Critical rationalism and the critique of constructivist rationalism

Popper, Hayek and Oakeshott were all concerned with defective forms of rationality. Popper rejected comprehensive or unlimited rationality, Hayek criticised constructivist rationality and Oakeshott famously criticised Rationalism in politics. My conclusion is that all three had substantially the same views on the use and abuse of reason.

In “The Revolt Against Reason” (OSE Chapter 24) Popper described the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism as arguably the most important intellectual and moral issues of our time. He regarded “comprehensive rationalism” as logically untenable. This as the refusal to accept any position that has not been rationally demonstrated by evidence or argument but the principle itself cannot meet the criterion and is self-contradictory. In practical terms it demands that we have to abandon all prejudices and assumptions that have not been rationally demonstrated but this is logically and psychologically impossible. All arguments proceed from premises and these cannot be conclusively justified by reason or evidence.

Popper advocated a position that he called “critical rationalism”. It is a modest position and it does not ascribe authority to any source of conclusive justification.

We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.’

Turning to Hayek’s critique of constructivist rationalism. He traced the roots of the doctrine to Descartes whose “radical doubt” led him to deny the status of truth to any statement that could not be logically derived from irrefutable premises. That is clearly the same thing as Popper’s unlimited rationality. Hayek developed his arguments in particular against the political consequences of the doctrine based on belief in a socially autonomous human Reason. This faculty is to be used to redesigning civilization and culture after disposing of all traditions and conventions that have not been sanctioned by Reason.

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) spent most of his career at  the London School of Economics working on philosophy, politics and history. He also wrote about aesthetics, morality, education and horse racing; he coauthored a book called A Guide to the Classics for picking winners at the track. He enjoyed a certain amount of influence and assumed something of a minor cult status due to his personal charm and his wide range of interests.  He is celebrated by The Oakeshott Association.

His take on rationalism is subtle and nuanced as indicated by an exchange of letters with Popper. His position on rationalism in politics is the same as that of Hayek, being opposed to the kind of  radical rationalism that would reform society root and branch regardless of the damage inflicted in the process, whether by outright violence or the destruction of valuable traditions that sustain harmonious relations. Identity politics is one of the outcomes of the approach that he criticised.

Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition

Addressing the Rationalist Press Association in 1948 Popper advocated a critical attitude towards tradition and he described this (in part) as a rejoinder to Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics. The critical approach means accepting that we all make use of traditions and there is no way to do without them although we may avoid excessive rigidity if we are willing to re-think our prejudices. This approach aims to steer between the taboos of the closed society and the “everything must go” attitude of constructivist rationalist revolutionaries. Popper objected to the kind of obscurantist conservatism that Hayek also rejected in his essay “Why I am not a conservative”.  Popper’s rejoinder to some aspects of  conservatism was the rejoinder to Oakeshottt or at least some interpretations of Oakeshott’s position. Popper also criticised the position of rationalists who dismiss traditions out of hand without attempting to understand the purposes they serve. This placed him alongside Hayek and Oakeshott in some respects. Indeed an exchange of letters between Popper and Oakeshott revealed that there was next to no difference between them when the nuances in both their positions were articulated.

That is probably all that needs to be said to indicate the alliance of Popper and Hayek on rationalism, but there is a tale to be told about William W. Bartley, III’s development of Popper’s non-authoritarian approach and especially the idea of non-justificationsm. This concept has next to no currency beyond Popper’s admirers due to the overwhelming influence of the quest for “justified true beliefs”. These beliefs are justified by some criterion that functions as the Philosopher’s Stone of epistemology. The two major “Stones” that have been advanced are sensory experiences in Empiricism and reason or intellectual insight in the Rationalist tradition.

Popper rejected both of those sources of authority in the lecture “On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance”. He favoured non-justificationism and in practice this means forming tentative critical preferences for one theory rather than another on the basis of multiple criteria. He made a concession to suggest that we might use justification in the rather limited sense of justifying (explaining) our critical preference with an account of what would count as a better theory or policy.

Bartley took hold of non-justification with both hands and practically made a career out of writing about non-justificationist rationality as though it was the New Philosopher’s Stone.  He found fault with Popper’s demarcation criterion and that precipitated  a rupture in their association that took over a decade to heal. He then became Popper’s authorised biographer and in that capacity he interviewed Hayek, resulting in an invitation to write Hayek’s biography and edit his last book, The Fatal Conceit. In this book the notion of non-justificationism turned up as an additional stick to beat constructivist rationalism! (Champion ref).

No matter what rules we follow, we will not be able to justify them as demanded; so no argument about morals – or science, or law, or language – can legitimately turn on the issue of justification (see Bartley, 1962/1984, 1964, 1982). The issue of justification is indeed a red herring, owing in part to mistaken and inconsistent assumptions arising within our main epistemological and methodological traditions, which in some cases go back to antiquity”. (Hayek, 1988, 68)

Popper criticised those assumptions in “justificationist” epistemologies and authoritarian political philosophies (Chapter 7 of The Open Society). So Popper’s non-justificationism found its way into Hayek’s final work through the agency of the editor.

Bartley did not progress far with the twin autobiographies of Popper and Hayek although he raised funds to launch a project to print a new edition of Hayek’s collected works. He only lived long enough to see the first volume off the press and the general editorship passed first to his friend Stephen Kresge and then to Professor Bruce Caldwell.

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