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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Review of Malachi Hacohen, Karl Popper, The Formative Years, 1902-1945. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Karl Popper almost came to the University of Sydney in 1945. John Anderson invited him to join the staff in Philosophy but Popper delayed his decision in the hope of an offer from the London School of Economics. When that offer came Professor Anderson was spared the confrontation with a colleague as assertive and argumentative as himself.
Popper died in 1994 at the age of 92 and this is the first comprehensive book to appear on his life and work, although he detailed account stopped halfway through Popper’s life. Hacohen is a historian based at Duke University and he has charted the evolution of Popper’s thinking with close attention to his intellectual influences and the explosive social and political tensions in Vienna which informed his thoughts on politics and ultimately prompted his flight to New Zealand. Over twenty years in the making, this is likely to be the standard reference for some time because the author had access to some recently opened archives and he also interviewed some longstanding colleagues of Popper such as Colin Simkin (from New Zealand) and John Watkins (of the London School of Economics) who are no longer with us.
The book has at least four different aspects, each of considerable interest. One is the reconstruction of Popper’s intellectual career as he groped towards his seminal work in the philosophy of science and politics. The second is to give some impression of Popper the person, the being of flesh and blood who is practically invisible in his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest. The third is the recreation of the social and political milieu of Vienna, the life of high culture and intellectual achievement that thrived but finally expired under the volcano of fascism and anti-Semiticism. The fourth is Hacohen’s mission to reclaim Popper for the social democrats, to snatch him back from the clutches of the Cold War liberals and the New Right.
So far as Popper the person is concerned, Hacohen had great difficulty in getting anywhere near the emotional roots of Popper’s life. He was so much a man of ideas that everything else appeared to be secondary (after early thoughts of a career in music), including his own comfort and the convenience of anyone who had dealings with him.
Hacohen reports that Popper worked for 360 days of the year, all day, without the distraction of newspapers, radio or TV. Several times a month, even in old age, he worked all night and some friend such as Bryan Magee would get an early morning call from Popper, bubbling with excitement to report on his latest ideas. Popper lived well out of London near High Wycombe and when Magee gained Popper’s confidence he was invited to visit, taking the train to “Havercombe” (in Popper’s heavily accented English). When I made the trip to Havercombe, Popper arranged to meet me at the station, carrying a copy of the BBC Listener, presumably to pick him out from all the other elderly gentlemen of middle-European extraction who might be thronging the platform at 2.00 on a Wednesday afternoon. In the event, he left the magazine at home and the kiosk had sold out so he had to buy The Times and fold it to the size of the Listener.
Of course he was the only person in sight apart from the Station Master. Popper, then aged 70, had what his research assistant tactfully described as a “very positive” attitude to driving. Fortunately it was not far to his home and there were few other cars on the road. Safely home, our conversation laboured, and he frequently pushed a tray of choc-chip cookies towards me. Later he lamented to his assistant that I had eaten a whole weeks supply of his favorite cookies in one afternoon. These aspects of Popper are the other face of the man who some described as “the totalitarian liberal”.
Magee endorsed the view that Popper’s personal behaviour often belied his liberal principles. In fairness, he added that Popper had to endure persistent and gross distortions of his ideas by philosophical and political opponents. Hacohen has resoundingly corrected the rather odd view propounded by David Stove regarding the motivation for Popper’s challenge to orthodoxy in the philosophy of science. Stove suggested that this was done in the frivolous spirit of the Jazz Age, so if other people wanted scientific theories to be verified, highly probable and justified, Popper would have them falsified, improbable and conjectural.
In fact it is difficult to imagine anyone more divorced from the spirit of the Jazz Age than the priggish, puritanical, non-smoking, non-drinking young Popper. Apparently his idea of a good time outside working hours was a session as a voluntary helper in Alfred Adler’s social work clinic in the slums of Vienna. Following Tolstoy’s ideas on the dignity of manual labour Popper tried various jobs and he completed an apprenticeship to become a qualified cabinet maker. Apart from a teenage flirtation with the communist movement Popper’s nearest approach to radicalism was Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances which he attended out of a sense of duty to explore contemporary music. However, when he started serious writing for publication there was no time for that kind of distraction and often on weekends Popper would sit with his wife in a coffee shop writing drafts which she typed up on a portable typewriter.
Popper’s lack of progress in the community of professional philosophers needs to be understood against the background of the ideas that dominated Anglo-Saxon philosophy under the influence of Wittgenstein in his two phases. It needs to be remembered that the philosophy of science was not institutionalised in the 1920s and there was only a handful of academics in that field in the world. The issues that are now addressed by some hundreds and maybe thousands of fulltime staff and students around the globe, were in those days the preserve of small groups of interested people, including working scientists, many of them outside the universities, like Charles Sanders Peirce and Bertrand Russell for much of their lives.
Such was the Vienna Circle of logical positivists who gathered around Professor Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970) and Otto Neurath (1883-1945). Their spiritual predecessor was Ernst Mach (1838-1916) a philosopher-physicist in the strong empiricist tradition of David Hume whose mission was to purge science of metaphysics and place it on the firm “positive” foundations of sensation. Few philosophers have had such a deep and wide-ranging influence. In Hacohen’s words “He virtually became the official philosopher of Viennese progressivism” (and far beyond) through his influence in psychology, physics (the young Einstein), literature (Robert Musil), painting (the Impressionists), social philosophy (Joseph Popper-Lynkus).
They pursued Mach’s positivism, with Russell’s Principia their inspiration and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus providing the program. This was essentially a war on metaphysics by application of the strict “verificationist” definition of meaning. They proposed that statements should be regarded as literally meaningless if they could not be confirmed or verified by evidence. The propositions of logic and mathematics were exempt from the requirement for verification on the understanding that they are true by definition and they do not pretend to convey information about the world.
The most obvious casualties of the verification principle were religion and moral principles, though there were others that were less obvious, including the principle itself and, most regrettably, the laws of science. When these laws are stated in their strong (universal) form they cannot be verified by any number of observations. This dilemma, with the unsolved problem of induction, represented twin “skeletons in the cupboard” of positivism, but still the circle gained worldwide influence, and they did institutionalise the philosophy of science with a series of conferences in the 1930s with the sponsorship of luminaries such as Bertrand Russell. Then the predominantly Jewish and left wing members of the circle had to scatter for their lives, like Popper himself, and they were dispersed far and wide by 1939.
Manning Clarke recorded in his autobiography The Quest for Grace something of 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?
As the circle pursued their program in the 1930s two other forces loomed up on the horizon. One was an intellectual challenge from a young schoolteacher, the other was the lengthening shadow of the swastika.
Popper’s career did not pursue any steady course through the 1920s. His father was ruined by the postwar inflation and Karl left home to live in a commune in an old army barracks. Decked in army surplus attire he attended courses in science and mathematics as an unmatriculated student at the university, eking out a living by coaching overseas students. (Arthur Koestler was studying engineering at the university at the time, until he departed to support Zionism in Palestine). There was no prospect of a career and he engaged in socialist causes and social work.
His early experience as a voluntary teacher with a group called the “Young Proletarians” was not inspiring. The working-class children were resistant and greeted the young teacher with loutish behaviour. Things improved after Popper challenged the leader of the roughnecks to a boxing match. Eventually he found a place to train as a proper school teacher, in a newly formed Pedagogic Institute that was established to support Glockel’s school reform movement. There he learned philosophy and psychology from Karl Buhler (1879-1964), took on board Kant’s view on the projection of intellectual categories upon the world, moved his focus from the psychology of learning to the logic of theory formation and testing, and courted and married a fellow trainee-teacher. Josefine Henninger “Hennie” (1906-85) was a physical education teacher who became Popper’s greatest helper.
Popper addressed a different problem from that of meaning and metaphysics because he was concerned with the difference between science, where evidence matters, and pseudo-sciences such as astrology where theories appear to be based on observations but are actually “unsinkable”. His exemplar of science was Einstein’s theory which might have been refuted by a particular set of observations on the eclipse of the sun. Inspired by this example Popper advanced his criterion of falsifiability (testability) along with a set of conventions or “rules of the game” of science to ensure that the truth of theories can be tested by evidence. It is worth noting that testable statements are not confined to the “hard sciences” or even to the natural sciences, and Popper’s “rules of the game” can be applied to investigations in any field including history and literature. As for induction, Popper proposed that science could do without it, making its way by means of speculations controlled by criticism, especially the criticism of experimental or observational tests. On this account science is not an edifice based on observational foundations, it is more like a hot air balloon that is tethered to the “earth” of facts and observations by thin deductive threads.
