A Pancritical Paradox?

In Retreat to Commitment, Bartley characterises a pancritical rationalist as one who,

holds all his positions, including his most fundamental standards, goals, and decisions, and his basic philosophical position itself, open to criticism; one who protects nothing from criticism by justifying it irrationally; one who never cuts off an argument by resorting to faith or irrational commitment to justify some belief that has been under severe critical fire; one who is committed, attached, addicted, to no position.

Working from this characterisation, some have alleged that pancritical rationalism has analogous logical flaws to justificationism. In particular, holding every position open to criticism is said to entail similar paradoxes as demanding that every position should be justified. Consider the following example:

(A) Every position is open to criticism
(B) (A) is open to criticism

Suppose that we try and subject (B) to criticism. If (B) is false, then (A) is false. However, if (A) is falsified in light of criticism of (B), then (A) is open to criticism after all. So any successful criticism of (B) appears to imply that (B) is true. Therefore, (B) is uncriticisable.

Bartley presented and responded to this argument in the appendix of the second edition of Retreat to Commitment; David Miller also tackled this argument in Critical Rationalism: Restatement and Defence. I hesitate to criticise either of these counterarguments here, because it has been a long time since I have read either book, and I do not have my copies available for reference. However, I do recall being unsatisfied with both Bartley and Miller’s responses to the problem and have often returned to it.

Although the paradox contains a crude, if not altogether inaccurate, summary of pancritical rationalism, the following version of the paradox appears closer to what critics have in mind.

(A) Every proposition is possibly false
(B) (A) is possibly false

This is more interesting, because it brings to light an implicit assumption: “openness to criticism” is interpreted to mean possible falsity. The critic might have just pointed out that tautologies cannot be false rather than propose such a misleading paradox, because the criticism amounts to much the same: necessary truths can’t be false (duh!), so how can everything be open to criticism?

The error critics make is to assume that pancritical rationalism, with its radical scepticism, must deny the existence of necessary truths. While pancritical rationalists do emphasise that our ability to identify necessary truths is prone to error, they do not deny the existence of necessary truths. Necessary truths are a corollary of logic, and criticism is impossible without logic. Here is Bartley on the matter:

The idea of testing and revising in the light of tests–more simply–the idea of critical argument, presupposes the notion ofdeducibility, i.e. the idea of retransmission of falsity from conclusions to premises and, ipso facto, of the transmission of truth from premises to conclusion … the idea that a set of beliefs might be brought “in closer correspondence with reality” by abandoning logic is mistaken, since the tool of logic is needed to learn about reality … Logic, then, cannot be part of the totality that is brought under test.

So how can everything, including logic and its necessary truths, be open to criticism? To answer this challenge one must recognise a distinction between revision and criticism in this context.

While there are many versions of Christianity, they all have two basic tenets: (1) the God of Abraham exists, and (2) Jesus Christ died for our sins. If one removes one or both of these propositions, then what remains is no longer Christian. These tenets could be said to place logical limits on the revision of Christianity in the light of critical argument. However, Christians may continue to hold these tenets open to critical evaluation; they may be willing to entertain criticisms intended to argue them out of their Christianity.

The situation is analogous for the pancritical rationalist. Logic itself places limits on revisability, because revising in the light of criticism must presuppose logic. One can no more reject logic (and its necessary truths) and be a pancritical rationalist than one can reject Jesus Christ and be a Christian. However, one may still be willing to seriously consider arguments against logic and rationality and perhaps embrace irrationalism; that people can be moved by such arguments is well documented.

The difference between the cases of Christianity and pancritical rationalism is that one does not reject logical principles because, like one might reject Christian tenets, they are believed to be false. Seeming paradoxes and contradictions in the rational position itself may motivate the rejection of logic, but such criteria have little importance once one has embraced irrationalism. Thus, the rejection of logic and rationality is not just a rejection of particular beliefs about logic, it is an abandonment of the goal of striving for knowledge and understanding of the world.

Hopefully this post suffices to explain how one be a radical sceptic who believes in necessary truths, and how logic can be both unrevisable and criticisable simultaneously. The apparent “pancritical paradox”presented above fails to account for these subtle distinctions, and when they are brought to light the errors in the criticism become clear: pancritical rationalism continues to pass its own tests.

Any thoughts? Part of me suspect this is what Bartley was saying all along and I just never “got it” before, but I only have access to one chapter in Retreat to Commitment at the moment.

About Lee Kelly

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11 Responses to A Pancritical Paradox?

  1. Rafe says:

    On a fishing trip, in haste – several bits of Bartley here


    Hope this helps, will try to get some time to comment properly this evening.

