Popper’s institutional turn

The purpose of this series of posts is to explain three areas where Popper and Hayek stood together. This is often overlooked among followers of Hayek who are not interested in Popper and also followers of Popper who are not interested or well informed about Hayek. Followers of Popper are thin on the ground and so are followers of Hayek and the people who are interested and well informed about both are practically invisible. Some names in that rather exclusive club are Bill Bartley and Gerard Radnitzky (both deceased), Hans Albert (no longer active), Larry Boland, Bruce Caldwell, Jack Birner, Mark Notturno, Pedro Schwartz, Jeremy Shearmur, Ian Jarvie. There must be many more but you get the picture.

Peter Boettke provided the impetus to write these stories because his recent book on Hayek made no mention of Popper at all. This is not a fatal flaw in the book, after all it was about Hayek and it was possible to tell the story of his achievements without reference to Popper. The book did not need to be any bigger and sometimes an author can try to cover too much in a single book. Popper wrote that it is not possible to say everything at once about a complex topic! Still the message from Boettke’s book is that some of the themes are very important, especially the theme of institutional analysis and it will help to explain institutional analysis to a wider audience if make use of Popper’s contribution.

The social and institutional aspect of Popper’s thought did not get much recognition until 2001 when Ian Jarvie published The Republic of Science. Actually it didn’t get much recognition then because the book fell practically stillborn from the press. Jarvie showed that Popper pursued a social or institutional “turn” in Logik der Forschung and it appeared in English in the articles that were published in The Poverty of Historicism in 1944/45 and in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).

The “turn” was easy to miss because Popper did not pursue it himself and that task fell to others. This post describes work by Jarvie, Gombrich, Roger James, Tryell Burgess, Paul Knepper and Gordon Tullock.

The Poverty of Historicism is a short and somewhat cryptic book on the methods of the social sciences, cast as a criticism of historical determinism or the locomotive theory of history that things will happen according to a historical plan regardless of our efforts to chance the direction of events. The positive suggestion for institutional studies came in a few sentences at the very end of the book. In Section 32 Popper urged the use of institutional analysis instead of the psychological approach of Comte and Mill to explain the phenomenon of human progress. They believed that progress in science and industry is an absolute trend, based on the progressive tendency of the human mind. Popper noted that there are other tendencies of the human mind like forgetfulness, indolence and dogmatism.

This immediately leads to the realization that a psychological propensity alone cannot be sufficient to explain progress, since conditions may be found on which it may depend. Thus we must, next, replace the theory of psychological propensities by something better; I suggest, by an institutional (and technological) analysis of the conditions of progress. (Popper 1961,154).

The social approach emerged again in Chapter 23 on “The Sociology of Knowledge” in The Open Society where Popper warned that the emerging sociology of knowledge and the push for central planning were twin dangers to be confronted after the war. He 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 to argue that its focus on the origin of subjective beliefs did not engage with the proper object of inquiry, namely knowledge as a public or intersubjective product.

Further, what we call objectivity is not based on personal characteristics or psychological propensities. It will help if people adopt Popper’s proposal for the rational attitude but even if that attitude is in short supply the process of error-elimination to approach the truth can still occur through the process of open discussion supported by appropriate institutions such as free speech. (The philosopher Philip Kitcher later referred to this as well functioning cognitive community).

Thus 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 that 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.

Jarvie on The Republic of Science and beyond

Long before his work on The Republic of Science Jarvie used Popper’s situational logic to explore some contemporary issues in sociology including the nuances of explanation and understanding, the current literature on the “teenager problem” (the mutual misunderstandings between generations), and the idea of social class in Concepts and Society (1972). For his unpublished work that is on line see Jarvie’s website that was recently posted on the Facebook site]. In “Rationality and Situational Analysis in Popper’s Scientific Work” he showed how Popper exemplified the practice of situational analysis in relation to intellectual problems. He challenged the generally accepted view that Popper did not contribute to substantive problems in the social sciences by showing how Popper’s signature ideas allied with situational analysis (of texts) produced at least nineteen important contributions in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies. The signature ideas are methodological individualism, logic of the situation, unintended consequences and the rationality principle.