These ideas on demarcation and induction formed slowly as Popper conducted endless discussions and debates with members of the inner Vienna Circle (Viktor Kraft and Herbert Feigl) and others on the periphery, such as Heinrich Gomperez. It was Herbert Feigl, after a nightlong session, who proposed that Popper should write a book. Hacohen provides a dramatic account of the writing, revision and publication of Logik der Forschung in 1934, one of a series of monographs produced by the Vienna Circle (it appeared in English in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery). All manner of problems intruded, political tensions were on the rise, the inner Circle members were divided on the acceptability of the book, Popper’s first effort had to be cut almost in half, the editor procrastinated for months before reading the manuscript, Popper was madly impatient to get into print and rubbed everyone up the wrong way, there were paper shortages, other books to be considered for publication in the series.
Hacohen gives a lot of credit to the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle for putting up with Popper’s Steppenwolf-like activity, prowling on the fringe of the circle where Schlick, Carnap, Neurath et al. huddled around their campfire, seeking warmth and consolation from the dying embers of the verification principle They accepted Popper’s book because most of them perceived that it had merit even if none of them really agreed with Popper’s turn from verification and induction to a theory of conjectural knowledge that may be tested but is never confirmed, or even assigned a numerical probability.
In the background to all this intellectual activity there were ebbing and flowing tides of political revolution. The communists plotted, the anti-communists reacted, the socialists took control of the Vienna city council in democratic elections, the Jewish problem created ongoing tensions. Hacohen has a special interest in the Jewish problem and he may have overdone this part of the narrative but his account of the shifting balance of power between the rival forces is engrossing. Popper had huge admiration for many aspects of the socialists’ program but he despaired of their tactics – they talked violent revolution (though their moderate leadership did not believe in it) and this prompted a violent reaction which they were not sufficiently organised and resolute to match, even when they had the numbers to prevail.
Against them were arrayed the conservative bourgeoisie and much worse elements of the kind that flocked to Hitler’s banner. Eventually Hitler annexed Austria and all bets for civilisation were off. Those who could see the writing on the wall, like Popper and Ludwig Mises (Hayek’s teacher), escaped if they could. Mises fled to Switzerland, just before his apartment was raided. Popper’s teacher Karl Buhler was less fortunate, he was arrested and interned for some weeks until he had the chance to escape by walking over the border to attempt a new life in the United States. Later on Popper counted sixteen relatives who perished in the holocaust.
With Logik der Forschung launched, Popper’s focus shifted to politics and the social sciences. His major concern was the failure of Marxism to provide a bastion against the rise of fascism and he attributed this more than anything to an intellectual error, namely the doctrine of historical inevitability. He labeled this “historicism” and he returned to his notes on “the poverty of historicism” in 1938 when he was settled at Canterbury College, Christchurch. By that time he was writing in English and his closest colleague was Colin Simkin, a young NZ economist (aged 26 when he met Popper). Popper had a low opinion of the social sciences although he thought that mathematical economics had turned the corner, an opinion based on almost complete ignorance of the field. He relied heavily on the young Simkin for an introduction to the innovations of Keynes and for advice on the capacity for social engineering by democratic governments to control major problems such as monopolies and mass unemployment.
In return for this dubious assistance, he offered Simkin the advice to develop his mathematical skills in order to pursue the path of macroeconomic modeling. This advice turned out to be a something of a disaster for Simkin because it seems that this lifelong project failed to bear fruit. Simkin later came to the University of Sydney to assist in the battle against the Marxists in the Department of Economics.
Despite all the pressures of the times, the loneliness and isolation of New Zealand, the dreadful news from home, the threat of the Japanese advance, his teaching load and problems with his Professor (described in Roger Sandall’s book The Culture Cult), The Open Society and its Enemies was eventually written and dispatched. This book can be seen as a kind of “Battle of Britain” in the world of ideas, a desperate counterpart to the struggle where young men daily took to the air in the skies over the South of England with the future of civilisation virtually in their hands. On the other side of the world a relatively young Karl Popper patrolled the stratosphere of the world of ideas, confronting those from Heraclitus and Plato to the present day whose ideas he thought were undermining the cause of freedom and the open society. Like the young men in their Hurricanes and Spitfires, he did not fly in vain. The Open Society joined Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to provide twin pillars of resistance to totalitarian thinking post WWII.
The Open Society and its Enemies is a monumental defence of democratic principles and a demolition of many pervasive ideas that render our traditions of rationality and tolerance dangerously fragile under the pressure of social and political crises. Chief among these is the utopian impulse to recreate society in the image of someone’s dreams. There is some debate as to whether Popper’s dramatic view of science as a succession of revolutions is consistent with the relative conservatism of his political philosophy. In fact there is no conflict because both garments are cut from the same cloth of critical rationalism, the spirit of criticism, respect for arguments, for the truth and for the rights of individual people.
In view of Hacohen’s plea to the socialists of the world to rally behind the ideas of Popper it is essential to work out whether Popper provides support or resistance to policies of state intervention along socialist or social democrat lines. Popper is generally regarded as a social democrat because he supported state intervention to counter monopolies and unemployment, to protect the economically weak from the economically strong. To assess the legitimacy of Hacohen’s claim on Popper it is helpful to examine the impact of Hayek on Popper, and also to consider some of the implications of Popper’s ideas that he never followed to their logical conclusion.
Briefly, it appears that when Popper’s views are adjusted to take account of his misunderstanding of the nature of monopoly and the real causes of unemployment, his basic principles place him with minimum state liberals or even libertarians. The important assumption here is that the mass unemployment of the 1930s was caused by injudicious state intervention (by minimum wage laws, by central banks and tariff barriers etc), and by excessive trade union power, not by the inherent instability of free markets.
Hacohen describes Popper’s correspondence from Hayek which commenced in 1943 while The Open Society was still in manuscript. Hayek’s reaction was gratifying but he took fright at Popper’s language of social technology and social engineering because he (Hayek) had identified the enemy, even more than the historicist, as the constructivist rationalist (the coercive utopian) who thought he could impose a pattern upon the organisation of a whole economy, like an engineer working from a blueprint.
Popper was concerned with freedom and he was equally concerned with human suffering and deprivation, after his formative years surrounded by the abject poverty in Austria after the Great War. Like the Prince of Wales visiting the out of work Welsh miners during the Great Depression, he knew “Something has to be done!” For this reason he reserved the right of the state to intervene so that the economically powerless could not be exploited by the economically powerful. He was a free trader in goods because he recognised that under monopoly, the consumers may have to pay to cart away the rubbish produced by the monopolist.
What was to be done about mass unemployment, the major cause of widespread suffering (apart from war)? This was never specified, though he would have learned the dangers of state interference with the labour market if he had read the works of W. H. Hutt on collective bargaining and the strike threat or (some time later) The Case Against the Arbitration Commission by P P McGuinness. Popper came near to a breakthrough in economics in the course of appraising Marx on capitalism and the “excessive” labour supply that supposedly leads to exploitation. He wrote in Chapter 20 of The Open Society:
What is not so clear, and not explained by Marx either, is why the supply of labour should continue to exceed the demand. For if it is so profitable to ‘exploit’ labour, how is it, then, that the capitalists are not forced, by competition, to try to raise their profits by employing more labour? In other words, why do they not compete against each other in the labour market, thereby raising the wages…It appears that the phenomena of ‘exploitation’ which Marx observed were due, not, as he believed, to the mechanism of a perfectly competitive market, but to other factors – especially to a mixture of low productivity and imperfectly competitive markets.
Low productivity and imperfectly competitive markets! These are recognised by free traders as a consequence of inappropriate and counterproductive government intervention. Interference with the labour market has been particularly damaging and it appears that the immediate cause of mass unemployment in Australia during the Great Depression was the fact that award wages were only reduced by 10% at a time when prices had fallen by much more than that figure. One of the best kept secrets of modern history is the comfortable situation of the people who remained employed for the duration at 90% of the previous wage rate while tens of thousands had no regular income at all. This secret was leaked, not by a historian or a sociologist or even by an economist but by the novelist Jessica Anderson in Tirra Lirra By The River.
As a result of Hayek’s influence Popper emphasised that state intervention should take the form of laying down clearly formulated rules, and state officials should not be empowered to issue discretionary orders to achieve particular short-term aims. He became more alert to the dangers of increasing state power, he insisted that social democratic policies should never be envisaged as a “cure-all” and he warned that socialists of good will should be alert to abuses of power that could result from increased state activity, however well meaning the original intention might be. In March 1944 he wrote to Hayek “I think I have learnt more from you than from any other living thinker, except perhaps Alfred Tarski”.
