not achieved due to the Congress and the powerful Peronist trade unions. Large numbers of state-owned firms were privatised and shed labour to become profitable but the labour market could not adjust so the unemployment figures and the budget situation rapidly deteriorated. In the subsequent “Great Depression” liberal economic policies were, as usual, blamed for problems not of their own making.

The future Pope came to maturity in that economic environment and in 1998 he wrote a small book Dialogos entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro containing such gems as “no one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism and consider themselves Christian” and “Neoliberalism brings about unemployment, coldly marginalizing those who are superfluous…[and] corrupts democratic values by alienating them from the values of equality and social justice”.

Several contributors pay attention to the Pope’s wayward and scientifically illiterate views on the environment and ecological issues with a summary of his position on these issues in the Conclusion by Robert Murphy. A chapter by Philip Booth on “Property Rights and Conservation: The Missing Theme” indicates that the Pope and his advisors know nothing of the very large literature on free market environmentalism. A chapter on “Capitalism and Private Charitable Giving” explains that Pope Francis looks to government intervention to save the poor and has no faith in private charity. “The Family Economics of Pope Francis” demonstrates yet again that he has a collectivist approach with little appreciation of individual rights including property rights.

Concluding with a comment on the China front. Given the profound ignorance and antipathy that the Pope has demonstrated towards the function of markets, property rights and individual rights it is not entirely surprising to see his willingness to form a partnership with the communists. Is he a Catholic? This must prey on the minds of those Christians who have suffered persecution and torture in China and those Catholics who see the militant atheism of communism as a mortal threat to the Church.

 

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The Duhem Problem: The Bayesian Turn

CHAPTER 3 of my thesis Aspects of the Duhem Problem.

The previous chapter concluded with an account of the attempt by Lakatos to retrieve the salient features of falsificationism while accounting for the fact that a research programme may proceed in the face of numerous difficulties, just provided that there is occasional success. His methodology exploits the ambiguity of refutation (the Duhem-Quine problem) to permit a programme to proceed despite seemingly adverse evidence. According to a strict or naive interpretation of falsificationism, adverse evidence should cause the offending theory to be ditched forthwith but of course the point of the Duhem-Quine problem is that we do not know which among the major theory and auxiliary assumptions is at fault. The Lakatos scheme also exploits what is claimed to be an asymmetry in the impact of confirmations and refutations.

The Bayesians offer an explanation and a justification for Lakatos; at the same time they offer a possible solution to the Duhem-Quine problem. The Bayesian enterprise did not set out specifically to solve these problems because Bayesianism offers a comprehensive theory of scientific reasoning. However these are the kind of problems that such a comprehensive theory would be required to solve.

Howson and Ubrach, well-regarded and influential exponents of the Bayesian approach, provide an excellent all-round exposition and spirited polemics in defence of the Bayesian system in Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach (1989). In a nutshell, Bayesianism takes its point of departure from the fact that scientists tend to have degrees of belief in their theories and these degrees of belief obey the probability calculus. Or if their degrees of belief do not obey the calculus, then they should, in order to achieve rationality. According to Howson and Urbach probabilities should be ‘understood as subjective assessments of credibility, regulated by the requirements that they be overall consistent (ibid 39).

They begin with some comments on the history of probability theory, starting with the Classical Theory, pioneered by Laplace. The classical theory aimed to provide a foundation for gamblers in their calculations of odds in betting, and also for philosophers and scientists to establish grounds of belief in the validity of inductive inference. The seminal book by Laplace was Philosophical Essays on Probabilities (1820) and the leading modern exponents of the Classical Theory have been Keynes and Carnap.

Objectivity is an important feature of the probabilities in the classical theory. They arise from a mathematical relationship between propositions and evidence, hence they are not supposed to depend on any subjective element of appraisal or perception. Carnap’s quest for a principle of induction to establish the objective probability of scientific laws foundered on the fact that these laws had to be universal statements, applicable to an infinite domain. Thus no finite body of evidence could ever raise the probability of a law above zero (e divided by infinity is zero).

The Bayesian scheme does not depend on the estimation of objective probabilities in the first instance. The Bayesians start with the probabilities that are assigned to theories by scientists. There is a serious bone of contention among the Bayesians regarding the way that probabilities are assigned, whether they are a matter of subjective belief as argued by Howson and Urbach ( ‘belief’ Bayesians’) or a matter of behaviour, specifically betting behaviour (‘betting’ Bayesians).

The purpose of the Bayesian system is to explain the characteristic features of scientific inference in terms of the probabilites of the various rival hypotheses under consideration, relative to the available evidence, in particular the most recent evidence.

BAYES’S THEOREM

Bayes’s Theorem can be written as follows:

P(h!e) = P(e!h)P(h) where P(h), and P(e) > 0
P(e)

In this situation we are interested in the credibility of the hypothesis h relative to empirical evidence e. That is, the posterior probability, in the light of the evidence. Written in the above form the theorem states that the probability of the hypothesis conditional on the evidence (the posterior probability of the hypothesis) is equal to the probability of the evidence conditional on the hypothesis multiplied by the probability of the hypothesis in the absence of the evidence (the prior probability), all divided by the probability of the evidence.

Thus:

e confirms or supports h when P(h!e) > P(h)
e disconfirms or undermines h when P(h!e) < P(h)
e is neutral with respect to h when P(h!e) = P(h)

The prior probability of h, designated as P(h) is that before e is considered. This will often be before e is available, but the system is still supposed to work when the evidence is in hand. In this case it has to be left out of account in evaluating the prior probability of the hypothesis. The posterior probability P(h!e) is that after e is admitted into consideration.

As Bayes’s Theorem shows, we can relate the posterior probability of a hypothesis to the terms P(h), P(e!h) and P(e). If we know the value of these three terms we can determine whether e confirms h, and more to the point, calculate P(h!e).

The capacity of the Bayesian scheme to provide a solution to the Duhem-Quine problem will be appraised in the light of two examples.

CASE 1. DORLING ON THE ACCELERATION OF THE MOON

Dorling (1979) provides an important case study, bearing directly on the Duhem-Quine problem in a paper titled ‘Bayesian Personalism, the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, and Duhem’s Problem’. He is concerned with two issues which arise from the work of Lakatos and one of these is intimately related to the Duhem-Quine problem.

1(a) Can a theory survive despite empirical refutation? How can the arrow of modus tollens be diverted from the theory to some auxiliary hypothesis? This is essentially the Duhem-Quine problem and it raises the closely related question;

1(b) Can we decide on some rational and empirical grounds whether the arrow of modus tollens should point at a (possibly) refuted theory or at (possibly) refuted auxiliaries?

2. How are we to account for the different weights that are assigned to confirmations and refutations?

In the history of physics and astronomy, successful precise quantitative predictions seem often to have been regarded as great triumphs when apparently similar unsuccessful predictions were regarded not as major disasters but as minor discrepancies. (Dorling, 1979, 177).

The case history concerns a clash between the observed acceleration of the moon and the calculated acceleration based on a hard core of Newtonian theory (T) and an essential auxiliary hypothesis (H) that the effects of tidal friction are too small to influence lunar acceleration. The aim is to evaluate T and H in the light of new and unexpected evidence (E’) which was not consistent with them.

For the situation prior to the evidence E’ Dorling ascribed a probability of 0.9 to Newtonian theory (T) and 0.6 to the auxiliary hypothesis (H). He pointed out that the precise numbers do not matter all that much; we simply had one theory that was highly regarded, with subjective probability approaching 1 and another which was plausible but not nearly so strongly held.

The next step is to calculate the impact of the new evidence E’ on the subjective probabilities of T and H. This is done by calculating (by the Bayesian calculus) their posterior probabilities (after E’) for comparison with the prior probabilities (0.9 and 0.6). One might expect that the unfavourable evidence would lower both by a similar amount, or at least a similar proportion.

Dorling explained that some other probabilities have to be assigned or calculated to feed into the Bayesian formula. Eventually we find that the probability of T has hardly shifted (down by 0.0024 to 0.8976) while in striking contrast the probability of H has collapsed by 0.597 to 0.003. According to Dorling this accords with scientific perceptions at the time and it supports the claim by Lakatos that a vigorous programme can survive refutations provided that it provides opportunities for further work and has some success. Newtonian theory would have easily survived this particular refutation because on the arithmetic its subjective probability scarcely changed.

This case is doubly valuable for the evaluation of Lakatos because by a historical accident it provided an example of a confirmation as well as a refutation. For a time it was believed that the evidence E’ supported Newton but subsequent work revealed that there had been an error in the calculations. The point is that before the error emerged, the apparent confirmation of T and H had been treated as a great triumph for the Newtonian programme. And of course we can run the Bayesian calculus, as though E’ had confirmed T and H, to find what the impact of the apparent confirmation would have been on their posterior probabilities. Their probabilities in this case increased to 0.996 and 0.964 respectively and Dorling uses this result to provide support for the claim that there is a powerfully asymmetrical effect on T between the refutation and the confirmation. He regards the decrease in P from 0.9 to 0.8976 as negligible while the increase to 0.996 represents a fall in the probability of error from 1/10 to 4/1000.