  2. Ex-PanCritical Rationalist says:

    I was a PCRist. I believed that PCR is correct.

    Therefore, I allowed for criticism of PCR.

    I knew that this means that I may be convinced that PCR is incorrect.

    Therefore, I knew that to believe from the outset that PCR was correct was incorrect.

    Rather, I had to believe from the outset that PCR may or may not be correct.

    Since justificationism is ruled out, I had no way of evaluating PCR other than through PCR – which is circular.

    Therefore, I abandoned PCR – it was a bad philosophical move, a desperate attempt to bypass the justification problem.

    I returned to justificationism, since only justificationism allows for evaluation against the “ground of certainty”, allowing us to ‘see’ which method or system is correct or incorrect.

    I am now an Ex-PanCritical Rationalist.

  3. d says:

    Ex-Critical Rat– I mean Ex-PanCritical Rationalist,

    “Since justificationism is ruled out, I had no way of evaluating PCR other than through PCR – which is circular.”

    Ah, here is a criticism! Sadly, it isn’t a strong criticism: you’re welcome to use justificationism against PCR. A Pan-Critical Rationalist will point out the failures of justificationism: Agrippa’s trilemma, the problem of the criterion, and so on. So justificationism is out. This leaves criticism.

    But criticism is not PCR. Therefore, it is not circular.

    It looks like you confused stances/programs and courses of action.

  4. Kenneth Hopf says:

    Ex-Pan …

    You say: “Since justificationism is ruled out, I had no way of evaluating PCR other than through PCR – which is circular.”

    But this remark is pure justificationism, and it reveals that you were a justificationist all along, never a pan-critical rationalist. If and when you understand pan-critical rationalism, you will no longer be inclined to make such remarks.

  5. Platonist Geometer says:

    I would have to agree with Ex-PanCritical Rationalist.

    PanCriticism either criticises according to some criterion (e.g. rules of logic, evidence, etc), which itself falls into the trap of foundationalism (since this means these rules and evidences are a correct standard for claim-evaluation), or it just criticises arbitrarily. Anti-Foundationalism embedded in PCR undermines the first horn, and so we are left with the latter.
    Arbitrary criticism does not produce knowledge, since without a standard of correct and incorrect, nothing can be judged correct or incorrect.

    Personally, Agrippa’s Trilemma is not a problem, since I appreciate the self-evident axiomatic method. Just because it has not been found – or, more significantly, just because there is no consensus agreement between minds – it does not mean that such an axiomatic method does not exist.
    Also, self-evidence does not mean that the axioms are obvious. Merely that, once they are unveiled and understood, they are seen to be self-evident.

  6. Bruce Caithness says:

    “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth” stated on page 225 of volume two “The Open Society and Its Enemies” remained for the rest of his life as Popper’s core expression of critical rationalism.

    In Popper’s view, phrasing critical rationalism in this way “I may be wrong and you may be right” prevents dogmatism as he hasn’t said “I may be right and you may be wrong”. It is up to the individual whether or not to try to adopt this attitude. Acceptance of any theory in Popper’s view ought to be consciously tentative only, though one may believe that a theory is preferable to certain alternative theories.

    With respect to criticism, valid inferences are not tools of exploration of the world but rather are tools for exploring our existing conjectures. We attempt to clarify and criticize rather than ground our conjectures. The source of conjectures is open.

    What metric or ground could one apply for nearness to the truth, no matter how dearly we would like certainty? At least falsifiability and criticism gives us a fighting chance of reducing our mistakes. Bartley may have restated Popper’s position more strongly than Popper intended but a reactive retreat to justificationism is still a retreat.

  7. Platonist Geometer says:

    Say someone came up with a ground, e.g. a 21st-century counterpart of the Cogito, without the failings of the Cogito. And say someone criticised it. Does this mean it has been falsified? Maybe the criticism stems from an erroneous assumption. Thus, criticism in and of itself serves nothing, unless the criticism is founded on stop clear principle on which the hypothesis fails.
    I think it would be more correct to call Popperians “abductivists” rather than critical rationalists, since they clearly find science a justified, and since Popper is not an inductivist and deduction does not prove that there are black holes, all that is left is abduction.
    Justification is embedded in any rational method. To be reasonable in one’s beliefs is to not be arbitrary in them, to hold them according to principle, to have them justified.

  8. Bruce Caithness says:

    Of course anyone can come up with whatever they like, a “ground”, a song, a poem, a generalization, an algebraic equation, a logical argument. Charles Sanders Peirce actually at some point regarded abduction as being another form of guessing.