The result of all this is distressing to Hacohen.
In the postwar years, Popper no longer demonstrated commitment to reform…He never disavowed piecemeal engineering, but he argued that its purpose was to decrease, not increase, state power. He also showed growing sympathy towards libertarianism, and did little to stop the conservative onslaught of the 1980s.
Hacohen cited a reference to a 1982 interview where Popper expressed some sympathy with anarchism…”It was, he said, an unrealisable ideal but the closest we can get to it, the better off freedom is”.
Hacohen’s statement above seems to assume that decreasing the extent of Big Government and the “nanny state” does not count as reform. Such is the gulf that has opened up between socialism and common sense. Hacohen hopes that the left can be reinvigorated by Popper’s ideas, properly understood, to regain their sense of mission, to recover from the setbacks of the Thatcher and Reagan years, take the offensive and move forward again. I have a similar hope, that the left can move forward, but in a very different direction, the direction of classical liberalism, the direction pointed by Mises and Hayek, and by Popper in his stance as a minimal state liberal.
Despite this negative conclusion regarding one of Hacohen’s aims I do not want to leave the reader with an unfavourable impression of the book. It is a work of quite remarkable scholarship, well organised, clearly and vigorously written. It will provoke debate among friends of Popper’s ideas, and perhaps among others who are less friendly. It should lead to a reconsideration of Popper’s low standing in contemporary philosophy. It stands as a monument to Popper’s indomitable spirit and to the support of many people, not all of them adequately recognised by Popper himself, who helped him on his way. These include some members of the Vienna Circle, Karl Buhler, Robert Lammer (the diligent first reader of Logik Der Forschung), Ernst Gombrich and Colin Simkin. May they never be forgotten.
I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Keith Barley, Reader in Agronomy at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, Adelaide, who lent me The Open Society and Its Enemies in the spring of 1968.
This is now published in the paper edition of Reason and Imagination (Amazon).
R G Collingwood (1889-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who was obsessed with the rise of communism and state socialism while the sciences were making giant strides. A recurring motif in Collingwood’s later writing is the presence of sinister and destructive forces beneath the surface of civilised life.
In his autobiography he sketched a theory of ‘encapsulation’ to explain the persistence of undesirable attitudes (such as the glorification of violence) despite vigorous attempts to eliminate them. He argued that attempts at censorship or repression are likely to induce in children a fascination with the ‘unacceptable’ impulses and so they survive in a particularly dangerous subconscious form.
One of his central propositions concerns the overwhelming importance of Christianity as the cradle of Western civilisation. In his opinion the mainstream of Christianity provided the framework of metaphysical ideas which made possible the emergence of modern science and liberal democracy as well.
His deepest exploration of the “dark forces” occurs in An Essay on Metaphysics and especially in a chapter titled “The Propaganda of Irrationalism” on the loss of respect for the truth among academics.
He was concerned with the process that he saw (some decades ago) in courses where the critical faculties of students are systematically destroyed. He first asks us to picture a civilisation where respect for truth is a powerful belief and systematic thinking is prized in intellectual and practical pursuits. Each feature of this civilisation would have characteristics derived from that prevailing habit of mind.
Religion would be predominantly a worship of truth…Philosophy would be predominantly an exposition not merely of the nature of thought, action & etc. but of scientific thought and orderly (principled, thought-out) action, with special attention to method and to the problem of establishing standards by which on reflection truth can be distinguished from falsehood. Politics would be predominantly the attempt to build up a common life by the methods of reason (free discussion, public criticism). Education would be predominantly a method for inducing habits of orderly and systematic thinking. And so on.
And suppose that now within this same civilisation a movement grew up hostile to these fundamental principles…an epidemic disease: a kind of epidemic withering of belief in the importance of truth and in the obligation to think and act in a systematic and methodical way. Such an irrationalist epidemic infecting religion would turn it from a worship of truth to a worship of emotion and a cultivation of certain emotional states…Infecting politics it would substitute for the ideal of orderly thinking in that field the ideal of tangled, immediate, emotional thinking; for the idea of a political thinker as a political leader the idea of a leader focussing and personifying the mass emotions of his community. This movement of thought would need to proceed by stealth because the healthy tissues of thought would strongly resist any open attack on the springs of rationality and scientific thinking.
Let a sufficient number of men whose intellectual respectability is vouched for by their academic position pay sufficient lip-service to the ideals of scientific method, and they will be allowed to teach by example whatever kind of anti-science they like, even if this involves a hardly disguised breach with all the accepted canons of scientific method.
The ease with which this can be done will be much greater if it is done in an academic society where scientific specialisation is so taken for granted that no one dare criticise the work of a man in another faculty. In that case all that is necessary to ensure immunity for the irrationalist agents is that they should put forward their propaganda under the pretence that it is itself a special science, which therefore other scientists will understand that they must not criticise.
Collingwood was concerned about the impact of psychology at that time (pre-1940). Later many other fields possibly led by sociology went down the same track to perform the function he described.
An unpublished piece on the US poet, critic and scholar Yvor Winters, written circa 1985 and put into the public domain on my website in the first edition of the Revivalist series. [http://www.the-rathouse.com/YvorWinters.html]
Winters combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar despite the resistance of superiors who tried to convince him early in life that these roles are not compatible. He insisted that literature is too important to allow its various aspects to be hacked up and distributed to different groups of specialists. In his opinion both poetry and criticism have suffered severely from the rift between poets and critics, which he attributed largely to the ‘romantic’ view of creation.
Yvor Winters (1900-1968) was one of those critics who fall between the cracks of all the theoretical compartments. In addition to his poetry he wrote a lot of criticism including numerous essays devoted to the principles of criticism although he is not a protagonist in the contemporary debate and is not mentioned in it. Even in his lifetime he was a marginal figure, sometimes lumped with the New Critics, sometimes dismissed as a simple-minded moralist. However, his ideas have lasting interest and at the height of his powers he wrote prose of marvellous clarity and vigour. Some of his best essays stand as works of literature in their own right, something that cannot be said of very many modern works of criticism or scholarship.
Winters in effect offers a three-pronged response to the deconstructionists. First, there is his robust sense of the reality of the external world, as one might expect from a man well versed in the system of St Thomas Aquinas (and also a breeder of Airedales). He wrote in the polemic preface to In Defense of Reason:
I am acquainted, for example, with the arguments which prove that the wall is not there, but if I try to step through the wall, I find that the wall is there notwithstanding the arguments.
This is reminiscent of Dr Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s arguments to prove the non-existence of matter, consisting of kicking a stone ‘I refute it thus’.
Second is Winters’ insistence on the impact of literature on the world and the moral responsibility that this places upon writers and critics to be clear about what they are doing and its likely effects if they are taken seriously.
Third is his attention to the living presence of literature that is achieved by appropriate meter and rhythm. On the significance of literature he wrote:
The power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson and Hitler we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history…it behooves as to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does and how it does it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important as atomic fission.
One of his missions in life was to combat the flight from reason and moral responsibility that he saw as a major theme in modern literature, under the influence of the idea that literature, like art in general, is a form of self-expression. He called this the Romantic theory, though under the influence of Jacques Barzun’s defence of romanticism I am not prepared to join the ranks of those who reflexively beat romantics for imagined sins, only for real ones.
The Romantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience…that man’s impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely on his impulses, he will achieve the good life.
He argued that this line of argument leads to a doctrine of automatism because it encourages people to submit themselves to whatever impulse moves them at the moment. He also noted a link between Romantic theory and the theories of determinism and relativism. This comes about because Romanticism teaches the desirability of automatism while determinism teaches that there is no way to avoid it. At this point the thrust of Winters argument converged with Popper’s work on determinism and historical inevitability in The Poverty of Historicism.
At the risk of arousing mirth in progressive circles, Winters declared himself an absolutist, that is, a person who believes in the existence of absolute truths and values. He did not suggest that he personally had access to these things, or that his own judgments were necessarily correct. However it is the duty of every man and of every society to try as far as may be to approximate to them. He suggested that our system of justice, our universities, and the practice of literary criticism itself presupposes the existence of various absolutes, despite all the arguments that are raised against this notion.
As noted, Winters combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar despite resistance which he blamed on the ‘romantic’ view of creation. Under the influence of this doctrine, the critic came to be regarded as an inferior being, rather like a teacher who really should be doing something else if only he had the ability to do so. With this low regard for critics and commentators went the idea that the poet is set apart from the common herd, divorced from the mundane problems of the world and devoted to a special kind of communication that is only accessible to equally enlightened folk. Winters would have none of that. For him, creative literature and poetry are extensions of ordinary language, perhaps distinguished by a high level of skill and precision in achieving certain effects, but not set apart on the other side of a great divide. He also detested pure theory, divorced from the practical task of crafting words into poetry.