Thus the evidence has more impact in support than it has in opposition, a result from Bayes that agrees with Lakatos.

This latest result strongly suggests that a theory ought to be able to withstand a long succession of refutations of this sort, punctuated only by an occasional confirmation, and its subjective probability still steadily increase on average (Dorling, 1979, 186).

As to the relevance to Duhem-Quine problem; the task is to pick between H and T. In this instance the substantial reduction in P(H) would indicate that the H, the auxiliary hypothesis, is the weak link rather than the hard core of Newtonian theory.

CASE 2. HOWSON AND URBACH ON PROUT’S LAW

The point of this example (used by Lakatos himself) is to show how a theory which appears to be refuted by evidence can survive as an active force for further development, being regarded more highly than the confounding evidence. When this happens, the Duhem-Quine problem is apparently again resolved in favour of the theory.

In 1815 William Prout suggested that hydrogen was a building block of other elements whose atomic weights were all multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen. The fit was not exact, for example boron had a value of 0.829 when according to the theory it should have been 0.875 (a multiple of the figure 0.125). The measured figure for chlorine was 35.83 instead of 36. To overcome these discrepancies Prout and Thompson suggested that the values should be adjusted to fit the theory, with the deviations explained in terms of experimental error. In this case the ‘arrow’ of modus tollens was directed from the theory to the experimental techniques.

In setting the scene for use of Bayesian theory, Howson and Urbach designated Prout’s hypothesis as ‘t’. They refer to ‘a’ as the hypothesis that the accuracy of measurements was adequate to produce an exact figure. The troublesome evidence is labelled ‘e’.

It seems that chemists of the early nineteenth century, such as Prout and Thompson, were fairly certain about the truth of t, but less so of a, though more sure that a is true than that it is false. (ibid, page 98)

In other words they were reasonably happy with their methods and the purity of their chemicals while accepting that they were not perfect.

Feeding in various estimates of the relevant prior probabilities, the effect was to shift from the prior probabilities to the posterior probabilities listed as follows:

P(t) = 0.9 shifted to P(t!e) = 0.878 (down 0.022)
P(a) = 0.6 shifted to P(a!e) = 0.073 (down 0.527)

Howson and Urbach argued that these results explain why it was rational for Prout and Thomson to persist with Prout’s hypothesis and to adjust atomic weight measurements to come into line with it. In other words, the arrow of modus tollens is validly directed to a and not t.

Howson and Urbach noted that the results are robust and are not seriously affected by altered initial probabilities: for example if P(t) is changed from 0.9 to 0.7 the posterior probabilities of t and a are 0.65 and 0.21 respectively, still ranking t well above a (though only by a factor of 3 rather than a factor of 10).

In the light of the calculation they noted ‘Prouts hypothesis is still more likely to be true than false, and the auxiliary assumptions are still much more likely to be false than true’ (ibid 101). Their use of language was a little unfortunate because we now know that Prout was wrong and so Howson and Urbach would have done better to speak of ‘credibility’ or ‘likelihood’ instead of truth. Indeed, as will be explained, there were dissenting voices at the time.

REVIEW OF THE BAYESIAN APPROACH

Bayesian theory has many admirers, none more so than Howson and Urbach. In their view, the Bayesian approach should become dominant in the philosophy of science, and it should be taken on board by scientists as well. Confronted with evidence from research by Kahneman and Tversky that ‘in his evaluation of evidence, man is apparently not a conservative Bayesian: he is not a Bayesian at all’ (Kahneman and Tversky, 1972, cited in Howson and Urbach, 1989, 293) they reply that:

…it is not prejudicial to the conjecture that what we ourselves take to be correct inductive reasoning is Bayesian in character that there should be observable and sometimes systematic deviations from Bayesian precepts…we should be surprised if on every occasion subjects were apparently to employ impeccable Bayesian reasoning, even in the circumstances that they themselves were to regard Bayesian procedures as canonical. It is, after all, human to err. (Howson and Urbach, 1989, 293-285)

They draw some consolation from the lamentable performance of undergraduates (and a distressing fraction of logicians) in a simple deductive task (page 294). The task is to nominate which of four cards should be turned over to test the statement ‘if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side’. The visible faces of the four cards are ‘E’, ‘K’, ‘4’ and ‘7’. The most common answers are the pair ‘E’ and ‘4’ or ‘4’ alone. The correct answer is e and 7.

The Bayesian approach has some features that give offence to many people. Some object to the subjective elements, some to the arithmetic and some to the concept of probability which was so tarnished by the debacle of Carnap’s programme.

Taking the last point first, Howson and Urbach argue cogently that the Bayesian approach should not be subjected to prejudice due to the failure of the classical theory of objective probabilities. The distinctively subjective starting point for the Bayesian calculus of course raises the objection of excessive subjectivism, with the possibility of irrational or arbitrary judgements. To this, Howson and Urbach reply that the structure of argument and calculation that follows after the assignment of prior probabilities resembles the objectivity of deductive inference (including mathematical calculation) from a set of premises. The source of the premises does not detract from the objectivity of the subsequent manipulations that may be performed upon them. Thus Bayesian subjectivism is not inherently more subjective than deductive reasoning.

EXCESSIVE REFLECTION OF THE INPUT

The input consists of prior probabilities (whether beliefs or betting propensities) and this raises another objection, along the lines that the Bayesians emerge with a conclusion (the posterior probability) which overwhelmingly reflects what was fed in, namely the prior probability. Against this is the argument that the prior probability (whatever it is) will shift rapidly towards a figure that reflects the impact of the evidence. Thus any arbitrariness or eccentricity of original beliefs will be rapidly corrected in a ‘rational’ manner. The same mechanisms is supposed to result in rapid convergence between the belief values of different scientists.

To stand up, this latter argument must demonstrate that convergence cannot be equally rapidly achieved by non-Bayesian methods, such as offering a piece of evidence and discussing its implications for the various competing hypotheses or the alternative lines of work without recourse to Bayesian calculations.

As was noted previously, there is a considerable difference of opinion in Bayesian circles about the measure of subjective belief. Some want to use a behavioural measure (actual betting, or propensity to bet), others including Howson and Urbach opt for belief rather than behaviour. The ‘betting Bayseians’ need to answer the question – what, in scientific practice, is equivalent to betting? Is the notion of betting itself really relevant to the scientist’s situation? Betting forces a decision (or the bet does not get placed) but scientists can in principle refrain from a firm decision for ever (for good reasons or bad). This brings us back to the problems created by the demand to take a stand or make a decision one way or the other. Even if some kind of behavioural equivalent of betting is invoked, such as working on a particular programme or writing papers related to the programme, there is still the kind of problem, noted below, where a scientist works on a theory which he or she believes to be false.

Similarly formidable problems confront the ‘belief Bayesians’. Obviously any retrospective attribution of belief (as in the cases above) calls for heroic assumptions about the consciousness of people long dead. These assumptions expose the limitation with the ‘forced choice’ approach which attempts to collapse all the criteria for the decision into a single value. Such an approach (for both betting and belief Bayesians) seems to preclude a complex appraisal of the theoretical problem situation which might be based on multiple criteria. Such an appraisal might run along the lines that theory A is better than theory B in solving some problems and C is better than B on some other criteria, and so certain types of work are required to test or develop each of the rival theories. This is the kind of situation envisaged by Lakatos when he developed his methodology of scientific research programmes.

The forced choice cannot comfortably handle the situation of Maxwell who continued to work on his theories even though he knew they had been found wanting in tests. Maxwell hoped that his theory would come good in the end, despite a persisting run of unfavourable results. Yet another situation is even harder to comprehend in Bayesian terms. Consider a scientist at work on an important and well established theory which that scientist believes (and indeed hopes) to be false. The scientist is working on the theory with the specific aim of refuting it, thus achieving the fame assigned to those who in some small way change the course of scientific history. The scientist is really betting on the falsehood of that theory. These comments reinforce the value of detaching the idea of working on a theory from the need to have belief in it, as noted in the chapter on the Popperians.

REVIEW OF THE CASES

What do the cases do for our appraisal of Bayesian subjectivism? The Dorling example is very impressive on both aspects of the Lakatos scheme – swallowing an anomaly and thriving on a confirmation. The case for Bayesianism (and Lakatos) is reinforced by the fact that Dorling set out to criticise Lakatos, not to praise him. And he remained critical of any attempt to sidestep refutations because he did not accept that his findings provided any justification for ignoring refutations, along the lines of ‘anything goes’.

Finally, let me emphasise that this paper is intended to attack, not to defend, the position of Lakatos, Feyerabend and some of Kuhn’s disciples with respect to its cavalier attitude to ‘refutations’. I find this attitude rationally justified only under certain stringent conditions: p(T) must be substantially greater than 1/2, the anomalous result must not be readily explainable by any plausible rival theory to T…(Dorling, 1979, 187).

