Compulsory PhDs and the publish or perish syndrome

The Australian poet, academic and critic A D Hope published “Literature versus the Universities” after a 1958 tour of Canada, Great Britain and the United States. He reported that the standards of scholarship and criticism were high but “I found myself getting more and more uneasy, until uneasiness in the end grew into a kind of nightmare”. Hope’s story began in the 19th century when the study of English literature began to displace the classics from the centre of university studies in the humanities. At the beginning of the 20th century English studies beyond the first degree were pursued by poorly paid and dedicated scholars who mostly carried on their studies for their own sake.

Everything changed in the 20th century as the universities expanded and Hope expected to see a great deal more although rapid growth had not started in Australia in 1958. When he wrote the US had about 2.5 million students in some 2000 institutions and nearly all of those students did some English given the pattern of two or three years of general studies prior to graduate study for a profession. That created a very large demand for English teachers and increasingly the teachers required doctorates. English ranked fifth in the number of doctoral theses produced, after Chemistry, Education, Economics and Physics.

“Universities now have a high prestige and offer high rates of pay and good chances for advancement. English, from a new and not very utilitarian subject has become a high-pressure industry.” That means the doctorate is absolutely required for appointment and Hope had some difficulty in explaining how in Australia he could be a professor and head of department without being Dr Hope. Hence the pressure to publish or perish among graduate students and teachers as well. In the space of a generation research and scholarship shifted from a focus on the books to provide more knowledge, to provide good texts, to establish the canon of a writer’s works, and to clear up misunderstandings by historical criticism. “Now the purpose of nine-tenths of the research and criticism that goes on is to help the researcher to qualify in the great rat-race”.

Turning to the material available for research by the growing army of thesis writers he suggested that there were well under a thousand English writers of even moderate literary importance between the Venerable Bede and Robert Browning to provide material for the 1710 English doctorates accepted in the US between 1940 and 1950 (not counting the ones that were written and not accepted). Looking ahead 50 years with the current growth rate he could see that some 10,000 topics for research would be required per decade and he could see that the pace was quickening so by the end of the century as many as 300,000 topics might be required.

“The immense pressure to find fresh material for research and criticism has meant that the field has been ransacked to its very dregs and many writers better left forgotten have been dug up and become the subject of serious critical studies.” So we have studies of the lesser known poems of the lesser known female poets of the Xth century.

He had more to say about the adverse effect of these developments on creative writers. Whatever that may be, the consequences for scholarship of the escalation of the publish or perish regime are clear, with more and more being learned about less and less, often enough rendered even more inconsequential by the obscurantism of High Theory. To some extent the proliferation of literary theories can be seen as a response to the demand for original theses because each new theory provides an opportunity to reinterpret the old works.

Moving on to economics, Mark Blaug circa the year 2000 explained how the political economy of publishing for professional recognition tended to lock mathematical formalism in place in economics. He started with the proposition that American economics dominates economics in the western.

“American economics is dominated by the 4,500 new doctorates in economics who each year seek employment in 3000 institutions of higher learning.” Publishing is the key to appointment, tenure, promotion and grant money. Publications can be submitted to one of about 300 refereed journals in English, although the fast track is to publish in one of the dozen or so leading journals.

About 4000 to 5000 papers in economics are published every year. These are refereed by perhaps 200 to 300 academics at the top American universities, whose students will become the referees of papers in the next generation, papers that will of course look very much like the papers that they are now themselves writing and publishing.

There is a huge incentive to meet the standards set by the leading journals because that is the way to be employed in prestigious universities where the salaries are in the order of double those earned in “academic ‘Siberia’”. He wondered how many ambitious young academics would be prepared to ignore the fashion and do something different, instancing Akerlof’s “Market for Lemons” (turned down three times over four years before publication), Arthur’s “Computing Technologies, Increasing Returns, and Lock-In by Historical Events (rejected three times and rewritten 14 times over six years). After he wrote there is the case of the late Stanley Wong who eventually left the profession and turned to the Law, becoming a senior partner in a Toronto law firm.

Whatever we may say against technique-ridden mathematically expressed modelling of economic phenomena, the fact remains that papers written in this form are easier to produce once the formula has been learned, although the initial investment costs of acquiring the technique are high and certainly easier to appraise and referee than those written in words and diagrams.

Competition for research grants parallels the demands of publication for professional advancement. The result is a constant and overwhelming demand to produce research results regardless of the aptitude or the desire of the student or the academic to do so.

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US Arts Funding: luck and cunning!

Not new but illuminating, a study of public policy relating  to arts funding, by a really interesting person, Tyler Cowen. His site.

The book, Good and Plenty: The Creative Success of American Arts Funding. Princeton Uni, 2006.

Good research and scholarship can change the way we see the world. Tyler Cowen achieved this with his study of the counterproductive impact of the Marshall Plan that delivered aid to Europe after WW2. This story can be found on his web site and it might have warned the West off the disastrous aid programs to the Third World that were partly inspired by the Marshall Plan.

He has done it again in this book where his intention to steer the arts policy debate away from its previous focus on the National Endowment for the Arts. “More significant questions concern the use of our tax system to support nonprofits, creating a favourable climate for philanthropy, the legal treatment of the arts, the arts in the American university, and the evolution of copyright law. I also seek to recast the debate over direct funding of the arts…A more fruitful inquiry involves what general steps a government can take to promote a wide variety of healthy and diverse funding sources for the arts.”

Cowen is a professor of economics at the George Mason University (Virginia) and a daily contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. He has a special interest in the economics and dynamics of the arts and culture, using culture in the broad sense employed by T S Eliot to include the preparation and consumption of food. Ironically (or appropriately) the most popular page on his personal web site is his ethnic eating guide to the Northern Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland area.

He has previously challenged widespread views about the damaging influence of capitalism and mass consumer culture on the vitality and diversity of the arts. “In Praise of Commercial Culture” surveyed the last two or three centuries to show how the capitalist market economy provided a vital but underappreciated framework to support a wide range of artistic visions. In “Creative Destruction” he pursued the same theme to argue that international free trade in goods and ideas will alter or disrupt many particular cultures but the net result will be positive.

In “Good and Plenty” Cowen is looking for some middle ground between libertarians who oppose any kind of government interference in the arts and others who think that the very survival of the creative instinct depends on the generosity of governments. The book is a remarkable contribution at the conceptual level and also with the mass of information that he has assembled on the diverse forms of direct and indirect assistance that US governments have provided. He set out to bridge the gap between economic and aesthetic perspectives because neither of these approaches can stand alone as a tool for evaluating policy. He explains how the US managed to combine luck and cunning to organise arts funding in a remarkably effective way, bearing in mind that the controversial NEA program accounts for less than 1% of public support for the arts.