His concern with reality, rationality and morality converge in the final judgment on a poem. He believed that a work of literature “in so far as it is valuable, provides a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth”. Poetry is the most concentrated vehicle that is available for this purpose; the poet makes his statement in such a way as to use both the descriptive meaning of words and their emotional connotations as well.
The poem is good in so far as it makes a defensible rational statement about a given human experience and at the same time communicates the emotion which ought to be motivated by rational understanding of that experience. This notion of poetry will account for both the power of poetry and for the seriousness with which the great poets have taken their art.
He made much of the idea of problem solving in the craft of the poet, grappling with the linked problems of organizing intellectual, emotional and technical aspects of the work into a coherent form. The work that the poet has to put into solving these problems should make him a more effective thinker and actor in the world; similarly the effort required to understand what the poet has done should help the attentive reader in much the same way. This is why he speaks of the best poetry as “a moral success in the face of certain experiences” and he contends that the degree of greatness in the work depends on the difficulty of the experience that had to be faced, assuming that technical perfection was achieved at the same time. He suggests that the great tragic poets such as Shakespeare, Hardy and Racine convey the impression of a victory over life itself ”so much is implicated in the themes”.
Winters did valuable work on verse forms and meter to remind us that a poem is a living presence through its rhythms and its sound structure, in addition to its paraphrasable content and other rhetorical features. This effect is achieved, if it is achieved, by a happy combination of rhythm and form. Form in turn has two aspects, one the orderly arrangement and progression of thought, the other a kind of rhythm that goes beyond the stresses of the individual line to encompass the whole poem. “The poem exists in time, the mind proceeds through it in time, and if the poet is a good one he takes advantage of this fact and makes the progression rhythmical.”
In an essay on the audible reading of poetry Winters explains some of his most useful ideas about the sound structure of poetry and he suggests that modern reading habits have done great damage to our capacity to read properly or to gain an audible impression of literature when we are not reading aloud. He is especially scathing in his comment on the modern vogue of rapid reading courses; such scanning, he claims, cannot properly be called reading at all. A commentator has suggested that:
Winters writes like a man who has the whole history of English and American verse (and much French as well) sounding physically in his ear. The loss of this sort of intimacy with the most fundamental mode of a poem’s existence, he warns in perfect seriousness, has brought us to the edge of a new barbarism. The inability to hear is also an inability to read: literature remains a ‘closed book’ to those who are insensitive to the living presence of what lies within. What is at stake, and the stakes are very high indeed, is the ability to recognise in a poem where and how its meaning is conducted.
The Australian poet, academic and critic A D Hope published “Literature versus the Universities” after a 1958 tour of Canada, Great Britain and the United States. He reported that the standards of scholarship and criticism were high but “I found myself getting more and more uneasy, until uneasiness in the end grew into a kind of nightmare”. Hope’s story began in the 19th century when the study of English literature began to displace the classics from the centre of university studies in the humanities. At the beginning of the 20th century English studies beyond the first degree were pursued by poorly paid and dedicated scholars who mostly carried on their studies for their own sake.
Everything changed in the 20th century as the universities expanded and Hope expected to see a great deal more although rapid growth had not started in Australia in 1958. When he wrote the US had about 2.5 million students in some 2000 institutions and nearly all of those students did some English given the pattern of two or three years of general studies prior to graduate study for a profession. That created a very large demand for English teachers and increasingly the teachers required doctorates. English ranked fifth in the number of doctoral theses produced, after Chemistry, Education, Economics and Physics.
“Universities now have a high prestige and offer high rates of pay and good chances for advancement. English, from a new and not very utilitarian subject has become a high-pressure industry.” That means the doctorate is absolutely required for appointment and Hope had some difficulty in explaining how in Australia he could be a professor and head of department without being Dr Hope. Hence the pressure to publish or perish among graduate students and teachers as well. In the space of a generation research and scholarship shifted from a focus on the books to provide more knowledge, to provide good texts, to establish the canon of a writer’s works, and to clear up misunderstandings by historical criticism. “Now the purpose of nine-tenths of the research and criticism that goes on is to help the researcher to qualify in the great rat-race”.
Turning to the material available for research by the growing army of thesis writers he suggested that there were well under a thousand English writers of even moderate literary importance between the Venerable Bede and Robert Browning to provide material for the 1710 English doctorates accepted in the US between 1940 and 1950 (not counting the ones that were written and not accepted). Looking ahead 50 years with the current growth rate he could see that some 10,000 topics for research would be required per decade and he could see that the pace was quickening so by the end of the century as many as 300,000 topics might be required.
“The immense pressure to find fresh material for research and criticism has meant that the field has been ransacked to its very dregs and many writers better left forgotten have been dug up and become the subject of serious critical studies.” So we have studies of the lesser known poems of the lesser known female poets of the Xth century.
He had more to say about the adverse effect of these developments on creative writers. Whatever that may be, the consequences for scholarship of the escalation of the publish or perish regime are clear, with more and more being learned about less and less, often enough rendered even more inconsequential by the obscurantism of High Theory. To some extent the proliferation of literary theories can be seen as a response to the demand for original theses because each new theory provides an opportunity to reinterpret the old works.
Moving on to economics, Mark Blaug circa the year 2000 explained how the political economy of publishing for professional recognition tended to lock mathematical formalism in place in economics. He started with the proposition that American economics dominates economics in the western.
“American economics is dominated by the 4,500 new doctorates in economics who each year seek employment in 3000 institutions of higher learning.” Publishing is the key to appointment, tenure, promotion and grant money. Publications can be submitted to one of about 300 refereed journals in English, although the fast track is to publish in one of the dozen or so leading journals.
About 4000 to 5000 papers in economics are published every year. These are refereed by perhaps 200 to 300 academics at the top American universities, whose students will become the referees of papers in the next generation, papers that will of course look very much like the papers that they are now themselves writing and publishing.
There is a huge incentive to meet the standards set by the leading journals because that is the way to be employed in prestigious universities where the salaries are in the order of double those earned in “academic ‘Siberia’”. He wondered how many ambitious young academics would be prepared to ignore the fashion and do something different, instancing Akerlof’s “Market for Lemons” (turned down three times over four years before publication), Arthur’s “Computing Technologies, Increasing Returns, and Lock-In by Historical Events (rejected three times and rewritten 14 times over six years). After he wrote there is the case of the late Stanley Wong who eventually left the profession and turned to the Law, becoming a senior partner in a Toronto law firm.
Whatever we may say against technique-ridden mathematically expressed modelling of economic phenomena, the fact remains that papers written in this form are easier to produce once the formula has been learned, although the initial investment costs of acquiring the technique are high and certainly easier to appraise and referee than those written in words and diagrams.
Competition for research grants parallels the demands of publication for professional advancement. The result is a constant and overwhelming demand to produce research results regardless of the aptitude or the desire of the student or the academic to do so.
Not new but illuminating, a study of public policy relating to arts funding, by a really interesting person, Tyler Cowen. His site.
The book, Good and Plenty: The Creative Success of American Arts Funding. Princeton Uni, 2006.
Good research and scholarship can change the way we see the world. Tyler Cowen achieved this with his study of the counterproductive impact of the Marshall Plan that delivered aid to Europe after WW2. This story can be found on his web site and it might have warned the West off the disastrous aid programs to the Third World that were partly inspired by the Marshall Plan.
He has done it again in this book where his intention to steer the arts policy debate away from its previous focus on the National Endowment for the Arts. “More significant questions concern the use of our tax system to support nonprofits, creating a favourable climate for philanthropy, the legal treatment of the arts, the arts in the American university, and the evolution of copyright law. I also seek to recast the debate over direct funding of the arts…A more fruitful inquiry involves what general steps a government can take to promote a wide variety of healthy and diverse funding sources for the arts.”
Cowen is a professor of economics at the George Mason University (Virginia) and a daily contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. He has a special interest in the economics and dynamics of the arts and culture, using culture in the broad sense employed by T S Eliot to include the preparation and consumption of food. Ironically (or appropriately) the most popular page on his personal web site is his ethnic eating guide to the Northern Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland area.