In this passage Dorling possibly gives the game away. There must not be a significant rival theory that could account for the aberrant evidence E’. In the absence of a potential rival to the main theory the battle between a previously successful and wide-ranging theory in one corner (in this case Newton) and a more or less isolated hypothesis and some awkward evidence in another corner is very uneven.

For this reason, it can be argued that the Bayesian scheme lets us down when we most need help – that is, in a choice between major rival systems, a time of ‘crisis’ with clashing paradigms, or a major challenge as when general relativity emerged as a serious alternative to Newtonian mechanics. Presumably the major theories (say Newton and Einstein) would have their prior probabilities lowered by the existence of the other, and the supposed aim of the Bayesian calculus in this situation should be to swing support one way or the other on the basis of the most recent evidence. The problem would be to determine which particular piece of evidence should be applied to make the calculations. Each theory is bound to have a great deal of evidence in support and if there is recourse to a new piece of evidence which appears to favour one rather than the other (the situation with the so-called ‘crucial experiment’) then the Duhem-Quine problem arises to challenge the interpretation of the evidence, whichever way it appears to go.

A rather different approach can be used in this situation. It derives from a method of analysis of decision making which was referred to by Popper as ‘the logic of the situation’ but was replaced by talk of ‘situational analysis’ to take the emphasis off logic. So far as the Duhem-Quine problem is concerned we can hardly appeal to the logic of the situation for a resolution because it is precisely the logic of the situation that is the problem. But we can appeal to an appraisal of the situation where choices have to be made from a limited range of options.

Scientists need to work in a framework of theory. Prior to the rise of Einstein, what theory could scientists use for some hundreds of years apart from that of Newton and his followers? In the absence of a rival of comparable scope or at least significant potential there was little alternative to further elaboration of the Newtonian scheme, even if anomalies persisted or accumulated. Awkward pieces of evidence create a challenge to a ruling theory but they do not by themselves provide an alternative. The same applies to the auxiliary hypothesis on tidal friction (mentioned the first case study above), unless this happens to derive from some non-Newtonian theoretical assumptions that can be extended to rival the Newtonian scheme.

The approach by situational analysis is not hostage to any theory of probability (objective or subjective), or likelihood, or certainty or inductive proof. Nor does it need to speculate about the truth of the ruling theory, in the way that Howson and Urbach speculate about the likelihood that a theory might be true.

This brings us to the Prout example which is not nearly as impressive as the Dorling case. Howson and Urbach concluded that the Duhem-Quine problem in that instance was resolved in favour of the theory against the evidence on the basis of a high subjective probability assigned to Prout’s law by contemporary chemists. In the early stages of its career Prout’s law may have achieved wide acceptance by the scientific community, at least in England, and for this reason Howson and Urbach assigned a very high subjective probability to Prout’s hypothesis (0.9). However Continental chemists were always skeptical and by mid-century Staas (and quite likely his Continental colleagues) had concluded that the law was an illusion (Howson and Urbach, 1989, 98). This potentially damning testimony was not invoked by Howson and Urbach to reduce p(H), but it could have been (and probably should have been). Staas may well have given Prout the benefit of the doubt for some time over the experimental methodology, but as methods improved then the fit with Prout should have improved as well. Obviously the fit did not improve and under these circumstances Prout should have become less plausible, as indeed was the case outside England. If the view of Staas was widespread, then a much lower prior probability should have been used for Prout’s theory.

Another point can be made about the high prior probability assigned to the hypothesis. The calculations show that the subjective probability of the evidence sank from 0.6 to 0.073 and this turned the case in favour of the theory. But there is a flaw of logic there: presumably the whole-number atomic numbers were calculated using the same experimental equipment and the same or similar techniques that were used to estimate the atomic number of Chlorine. And the high p for Prout was based on confidence in the experimental results that were used to pose the whole-number hypothesis in the first case. The evidence that was good enough to back the Prout conjecture should have been good enough to refute it, or at least dramatically lower its probability.

In the event, Prout turned out to be wrong, even if he was on the right track in seeking fundamental building blocks. The anomalies were due to isotopes which could not be separated or detected by chemical methods. So Prout’s hypothesis may have provided a framework for ongoing work until the fundamental flaw was revealed by a major theoretical advance. As was the case with Newtonian mechanics in the light of the evidence on the acceleration of the moon, a simple-minded, pragmatic approach might have provided the same outcome without need of Bayesian calculations.

Consequently it is not true to claim, with Howson and Urbach that “…the Bayesian model is essentially correct. By contrast, non-probabilistic theories seem to lack entirely the resources that could deal with Duhem’s problem” (Howson and Urbach, 1989, 101).

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

It appears that the Bayesian scheme has revealed a great deal of power in the Dorling example but is quite unimpressive in the Prout example. The requirement that there should not be a major rival theory on the scene is a great disadvantage because at other times there is little option but to keep working on the theory under challenge, even if some anomalies persist. Where the serious option exists it appears that the Bayesians do not help us to make a choice.

Furthermore, internal disagreements call for solutions before the Bayesians can hope to command wider assent; perhaps the most important of these is the difference between the ‘betting’ and the ‘belief’ schools of thought in the allocation of subjective probabilities. There is also the worrying aspect of betting behaviour which is adduced as a possible way of allocating priors but, as we have seen, there is no real equivalent of betting in scientific practice. One of the shortcomings of the Bayesian approach appears to be an excessive reliance on a particular piece of evidence (the latest) whereas the Popperians and especially Lakatos make allowance for time to turn up a great deal of evidence so that preferences may slowly emerge.

This brings us to the point of considering just how evidence does emerge, a topic which has not yet been mentioned but is an essential part of the situation. The next chapter will examine a mode of thought dubbed the ‘New Experimentalism’ to take account of the dynamics of experimental programs.

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Stephen Toulmin on Popper

Given the high marks assigned to Toulmin for his commentary on Kuhn and the affinity of his program with that of Popper (evolutionary epistemology vs formalism) , what does he say about Popper? The short answer is that he dismissed Popper as one of the formalists.

Does this mean that there is a problem with Popperian exegesis rather than with the contents of Popper’s ideas. How did Toulmin read Popper and only see a positivist who used falsification rather than verification as his lodestone?

Popper’s Objective Knowledge should have indicated the overlap of their evolutionary programs but that book came out in the same year as Toulmin’s Human Understanding so he would not have read it in time but there were plenty of signs that Popper was heading that way before the collection appeared in one volume.

At a conference on the state of British philosophy at the mid-century Popper wrote that he was more concerned with serious problem-solving rather than paying attention to what the other philosophers were up to but maybe he could have been more alert to the damage that could be done when massive numbers of students flooded into the universities in the postwar expansion and started to take on all the fads and fashions of the time. Jarvie suggested in his Rethinking Popper paper (conference 2007, proceedings published 2009) that Popper maybe should have been more active in networking and empire-building.

Turning to Toulmin on Popper. In the Conclusion there are several critical references to Popper. Before commenting on these, recall where Toulmin is coming from: his project is to establish or re-establish a relationship between philosophy and science (both theory and practice) which he considered did not exist at the time due to the obsession of the philosophers with logical proof or some similar form of justification of beliefs. He advocated an evolutionary or ecological approach to the community of scientists and their ideas as they exist at the time. [He wrote “Sir Karl Popper’s capsule description of scientific method as a dialectical succession of ‘conjectures’ and ‘refutations’ can at once be reinterpreted in evolutionary terms: it lays down the ecological conditions on which alone variation and selection can lead to effective scientific change.” P. 140, my italics.]

Toulmin’s wanted to formulate a revised concept of rationality which is not a property of ideas or people but instead it is a matter of the attitude which people adopt towards contending ideas and the way they form critical preferences and if necessary revise them in response to changing circumstances. (He did not use the term ‘critical preferences’)

All of that suggests that Toulmin was not just working in the same vineyard with Popper but also producing a very similar kind of wine! However he was more concerned with his differences with Popper than the similarity which he identified at page 140 (above). This of course is appropriate if the differences are real.

He started the Conclusion by taking aim at the idea that the acceptability (rationality) of scientific theories depends on their “comparative logicality”. He suggested that some people (naming Popper, Lakatos and Kuhn) were trying to “extend the notion of rationality beyond the scope of formal logic and to find some way of reapplying it in situations involving conceptual change” (479). He thought that this was misleading if it was interpreted as a move in the right direction because fundamentally he himself was moving in the opposite direction. “Popper and his associated have all taken the formal logician’s approach as a starting point [and] conceptual change has continued to be more or less of an anomaly for them [and they are] extending an analysis of ‘rationality’ which is still primarily formal.” (479)

His own concept of rationality is not based on formal entailments, inductive logic or the probability calculus because his ecological approach allows him to approach the central problems of decision-making in a community with “no appeal (such as Popper makes) to an arbitrary, a priori demarcation criterion as the definition of science.” (480).