    Some statements are falsifiable, some are not. If they are falsifiable they are capable of being proven wrong. Whether falsification happens in practice is another issue which has been addressed elsewhere in the Critical Rationalism Blog.

    We can have reasons to hold onto beliefs, but are they good reasons? Criticism is applied to the guess – how can it come before?

    The modus tollens:
    If the guess is true the inference is true
    The inference is not true
    Therefore the guess is not true.

    How do you guess? Anyway you like and you can call it whatever you like e.g. knowledge, abduction, induction ( the trouble is that induction and abduction are all too often not recognized for what they are: guesses).

    Of course at a biological level our DNA is a collection of guesses (genes) which may or may not engender our survival. Perception is not primary, guesses are.

  9. Platonist Geometer says:

    As my username should hint, I am not very fond of scepticism – and scepticism is not rationalism. To place everything on a guess is to forego knowledge, to embrace scepticism about what we in fact know. To say we guess that Newton’s gravitation holds in the universe – as opposed to we know – is to be sceptical about Newton’s gravitation. It’s like guessing that there are other minds, but not being sure.
    This is, I think, exactly what Ex-Pan Critical Rationalist meant when he thought PanCriticism self-defeating. It leads to scepticism, which ultimately opens PanCriticism open to criticism … and with nothing to justify it!

  10. Bruce Caithness says:


    Excerpt from Joe Barnhart’s essay:

    According to Popper, the whole point of seeking to shoot down our scientific theories is not simply to increase our supply of skepticism. Rather, the goal is to generate better theories–ones which are both bold and able to stand up under rigorous criticism without resorting to verbal tricks and vagueness. Popper’s humanism shines brightest when he urges us to seek out criticism of our theories. Intellectual courage and honesty in uncovering contradictions are thus essential to the search for both better explanations and better plans of action.

    Skeptics and Believers.

    Those who call themselves skeptics sometimes quote W. C. Clifford: “It is wrong, always and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” Unfortunately, Clifford gives no rational hint as to how many pieces of evidence total up to being sufficient. Thinkers strongly influenced by Popper’s (and David Hume’s) arguments against induction will be skeptical of Clifford’s claim. Instead of advocating that we pile up sufficient positive evidence to prove or verify a belief, Popper offers an entire new way to think about testing our beliefs and corroborating them. I confess that I find Popper’s epistemology more convincing than either the verificationists and conventionalists, on the one hand, or the dogmatists, on the other hand.

    Furthermore, Popper’s epistemology makes no fetish of either skepticism or faith. I know of no one who practices either wholesale skepticism or wholesale faith. All believers in certain claims are skeptics about rival claims. And all skeptics regarding some claims are believers regarding other claims. All of us, however, have pockets in our lives in which we would be better off if we showed more faith or trust. At the same time, there are pockets in which we would be better off if we trusted less–or at least shifted our faith to something or somebody more trustworthy. Trust and faith, like skepticism, are essential ingredients to human living. Skepticism per se is neither the enemy nor ally of faith per se, for the simple reason that neither exists.

  11. Todd Vickers says:

    I just discovered this site. Thanks!

    To comment on the faults of PCR or any criticism may be accounted for without insisting that the result be faultlessly rational, beyond criticism. The desire to have a perfect thesis or meta-thesis has nobility but assumes some form of omniscience. Poppers metaphor of a thesis being a net that catches facts suggests we can never have certainty because things slip through the gaps seems, to my mind, to account for the arguments about a flawless thesis of criticism.

    Take Peter Munz formula to account for the limits of any thesis including about criticism.

    W > N –> SM < L

    The world (W) is larger than the neurons (N) that are themselves selective; leaving out some sense data. The activity of the neurons leads to the measurable somatic markers (SM) of cognitive science which have less information than any descriptive language (L) because all labels are added to the inchoate un-articulated activity of the neurons. Thus, any thesis will have both more and less data then the world. The world is not equal to any language, logical or otherwise. This gets us out of the trap of 2+2=4 except with some rabbits.

    Looking at knowledge as hypothetical leaves room for a better postulate including a better way to criticize by exposing the limits of whatever method used. If we accept that there are many ways to conceive a substantially truthful theory i.e. intuition, rationality, observation we may also accept that with each of those methods many poor or false theory(s) can also be conceived. If we acknowledge with Popper that there is nothing that might be true that can't be said badly, then criticism is not only about exposing error but misunderstanding about the thesis and criticism itself.

    Can anyone see a flaw in this reexamination of the problem at issue?

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