He has previously challenged widespread views about the damaging influence of capitalism and mass consumer culture on the vitality and diversity of the arts. “In Praise of Commercial Culture” surveyed the last two or three centuries to show how the capitalist market economy provided a vital but underappreciated framework to support a wide range of artistic visions. In “Creative Destruction” he pursued the same theme to argue that international free trade in goods and ideas will alter or disrupt many particular cultures but the net result will be positive.
In “Good and Plenty” Cowen is looking for some middle ground between libertarians who oppose any kind of government interference in the arts and others who think that the very survival of the creative instinct depends on the generosity of governments. The book is a remarkable contribution at the conceptual level and also with the mass of information that he has assembled on the diverse forms of direct and indirect assistance that US governments have provided. He set out to bridge the gap between economic and aesthetic perspectives because neither of these approaches can stand alone as a tool for evaluating policy. He explains how the US managed to combine luck and cunning to organise arts funding in a remarkably effective way, bearing in mind that the controversial NEA program accounts for less than 1% of public support for the arts.
His chapter on “Indirect Subsidies: The Genius of the American System” catalogues the many forms of indirect support (form tax breaks to the universities) that represent the overwhelming majority of public funding for arts and culture. A chapter gives the history of direct funding, and he argues, contra received opinion, that direct funding is likely to be too conservative. The descriptive material in these two chapters conveys a surprising and counter-intuitive perception of the role of the US government in cultural affairs. Another chapter gives a somewhat disconcerting account of the mounting challenges from cyberspace to the benefits that creators and distributors of cultural have gained from traditional copyright laws. He ends his (possibly) somewhat rose-tinted account with suggestions for improvement of the system.
To get straight on the figures, he reports that donations (from both individuals and corporations) listed as tax deductions for ‘Arts, Culture and Humanities’ amounted to $30 billion in 2003. Compare this with NEA funding which peaked at $175 million in 1992. He estimates that donations of time amount to some 390,000 volunteers with a dollar value in the order of $20 billion. In contrast the French government limits tax deductions for the arts to 1% of taxable income for individuals and 0.1% for corporations. Germany allows deductions but bureaucratic restrictions make the scheme unworkable. He noted that some foreign firms make up for the parsimony of their own governments by giving generously in the US through their US-based subsidiaries!
Cowen casts his net wide for examples of indirect support such as the Government promotion of international free trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organisation. Imported artworks are exempt from duty and until recently we are advised that the US government turned a blind eye to imports of antiques from ancient civilisations that may have been stolen or acquired in black or grey markets. Yet another form of support is the higher education system which provides a niche for large numbers of writers, artists and musicians despite reservations by many creative people about academic influences.
Direct funding commenced in a small way in 1817 with a commission of paintings to celebrate the Revolutionary War. The New Deal in the 1930s produced the first large-scale effort with assorted programs including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) employing 5000 artists per year at the peak and 40,000 all told. The total cost of WPA programs through the New Deal to their close in 1943 ran to the vicinity of $100 million, equivalent to $2 billion today.
The Cold War prompted government aid far in excess of the generosity of the New Deal, through such a wide range of agencies and programs (including comprehensive cultural control in Germany, Austria and Japan for several years) that the amount of money involved is very hard to estimate. Cowen estimated that cultural outreach peaked in 1953 at $129 million, over $700 million in current dollars and that was only a part of a much larger propaganda effort that spent up to $2 billion per annum, employed over ten thousand people and reached 150 countries. As a wry aside, Cowen notes that the current allocation for military bands at $200 million exceeds the funds dispensed by the NEA.
Getting back to the domestic function of direct support for the arts, Cowen points out that agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts can either act as venture capitalists to simulate new artistic ideas (hopefully picking artistic winners) or they can focus on works of high culture that have stood the test of time. Their efforts tend to be split between these roles, trying to be all things to all people to ensure their political survival. The sums of money distributed in direct support of the arts at home are negligible compared with the volume of indirect support and so the fuss about NEA funding is a storm in a teacup and it is most unhelpful that the debate on public funding for the arts is mostly about the use and abuse of these funds.
This paper is a tribute to two books which were inspired by Karl Popper, The Republic of Science by Ian Jarvie and The Organization of Inquiry by Gordon Tullock. Jarvie’s book attracted little attention and Tullock’s book has hardly been noticed in the Popper literature and so this is a belated call for recognition of their efforts. The paper contains a summary of the main theme of The Republic of Science and suggests that the social or institutional theme provides a common thread in Popper’s philosophy of science and his approach to politics, a theme which is shared with Hayek’s work on law, legislation and liberty. Space permits only a limited commentary on Tullock’s powerful and subtle argument which is relevant to concerns about the governance of science today.
For English-speaking people Popper first signaled what Jarvie called his “social turn” in Chapter 23 of The Open Society and Its Enemies and in Sections 31 and 32 of the Poverty of Historicism. Popper confronted Karl Mannheim’s exposition of the Marxist doctrine that our beliefs are determined by class interest and by the social and historical situation of our time. In defence of scientific objectivity Popper turned the sociology of knowledge on its head by arguing that its focus on the origin of subjective beliefs did not engage with its proper object of inquiry, namely knowledge as a public or social product. He claimed that the objectivity of science comes from the process of more or less free criticism in the scientific community.
“It may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science.” (Popper 1996 220)
Hence scientific objectivity is a situational or institutional problem which calls for such things as theoretical pluralism, clear formulation of the problems that the theories are supposed to solve, the design of critical experiments, the existence of journals, seminars and conferences to facilitate critical discussion. Some of these requirements have to be provided by individual scientists, especially new ideas and imaginative criticism while others call for institutions, including political institutions to maintain the autonomy of the journals and the research institutes.
In The Poverty of Historicism Popper carried the institutional analysis further in his argument against the psychological approach of Comte and Mill to explain scientific and industrial progress [Note 1]. He adopted the counter-intuitive procedure of trying to imagine conditions under which progress would be arrested.
“By closing down or controlling laboratories for research, by suppressing or controlling scientific periodicals and other means of discussion, by suppressing scientific congresses and conferences, by suppressing Universities and other schools, by suppressing books, the printing press, writing, and, in the end, speaking. All these things which indeed might be suppressed (or controlled) are social institutions…Scientific method itself has social aspects. Science, and more especially scientific progress, are the results not of isolated efforts but of the free competition of thought. For science needs ever more competition between hypotheses and ever more rigorous tests. And the competing hypotheses need personal representation, as it were: they need advocates, they need a jury, and even a public. This personal representation must be institutionally organized if we wish to ensure that it works.” (Popper 1961 154-5)
Turning to Jarvie’s The Republic of Science, this book aroused little interest when it was published in 2001, too late for mention in Fuller’s The Governance of Science which first appeared in 2000. Wettersten wrote a critical appraisal (Wettersten 2006) and Heclo acknowledged it as an influence in On Thinking Institutionally (2008). In view of the limited circulation of the contents it is probably helpful to sketch the main lines of the argument.
The dust jacket announces:
“This book offers a careful re-reading of Popper’s classic falsificationist demarcation of science, stressing its institutional aspects. Ian Jarvie tracks Popper’s social thinking about science, individuals, institutions, and rationality through The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies as he criticised and improved his earlier work. New links are established between the works of the 1935-1945 period, revealing them as a source for criticism of the institutions and governance of science.”
Jarvie found a “social turn” in Popper’s first published work. He clearly took to heart one of Popper’s favourite catch phrases “We never know what we are saying” meaning that our theories have contents and consequences that we do not realize. He suggested that Popper, for all his resistance to the sociological approach, in fact anticipated it. Some comment is required regarding Jarvie’s use of the term “social turn” because this has created a deal of confusion in discussing this work with friends of Popper and others who ask whether this “turn” marked a change in Popper’s thinking or a deviation from the line of the logical positivists. It may be more helpful to talk about the social or institutional theme in Popper’s work and so my gloss on Jarvie’s thesis is that a significant achievement of Logik der Forschung was to emphasise the need for a critical approach to methodological procedures and conventions which function as rules of the game in science. That aspect of the book was generally overlooked because commentators and critics concentrated on the concerns which Popper shared with his opponents, notably the problems of demarcation and induction.
For those who are equally interested in Poppers work in the philosophy of science and politics the critical approach to the rules of the game can be seen as a theme which is common to both. One of the functions of the philosophy of science is to formulate and criticize the rules of the game of science while political philosophers may do the same for the rules of social and political life. Some of these rules are written laws, regulations, protocols and procedures and others are unwritten customs and habitual practices. In science these would appear to include what Polanyi called “tacit knowledge”.