He saw Popper as being concerned with problems of formal proof or refutation and he regarded ‘falsifiability’ as Popper’s alternative to ‘verifiability’ as “the universal, timeless lest of a genuinely scientific hypothesis”. Even when Popper softened his position to allow corroboration as well as refutation, still his concern was “the acceptability of propositions rather than the applicability of concepts; while his approved procedures of rational investigation – i.e. scientific testing, refutation, and/or corroboration – have continued to be variants on those of earlier propositional logicians.” (480-81)

Toulmin insisted that Popper never shifted from his dedication to “a set of general a priori conditions, which have been imposed on all scientific reasoning from outside, by his own – ultimately arbitrary – definition of what is to count as a ‘scientific’ hypothesis, theory or concept” (481) He suggested that Lakatos might advance beyond Popper by paying more attention to the historical record but still there was the problem of interpreting the historical record.

Turning to explore the “empirical basis” for Toulmin’s criticism of Popper, the search should cease a year or two before 1972 when Human Understanding was in press and it was to late to incorporate new material from Popper’s published work such as the collection Objective Knowledge.

What can we make of the claim that Popper used falsifiability as an arbitrary, a priori definition of science and the functional equivalent of verifiability in the program of the logical positivists and logical empiricists? To the contrary, it would seem that Popper’s approach to falsification was very much like Toulmin’s requirement that ideas should be worked out in the context of the scientific situation at the time in a particular scientific community.

Popper described his adoption of the criterion as a response to the situation in Vienna when Marxists, Freudians and followers of Adler all claimed that their systems were scientific and all-embracing in their explanatory power. In contrast, Einstein was prepared to formulate his theory in a way that permitted observational or experimental tests, with the risk of refutation. Popper saw a fundamental difference between the two kinds of theories, each of which was supposed to be scientific and he decided that the capacity for falsification was a very desirable characteristic for a system which claimed to be a science.

That means that Popper’s falsifiability criterion was not really a definition of science (he was not into definitions!) but a proposal to adopt a critical attitude towards theories and especially to check whether they were open to empirical testing. It was a proposal or a convention and its merit was to be judged by its helpfulness in coming to grips with problems in the theory of knowledge (and the practice of scientist). As for being timeless and a priori, Popper noted that there are degrees of testability (so the line of demarcation is not sharp) and the testability of particular theories will change with progress in theory and experimental technology.

Turning to the philosophy of science the aim was verification or inductive probability and the inductive method was regarded as the hallmark or criterion of science. Popper saw that there were intractable logical problems with verification and also induction. He might have been satisfied with his useful job as a schoolteacher (he wrote an amusing paper in All Life is Problem Solving to explain how he became a philosopher by accident) but as a good government worker (“I am from the government and I am here to help”) he probably wanted to help the positivists so he made up a lot of arguments that might have changed their minds and the direction of their work. In the event he did not succeed, beyond persuading Carnap to adopt testability as the criterion of meaning which probably did more harm than good by promoting the appearance that Popper was really one of them.

The same perception was no doubt reinforced by Popper’s persistent engagement with the positivists and their successors on the logic of demarcation and induction. Jarvie suggested that his ongoing debate on those topics distracted people from picking up the social or institutional turn which was present in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, albeit in a muted form. Popper’s close engagement with the logic of demarcation and induction may be misled Toulmin who missed the point that it is ok to focus on logic when logical issues are at stake, which was all the time for the logical empiricists. But Popper was playing a much bigger game and for all his demands that scientific systems should be testable it was quite clear that much more was required for a good theory. Testability was a minimum requirement, like a steering wheel for a car, but no salesman would list the steering wheel among the selling points! The theory had to have explanatory power, it had to be consistent with other well tested theories, and so on.

Rounding off this note before it gets too long, I really want to find out what Toulmin through about Popper’s objective knowledge and the evolutionary approach when Popper’s collection appeared. More research required!

 

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More on Stephen Toulmin and Kuhn

Finishing the story of Toulmin’s critique of Kuhn. He traced the evolution of Kuhn’s ideas through five stages (1) his account in The Copernican Revolution (1957), (2) a public talk about revolutions at Worcester College in Oxford in 1961, (3) the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions published in 1962, (4) a series of papers written in response to criticism and (5) the revised edition of The Structure in 1970 and “Reflections on my critics” in Lakatos and Musgrave (eds) also 1970.

He concluded that the strong formulation involving paradigms and revolutions was designed for effect, to “shock the sensibilities” of the bourgeoisie like avant garde art. In response to criticism Kuhn had to water down the amount of change required for an episode to count as a revolution until the “mini revolutions” became so small and localized that he was left with the fairly familiar old idea that there is constant change in different parts of a vigorous field. Sometimes there is a much larger change (Copernicus-Kepler-Galileo-Newton and later Einstein) which has more far-reaching effects but the transition is not rapid or irrational and large areas of the discipline (not to mention science at large) are hardly perturbed by the process.

The debate lasted through most of the ‘60s and by 1965 Kuhn had shifted his focus from the rare occasions where there was major conceptual reform to less drastic episodes because even his prime cases were “somewhat less than ‘revolutionary’” in the technical sense hinted (but hardly defined) in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This meant that he watered down the extent of revolutions to allow for more and more “micro-revolutions!

So Kuhn “quietly abandoned the central distinction around which his theory had been built in the first place – that between conceptual changes taking place within the limits of an overall paradigm and those involving the replacement of an entire paradigm.” (114) Finally in the second edition of the book “Kuhn now complained” that his readers had taken too seriously the idea of paradigms as changes of world-view and all the ancillary apparatus of incommensurability and the like.

Toulmin suggested that authors may well revise their ideas in the light of misunderstandings by readers but in this case the earlier “misunderstood” ideas were a great deal more interesting than the revised version!

“and if this reinterpretation had been the whole truth, his original choice of the term ‘revolution’ was note merely a rhetorical exaggeration but something worse…that choice of phrase was grossly misleading; for it simply disguised a familiar logical distinction in an irrelevant historical fancy dress.” (115)

 

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A note on Stephen Toulmin as a critic of Kuhn and the logical positivists

Stephen Toulmin 1922-2009 was a British-born philosopher, heavily influenced by Wittgenstein but also a full bottle on the history and philosophy of science. In 1972 he published Human Understanding:  General Introduction and Part I: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. He planned to follow with two more parts at two-year intervals – Part II “The Individual Grasp and Development of Concepts” and Part III “The Rational Adequacy and Appraisal of Concepts”. I don’t think he produced the second and third parts as planned although he did write more books, I will have to do some research on that.

A computer science student in Adelaide 1967 showed me Toulmin’s early book Foresight and Understanding and this was probably the first serious philosophy book that I read before discovering Popper the following year. It stayed with me when the student became disenchanted with his studies and left. I spent some time reading it and thinking about his arguments although with little benefit that I recall.

Over the years I have seen some of his work, he never appeared to be keen on Popper although they are both credited among the people who revived evolutionary epistemology. He was critical of Kuhn in the debate with Popper at the 1965 Bedford College Conference – see his contribution to the Lakatos and Musgrave (eds) volume.

In this book Human Understanding he comes out swinging against Kuhn! His most powerful criticism is that Kuhn misread his own historical studies of the Copernican and the Einsteinian revolutions when he used them as the basis of his story about normal science, paradigms   and scientific revolutions. He came very close to claiming outright fraud by Kuhn in his misrepresentation of the historical record.

Kuhn’s original story ran along the lines that scientists diligently and uncritically cleave to the ruling paradigm until so many anomalies accumulate that they cannot be ignored and then there is a rapid and irrational or non-rational revolution when the field or at least the younger and more agile scientists switch to work on the new paradigm. The protagonists of the old and the new are divided by their assumptions, their perceptions and their terminology so they cannot effectively communicate to manage a rational transition to the new way of thinking. Someone wrote “funeral by funeral, the old paradigm fades away” or words to that effect.

Over some years Kuhn modified that position until it became almost unrecognizable although the Kuhnian zealots did not really pay much attention to the more reasonable and no longer exiting or revolution version of the master.

I think Toulmin’s criticism is devastating although he allowed that Kuhn’s work did have the merit of demonstrating the failure of the logical positivists and logical empiricists.

Before turning to the critique of Kuhn I will note Toulmin’s larger game plan to put philosophy back in touch with the real world of science. That means getting away from the obsession with the formalism of the logical positivists and the logical empiricists which hogtied the mainstream of the philosophy of science since the 1930s when the positivists created the philosophy of science as a professionalised academic specialty.

“This thesis can be summed up in a single, deeply held conviction: that, in science and philosophy alike, an exclusive preoccupation with logical systematicity (sic) has been destructive of both historical understanding and rational criticism. Men demonstrate their rationality, not by ordering their concepts and beliefs in tidy formal structures, but by their preparedness to respond to novel situations with open minds – acknowledging the shortcomings of their previous procedures and moving beyond them” (Preface vii).

