Bartley on justificationism (again)

This is a draft of a paper for a forthcoming collection. People who have been around for a while won’t find much new but it is an opportunity to tap a different readership.

William Warren BartleyIII (1935-1990) had three strings to his bow as an original philosopher, a biographer and an editor. This article examines his major philosophical contribution, his work on rationality and the limits of criticism that was inspired by Popper’s critique of the authoritarian structure of western philosophy. Philosophical problems tend to be formulated in ways that demand an answer to the question “What is the authority that justifies this belief?”  Because classical liberalism is a non-authoritarian creed it has been forced to work constantly against the grain of the authoritarian (“justificationist” or “true belief”)  structure. Popper and Bartley provided alternative theories of knowledge, politics and rationality which replace justificationism with the critical approach. This supports classical liberalism in general and Hayek in particular. The central idea in this account of Bartley’s contribution is the liberating effect of providing an alternative to the obsession with the justification of beliefs which persists as a central (but so far unsolved) problem in the theory of knowledge. Two of the major channels of justificationism (and hence obscurantism on the major issues in the theory of knowledge and politics) are academic philosophy and the “true belief” religions.

The first section of the paper notes the damaging effect of moral relativism that is aggravated by the failure to resolve the problem of justification of beliefs. The second section examines the failure in the market of ideas which creates problems for classical liberalism which depends on free trade in ideas, critical thinking and robust debate. It also introduces the dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism which is core problem of rationality and criticism, and indicates the possibility of a solution. The third section sketches the various responses to the dilemma and the way that the classical liberalism has suffered from the “justified belief” assumption. The fourth section shows how the non-justificationist approach resolves some tensions in the treatment of rationality and criticism in the work of Popper and Hayek. The fifth section notes the use of this approach by Jan Lester in his libertarian political philosophy and the final section applies the principle to provide a rejoinder to the deconstructionists in literary theory.

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