The Introduction, ‘Science as an Institution’, sets out the major issues in the complex relationship between science and society. The word science may refer to a body of public knowledge, a set of beliefs about the world, the whole range of activities performed by scientists, some subset of those activities that are supposed to be special, the complex of social and political institutions which support and influence the activities of scientists. Jacques Barzun wrote wrote an important book with the unlikely title of Science: The Glorious Entertainment and Popper referred to scientific research as possibly the ultimate example of roundabout production, a concept from Austrian economics. Jarvie surveyed various approaches including the positivist and falsificationist demarcation principles and Merton’s account of the distinguishing features of scientific knowledge.
Chapter 1 unpacks the hidden elements of the “social turn” in Popper’s early philosophy of science. Jarvie identified a number of procedural rules which constitute what he calls Popper’s “proto-constitution of science”. This is the foundation of his project and it is spelled out in some detail, drawing from Logik der Forschung.
“My argument will be that thinking socially (rather than logically or psychologically) is central to Popper’s philosophical enterprise beginning with [the German prototype of] The Logic of Scientific Discovery, continuing for his ten most creative years, and emerging sporadically after that. Popper’s consistent ability to think socially also does much to account for his originality, since it is hard to do and its difficulty is attested by how often readers and critics of Popper do not grasp that this is what he is doing.” (The Republic of Science 21).
Jarvie argued that the roots of Popper’s social/institutional thinking can be traced back to Logik der Forschung but after The Open Society and Its Enemies Popper did not expanded on the theme. Wettersten suggested in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy “He was so concerned not to explain away scientific knowledge as a mere social phenomena that he did not engage in the social studies of science even though his view called for such studies.” This looks like an example of “snowblindness”, a term which Arthur Koestler used in The Act of Creation to refer to “that remarkable form of blindness which often prevents the original thinker from perceiving the meaning and significance of his own discovery” (Koestler 1969 217-21).
The second chapter is ‘Popper’s 1935 Proto-Constitution for the Republic of Science’. This contains Popper’s supreme or meta-rule (SR) and 14 subsidiary rules (R1 to R14), which constitute the rudimentary scaffolding for Popper’s republic of science.
SR: The other rules of scientific procedure must be designed in such a way that they do not protect any statement in science against falsification.
R1: The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.
R2. Once a hypothesis has been proposed and tested, and has proved its mettle, it may not be allowed to drop out without ‘good reason’ (LScD 53-54).
The “supreme rule” and the first two subsidiary rules were proposed by Popper and Jarvie identified additional rules in the text of Popper’s book.
R3. We are not to abandon the search for universal laws and for a coherent theoretical system, nor ever give up our attempts to explain causally any kind of event we can describe (LScD 61).
R4. I shall…adopt a rule not to use undefined concepts as if they were implicitly defined (LScD 75).
R5. Only those auxiliary hypotheses are acceptable whose introduction does not diminish the degree of falsifiability or testability of the system in question but, on the contrary, increases it (LScD 83).
R6. We shall forbid surreptitious alterations of usage (LScD 84).
R7. Inter-subjectively testable experiments are either to be accepted, or to be rejected in the light of counter-experiments (LScD 84).
R8. The bare appeal to logical derivations to be discovered in future can be disregarded (LScD 84).
R9. After having produced some criticism of a rival theory, we should always make a serious attempt to apply this criticism to our own theory (LScD 85n).
R10. We should not accept stray basic statements – i.e logically disconnected ones – but…we should accept basic statements in the course of testing theories; or raising searching questions about these theories, to be answered by the acceptance of basic statements (LScD 106).
R11. This makes our methodological rule that those theories should be given preference which can be most severely tested…equivalent to a rule favouring theories with the highest possible empirical content (LScD 121).
R12. I propose that we take the methodological decision never to explain physical effects, i.e. reproducible regularities, as accumulations of accidents (LScD 199).
R13. A rule…which might demand that the agreement between basic statements and the probability estimate should conform to some minimum standard. Thus the rule might draw some arbitrary line and decree that only reasonably representative segments (or reasonably ‘fair samples’) are ‘permitted’, while a-typical or non-representative segments are ‘forbidden’ (LScD 204).
R14. The rule that we should see whether we can simplify or generalize or unify our theories by employing explanatory hypotheses of the type mentioned (that is to say, hypotheses explaining observable effects as summations or integrations of micro events) (LScD 207).
Jarvie’s commentary on the “constitution” begins with the reminder that it is very incomplete and very abstract, as though the whole of science is a kind of debating society, leaving out of account a great deal of gritty reality, such as the question of leadership. He noted Polanyi’s discussion in Personal Knowledge of rules in scientific practice which he called maxims . Polanyi considered that these are “tacit”, picked up in the process of training and induction into the scientific community. They are interpreted and administered by the leadership of the scientific community but they do not include any guidelines for critical appraisal and reform of the maxims even in the republic itself, much less by outsiders.
Chapter 3 “The Methodology of Studying Social Institutions” takes up three topics in The Poverty of Historicism; first Popper’s ideas about the emergence of institutions, second his ideas about individuals and their function in science and third his ideas on rationality and the scope for objectivity and testing in the human sciences. He was influenced by the ideas of Carl Menger and the “Austrian school” of social and economic thought which were “in the air” in Vienna at the time. Two of the central “Austrian” doctrines which Popper took on board are the theory of the origin of social institutions and methodological individualism.
In chapters four and five on The Open Society and its Enemies Jarvie aimed to capture Popper’s published ideas over the decade 1935 to 1945, avoiding the complications of subsequent changes to the original texts. This is where a problem of organisation becomes apparent, partly due to the density of argument. Popper spent several hundred pages to spell out his arguments and Jarvie in a hundred pages set out to convey the gist of those arguments along with his first take on the way that Popper’s ideas about society enrich his ideas about science and vice versa. There are two or three books in here, jostling for attention. There is the strong thesis regarding Popper’s “social turn”; the analogy between Popper’s approach to the rules of the game in science and society; the parallels between Popper and the “Austrians” in the methodology of the social sciences; the exegesis of The Open Society and Its Enemies; and the implications of all of the above in working out the relationships between science (in all its various aspects) and society (and politics).
Many issues arise from the troubled relationship between science and politics since applied science became vital for national defence and pure science moved beyond the point where people could win Nobel Prizes with equipment purchased from the local hardware shop. Much of Jarvie’s discussion on these matters is directly or indirectly concerned with the governance of science (another book trying to get out) and Steve Fuller’s comments on these parts of the book will be welcome.
Implications and Applications
Moving on to the implications and applications of the social/institutional approach by Popper and others.
- A common thread in Popper’s philosophy of science and his approach to social and political issues.
- A common thread in Popper and Hayek.
- The governance of science.
Regarding 1 and 2 Popper’s criterion for the value of his proposals in Logik der Forschung was their utility in helping scientists to get on with their work. He didn’t quite put it like that, he referred to “their fertility – their power to elucidate the problems of the theory of knowledge” (LScD 38). The point is that working scientists are disadvantaged if they operate with dysfunctional ideas in the theory of knowledge such the notion that they should start with observations. The working scientists applauded, notably Einstein, Medawar, Monod, Eccles and countless others including soil scientists in New Zealand, Melbourne and Adelaide.
The point is to begin with the right questions, that is, questions which facilitate purposeful and effective action both in the experimental sciences and in social and political matters. Collingwood made the same point in writing about “the logic of question and answer” (Collingwood 1957 Chapter V). Working scientists are expected to carry out experiments and make observations. They have to be active and Popper’s proposals (rules) can be applied to their activities including their deliberations before and after experimental and observational work. In the realm of politics and social action Popper similarly provided some rules, starting with the suggestion to use the language of political demands or proposals instead of the language of essentialism and historicism.
For example while the essentialist wants to find the essence of justice (or the state) and the historicist wants to look at the history of the state or the way things are going Popper suggested that we should consider what we want from our system of justice and from the state.
“In a clear presentation of this theory [of the protective state], the language of political demands or of political proposals should be used; that is to say, we should not try to answer the essentialist question: What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning? Nor should we try to answer the historicist question: How did the state originate, and what is the origin of political obligation? We should rather put our question in this way: What do we demand from a state? What do we propose to consider as the legitimate aim of state activity?” (Popper 1966 109 my emphasis)
That is not to dismiss studies which search for patterns or regularities in social or political processes. Similarly, we do not dismiss historical studies, it means that we do not confuse trends with laws and it means that we do not have to submit to historical tendencies like ruin of democracy under communism in Russia and state socialism in Germany.