He noted the persistence of the seventeenth century presuppositions regarding the Euclidean model of certainty, so “A properly formulated system of scientific concepts could claim intellectual authority on condition that it measured up to the standards of rigour and certainty set by geometry…Claims to true knowledge must be backed either by incorrigible, self-authenticating data [Empiricism] or by arguments as complete and rigorous as those of pure mathematics [Rationalism] and preferably by both” (18).

This meant that there could be no such thing as conjectural knowledge.

Faced with the intractable problems with actual empirical knowledge – uncertainty of sense perception, interpretation of data, the problem of induction, epistemologists attempted to discover what kind of conditions could enable other sciences to achieve something like the authority of the “formal, demonstrative sciences”.

Eventually that became for many the “very defining task of philosophy”, to “find additional principles or premises which would bring arguments from substantial fields of inquiry up to the mathematical ideal. The alternative course, of challenging the formal ideal itself, seemed to them a betrayal of philosophy: abandoning all philosophical claims to ‘rational certainty’ and opening the gates to sceptics” (19)

That is part of the background where Toulmin sets the stage to present his alternative to the “rational certainty” or “justified true belief” approach to rationality, scientific practice and the study of the growth of knowledge.

Criticism of Kuhn on paradigms and revolutions

His criticism of Kuhn is important because Kuhn was the major influence in promoting a very different path from the ruling tradition of empiricism/positivism but for Toulmin that is no better than the old school. He has parted company with the logicism and formalism of the positivists/empiricists and also Popper who he aggregated with them.

Toulmin disputed the key features of Kuhn’s arguments in The Structure (1962) and he disputed them on the basis of Kuhn’s own cases, first Copernicus and the other the dethroning of Newton by Einstein. First the Copernican revolution.

“As his historical analysis makes clear the so-called ‘Copernican Revolution’ took a century and a half to complete and it was agued every step of the way…however radical the resulting changes in physical and astronomical ideas and theories it was the outcome of a continuing rational discussion and it implied no comparable break in the intellectual methods of physics and astronomy.” (105) He went on to say that the scientists who were trained in the pre-Copernican system did not to be forced or cajoled into changing their minds, there was no need for a quasi-religious conversion because the evidence and the arguments were there to convince them over a period of time.

The same process occurred in the ascent of Einstein’s revolution. Far from failure of communication between rival schools there was a period of disputation over several decades and some scientists accepted the new physics more willingly than others but eventually the evidence and arguments carried the day. Toulmin noted that many theoretical physicists worked through the years from 1890 to 1930 and they lived through the changeover. Their testimony should indicate whether there was any breakdown in communication of the kind which was supposed to occur in a Kuhnian revolution. However, contrary to the “paradigm change” account: “After the event many of them explained very articulatedly the considerations which prompted their decision to switch from a classical to a relativistic position; and they reported these considerations as being the reasons which justified their change, not merely the motives which caused it. They did not use the language of conversion “ ‘I can no longer see Nature as I did before…’ Nor did they treat it as the outcome of non-rational or causal influences: ‘Einstein was so very persuasive…’ or ‘I found myself changing without knowing why…’ or ‘it was as much as my job was worth…’. Rather they presented the arguments that sanctioned their change of theoretical standpoint” (104).

Although this book appeared in 1972 it seems to have had no impact on Kuhn’s profile or indeed any profile of its own in the HPS literature. It is a little strange that I did not encounter these arguments or references to this book by Toulmin during the time I studied the history and philosophy of science for a Master of Science, not to mention all the other HPS literature that I consumed since the 1970s. The reference to Human Understanding came in a piece by Terrence Hutchinson in The Journal of Economic Methodology. He has been credited or blamed for introducing Popper to the economists with a book in 1938 (although he took a more positivist line and the Popper bits were a few sentences in German in the notes at the back of the book). Anyway it was a happy accident that I followed up his more recent work in several books and articles in the literature on the philosophy and methodology of economics.

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The Cost of Positivism in the 20th Century

Toby Huff in Max Weber and the Methodology of the Social Scienes (Transaction Books, 1984) suggested that the philosophy of science that Weber was reading read at the turn of the century was in better shape than the positivism that took off later under the inspiration of Mach, Wittgenstein and Russell. This means that the philosophy of science went backwards under the influence of positivism.
 
Question 1. Would the world be any worse off if the complete corpus of writing on Logical Positivism and Logical Empiricism disappeared in a puff of smoke? In other words, what novel, robust and helpful ideas emerged from that prolonged effort?
 
Question 2. What was the dollar cost of that enterprise (salaries, on costs, travel, publications, etc etc)?
 
Question 3. What was the opportunity cost – the value of other work that might have been done instead?
 
Is this too hard on the positivists? Someone suggested that it was a great service to remind people of the importance of logic and evidence. But how many scientists needed to be told that?
The devil was in the details of the way that evidence was supposed to be used, either for verification or for assigning a numerical probability to theories. The Carnap program to assign objective probabilities never worked and the Bayesian quest for subjective probabilities appears to be on the same track.
 
What about the need to tame the proliferation of metaphysical nonsense? How did positivism propose to achieve that? The verification criterion of meaning never worked, it may have been finally give up but it seems that the search for a criterion of “cognitively significant” utterances continues to the present day.
 
The late Liam Hudson wrote some interesting comments on psychology of the “rat and pigeon” variety which could be applied to some of the strands of mainstream economics. He warned that the pursuit of any really new (and desirable) conception of psychology would be met with fierce resistance in the profession. To the extent the venture was successful it would result in a substantial redistribution of effort.
 
“Activities now seen as significant will appear trivial, and vice versa.”
 
One of the things that has created huge problems for this kind of re-thinking is the deeply rooted distrust of ‘highfalutin’ theory and especially metaphysics in the mainstream of science and in the dominant schools of the philosophy of science. This contempt for metaphysics can be found in Hume’s advice to “commit it to the flames” and it has come down to us in the line of thought that is often called British empiricism even though its strongest expression appeared in the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. Alfred Ayer brought logical positivism back to England and he launched it in the English-speaking world with his book “Language Truth and Logic”. This made no impression before WWII but it caught a wave of iconoclasm among the host of new students who flooded the universities after the war. The movement began to spread beyond Europe in the late 1930s as the members of the Vienna Circle, many of them Jewish, fled for their lives. In was promoted with great zeal in the United States, led by Carnap and Hempel, under the revised brand name “Logical Empiricism”.
 
Manning Clarke, the Australian historian, recorded the flavour of encountering the crusading spirit of the positivists, round about 1940.
 
“The first time I sat down in the ‘caf’ at Melbourne University I asked politely ‘Would you please pass the salt?’ My neighbour, a gifted woman, looked at me with the eye of the saved for the damned and said. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I decided to listen to what was going on. In the ensuing weeks I picked up a new vocabulary. I often heard the word ‘tautology’: that, I gathered, was a sin against the Holy Ghost. I heard the phrase ‘non sequitur’. I was often asked: ‘Is that a verifiable proposition?’”
 
In a similar vein Priestley wrote in Literature and Western Man.
 
“The dismissal of metaphysics as mere fancy, ethics as a waste of words, left a vacuum, not to be filled by philosophy reduced to a narrow edge and its ally, science. It may be objected that logical positivism is highly technical and difficult, not for the general public. But any doctrine – and especially one that is new, original, and as irreverent and ruthlessly intolerant as any undergraduate would wish it to be – cannot be brilliantly expounded to some of the brightest young men in twenty or thirty universities without having some effect both inside and outside those universities. A certain atmosphere was created…that seemed to narrow and chill the mind.”
 
There are at least two problems with the verification principle: first, many scientific propositions, such as universal laws in the form “all ravens are black” cannot be strictly verified (we can never observe all the ravens in the universe) and so are strictly meaningless according to the verification principle.
 
Secondly, a whole array of important principles, topics, theories and discourses were thrown into the bin of “meaningless nonsense”. In this bin we find ethical, moral and political principles, that is, the principles that determine the way we live our lives and attempt to organise our social and political arrangements. We also find the principles of method or (in more learned language) “methodology” the spoken and unspoken maxims of procedure and protocol in scholarship and research. And we also find, at a deeper level, the metaphors, themes and presuppositions which dictate the questions that we ask about our subject matter and what sort of theories and explanations are acceptable as possible answers to those questions.
 
Clearly, civilised life and progressive research are unlikely to prosper if all the above matters are ruled out of court as “meaningless”. Most people did not adopt the tenets of positivism and the positivists themselves had to find some way around their own doctrines. However, anyone who tried to obtain sustenance from what was supposed to be the latest in rigorous philosophical thinking could only be confused and frustrated, in precise ratio to their efforts to make sense out of the doctrines of the positivists.
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Jacques Barzun. A brilliant career

Jacques Barzun (1907 – 2012) was probably best known for his writing on education at all levels until Dawn to Decadence reminded people of the remarkable breadth and depth of his scholarship. He specialised in the cultural history of modern times and it is likely that few people have engaged in a more thorough and invigorating manner with the leading issues in the field. The sheer bulk of Barzun’s output is prodigious, bearing in mind his teaching and administrative responsibilities. He wrote more than twenty books, edited a similar number and contributed countless chapters to others, plus journal articles, Introductions and Forewords for books by other authors.

