Ian Jarvie festschrift paper: Popper’s Institutional Turn

Actually I prefer to talk about the institutional theme rather than a turn, as explained in the paper.

This has been sent to the editors of the collection to meet the mid-year deadline but it may not be too late to make changes because the editors will have a good look at the papers before finalizing the list for publication.

The Joe Agassi collection should appear from the press some time soon!

Rafe Champion

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.

  1. A common thread in Popper’s philosophy of science and his approach to social and political issues.
  2. A common thread in Popper and Hayek.
  3. 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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