He classified nineteen contributions in three categories; history, sociology and political science. The history group includes the critique of historicism, an analysis of the rise of nationalism and conjectures about the Socratic Problem and the dating of Plato’s works. In sociology he cited two examples. One was the hypothesis of the “strain of civilization” in the transition between closed and open societies and the other is his sociological account of objectivity in science. In political science he referred to the protectionist theory of the state, the paradoxes of sovereignty, freedom and tolerance, and a proposal to maintain peace without punishing the individual citizens of a belligerent nation (such as Germany) in the aftermath of the Great War (Jarvie 1984).

The art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) saw The Open Society and Its Enemies through the press in 1945. Later, for the Library of Living Philosophers Popper Volume he wrote “The Logic of Vanity Fair: Alternatives to Historicism in the Study of Fashions, Style and Taste” (Gombrich 1974). He applied situational analysis and the idea of games such as “watch me” to explain phenomena including the competition between French Gothic cathedrals (each taller than the last) and the spread of innovations, fads and fashions in architecture, dress  and music. The “rules of the game” analysis might have inspired a lot of interesting work by Wittgenstein and his followers if they had addressed more substantive social and political issues in a critical and imaginative manner.

He found a more sinister example of the process in Jonathan Swift’s satire of the war between Lilliput and Blefusco that was prompted by a dispute between the “Big-Endians” and the “Little-Endians” over which end to cut off to eat a boiled egg. Gombrich used this fictional example to demonstrate the logic of escalating conflict over what should be trivial matters when they become politicized in the way that the New Left pursued in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the mantra “The personal is political”. The full fruits of this campaign are now upon us with the push for political correctness in the use of language and personal pronouns.

Roger James identified what he called the solutioneering approach to public policy-making in Return to Reason: Popper’s Thought in Public Life (1980). Solutioneering can be described as the game of “watch me” applied to social policy. It means jumping to a solution before clearly defining the problem and examining alternative strategies if indeed there is a problem that calls for intervention. Then implementing that solution drives policy regardless of the cost and the unintended consequences that might have been avoiding or minimised with appropriate planning and risk management. The game is to find a crisis, spring to a solution, [(Footnote Sowell 1988 on this] over-estimate the benefits, underestimate both the costs and the time required for implementation, insist that it is so urgent that there is no time to lose (it will cost more when the problem gets worse). If all else fails, describe the cost as a social benefit. The worldwide scramble to control the climate is a paradigm case. James described the process at work in Britain after the war in town planning, the National Health Service and some major government projects which were launched during the heyday of nationalization.

Tyrell Burgess adopted Popper’s approach in his work on education policy in Britain. He pursued strategies to improve literacy and learning without trying to simultaneously fix all the things that “holistic” commentators regarded as the cause of problems in education: race, unemployment, inequality, poor housing, ill health, old school buildings, unsupportive parents. He called this approach “multiple digression analysis” and he suggested instead to find more effective teaching methods by testing and selecting the best among the various methods that are available (Burgess 1985).

Paul Knepper drew a comparison between the approach of the Austrians and Popper in his account of “situational crime prevention”. This calls for analysis of the opportunities that criminals exploit followed by steps to reduce the opportunities and increase the costs. He cited Popper and Gary Becker as the inspiration for this approach and he referred to a substantial body of literature on the topic (Knepper 2017).

Tullock met Popper at Princeton circa 1963 and he  put aside his work on the politics of bureaucracy and turned to write 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.

He suggested that a self-perpetuating process could occur in a journal or a field of research dominated by “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.

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.

That should be enough to indicate some of the fertility of the program that Popper wittingly or unwittingly initiated by his fragmentary comments on the institutional organization of science.

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2 Responses to Popper’s institutional turn

  1. David C. Norris says:

    Fine essay, thanks! FYI Roger James’s ‘Return to Reason’ cited above has been posted online: http://www.the-rathouse.com/James/Introduction.html.

  2. Rafe says:

    Thanks for mentioning that David, Roger’s book is a really useful contribution because it uses very practical examples. I especially appreciate his account of “solutioneering”!

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