His chapter on “Indirect Subsidies: The Genius of the American System” catalogues the many forms of indirect support (form tax breaks to the universities) that represent the overwhelming majority of public funding for arts and culture. A chapter gives the history of direct funding, and he argues, contra received opinion, that direct funding is likely to be too conservative. The descriptive material in these two chapters conveys a surprising and counter-intuitive perception of the role of the US government in cultural affairs. Another chapter gives a somewhat disconcerting account of the mounting challenges from cyberspace to the benefits that creators and distributors of cultural have gained from traditional copyright laws. He ends his (possibly) somewhat rose-tinted account with suggestions for improvement of the system.

To get straight on the figures, he reports that donations (from both individuals and corporations) listed as tax deductions for ‘Arts, Culture and Humanities’ amounted to $30 billion in 2003. Compare this with NEA funding which peaked at $175 million in 1992. He estimates that donations of time amount to some 390,000 volunteers with a dollar value in the order of $20 billion. In contrast the French government limits tax deductions for the arts to 1% of taxable income for individuals and 0.1% for corporations. Germany allows deductions but bureaucratic restrictions make the scheme unworkable.  He  noted that some foreign firms make up for the parsimony of their own governments by giving generously in the US through their US-based subsidiaries!

Cowen casts his net wide for examples of indirect support such as the Government promotion of international free trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organisation. Imported artworks are exempt from duty and until recently we are advised that the US government turned a blind eye to imports of antiques from ancient civilisations that may have been stolen or acquired in black or grey markets. Yet another form of support is the higher education system which provides a niche for large numbers of writers, artists and musicians despite reservations by many creative people about academic influences.

Direct funding commenced in a small way in 1817 with a commission of paintings to celebrate the Revolutionary War. The New Deal in the 1930s produced the first large-scale effort with assorted programs including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) employing 5000 artists per year at the peak and 40,000 all told. The total cost of WPA programs through the New Deal to their close in 1943 ran to the vicinity of $100 million, equivalent to $2 billion today.

The Cold War prompted government aid far in excess of the generosity of the New Deal, through such a wide range of agencies and programs (including comprehensive cultural control in Germany, Austria and Japan for several years) that the amount of money involved is very hard to estimate. Cowen estimated that cultural outreach peaked in 1953 at $129 million, over $700 million in current dollars and that was only a part of a much larger propaganda effort that spent up to $2 billion per annum, employed over ten thousand people and reached 150 countries. As a wry aside, Cowen notes that the current allocation for military bands at $200 million exceeds the funds dispensed by the NEA.

Getting back to the domestic function of direct support for the arts, Cowen points out that agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts can either act as venture capitalists to simulate new artistic ideas (hopefully picking artistic winners) or they can focus on works of high culture that have stood the test of time. Their efforts tend to be split between these roles, trying to be all things to all people to ensure their political survival. The sums of money distributed in direct support of the arts at home are negligible compared with the volume of indirect support and so the fuss about NEA funding is a storm in a teacup and it is most unhelpful that the debate on public funding for the arts is mostly about the use and abuse of these funds.

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Popper’s Institutional Turn

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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Champion R A 1992 Review of The Fatal Conceit in the Melbourne Age Monthly Review August. Reprinted in Champion (2013) Chapter 4.

Champion R A 2013 Commentary on Hayek. Amazon.

Champion R A 2013b Hayek, Bartley and Popper: Justificationism and the Abuse of Reason in R Leeson (ed) Hayek: A Collaborative Biography. Part 1 Influences, from Mises to Bartley. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Collingwood R G 1957 An Autobiography. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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Fanelli D 2012 Negative results are disappearing from most disciplines and countries. Sociometrics 90 (3): 891–904.

Fang F C, Casadevall A and Morrison R P 2011 Retracted Science and the retraction index. Infect. Immunol. 78 (10) 3855-3859.

Fuller Steve 2000 The Governance of Science. Open University Press, Buckingham.

Greenberg D S 2001. Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. Chicago University Press.

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Hayek F A  1991 The Fatal Conceit. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Heclo H  2008 On Thinking Institutionally. Paradigm Publishing, London.

Horton R  2015  Offline: What is medicine’s 5 sigma? Vol. 385 April 11.

Jarvie Ian C 2001 The republic of science: The emergence of Popper’s social view of science 1935-1945. Ripodi, Amsterdam.

Klein D B and Romero P P 2007 Model building versus theorising: The paucity of theory in The Journal of Economic Theory. Econ Journal Watch 4 (2): 241-271.

Koestler A 1967 The Act of Creation. Pan, London.

Levy D M and Peart S J 2015 Gordon Tullock and Karl Popper: Their Correspondence.

McCloskey D N 2006 The bourgeois virtues: Ethics for an age of commerce. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

McCloskey D N 2010 Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.North D 1993 Economic Performance Through Time.

Polanyi M 1962 The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory, Minerva1:54-73.

Polanyi M 1958 Personal Knowledge. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1966 The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1963 The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1963 Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge, London.

Popper K R 1972 The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson, London.

Ravetz J 1971 Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Shills E 1972 The Intellectuals and the Powers, and Other Essays. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Tullock G 1965 The Organization of Inquiry. Duke University Press, Durham NC.Wetttersten J 2006 Essay review of The Republic of Science, Philosophy of Science 73 (1): 108-121.

Wettersten J Karl Popper: Critical Rationalism The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Hamming and Mills on research and scholarship

Richard Hamming and C. Wright Mills each made helpful contributions on the strategy and the craft of research, scholarship and writing. Hamming conveyed the results of his experience and research in a long talk which can also be found in a short form (Google Hamming+your research). He offered suggestions for people who want to do work that makes a difference, in contrast with the average paper which is read by the author, the referee, and perhaps one other person. The Mills contribution is an appendix to his book The Sociological Imagination.

Hamming observed many outstanding thinkers at close range, notably Feynman and others in the Mannhattan Project and Shannon (a great pioneer of information theory) when they shared a room at the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

His advice in a nutshell: Work on the right problem at the right time in the right way.

Choosing the problem

He emphasised the need to work on the important problems in the field at the time, so the best scientists will have a list of those problems, they will constantly review the list to re-set priorities, and they will focus on a problem where there appears to be an opening or an “attack”, as he called it. He suggested to be careful about the company we keep, aim to spend time with people who are themselves working on major problems and who are willing to share ideas about them.

“I begin with the choice of problem. Most scientists spend almost all of their time working on problems that even they admit are neither great or are likely to lead to great work; hence, almost surely, they will not do important work.”