Hayek took a similar approach in The Constitution of Liberty where he discussed the pros and cons of democracy. He noted that the power of the state was not expected to be a problem after power came into the hands of the people because the new rulers (replacing kings, emperors and despots) would not harm themselves. However the people are represented by politicians, parties and factions which are not under the immediate control of the people. Hence the danger of the abuse of power persists under democracy “But it is not democracy but unlimited government which is objectionable…It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.” (Hayek 1976 403 my italics)
Compare that with Popper’s criticism of the idea that the question of sovereignty (who shall rule) is a fundamental issue in politics. “It is high time for us to learn that the question ‘who is to wield the power in the state?’ matters little as compared with the questions ‘how is the power wielded’ and ‘how much power is wielded?’” (Popper 1966 162). Writing on Marxism and revolutionary violence Popper pointed to the need for “rules of engagement” for the use of violence by the state both in defence of the realm and in policing law and order. This approach calls for rules for revolutionary violence in the extreme situation where the rulers cannot be dismissed by democratic means.
Hayek’s last book The Fatal Conceit (edited by Willliam W. Bartley) pulled together the threads of his project on rationality, law and liberty [Note 2]. He argued the case for the importance of evolved moral conventions which he called the ‘extended moral order’ of western civilization including rules related to markets and especially dealings in private property. Other important rules concern honesty, contracts and privacy. Popper also referred to the vital function of the moral framework of society (Popper 1963 Chapter 17) and more recently Deirdre McCloskey has written extensively on the “the bourgeois virtues” and related matters (McCloskey 2006 and 2010). Popper and Hayek can be glossed as discovering, criticizing and improving those principles which function as the rules of the game in social life.
“The ‘rules of the game’ range from the possibly innate rules of grammar, through the tacit knowledge of local traditions and folkways to the rules of games and other codified forms of procedure. They include the laws of the land embodied in common law, statutes and constitutions. At another level they include the unformalized rules of the moral framework which Popper noted in his essay “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles”. The study of these rules would need to probe the way that different sets of rules support or undermine each other and the effect of changing from one set to another. This would be essentially an ecological study with the emphasis on unintended ‘downstream’ effects of changes in the prevailing order. This does not imply a rigidly conservative attitude to the status quo, it merely signals that we need to learn from our conscious or unconscious social experiments. This approach would supplement the methods of conceptual analysis and crude ‘positivist’ empirical description of social and political systems. It would have the theoretical advantage of linking disciplines and the practical merit of being continually in touch with problems and their possible solutions.” (Champion 1992)
This is a program which might engage followers of Wittgenstein if they pursue their interest in “life games” and “forms of life” into problems of politics and public administration.
The governance of science
Popper’s reference to the institutional context of science in The Poverty of Historicism points to the governance of science which became a big issue in Britain when Marxists such as Bernal pushed for government control of the national research effort (Bernal 1939). This provoked a reaction to defend autonomous science led by Michael Polanyi and in this context he wrote “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory” published in Minerva (1962). For an account of this episode and a survey of the range of issues involved, see Ravetz Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems (1971).
Other postwar developments intensified the issue of governance, notably the rise of Big Science and the official discovery of the phenomenon of “normal science”. Big Science refers to the major research and development projects on the model of the Manhattan Project which transformed the scientific and academic landscape (Shills 1972, Greenberg 2001). In his unpublished lectures Popper referred to the menace of Big Science with too much money chasing too few ideas and other adverse effects. Speaking from a very different vantage point President Eisenhower in his farewell speech to the nation in 1961 warned that the nation’s scholars might be dominated by Federal employment and project allocations.
“…the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Then came Kuhn’s account of normal science which was taken up in some quarters as a recommendation about the proper way to go, especially in the social sciences which were keen to copy the more prestigious disciplines (Notturno 1984).
A more recent development is a rapidly-growing literature on problems in the quality of published research. Richard Horton in his capacity as editor in chief of Lancet wrote “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may be simply untrue…Science has taken a turn towards darkness” with reference to small sample sizes, invalid analyses, conflicts of interest and obsession with fashionable trends (Horton 2015). There is concern about the increasing incidence of retractions and the higher rate of retractions in high impact journals (Fang et al 2011) and the dangerous liaison of science and politics (Butos and McQuade 2006). Less than 12% of articles in 2004 in The Journal of Economic Theory passed three tests – stating a theory, explaining why it mattered and testing it (Klein and Romaro 2007). There are problems of replication of results and politicization in some fields such as climate science . Another concern is the declining publication of negative results (Fanelli 2012) and it would be interesting to explore if this has any basis in the persistent teaching of confirmation theory rather than critical rationalism in epistemology and the philosophy of science.
The economist Gordon Tullock (1922-2014) was inspired by his contact with Popper to make a significant but little appreciated contribution to the literature on the governance of science. He is regarded as one of the most gifted and innovative economists not to win a Nobel Prize [Note 3]. In The Organization of Inquiry (1966) he approached the topic of scientific research and publication as a student of legal, social and economic systems to sketch a scenario for the decline of a scientific discipline, given a particular combination of motivational factors and institutional incentives.
Concerning the people who engage in pure and applied research he identified three kinds of curiosity:
1. Pure curiosity and compulsion to find how the world works. This drives the great scientists.
2. The passionate desire to solve practical problems. This drives the great builders and engineers.
3. “Induced curiosity” directed to either pure or applied problems.
The researchers with induced curiosity are those who do not have a consuming passion for research but do it as a job. The most obvious examples are academic staff who have to “publish or perish” in the struggle for tenure and promotion and the scientists who work “nine to five” in public and private research laboratories. Of course outstanding work can be produced by academics seeking promotion and even by nine to five scientists but Tullock’s analysis addressed some tendencies which could emerge in a system where more and more of the workers have “induced” curiosity and less and less (in proportion) harbour a burning commitment to the quest.
Closely related to the motives of the investigators is their concern for the quality of the work and their willingness to test their assumptions and their results. Tullock noted that the dedicated truth seeker and also the serious practical problem-solver must pay close attention to reality to align their ideas with it and this demands constant testing and critical evaluation. In contrast, the researcher who is only aiming to publish to satisfy the requirements of an employer or grant-giving agency can be happy with results that are merely publishable even if they are not robust. As Tullock put it, scientific concern with the real world can run second to other matters.
“If he could establish and maintain his reputation, and hence his job, by reporting completely fictional discoveries, this would accomplish his end. While an investigator motivated by curiosity or practical utility must, of necessity, concern himself with real phenomena, the man motivated by induced curiosity could, if the risk of discovery were not great, simply ignore reality.” (Tullock 1965 56)
He suggested that a self-perpetuating process could occur in a journal or a field of research dominated by investigators with induced curiosity (or “normal” or “uncritical scientists”) so the work could “gradually slip away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects”. The peer review process is designed to avert such a decline however if the reviewers are too closely associated with the authors either personally or by membership of a school of thought then the rigor of the process may suffer. Tullock speculated that this would be most likely to happen in a field dominated by “induced” and “normal scientists” rather than the dedicated truth seekers. Towards the end of that slippery slope is the situation where there is a widespread belief in the field that the function of the researcher is to support a “side” on some issue. Simply presenting a rationalization for some position chosen on other grounds may be acceptable as an objective of research, and the principal criterion in judging journals may become their points of view.
“The concern with reality that unites the sciences, then, may be absent in this area, and the whole thing may be reduced to a pseudo-science like genetics in Lysenko’s Russia…these symptoms may be found in some of the social sciences.” (ibid 56)
When Tullock wrote the book in the 1960s he considered that the natural sciences were sound but he thought that parts of economics and the social sciences were well down the slope that he sketched. In view of the concerns that are being expressed about the state of science at present it may be time to revisit Tullock’s analysis to see how much we can learn from it.
We can be grateful for the contribution of Jarvie and Tullock for their wide-ranging contributions to their respective fields and for the two books cited for special mention here. It seems that Jarvie’s book did not arouse the interest which I think is warranted by the implications and applications of the social/institutional approach to research and the institutions where it is done. Let us ensure that there is a more expansive and inclusive conversation on the themes and issues which Jarvie and Tullock addressed, especially in relation to the governance of science. The parties to this conversation could include other followers of Popper such as Wettersten, Agassi and Shearmur who have addressed the social aspects of science, Steve Fuller, and the exponents of the strong program in the sociology of science. This could generate more heat than light but it will be an opportunity lost if it does not occur.
Note 1. The institutional approach points to the type of work which Douglas North pursued to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. In his acceptance address North stated “Institutions form the incentive structure of a society and the political and economic institutions, in consequence, are the underlying determinants of economic performance” (North 1993).