He fought a long battle against what he called hokum, ideas with no basis, which gain spurious credibility by repetition (in the way that so many celebrities are celebrities for no other reason than that they are regarded as such by the media and society pop pundits). One of these bits of hokum is the description of the 1800s as the century of laissez faire. He pointed out that the era of laissez faire in Britain was probably as short as a decade, from the repeal of the tariffs on imported grain (the Corn Laws) to the introduction of the Factory Acts and similar regulations.

His reputation achieved a remarkable boost when his massive and scholarly book Dawn to Decadence appeared in the year 2000 and quickly became a surprising best-seller. This was not entirely a new experience for Barzun because he was touched by the fickle flame of popularity in 1956 when he featured on the cover of “Time” magazine. However his profile waned during the 1960s when his brand of deep but politically disinterested scholarship fell out of fashion.

In the Author’s Note, Barzun advised that he set out to be “selective and critical rather than neutral and encyclopedic”. Those who have tried to read this wrist-breaking 900 page tome in bed will be pleased that he did not set out to be more informative, and that the scope of the work was only the last 500 years. The book can be seen as a contribution to the culture wars, subtitled “500 Years of Western Cultural Life – 1500 to the Present” the aim is to counter those who would either build a wall against the past or, alternatively, draw upon the past to support the case of the adversary culture against the whole project of western civilisation.

Asked about the origins of his remarkable last work, and the reason why it came so far behind the main body of his writing, he explained:

”When I was just beginning to teach, about 1935, I thought I would write a history of European culture from 1789 to the present. I was dissuaded from it by a friend of my father’s who was the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale. I was doing research there and he asked me what I was doing, and I told him, and he said, ‘Oh, young man, please don’t do any such thing. You’ll write about things that you know at first hand, and you will fill the rest out with things you get out of secondary texts. There’s no need of that at any time.’ So I said, ‘How long should I study original works before I begin?’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you wait until you are 80.’ I think I waited until I was 84, 85.”

The Man

Barzun grew up in Paris and Grenoble, the only child in a household where his parents conducted a modernist salon. His father worked in the Ministry of Labour but his heart was elsewhere. He wrote novels and poetry and hosted the likes of Apollonaire, who taught Jacques how to tell the time on his watch, and Marie Laurencein who painted his portrait. Other regular visitors included the painters Gleizes and Duchamp, the composer Varese and foreigners such Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington and Stegan Zweig. Members of the older generation such as Andre Gide also appeared occasionally to find out what the wild young men were up to.

During the war his father was withdrawn from active service to undertake diplomatic missions and after a journey to America he offered Jacques the alternative of completing his studies at a leading British university such as Oxford, or a leading American college. The young Barzun had been reading James Fenimore Cooper and other books about the red Indians, so he opted (hopefully but unrealistically) for New York.

He completed high school in the USA and in 1923 he entered Columbia College, graduating four years later at the top of his class. This earned him a lecturing position at Columbia University where he became a full professor in 1945, Dean of the Graduate Faculties in 1955, and the inaugural Dean of Faculties and Provost of the University in 1958. This level of involvement in administration by a serious teacher and scholar has few parallels and it adds authority to his account of the travails of the universities that flowed from their mushroom-like growth. In 1967 he resigned from his administrative duties and focussed on teaching and writing until his retirement in 1975. Subsequently he continued writing, lecturing and working in various posts including Literary Advisor to Scribeners, a directorship of the Peabody Institute for Music and Art at Baltimore, and membership of the Board of Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

He started teaching as an undergraduate, tutoring students of French. Two of his middle-aged pupils showed so much benefit from his assistance that the head of the department in a major university invited Barzun to a meeting. He laughed aloud when confronted with a seventeen year old, who he had contemplated offering an instructorship. As a postgraduate student he formed a small commercial venture with some colleagues “a perfectly legal and honest tutoring mill, whose grist managed to renew itself as we managed to put the backward rich through the entrance exams of famous colleges not our own”. During that period he also wrote short crime fiction and book reviews under a pseudonym. One of the books furnished him with a formative experience. Whitehead’s “Science and the Modern World” convinced him that there was no essential tension between the “two cultures” and ever after he envisaged science and the arts as potentially harmonious joint tenants in the house of intellect.

Some of his early teaching experiences were tinged with melodrama.

“A big bruiser of a student whom I had failed came to my office threatening bodily harm, then hounded me by phone, wire and letter, pleading that I should pass him ‘in the name of Christian brotherhood’ for he had ‘powerful friends in Brooklyn’. Nothing happened, but two years later, the tide turned in my favour. Another student, an impressive-looking middle-aged man in an Extension course, made a point of showing his gratitude, first by inviting me to his Turkish restaurant and then intimating that if I had any enemies he would only be too glad to get rid of them for me gratis.”

In the 1930s he became closely associated with Lionel Trilling when they shared a famous course on Great Books. They also became close friends and during this time Barzun was near the centre of the progressive intellectual culture of New York, though unlike Trilling and most others he was never a committed man of the left. A reporter from the “Austin Chronicle” took this up in an interview with Barzun after the launch of “Dawn to Decadence”.

JB: I had no Marxist colouring, such as they had…I stood aloof, although not hostile, and I take it they weren’t hostile to me. They deplored my blindness.

AC: You started writing about Romanticism when that was not very popular. It’s funny, you were aloof from Marxism, but also from the reaction to it, which was influenced so much by T.S. Eliot.

JB: Yes, I was always against the current. Eliot of course got it from Babbit, who got it from the French eminences of anti-Romanticism. What I read about Romanticism didn’t agree with what was said about it. Everything in the books was contrary to fact and legitimate conclusions of fact. Including all sorts of fabrications, simply lies that had gotten into the critical stream and were reproduced over and over again without being checked.

AC: You seem temperamentally more comfortable being at the limit of the Zeitgeist than being in the center of things.

JB: Well, I would call that the historian’s detachment.

The Books

His first serious research produced a dissertation on class and race in pre-revolutionary France, and in 1937 this work was published in Race, A Study in Modern Superstition. This was not written as a tract for the times but as a part of a deep scrutiny of cultural history, although by that time the issue of race had become something more than an interesting topic for a doctoral dissertation. Barzun noted that “The daily newspaper told us what uses could be made in our own century of the protean idea of Race. No longer was race simply one among many issues. The appeal to race, class or nation was in truth an epidemic attempt to supply a new motive power for social evolution. It expressed a desperate desire to breath life into the two European idols of Progress and Determinism”.

At that point Barzun wrote On Human Freedom in an attempt to offer a civilised alternative to old idols and new dogmas. The next major instalment in his project was Darwin, Marx and Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941). The nomination of Wagner rather than Freud in the trinity of emblematic modern minds is a sign of Barzun’s profound interest in music and the arts. He argued that these men achieved their reputations by catching the spirit of the age, like surfers on a wave, backed by the formidable public relations exercises mounted by their followers . This earned them the status of intellectual icons despite their lack of originality and the significant flaws in their systems. He described in some detail how all the leading ideas of evolutionary theory, socialism and the leading role of the artist were commonplace for decades before the big three started work.

Barzun was especially critical of the way that their adherents promoted determinism and scientism, with truly disastrous political consequences in the twentieth century. This runs parallel to Popper’s concern with the myths of historical destiny and Hayek’s critique of a certain kind of rationalism whereby utopian social reformers have felt obliged to recreate society in the shape of their dreams. In addition to the shortcomings of their systems, two of the three titans were monstrously egocentric and unprincipled exploiters of their friends and denigrators of their enemies. These personal characteristics became prominent in the modus operandi of their followers, setting the tone for bad manners in transactions between intellectuals that have persisted to the present time.

Barzun’s critique of the cult of evolutionary theory and the canonisation of Darwin himself is impressive but it is difficult to identify where Barzun stands on the scientific status of evolutionary theory and this is the least convincing part of his work. He appears to be dissatisfied with materialism and determinism without explaining whether he adhered to vitalism, or some form of mysticism or religion. This underlines the problem of pursuing such a wide-ranging research project without the assistance of co-workers, so his reach may have exceeded his grasp at some points. This is especially apparent when he attempted to locate his work in the context of twentieth century physics and biology, where he was operating too far from his base in history and cultural studies.

In the course of writing about Darwin, Marx and Wagner he discovered how the movement of ideas around 1800 labelled Romanticism had been distorted and misrepresented by subsequent commentators. That became the topic of his next book Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943). He suggested that the Romantic movement had brought back into favour some important ideas connected with social purposes and human attributes that the materialism of the eighteenth century and the violence of the French revolution had obscured. However these valuable elements were swept aside in a wave of unscholarly denigration.