At the Bell Telephone Laboratories he ate lunch with the mathematicians for some time until he found that they were not serious enough so he moved on to dine at the physics table. That was good for a few years until the Nobel Prize, promotions, and offers from other companies took their toll and he shifted to the chemistry table.

“At first I asked what were the important problems in chemistry, then what important problems they were working on, or problems that might lead to important results. One day I asked, “if what they were working on was not important, and was not likely to lead to important things, they why were they working on them?” After that I had to eat with the engineers!”

Personal characteristics

On personal traits, he nominated high levels of activity and energy, emotional commitment, willingness to go “the extra mile”, courage and the ability to tolerate ambiguity.

“There is another trait that took me many years to notice, and that is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Most people want to believe what they learn is the truth: there are a few people who doubt everything. If you believe too much then you are not likely to find the essentially new view that transforms a field, and if you doubt too much you will not be able to do much at all. It is a fine balance between believing what you learn and at the same time doubting things. Great steps forward usually involve a change of viewpoint to outside the standard ones in the field.”

For that reason, he was impressed by the way that transforming steps often came from outsiders; he instanced carbon dating which came came from physics and the first airplane was built by the Wright brothers who were bicycle experts.

Arthur Koestler in “The Act of Creation” developed a theory to account for scientific discovery by way of a “bisociation of matrices” or in other words the intersection of lines of thought which brings together hitherto unconnected ideas from different fields. This accounts for the fertility of interdisciplinary work and the phenomenon that someone described in terms of “the poacher (the intruder who should not be there) getting the fattest rabbits”.

Liam Hudson speculated on the characteristics of original thinkers in the concluding pages of his book Contrary Imaginations. He listed persistence, self-confidence and predatoriness. The successful scientists is likely to be adventurous, something of a swashbuckler, quoting from Freud.

I am not really a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, and not a thinker. I am nothing but by temperament a conquistador (italics) – an adventurer, if you want to translate the word – with all the curiosity, the boldness, the tenacity that belongs to that type of being.


When the work is done, then there is a need for selling, something that many scientists find beneath them. The good scientist will become expert in three types of presentations, first the major paper (preferably in a high impact journal), second the short summary presentation and the “on your feet” contribution in the heat of discussion at conferences and seminars.

No one ever told me the kinds of things I have just related to you; I had to find them out for myself. Since I have now told you how to succeed, you have no excuse for not trying and doing great work in your chosen field.

Intellectual craftsmanship

Moving on to C. Wright Mills “On Intellectual Craftsmanship“. This is written for serious scholars and researchers who regard themselves as a part of a classic tradition, for whom “soial science is the practice of a craft”. The practice of this craft is an integral part of life; “scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of a career”.

This calls for serious organization and a certain amount of “life planning”, starting with a set of files which function like the journal of the creative writer. In the file “there is joined personal experiences and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned”. The file has to be under constant review, storing personal experiences and drafts of material that will eventually find their way into project plans and publications.

As for plans, he deplored the usual practice of planning in the course writing grant applications. These are more like PR than serious planning, angling to get funds for topics that are fashionable, fitting the prevailing paradigm, maybe “politically correct” or “trendy” (not terms he used).

A scientist in full flight should have so many plans, or ideas, that the problem is – which to work on at any given time? “He should keep a special little file for his master agenda, which he writes and rewrites just for himself and perhaps for discussion with friends. From time to time he ought to review this very carefully and purposefully, and sometimes, too, when he is relaxed.”

Three interludes

In a flourishing intellectual community there will be interludes of discussion about future work.

“Three kinds of interludes – on problems, methods, theory – ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by the work in progress and to some extent guide that work”.

As work proceeds over the years and decades the files will multiply into sets and subsets reflecting work that is being completed and published, work in progress, work that is seriously planned and more nebulous and speculative ideas that may bear fruit if an “attack” turns up.

The files will contain masses of notes based on reading and Mills explained the various types of reading, and the various types of notes that are required at the different stages of a project, illustrated by his own series of books on the various strata of US sciety, possibly inspired by the French novelist Balzac who set to write stories about life at levels of society in France at his time.

As to the conditions of work, like Hamming he commented on the need to cultivate good friends and professional associates, people who will listen and talk, even including imaginary characters!

“I try to surround myself with all the relevant environment- socia and intellectual – that I think might lead me into thinking well along the lines of my work. That is one meaning of my remarks above on the fusion of personal and intellectual life”.

One of the tasks of research in sociology as Mill practiced it is to shuttle back and forth between the classic work in the field and the contemporary literature. Out of this dialectic comes the quest for information to test his ideas. He was under no illusion about starting with facts and one of the chapters in The Sociological Imagination is a crushing critique of “Abstracted Empiricism”. Another chapter is an equally devastating criticism of “Grand Theory” that is not controlled by testing.

“There is no more virtue in empirical inquiry as such than in reading a book. The purpose of empirical inquiry is to settle disagreements and doubts about facts, and thus to make arguments more fruitful by basing all sides more substantively. Facts discipline reason; but reason is the advance guard in any field of learning“. (my emphasis).

Of course he was using reason in the broad sense to include imagination and the use of the mind in all sorts of ways.

Writing: themes and topics

Mills addressed the task of writing up the book (which he assumed to be the outcome of the project) in terms of themes and topics (a distinction which he attributed to a great editor, Lambert Davis). A topic is a subject which might be treated in a chapter of the book. The order of chapters brings up the issue of themes.

“A theme is an idea, usually of some signal trend, some master conception, or a key distinction, like rationality and reason, for example. In working out the construction of a book, when you come to realise the two or three, or as the case may be, the six or seven themes, then you will know that you are on top of the job. ”

These themes will keep turning up in connection with the different topics, they may appear to be repetitious, they may at first be confused and poorly formulated.

“What you must do is sort them out and state them in a general way as clearly and briefly as you can…cross classify them with the full range of the topics…At some point all the themes should appear together, in relation to one another…maybe at the beginning of the book, certainly near the end…It is easier to write about this than to do it, for it is usully not so mechanical a matter as it may appear…Sometimes you may find that a book does not really have any themes. It is just a string of topics, surrounded of course by methodological introductions to methodolgy, and theoretical introductions to theory. These are indeed quite indispensable to the writing of books by men without ideas. And so is lack of intelligibility”.


“To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose. It is much less important to study grammar and Anglo-Saxon roots than to clarify your answers to these three questions: (1) How difficult and complex after all is my subject? (2) When I write, what status am I claiming for myself? (3) For whom am I trying to write?”

This is probably the time to re-read George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.

People who are serious about research and writing could do worse than re-visit the Hamming and Mills papers and Orwell’s essay every four or five years to check that we are on track and getting the small things right, as football coaches like to say.

