Tribute to Joe Agassi 90 in 2017

Joe Agassi, intellectual irritant

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

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

Unpacking the content of ideas

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

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

Objective Knowledge

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

The Synergy of Popper and the Austrian economists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popper versus paradigms in the 1930s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Ian C Jarvie

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

The Challenge of Big Science

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

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

Popper on the Moral Framework and Religious Faiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judith Buber Agassi and Charlotte Buhler

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


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