“The early, or Romantic part of that [nineteenth] century was held in particular detestation and contempt: it was naïve, silly, wrongheaded, stupidly passionate, criminally hopeful, and intolerably rhetorical. The word ‘romantic’ in fact stood for these defects wherever they might be found…As a student of history, and particularly of cultural history, I thought I saw clear evidence that twentieth-century notion of Romanticism was an illusion. As for a change of direction in our culture, I would have welcomed it whatever its form – classical, primitive or archaic. It struck me, however, that a true change would require a break, not with what had happened a century earlier or with its lifeless imitations, but with what had happened only thirty years before with Impressionism and Symbolism, which had done their work and could be deemed new and fresh only by virtue of a cultural lag.”

Education, Intellect and the Academies

In his book on romanticism he laid the foundation for subsequent writing on art and aesthetics in the twentieth century, of which more later. He moved on to a series of works on the education front, starting with Teacher in America, first published in 1944. (The Preface is on line). This book is a tour de force of the major deficiencies and impediments in the education system from school to college, ranging from the notion that learning has to be fun, various misguided fads promoted in Teacher Training Schools and the soul-destroying drudgery of the PhD ordeal. In The House of Intellect (1959) he explored the influences that distract people from clear, direct and critical thinking. He pointed out that intellectuals themselves have been the major agents in the erosion of the life of the mind along with the influence of distorted views of Science, and the unhelpful contribution of Business inspired by misplaced Philanthropy.

”The intellectual class has been captivated by Art, overawed by Science, and seduced by Philanthropy. The damage done by each has been that of heedless expansion combined with a reliance on the passage of time to restore order and decency”.

He described some problems that result from the well-meaning efforts of foundations and corporations to ameliorate the human condition by funding university-based research and the international exchange of ideas. One is the impact on departmental budgets when foundations give short-term grants (with inadequate allowance for overheads), and the beneficiaries expect to be kept on in perpetuity. The other is the diversion of effort from serious long-term projects into preparing grant applications to attract funding for “exciting and relevant research” and preparing papers (similarly exciting and relevant, and identifying the need for further research), for international conferences. Barzun anticipated some sceptical comments by C Wright Mills who described conferences as junkets to permit professors to pursue their feuds and vendettas in exotic locations while younger players scramble for positions in the academic marketplace.

In Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1963), Barzun catalogued and criticised many conflicting and incoherent perceptions of science that are abroad in the land, some of them exerting a malicious influence on the humanities and many of them either trivialising or sensationalising the activities of scientists.

”If science students leave college thinking, as they usually do, that science offers a full, accurate, and literal description of man and Nature; if they think theories spring from facts and that scientific authority at any time is infallible, and if they think that science steadily and automatically makes for a better world – then they have wasted their time in the science lecture room and they are a plain menace to the society they live in”.

The downside of that situation is the durability of creation science in the US, where the practitioners can play on the general lack of understanding of the provisional nature of scientific findings at frontier of knowledge and the critical and imaginative approach required for good scientific research.

In 1968 he published his revealing and extremely well informed account of the alarming tendencies in American higher education due to explosive growth in the universities at a time of great confusion about their aims and about the traditions and disciplines which nurture learning and scholarship. As if to underline his concerns, The American University appeared in 1968, the very year that students around the world started setting fire to their campuses, including his own. The conflagration started in time for him to put a note in the Preface to state that this did not prompt him to change a word that he had written. The Australian universities, in their rapid expansion and loss of focus, followed much the same path, a decade or two behind the US lead, without anyone visibly learning anything from the US experience that was clearly spelled out in 1968. It is interesting to note that the name of Barzun appears to be missing from the debates that have raged on higher education in this country, which suggests that his work in this area was done in vain so far as our academics and intellectuals are concerned.

The Arts

Another arm of his cultural project was to sort out the positive and negative elements in modern art, an area where he had a head start with his early exposure to some of the practitioners before 1914. His major positive statement on art appears in a collection of papers titled The Energies of Art which is a defence of certain types of revolutionary practices with genuine artistic merits which were not fully appreciated due to the distraction created by others who set out to deliberately affront the sensibilities of the general public. He claimed that the generation of artists who were in their prime during the period 1900 to 1914 were laying the foundations for major advances in art, transcending the schools of classicism, romanticism, naturalism and symbolism that held the stage during the previous two centuries.

”There was this new surge of creation, inventiveness, new techniques, which gave promise that the 20th century would be one of the great productive periods of Western culture. It all collapsed into the tensions of the First World War. There were hundreds of thousands of gifted people killed. They were part of a break; they made a chasm. The generation that came to literary and other activities in the Twenties were very young men who did not have their elders’ guidance and lacked a sense of resistance to their elders, both of which are necessary to true literary creation.”

So instead of consolidating the start that was made pre-1914, the arts have suffered from a number of debilitating ideas which Barzun subjected to criticism in his 1972 Mellon Lectures. These were published in a book titled The Use and Abuse of Art. He examined the rise of art as a substitute for religion in the nineteenth century, so art simultaneously became the “ultimate critic of life and the moral censor of society”. The next phase in that development was Estheticism and Abolitionism during the period 1890 to 1914, with the tradition of the New resulting in the unremitting destruction of past art as a point of reference for any moral or aesthetic standards. He wrote “By making extreme moral and esthetic demands in the harsh way of shock and insult, art unsettles the self and destroys confidence and spontaneity in individual conduct.”

”Art in this function has helped to undermine the assumptions that the state and civilized society are valuable or admirable, thus impairing the effectiveness of political and social institutions and proving the destroyers’ own case. By linking the growing interest and respect for art in modern times with the ‘dominance of bourgeoise values’ Art has effectively turned on art itself by becoming a vehicle for every kind of assault on traditional standards of beauty, craft, morality and commonsense.”

This was written thirty years ago and all that has changed is the increased number of students who are exposed to more advanced “theory” to justify the assault of Art on our senses and sensibilities. In the fourth lecture he moved on to another piece in the crazy pavement of modern art, the function of art as redeemer, linked with the concept of art as a substitute for religion. Barzun accepted the common ground, that the power exerted by great art on receptive persons is a religious power, and he pursued the consequences that can follow when that kind of influence is not checked by critical thinking and a sense of history. He discussed the individual and collective forms of salvation through Art that have been promulgated for 200 years. By the term collective salvation he means the appeal of revolutionary art which offers the artist a special role, first as evangelist and later as beneficiary, in the utopian society brought about by the revolution.

Finally he turned his attention to the troubled relationship between Science and Art, describing how artists have entered into competition with scientists to claim some of the respect and the material benefits that have been generally granted to modern Science. One of the fruits of this endeavour has been the proliferation of “art bollocks”(not his term), the use of pretentious jargon to emulate the (supposed) precision and profundity of scientific discourse. He thoughtfully provided a sample, with a translation.

“For Rousseau a painting was a primary surface on which he relied physically as a means for the projection of his thought [Translation: Rousseau wanted to paint on canvas]. Rousseau does not copy the exterior aspect of a tree: he creates an internal rhythmic whole conveying the true, grave expressionism of the essentials of a tree and its leaves in relation to a forest…But his style was established neither derivatively nor in obedience to fashion. It stemmed from the determination of his whole mind as it incarnated his artistic ambitions. [Rousseau painted just as he liked, and he liked painting trees].”

As Barzun approaches his centenary he can look back on a body of scholarly work that few people can equal. However he is entitled to be disenchanted with the apparent failure of this body of work to exert the humanising and invigorating influence on cultural studies that one would have expected. It may be that he has suffered instead of gained by the expansion of the universities. William W Bartley, in his posthumous collection of writings on scholarship and the universities Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth (1990) propagated the counterintuitive idea that the expansion of the universities, more especially the dissemination of examinable knowledge, represents a threat to the growth of knowledge and even to literacy itself. Such a view would have been regarded as ludicrous when three per cent of people went to universities, but nowadays with 30% on campus (and some talk of 60%) it looks more plausible.

Clearly Barzun challenged too many academic empires. Also, like some other original and independent scholars such as Edmund Wilson and R G Collingwood, he did not establish a significant school or following. This is apparent in the collection of papers in his honour, From Parnassus (1976) which is disappointing in the very ordinary quality of the contributions. Moreover the biographical piece by Lionel Trilling is practically useless because Trilling fell ill and died leaving little more than rough notes. This is most unfortunate because Trilling, as a longtime colleague and friend off campus, might have shed some light on little-known aspects of Barzun, such as the unbuttoned man in his domestic setting, and some insights into the demons and aspirations that drove him to read and write so much.

Light-hearted addendum, from the interview with the Austin Chronicle.

JB: Allen Ginsberg was a student of Lionel’s, and of mine, not in our joint course, but separately. But we joined together to save him from the penalties of the law, because he was involved in a very bad affair with an older man who seduced him sexually and used him to help dispose of the corpse of a man that this fellow had killed. Poor Allen, aged 17 or 18, helped to dump this body into the Hudson River. Well, was he in trouble there! With the help of the dean of the college, who also knew Allen, the dean, Lionel, and I waited on the district attorney who fortunately was a Columbia graduate and we said, “This youth is really innocent, although he committed an awful blunder and he’s also very gifted in the English Department.” We didn’t say he was a poet or that might have queered his chances! And that it would be a catastrophe to turn him over to a criminal court and put him in jail. We had to go again to a judge in Brooklyn, I think, because Allen came from Brooklyn or something. Anyway, the district attorney wasn’t enough, so we went to a second hearing, which was much more sticky. But Allen was let off.