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On the road in the Middle Kingdom

This is a report on my visit to China with my friend Amy to broaden my  mind,  to meet her family in Beijing and to visit the village where she spent 8 years as a peasant in the Cultural Revolution. Her father owned a factory and shops to sell bowler hats and accessories to the pre-revolutionary gentry. He was allowed to manage his shop after the 1949 revolution but in the 1968 Cultural Revolution he and his family was declared black and he was put in confinement without communication for the ten years of the revolution. The five older children were dispatched from their university studies to separate provinces to learn from the factory workers, soldiers and peasants. They all survived and resumed more or less normal life when Mao died and the Gang of Four were executed.

Amy studied English and taught at university until she came to Australia in 1994 to teach Chinese to Australian businessmen. She took a degree in maths and stayed on as a high school maths teacher until she retired last year and turned her mind to a memoire of the Cultural Revolution and started a uni course in Philosophy.

Starting in Beijing we are housed by  one of her sisters. Amy is one of seven who all have one-child families so she is spared an army of nephews and nieces. Some of them are having children so the numbers are growing.

There is no access to google or Facebook. Baidu is the search engine and WeChat is for communication. Email comes to my phone but not the computer.

One of the nephews took some time off to join us on the trip to the country. He is 45, did Law in Germany and now works in the administration on regulation in the finance sector, especially investment trusts. He is alert and interested in what his happening in the world, in the US and in relations between China and US. We managed to discuss a few issues but it was pick and shovel work going through Amy as the interpreter.

We took the fast train together from Beijing to Loyang. Cruising at a lazy 300 kpm we were well within the capacity of 400. The country was very flat and mostly close cropped farmland and nurseries of poplars. And a couple of small herds of Fresians in sheds!

After overnighting we took a hirecar to the village. Amy had previously made arrangements with the Head Man of the village and she knew that he had located a small number of people who remembered her.

The village is located 850 km west of Beijing, slightly south. It is on a plateau and the soil is deep yellow soil no stones.  There were virtually no trees although a lot of fruit trees and poplars have been planted in recent times. No flies and no mosquitos. No rivers or streams for irrigation. Farming depended on the rain. The village well for domestic use was 120 meters deep.

A generation ago there were almost 2000 people in the village, divided into 15 brigades of 100 to 200 people. Each brigade had its own field. Everyone except children worked in the fields from dawn to dusk, seven days a week apart from a few religious festivals. At important times like the harvest, working from dawn to dusk meant getting up and going to the field in the dark so work could start at crack of dawn.

The crops were wheat and cotton. The diet was essentially bread from the local crop with next to no vegetables and meat once a year. No local train, no high school and no electricity. Half the villagers lived in caves and the others in houses made of the local soil pounded into adobe between temporary wooden frames.

We had no idea what to expect and indeed the place was completely transformed. It had the appearance of a small run down Australian country town, main roads and streets sealed, then gravel or dirt. Nobody was in caves and most of the adobe houses were replaced with modest brick dwellings. All around were neatly sown fields of wheat about knee high, and a lot of peaches. No cotton. There are 17 bores replacing the well, they are 220 metres deep and they draw water for the peaches and vegetables.

We found the Head Man and he introduced us to a family who run a small flour mill. We were joined by the local Party Secretary. The HM and the PS were the very heart and soul of hospitality and they took as to lunch at the village restaurant. This was a veritable banquet and they were obviously out to impress! The Miller was our designated guide and he stayed with us after the HM and the PS took their leave soon after lunch. The Miller is 49, he runs the family business and he also sank two bores which enables him to sell water.

The really interesting news is that the land is fully privatized. Each brigade was allocated their field and that was subdivided equally among the families. Anything they produce above their own needs they can sell in the open market without government tax!! Some of the more enterprising villagers specialize in planting and harvesting with small machinery, so the equipment is not jointly owned but subcontracted. Farmers can sell their plots. No doubt they will be consolidated. This area is moderately prosperous, in the poor farmlands the state supports farmers to stay on the land to slow the drift to the city.

We had some questions and Amy translated the answers, more pick and shovel work. We were told everyone in the village has a car, actually that translates as motorized transport by scooter or motor tricycle. The only car we saw was a small sedan driven by the HM. The only significant vehicles were strictly work-related small trucks and pickups. People used to eat meat once a year, now they can have meat every day. A bit of exaggeration, even the middle class professionals in Amy’s family eat little meat. Still, a different universe from the 1970s.

Electricity for lights came in the mid 1970s. Amy did not remember it, she only had light after dark from a tiny bowl of oil with a wick, so no reading! In the last 10 years there has been electricity for other domestic purposes and also the pumps for the bores, hence the fruit and vegetables.

In the afternoon we got to meet some people who could remember Amy and there were some touching scenes, especially with a very old couple who used to cook every evening meal for Amy and her companion when they first arrived. They were virtually schoolgirls from the urban elite with no experience of working all day and fending for themselves in the evening. Amy was so pleased to have the opportunity to thank them for their kindness almost 50 years ago but she was sad to see how they were aged. The old lady was bent double with arthritis and the old man was almost equally stooped. Amy remembered him as a tall man with the looks of a film star.

Many pictures to recall the day but no opportunity to post on Facebook☺

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Hayek in Australia 1976

Between 3 October and 6 November 1976, F.A. Hayek spent five busy weeks in Australia with more than 60 appointments, seminars, informal meetings and formal presentations (Appendix 1). He and his wife travelled almost the full length of the east coast from Cairns and the Barrier Reef in Queensland to Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide in the south with excursions to the country in Victoria and Queensland. Roger Randerson, a finance journalist and economics commentator, masterminded the tour.

The suggestion of a tour arose in 1975; but Hayek (1899-1992) did not pursue that proposal until he accepted an invitation to visit Japan late in 1976 and indicated to Randerson that he could fit in a short Australian tour. Initial inquiries yielded no major sponsors for the tour so Randerson (1912-1991) and Ronald Kitching (1929-2011) underwrote the costs. Eventually some sixty donors contributed sums ranging from AU$50 to AU$2000.

The political situation, 1976

The central issue in Australian politics was the willingness and ability of the newly-elected Liberal and Country Party coalition led by Malcolm Fraser to regain control of the economy after the big spending and other initiatives of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) administration under Gough Whitlam (1972 – 1975). Inflation peaked at over 15 per cent in 1974: unemployment was 6 per cent during Hayek’s visit. There were also major issues to be resolved regarding monetary policy and the then-fixed exchange rate.

The political debate was soured by the resentment of Labor Party supporters following the 1975 Constitutional crisis which the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, resolved by dismissing the Whitlam government (11 November) and appointing Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. The Liberal-Country Party coalition won the resulting general election in a landslide (13 December).