Note 2. An interesting feature of this book is the Hayek’s introduction of the concept of non-justificationism to support his criticism of “constructivist rationality”, presumably due to the influence of Bartley (Champion 2013b).
Note 3. He may wasted too much time and energy trying to interest Popper in his ideas about physics. This is revealed in extended correspondence between them from the 1950s to 1992 (Levy and Peart 2015).
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Butos W N and McQuade T 2006 Government and Science: A Dangerous Liaison? The Independent Review, 11(2): 177–208.
Champion R A 1992 Review of The Fatal Conceit in the Melbourne Age Monthly Review August. Reprinted in Champion (2013) Chapter 4.
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Champion R A 2013b Hayek, Bartley and Popper: Justificationism and the Abuse of Reason in R Leeson (ed) Hayek: A Collaborative Biography. Part 1 Influences, from Mises to Bartley. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
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Richard Hamming and C. Wright Mills each made helpful contributions on the strategy and the craft of research, scholarship and writing. Hamming conveyed the results of his experience and research in a long talk which can also be found in a short form (Google Hamming+your research). He offered suggestions for people who want to do work that makes a difference, in contrast with the average paper which is read by the author, the referee, and perhaps one other person. The Mills contribution is an appendix to his book The Sociological Imagination.
Hamming observed many outstanding thinkers at close range, notably Feynman and others in the Mannhattan Project and Shannon (a great pioneer of information theory) when they shared a room at the Bell Telephone Laboratories.
His advice in a nutshell: Work on the right problem at the right time in the right way.
Choosing the problem
He emphasised the need to work on the important problems in the field at the time, so the best scientists will have a list of those problems, they will constantly review the list to re-set priorities, and they will focus on a problem where there appears to be an opening or an “attack”, as he called it. He suggested to be careful about the company we keep, aim to spend time with people who are themselves working on major problems and who are willing to share ideas about them.
“I begin with the choice of problem. Most scientists spend almost all of their time working on problems that even they admit are neither great or are likely to lead to great work; hence, almost surely, they will not do important work.”
At the Bell Telephone Laboratories he ate lunch with the mathematicians for some time until he found that they were not serious enough so he moved on to dine at the physics table. That was good for a few years until the Nobel Prize, promotions, and offers from other companies took their toll and he shifted to the chemistry table.
“At first I asked what were the important problems in chemistry, then what important problems they were working on, or problems that might lead to important results. One day I asked, “if what they were working on was not important, and was not likely to lead to important things, they why were they working on them?” After that I had to eat with the engineers!”
On personal traits, he nominated high levels of activity and energy, emotional commitment, willingness to go “the extra mile”, courage and the ability to tolerate ambiguity.
“There is another trait that took me many years to notice, and that is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Most people want to believe what they learn is the truth: there are a few people who doubt everything. If you believe too much then you are not likely to find the essentially new view that transforms a field, and if you doubt too much you will not be able to do much at all. It is a fine balance between believing what you learn and at the same time doubting things. Great steps forward usually involve a change of viewpoint to outside the standard ones in the field.”
For that reason, he was impressed by the way that transforming steps often came from outsiders; he instanced carbon dating which came came from physics and the first airplane was built by the Wright brothers who were bicycle experts.
Arthur Koestler in “The Act of Creation” developed a theory to account for scientific discovery by way of a “bisociation of matrices” or in other words the intersection of lines of thought which brings together hitherto unconnected ideas from different fields. This accounts for the fertility of interdisciplinary work and the phenomenon that someone described in terms of “the poacher (the intruder who should not be there) getting the fattest rabbits”.
Liam Hudson speculated on the characteristics of original thinkers in the concluding pages of his book Contrary Imaginations. He listed persistence, self-confidence and predatoriness. The successful scientists is likely to be adventurous, something of a swashbuckler, quoting from Freud.
I am not really a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, and not a thinker. I am nothing but by temperament a conquistador (italics) – an adventurer, if you want to translate the word – with all the curiosity, the boldness, the tenacity that belongs to that type of being.
When the work is done, then there is a need for selling, something that many scientists find beneath them. The good scientist will become expert in three types of presentations, first the major paper (preferably in a high impact journal), second the short summary presentation and the “on your feet” contribution in the heat of discussion at conferences and seminars.
No one ever told me the kinds of things I have just related to you; I had to find them out for myself. Since I have now told you how to succeed, you have no excuse for not trying and doing great work in your chosen field.
Moving on to C. Wright Mills “On Intellectual Craftsmanship“. This is written for serious scholars and researchers who regard themselves as a part of a classic tradition, for whom “soial science is the practice of a craft”. The practice of this craft is an integral part of life; “scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of a career”.
This calls for serious organization and a certain amount of “life planning”, starting with a set of files which function like the journal of the creative writer. In the file “there is joined personal experiences and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned”. The file has to be under constant review, storing personal experiences and drafts of material that will eventually find their way into project plans and publications.
As for plans, he deplored the usual practice of planning in the course writing grant applications. These are more like PR than serious planning, angling to get funds for topics that are fashionable, fitting the prevailing paradigm, maybe “politically correct” or “trendy” (not terms he used).
A scientist in full flight should have so many plans, or ideas, that the problem is – which to work on at any given time? “He should keep a special little file for his master agenda, which he writes and rewrites just for himself and perhaps for discussion with friends. From time to time he ought to review this very carefully and purposefully, and sometimes, too, when he is relaxed.”
In a flourishing intellectual community there will be interludes of discussion about future work.
“Three kinds of interludes – on problems, methods, theory – ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by the work in progress and to some extent guide that work”.
As work proceeds over the years and decades the files will multiply into sets and subsets reflecting work that is being completed and published, work in progress, work that is seriously planned and more nebulous and speculative ideas that may bear fruit if an “attack” turns up.
The files will contain masses of notes based on reading and Mills explained the various types of reading, and the various types of notes that are required at the different stages of a project, illustrated by his own series of books on the various strata of US sciety, possibly inspired by the French novelist Balzac who set to write stories about life at levels of society in France at his time.
As to the conditions of work, like Hamming he commented on the need to cultivate good friends and professional associates, people who will listen and talk, even including imaginary characters!
“I try to surround myself with all the relevant environment- socia and intellectual – that I think might lead me into thinking well along the lines of my work. That is one meaning of my remarks above on the fusion of personal and intellectual life”.
One of the tasks of research in sociology as Mill practiced it is to shuttle back and forth between the classic work in the field and the contemporary literature. Out of this dialectic comes the quest for information to test his ideas. He was under no illusion about starting with facts and one of the chapters in The Sociological Imagination is a crushing critique of “Abstracted Empiricism”. Another chapter is an equally devastating criticism of “Grand Theory” that is not controlled by testing.
“There is no more virtue in empirical inquiry as such than in reading a book. The purpose of empirical inquiry is to settle disagreements and doubts about facts, and thus to make arguments more fruitful by basing all sides more substantively. Facts discipline reason; but reason is the advance guard in any field of learning“. (my emphasis).
Of course he was using reason in the broad sense to include imagination and the use of the mind in all sorts of ways.
Writing: themes and topics
Mills addressed the task of writing up the book (which he assumed to be the outcome of the project) in terms of themes and topics (a distinction which he attributed to a great editor, Lambert Davis). A topic is a subject which might be treated in a chapter of the book. The order of chapters brings up the issue of themes.
“A theme is an idea, usually of some signal trend, some master conception, or a key distinction, like rationality and reason, for example. In working out the construction of a book, when you come to realise the two or three, or as the case may be, the six or seven themes, then you will know that you are on top of the job. ”
These themes will keep turning up in connection with the different topics, they may appear to be repetitious, they may at first be confused and poorly formulated.
“What you must do is sort them out and state them in a general way as clearly and briefly as you can…cross classify them with the full range of the topics…At some point all the themes should appear together, in relation to one another…maybe at the beginning of the book, certainly near the end…It is easier to write about this than to do it, for it is usully not so mechanical a matter as it may appear…Sometimes you may find that a book does not really have any themes. It is just a string of topics, surrounded of course by methodological introductions to methodolgy, and theoretical introductions to theory. These are indeed quite indispensable to the writing of books by men without ideas. And so is lack of intelligibility”.
“To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose. It is much less important to study grammar and Anglo-Saxon roots than to clarify your answers to these three questions: (1) How difficult and complex after all is my subject? (2) When I write, what status am I claiming for myself? (3) For whom am I trying to write?”
This is probably the time to re-read George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.
People who are serious about research and writing could do worse than re-visit the Hamming and Mills papers and Orwell’s essay every four or five years to check that we are on track and getting the small things right, as football coaches like to say.