AC: You knew he was a poet even back then.

JB: Oh yes. He showed me his writing. He’d send me things.

AC: Did he send you “Howl”?

JB: No, I don’t think he did. He sent me a letter from India, where I think he got a fellowship to spend a year or so. He sent me a letter that read, I’ve just met a wonderful guru who can read minds. “I want you to” – Allen had a way of saying “I want you to do this, I want you to do that” — “I want you to get him a position in the Philosophy Department.” I wrote back, “Dear Allen, the members of the Philosophy Department want nothing so little as to have their minds read.”

 

 

 

 

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Hulsmann on von Mises

Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism. Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, 2007. Hardback, 1150 pp, index.

Jorg Guido Hulsmann, professor of economics at the University of Angers in France has written a monumental biography of Ludwig von Mises. Running over 1100 pages there is space for generous coverage of the historical and intellectual background and close attention to his major works and the salient features of his private life and social relations.

Mises (1881-1973) is one of the sleeping giants of the 20th century. For many decades he was the leader of the “Austrian school” of economics and social thought but he is scarcely a household name, even among economists and classical liberals where he should be well known and appreciated. It is appropriate that he lived almost from the time that Carl Menger published the book that launched the Austrian school to the year before the conference at Royalton in the US that signalled the revival of the tradition.

The Austrians adopt an evolutionary or ecological approach to social and economic systems to emphasise the role of individual initiative and planning in a framework of traditions, organizations and institutions (especially markets). They were virtually buried in professional circles by the rise of Keynes and mathematical economics. Being skeptical of mathematics and robust free traders they were dismissed for many years as unscientific and reactionary. A head count in the professional association in the US indicated that they are out-numbered by other schools by 50 to 1, despite robust growth since the revival of the 1970s.

The first quarter of the book is Young Ludwig and The Austrian School. This sketches the social, political and intellectual context for his life and work, including an endearing portrait of Carl Menger, the founder of the school. The second quarter is Officer, Gentleman, Scholar, covering the start of this career, his first major scholarly works on monetary theory, socialism and the politics of nationalism, and his involvement with Max Weber in the politics of the social science society. The third is Mises in his Prime including the years he spent in Geneva with the opportunity to address intellectual issues without the distraction of a bureaucratic day job. The fourth is Mises in America, from 1940 to 1973, a time when the school was practically invisible. This includes some little-known insights on the internal strains of the Mont Pelerin Society and some gossip from the Ayn Rand circle in New York which for a time included libertarians like Murray Rothbard and also von Mises.

When he was born the Austro-Hungarian empire encompassed Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, as well as parts of present-day Poland, Romania, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro. After World War I the empire was dismembered in the name of national self-determinism, and so the Balkans were balkanised, laying the foundations for further conflagrations up to the present day. The glory of the empire at its height can be seen from the number and size of the public buildings, monuments and museums in Old Vienna today.

Writers, scholars, administrators, entrepreneurs and revolutionaries moved backwards and forwards between the major centres of the empire. They created a rich tradition of culture and learning that was multicultural in a way that is scarcely comprehensible to Anglo-Saxons. With at least ten languages in the empire, they fed on the thoughts of Russians, Poles and Germans with the same facility that they absorbed ideas from England and France, thought their accents betrayed them when they fled to safety in the west during the 1930s.

Some of the most important threads of modern thought passed through Vienna, not necessarily through the university but also through the coffee shops and private seminars. The best known were the circles of Schoenberg (progressive music) and the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. Others included a Freud group and seminars convened by Ludwig von Mises, Karl Menger (son of the great economist) and Richard Mises (brother of Ludwig).

Mises was born of Jewish parents in Galica, now located in the Ukraine. His father was an engineer and his brother Richard was a physicist and mathematician. The family moved to the ancestral home in Vienna where he took a doctorate in law. In 1903 he read Carl Menger’s classic book The Principles of Economics (1871) and he recorded that this experience “made an economist of me”. In 1906 he took a doctorate in economics and from 1909 to 1934 he worked in the Austrian Chamber of Commerce , much of the time as the chief of the finance department, giving advice to the Government on monetary and financial policy. During the Great War when he served with the artillery in the Ukraine, suffered minor injuries and collected seven war service medals.

The first of his three major books was The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) which applied the concept of marginal utility to money and also set forth the first version of the Austrian theory of the trade cycle. In 1913 he was appointed as a Professor at the university, not a paid post but one that entitled him to give lectures if he could attract an audience. Due to Menger’s inactivity during the 25 years before he died in 1921 and Boehm-Bawerk’s early death in 1914 it was left to Mises to consolidate the Austrian program, not by teaching undergraduate students but through his writing and his seminar where the leading lights included Hayek, Haberler, Machlup, Morgenstern in economics as well as Alfred Schutz and Felix Kaufman in sociology and philosophy.

His next major work was Nation State and Economy (1919), written to analyse the destructive forces of nationalism and national self determinism that were abroad, the most obvious example being the dismantling of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The idea was to liberate national, linguistic and racial groups from the yoke of empire but Mises saw things differently. He believed that the local tensions between different groups could be handled in the framework of the empire, given free trade, free movement of people and a light hand of central administration. In the event the local tensions were increased by decentralization because the local minorities agitated to be released from the yoke of the local majority, or demanded the national frontier should be moved so they could join the majority in the adjacent state.

In Socialism (1922) Mises launched a wide-ranging critique of the doctrines of central planning, the elimination of competitive markets and nationalisation of the means of production. For those with eyes to see, the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire, and the failures of nationalisation elsewhere, did not come as a surprise. The Scandanvian nations do not refute the hypothesis because they maintain the private sector and largely open markets to fund their welfare provisions.

There is an Australian connection with the English translation of Socialism. The official translator was an economist named Jacques Kahane. Walking in a London park Kahane encountered the Australian journalist, bohemian and editor Brian Penton (1904-1951). He was in England, acting as business manager for Jack Lindsay’s Franfolico Press. Penton and Kahane became close friends, indeed he was an occasional house guest with Penton and his wife, and they both dedicated their first books to him. In the case of Penton this was the almost unreadable Landtakers (on line with the Gutenburg Project of Australia. According to Penton’s biographer they collaborated in the translation and this encounter with the cutting edge of anti-socialist thought served Penton well when he challenged the pillars of the “Australian Settlement” (White Australia, tariffs and central wage fixing) in the 1940s.

Mises saw what was likely to happen when Hitler came to power and he moved from Vienna to Geneva in 1934. When Hitler swallowed Austria some Nazi agents raided his apartment and stole his library. He no longer felt safe in Switzerland and he moved on to the US in 1940.

Through the 1920s and 1930s he wrote a series of papers on philosophical and methodological issues and it is interesting to recall this time when Mises spent his days trying to steer the Austrian economy and the nights grappling with the fundamentals of economics (Grundprobleme der Nationalekonomie). Not far away Karl Popper taught high school maths and science, then went home to work on the fundamentals of scientific method (Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie).

In Geneva Mises completed the German version of his most important work which later appeared in English as Human Action (1949). Hulsmann has a chapter on The Epistemological Case for Capitalism, reflecting the importance that Mises assigned to the correct methods of investigation. Human Action begins with almost 200 pages of preliminaries including the doctrine that the laws of economics should be based on a priori meditations on the nature of human action. Mises thought that positivism and empiricism worked in the natural sciences but they would be the death of proper economics. However this position adds no value to his economics and it renders his work suspect to other schools of thought that are dedicated to scientific methods.

The book is outstanding as an intellectual biography and also as the story of a flesh and blood human being making his way through desperately troubled times. There are some nice human touches, like his professional rivalry with his younger brother and his extended courtship of an ex-actress Margit Sereny which only ended in marriage after his mother died. There is an exciting section on their escape to the US through France as the Germans moved in. Mises learned to drive in middle age and he demonstrated more enthusiasm than skill. At least twice he almost drove off the road in the Alps and there were two other moderately serious accidents. There are some stories about his argumentative social encounters with Ayn Rand.

Hulsmann writes clearly and has done well to keep the story moving on several fronts. It is a remarkable work of scholarship, ten years in the making. Someone counted over a thousand footnotes and the bibliography runs to 30 pages. He has been well served by the Mises Institute which published the book after one academic press rejected the manuscript for its size and another wanted to price the book well over $100US. It is available at a reasonable price and at a kilo in weight it is excellent value, pound for pound as we used to say. It is also a monument to the crafts of the printer and book binder with clear typeface, good sized font, wide margins, excellent paper and superb presentation all round.

It will sit nicely on the shelf alongside Malachi Hacohen’s equally monumental biography of Karl Popper.  It is probably available to read on line at the site of the Mises Institute.

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