There were high hopes for the Fraser administration in conservative circles; some progressives were alarmed by a rumour that he was a reader of Ayn Rand. That was before it became apparent that Fraser was the kind of conservative who Hayek (1960, Appendix)  had in mind when he wrote “Why I am not a conservative” – a man more concerned with holding political power than limiting it and prepared to protect existing industries rather than sweeping away obstacles to free development.

A little-noticed chapter suggested that the conservative side of Australian politics at the 1974 election was less market-oriented than the Labor Party (Ray 1974).  Consequently, Hayek’s views were not music to the ears of Prime Minister Fraser (or the elders of the Coalition government), as indicated by recollections of their meeting (Appendix 2). Milton and Rose Friedman (1998, 431-432) received much the same reception from Fraser (then leader of the Opposition) when they visited Australia in 1975.

 The climate of ideas, mid-1970s

In the mid-1970s, interventionism dominated the formation and discussion of public policy. The strength of interventionist tendencies on the both sides of politics can be seen in the tenor of criticism of the so-called New Right a decade later when the Labor administration led by Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating  initiated  some significant deregulation.

For many years the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Melbourne was the major source of informed economic commentary on the conservative side of politics. Formed in 1943 – pre-dating the Mont Pelerin Society (1947) – it functioned as a check on the socialist agenda of the Australian Labor Party. J. Walter (1988) described how the war provided the incentive for central planning and the federal public service doubled in size Australia between 1939 and 1945: “Curtin’s reform-oriented ALP government in 1941 caught the imagination of the intelligentsia who saw it as the vehicle for the new order”. Walter drew on the autobiography of H. “Nugget” Coombs (1981), the most influential advisor to Labor and Liberal governments over many years, to show how the new order would be based on central control of the economy, using the Keynesian insights to deliver sustained economic growth with full employment and other social benefits.

It was not only ALP supporters who were impressed by John Maynard Keynes. Much the same happened to the some leaders of the non-Labor forces, chief among them the remarkable mover-and-shaker, Herbert Gepp, who formed the IPA and charged C. D. ‘Ref’ Kemp with the task of producing a program for it. This work turned out to be a major source of ideas for the new Liberal Party under Prime Minister Robert Menzies (1943-46; 1949-1966). According to Walters (1988), “By the late 1930s Gepp, like Coombs, had discovered Keynes, and begun to propound a version of neo-Keynesian economic planning. Unlike Coombs, however, he drew the line at anything that looked like collectivism”.

Walter’s account is supported by Kemp’s (1988) contribution to the same volume and by John Hyde’s (2003) later research.  The Keynesian synthesis of private ownership and state planning provided a framework of ideas that the social engineers and the business community could share, even while they disagreed on details. This framework included a highly interventionist function for the state, and neglected the microeconomic foundations of productivity. Much of the institutional framework had been put in place by the first Federal Government in the early years of the twentieth century with tariff protection for industry and central wage fixing for the workers.

Classical liberalism and libertarianism had practically no profile in Australia – until in 1975 a new party with a libertarian program and aroused a deal of disbelief but little electoral support. First called the Workers Party – heightening disbelief -, later the Progress Party, and currently the Liberal Democratic Party, it has recently won a seat in the Federal Senate. In 1976, the pros and cons of economic rationalism or deregulation were not yet significant topics for public discussion, and there was still a serious battle to be fought on the conservative side of politics before the agenda of deregulation achieved full support in the Liberal Party at the end of the 1980s.

Hayek’s Australian tour came some time before the network of academics, the new think tanks and the “backbench Dries” of the Liberal Party achieved some traction in the debate on public policy. For example the flagship of the new thinktanks, the Centre for Independent Studies, was not even a drawer in Greg Lindsay’s filing cabinet when Hayek visited, although it rapidly progressed and three years later published some of the papers that Hayek (1979a; 1979b) delivered on the tour.

 Hayek on Tour

Hayek arrived two years after sharing the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal for their work on money, economic fluctuations and the institutional analysis of economic phenomena. In a remarkable piece of synchronicity, in June 1974, a small group of American economists convened at South Royalton, Vermont, for the first of a series of meetings which started the revival of the Austrian School of Economics. Hayek’s most recent major works were the three-volume Law, Legislation and Liberty: Rules and Order (1973), The Mirage of Social Justice (1976a) and The Political Order of a Free Society (1979c); plus Full Employment at Any Price? (1975), Choice in Currency (1976b) and Denationalisation of Money (1976c).

The Law, Legislation and Liberty trilogy were products of his “pathology of reason” project that commenced with The Road to Serfdom (1944) and extended to his last book The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988).  The three major speeches that he delivered on the tour drew upon that work which was primarily philosophical and political in nature. In ‘The Atavism of Social Justice’, delivered at the University of Sydney, Hayek (1979a, 15) pursued the controversial theme that dominated much of his mature work, that our instinctive moral sentiments were formed at a time when our ancestors lived in small bands and the ethos of sharing has been recruited in modern times to support the idea that justice is all about redistribution of wealth. The result is a push for systems and institutions which politicise and undermine the classical principle of equalitarian justice, and also impede the generation of wealth which is required to improve the lot of everyone in the long term. At the conclusion of the talk he very briefly made a crucial point about evolutionary theories and competition for “survival of the fittest”. His analysis had little to do with “social Darwinism” and competition between individuals; he was concerned with the sustainability of social and political orders and in this context the main benefit that we obtain from competitive selection is “the competitive selection of social institutions.”

‘Socialism and Science’ was delivered to the Canberra branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand (Hayek 1976e). Wolfgang Kasper’s (Appendix 3) account of the meeting conveys a sense of the excitement of the event and the responses aroused from all sides. Hayek established a good rapport with the audience and delivered a line that “brought the house down”: “I have been ill and I have tried old age. It was not to my liking! Who has the next question?”

Hayek (1976e) mentioned some of the issues addressed in the “pathology of reason” project, namely the unhelpful theories of science and rationality that he labelled “scientism” and “constructivism” respectively. He examined the way that socialists attempted to quarantine their ideas from scientific appraisal and he went on to another aspect of the project concerned with rationality and the formation and appraisal of social norms and moral rules. His position in The Fatal Conceit (1988, 21) aroused concerns that his interest in social institutions had led him away from political individualism in the direction of collectivism and some passages in this paper stand as a partial corrective to that perception. Against the genuine collectivists whose efforts to apply reason to generate new moral codes hark back to primitive instincts, he argued: “The [classical] liberal must claim the right critically to examine every single value or moral rule of his society…Our moral task must indeed be a constant struggle to resolve moral conflicts, or to fill gaps in our moral code … [towards] the order of peace and mutually-adjusted efforts, which is the ultimate value that our moral conduct enhances. Our moral rules must be constantly tested against and if necessary adjusted to each other, in order to eliminate conflicts between the different rules, and also so as to make them serve the same functioning order of human actions.” The purpose is to promote rules of the social game that tend to generate peace, freedom and prosperity.[i]

Rules to promote freedom and democracy were the focus of Hayek’s (1979b) speech to the IPA (Sydney Branch) on ‘Whither Democracy?’ He articulated serious doubts about the sustainability of democracy as long as the notion of “majority rule” is not corrected by devices to minimise the risk of a tyranny of the majority. This has pressing contemporary relevance as the advance of welfare state entitlements has created a great deal of debt and doubts are raised about the capacity of any political party to find the will and the popular support required to make the system sustainable.

Hayek’s (1976d) extempore address at the IPA Annual General Meeting (taped and published in the IPA Review) dwelt on economic themes and revealed that Hayek’s longstanding connection with the Institute “played a considerable role in the development of my writings… I received an invitation to contribute an article to your Review. I wrote up for that purpose, which otherwise I would never have done, a diagnosis of the then existing situation…under the title ‘Full Employment, Planning and Inflation’ [1950].” He claimed that his analysis at that time essentially predicted the kind of outcomes that eventually emerged as “stagflation” in the 1970s, quoting the conclusion of the 1950 paper: “It must appear more than doubtful whether, in the nature of democratic institutions, it is possible that democratic governments will ever learn to exercise that restraint, which is the essence of economic wisdom, of not using palliatives for present ills which not only create worse problems later but also constantly restrict the freedom of further action”.

Hayek obtained significant public exposure on the weekly current affairs TV program ‘Monday Conference’ (11 October 1976) which was shown nationwide on the free-to-air public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).  This aroused strong reactions from supporters; and a persistent Marxist critic, University of Sydney Associate Professor of Economics Debesh Battarcharaya, received equally enthusiastic endorsement from the other side of the “house”.  Battarcharaya elicited from Hayek one of the memorable takeaway lines of the tour “I don’t want to trade discourtesies with you.” Robert Moore presided over the proceedings and maintained a balance of voices in the exchanges which enabled Hayek to range over many aspects of his social, political and economic ideas. One of these was the theme of his ‘Whither Democracy’ address, voicing concern that the erosion of authority by special interest groups would cause serious problems and this will discredit democracy.  But he insisted that “What has failed is not democracy as such, it’s a particular form of democracy which we have had.”

 Out of the public eye

There were many – mostly off the record – private engagements. The details of Hayek’s meeting with Prime Minister Fraser have not previously been reported (Appendix 2).

Hayek and his wife went off-the-beaten track into the countryside. A trip to a Victorian forest enabled them to hear – and more rarely – see the famous lyre birds.  On his visit to Melbourne, Hayek and his wife stayed for some days at the home of C.D. (Ref) Kemp and Mrs. Betty Kemp at Mount Macedon. Mrs. Hayek, with her interest in astronomy, was keen to see an eclipse and Mt. Macedon was expected to be a good vantage point. In the event, clouds prevented a sighting. The Sydney Morning Herald (25 Oct 1976) reported: “Thousands of scientists and amateur astronomers, stationed at centres along the band of totality, were largely thwarted by the heavy cloud cover of much of south-eastern Australia on Saturday”.

Kemp had had a long acquaintance with Hayek’s thought and The Road to Serfdom had been one of the intellectual inputs into the work of the IPA, where Kemp had been economic adviser and then Director.  The IPA Review from the late 1940s published articles by Hayek which Ref Kemp had sought out.  The Kemps and the Hayeks got on well together and greatly enjoyed each others’ company. Hayek’s favourite room was the library. Ref Kemp recalled that Hayek took Tolstoy’s War and Peace off the shelves and commented that, in his view, this one was the best translations.  Hayek inadvertently allowed his cigarette to burn a mark on a small polished coffee table in the library: the Kemps ever after referred to it as ‘the Hayek table’ and refrained from repolishing it.

Ron Kitching hosted the Hayeks on his farm and provided an opportunity to come to grips with a giant bull named ‘Inflation’: “When he arrived we had a celebratory drink of his favourite tipple, Johnny Walker Black Label. ‘When ever I drink this brand of Scotch,’ Hayek announced, ‘I get ideas beyond my station’. He was a past master at putting people at ease. He then noticed hanging on the wall of the bar, a large picture of a magnificent Brahman Bull I owned. He asked about the Bull, so I told him he was a prize winning show bull which I had nicknamed ‘Inflation’ as he would not stop growing. He weighs 2,500 pounds in his working clothes. Hayek laughed and said that he knew a bit about inflation and that he would like to meet this one. Next day I took him down the paddock and took several pictures of him and the bull.  He was delighted to have a bit of fun. The caption of course was to be ‘Hayek’s Got Inflation By The Balls’” (Appendix 4).

Impact and outcome of Hayek’s visit

The major public record of the tour is a Centre for Independent Studies Occasional Paper containing the three major speeches with some information about Hayek and a brief account of the tour including the partial itinerary (Appendix 1). Hayek wrote the Preface with a graceful tribute to Randerson who organised the visit and “…was guide, philosopher and friend to Mrs. Hayek and myself; and finally crowned his efforts by editing these lectures and seeing them through the press.”

Hayek’s (1976d; 1976e; 1979d) address to the IPA appeared in the IPA Review as did his paper on ‘Socialism and Science’. A version ‘Whither Democracy’ was published as ‘Can Democracy be Saved?’ in Quadrant, November 1976.

A survey of four daily newspapers, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Age and The Australian Financial Review revealed no mention of Hayek and the tour. The Sydney Morning Herald (15 October 1976) announced Friedman’s Nobel award on the front page and that was an opportunity to mention that a recent Prize winner was in the country at the time. Another place where the Hayek tour could have been noted was The Australian Financial Review (5 October 1976) which ran a story on Myrdal, Hayek’s co-recipient.

The impact of the visit is impossible to assess. Later in the decade, Hayek would have found many more interested listeners as the forces for reform became better organized and more articulate. There is no doubt that his ideas energised many of the people engaged in the push for reform – but it took more than a decade and a change of government to achieve real progress to a more open and competitive economy.

 Appendix 1 Itinerary

In the absence of a full itinerary, the following events are extracted from Randerson’s 1979 notes on the tour.

On the public record

6 October: “The Atavism of Social Justice” (9th R. C. Mills Memorial Lecture, Sydney University).

8 October: “Whither Democracy?” (address, IPA, Sydney).

11 October: ‘Monday Conference’ (ABC TV).

19 October: “Socialism and Science” (address, Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, Canberra branch).

Ex tempore addresses and academic seminars

14 October: official lunch (hosted by the University of Queensland University Vice-Chancellor; plus a combined seminar of Queensland and Griffith Universities to discuss “The Use of Knowledge in Society”).

20 October: address on “The Errors of Constructivism” (33rd Annual Meeting of the IPA, taped, transcribed and published in the IPA Review).

21 October: after-lunch talk on “Liberalism” (La Trobe University).

25 October: address on “Competition as a Discovery Procedure” (at Melbourne University for all the Melbourne universities, Melbourne, La Trobe and Monash).

27 October: address (to a lunch organized by the Victorian branch of the Economic Society).

2 November: combined seminar to discuss Hayek’s (1976b; 1976c) Choice in Currency and Denationalization of Money (at the University of New South Wales for the three Sydney universities, Sydney, New South Wales and Macquarie).

3 November: seminar on “Full Employment At Any Price?” (Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education).

Business, official and political

Discussions with The Commercial Banking Co., Bonds Coats Patons Ltd and ICIANZ Ltd.

Lunch with Enterprise Australia and Fortune (Aust) Pty. Ltd.

Seminar on inflation with the New South Wales Confederation of Industry.

Separate meetings with Prime Minister Fraser, Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, and Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Privately entertained by the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Garfield Barwick

Meetings with the designer of the Australian central bank, Sir Leslie Melville, and the public health administrator, Sir Raphael Cilento.

 Off the beaten track

On the farm with the bull named ‘Inflation’ (Appendix 4).

The lyre bird excursion (an informal account provided by a professional associate of Ref Kemp who travelled with Kemp and Hayek to a forest on the outskirts of Melbourne to hear the lyre birds. They had the unexpected good fortune to see a pair of the birds which are more often seen than heard).

The astronomy excursion to Mount Macedon (an informal account was provided by associates of Ref Kemp and his wife).

Appendix 2. Hayek’s meeting with Prime Minister Fraser

This account is based on personal communications with Roger Randerson (late in his life) and, more recently, with officers who served in the Commonwealth Public Service and the Prime Minister’s office at the time.

The meeting between Hayek and the Prime Minister occurred on 18 October 1976.  Hayek went to Parliament House accompanied by Roger Randerson; they were met on their arrival by a Prime Ministerial staffer.  Whilst waiting for Fraser to finish his previous meeting, the group chatted about Friedman’s recent Nobel Prize: Hayek declared himself to be very pleased.  It was mentioned that The Constitution of Liberty had been the subject of seminars in the Melbourne University Liberal Club during the 1960s; Hayek responded that “you never know the influence of your work. Sometimes you write and it seems to have no effect at all”.  Fraser emerged from his office and, after introductions, the party went into the Prime Minister’s Office accompanied by another of Fraser’s staff.

Fraser had discussed Hayek’s visit with his staff beforehand and received a written brief but it was apparent in the meeting that his mind was still on the issues of the previous meeting. After they sat down and exchanged pleasantries, Hayek opened the conversation by broaching the subject of the exchange rate, then under intense discussion, and asked the Prime Minister why it should not be allowed to float? Fraser responded by asking what further action would be necessary if this were done, but Hayek disclaimed enough detailed knowledge of the Australian scene to answer the question.  Fraser seemed unwilling to pursue the matter and Randerson commented that he had not suggested to Hayek that he raise the issue. Fraser courteously replied that he did not imagine that Professor Hayek needed people to tell him what to say.

Hayek, attempting to discuss a broader subject, turned to the issue of social justice: it was, he stated, a misleading and unsatisfactory term which encouraged the growth of government welfare spending.  Fraser responded sharply: “What do you do when aboriginal children are dying?”  Hayek suggested that the government should consider a minimum income system, to avoid the obvious problems of the current system which simply encouraged special interest pressures for more spending.  Fraser responded that this underestimated the common sense of the people, and that he had taken a strong stand himself in condemning politicians who kept promising new spending. Hayek responded that the system for deciding these matters was itself flawed and needed to be changed.

In the short time allowed for the meeting, Fraser did not attempt to engage his visitor on the major issues he was facing, despite the opening provided.  He had expressed interest beforehand but it appeared that the Prime Minister had not read the brief prepared by his staff, and the opportunity to engage one of the great minds of the modern era in a serious policy discussion was passed over by the Australian leader.

Appendix 3. Wolfgang Kasper on Hayek at the Australian National University (prepared at the request of the present author).

In 1969, I had visited Hayek several times when he recuperated in a sanatorium in the Black Forest in Germany and I was a staffer of the German Council of Economic Advisors. By 1976, I had moved to the Australian National University (ANU), and found the atmosphere among the social scientists there not very congenial, to say the least. They were mostly neoclassical model builders or left-wing economic historians, most of whom might not even have heard of Austrian economics. But they were all very sure that they belonged to the noble religion of do-gooding reform and that the sacking of Whitlam was a gross injustice.

It was against this background that the news of Friedrich Hayek’s visit came as a great and very pleasant surprise! Hayek was to speak at ANU in the big Coombs Lecture Theatre (named after ‘Nugget’ Coombs). When I turned up in the company of a businessman friend, the auditorium was already quite packed. I saw only few of my fellow economists from ANU in the audience, but many vaguely familiar faces from the Treasury and – oddly – the Canberra Fabian Society.

Then, Hayek – a gangly old fellow – began to speak after an introduction that assumed few in the audience had even heard his name. I do not even recall the contents of his address only that it was lively and the audience were spell-bound. My businessman friend (and Chris Caton, then of Treasury, who sat next to us) loudly approved of what was said, but some around us began shaking their heads. Hayek clearly hailed from a different intellectual universe than the model builders, who were trained to assume ‘perfect knowledge’.

After the talk, the questions came mostly from several senior civil servants, some of whom were eager to use our eminent visitor to score policy points. Hayek obliged in his good-natured and clear way. I do not believe that he changed minds of the ‘Whitlam tribe’, but he did much to cheer and reinforce those who shared his basic worldview and his understanding that economics is about a dynamic game to search and test useful knowledge. Well after the habitual closing time for such public events, the questions and answers were keeping the big audience spell-bound. The chair (it may have been John Stone from Treasury, I am not sure) pointed out Hayek’s advanced age, his recovery from serious illness and politely suggested we come to a close. Hayek interrupted him cheerfully: “Yes”, he said in his Vienna-accented English, “I have been ill and I have tried old age. It was not to my liking! Who has the next question?” This brought the house down! With hindsight, I know that this remark was one of his standard party quips at the time – but he certainly won over the hearts of the audience, though possibly not their minds.

His Canberra show was fondly remembered by those present, including the majority who were unable to jettison their old beliefs in favour of thinking in terms of Austrian-evolutionary economics.

[i] Hence the need to adopt a continuous “rules of the game” approach to social and political arrangements, in the way that the rules of the game of football can be adjusted to make the game safer for the players and more attractive for the spectators, the rules of the road are modified to facilitate traffic flow and reduce accidents, and the rules of scientific method can be tuned to promote the growth of knowledge. That was the little recognized thrust of Popper’s approach to science which Ian Jarvie (2001) called “the social turn”. The conscious and critical “rules of the game” approach that Popper introduced in to the philosophy of science is the counterpart to Hayek’s “rules of the game” approach to the social and political order. That approach is an alternative to the traditional methods which either focus on the “essentialist” effort to determine the essential meaning of the key concepts or the “historicist” or “genetic” approach to determine where the rules came from and where they are going in future. Wittgenstein and his followers made much of “forms of life” and games, especially “language games”, and if they had adopted a critical, problem-solving approach to social problems, and the function and consequences of institutional arrangements, they could have supported the projects of Popper and Hayek.


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A tribute to Ian C Jarvie

Following the Agassi collection which is anticipated in May, some friends of  Joe and his colleague Ian Jarvie are compiling a collection for Ian.

My contribution will explore the implications and application of the social turn which Jarvie identified in Popper’s first published work between 1935 to 1945. What does this mean for Popperian exegesis and what sort of program is required to consolidate and extend Jarvie’s insights? What reactions followed The Republic of Science, what manner of criticism and commentary has  been published and what work has been done along the same lines.

I will suggest that the “rules of the game” approach is a unifying feature of Popper’s work in science and politics, and a shared feature of Popper and Hayek’s approach to politics and social reform. It could have led to a shared program with Wittgenstein and his followers if they had used his “games” idea in a critical and problem-solving approach to genuine issues in philosophy and the world outside the window.

This is a very uncritical commentary on The Republic of Science.


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‘Brexit’ and the Political Ideals of the Open Society

Rod Thomas

Preface, acknowledgements, lament, dedication and disclaimer

This paper was written in the months preceding the so-called ‘Brexit’ referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom ought to remain a member of the European Union. It uses starred (*) endnotes to incorporate any post-referendum information that is pertinent to its contents. The rudiment of its analysis of Brexit first appeared in a letter to Standpoint magazine Issue 82, May 2016. A shortened version of the paper informed presentations to faculty of the Department of Law, Northumbria University, UK on 30th June 2016 and to the 11th Philosophy of Management Conference, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, UK on 17th July 2016. It was also discussed in two on-line seminars on The Future of Science and the Open Society hosted by Dr Mark Notturno of the Interactivity Foundation, USA on 9th July 2016 and 26th February 2017. I am grateful for the comments and criticisms that I received at these various events.

In October 2016, the paper was submitted for publication in the European social and political philosophy journal Res Publica. The editors of Res Publica rejected the paper for what I consider to be inappropriate reasons: one of their referees used their anonymous status to defame me, whereas the other declared the paper’s argument to be ‘unpersuasive’. Most lamentably, one referee discounted the paper’s contents on the grounds that Sir Karl Popper’s ideas about democracy and the Open Society are ‘now largely ignored by political philosophers, social theorists, and historians’. Thus, I dedicate this paper to those who were more willing to engage with democracy and Popper’s idea of the Open Society: the volunteers to the various campaign organisations in the Brexit referendum. Finally, I thank Mark Notturno and Rafe Champion for their efforts to create forums to discuss critical rationalism outside the all too often censorious confines of academia. I thank Rafe especially for his kind offer to post the paper on this web site.

The responsibility for all of the opinions expressed in this paper rests solely with the author and not with any other persons whom he may know, or with any organisations or institutions with which he is associated.

Copyright © Rod Thomas 2016-2017. All rights reserved.


The exegesis of a famous work in social and political philosophy may be made interesting by explaining the problem that engaged its author. It may be made doubly interesting by applying the philosophy to a contemporary issue. That two-fold agenda, when successfully addressed, may also demonstrate the lasting value of the work and that the problem that it sought to investigate is in some sense perennial. This paper pursues such an agenda by supplying an exegesis of Karl Popper’s famous work on social and political philosophy: The Open Society and Its Enemies. It uses a recently published collection of Popper’s previously unpublished or uncollected papers on social and political philosophy to elucidate the work’s themes, contents and problem situation. It also applies its central ideas to a contemporary issue: the referendum on so-called ‘Brexit’, held on 23rd June 2016, to decide whether the United Kingdom ought to remain a member of the European Union. The exegesis that is thereby supplied offers a third outcome of contemporary interest: an unqualified philosophical defence of ‘Brexit’.


This paper considers a philosophy of management for a society and its state institutions: openness and democracy. It has an opposite with which it may be contrasted: closure and tyranny. This formulation was the basis of Sir Karl Popper’s (1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]) two-volume work: The Open Society and Its Enemies. Both sides of the dichotomy reflect political ideals for the individual life and the historical life of a society; but I shall argue that the political ideals of openness and democracy are peculiar because they represent a kind of anti-ideal ideal. This approach to political philosophy is illustrated by a contemporary issue: the referendum held on June 23rd 2016 to decide whether the United Kingdom (UK) ought to remain a member of the European Union (EU). The referendum is commonly referred to as the referendum on British exit from the EU, or ‘Brexit’.1* I shall propose that the Brexit debate and the political ideals of the Open Society and democracy illuminate one another. By which I mean that the reasons for the Brexit referendum occurring may be better understood when viewed through the lens of Popper’s social and political philosophy, and Popper’s social and political philosophy may be better understood by applying it to the Brexit debate.

Philosophising the Brexit Debate

Some commentators seem to look upon the Brexit debate and the politics of the UK more generally in disbelief or incomprehension. Let us consider, purely by way of illustration, Brexit – The Politics of a Bad Idea, edited by David Gow and Henning Meyer (2016). It is a collection of essays by leading academics, former Commissioners of the European Union, journalists and public policy analysts. It presents EU membership as “… the foundation of the ‘open society’ Britain has become… one of the main guarantors of our civilization… to be defended at all costs” (Liddle 2016, pp. 8-9). Brexit, in contrast, is dismissed as a ‘bad idea’ (Gow and Meyer 2016) that is supported by ‘thin arguments’ (Liddle 2016, p. 3). Worse, Brexit is not only a bad idea, it is ‘… among the worst ideas of the century’ (Andor 2016, p. 20).

Unfortunately, the contributors to this collection fail to address the question of why this ‘bad idea’ has endured rather than been criticised to destruction. The editors seemingly attribute this to ‘… the poor quality of debate on a topic as complex as EU membership’ (Gow and Meyer 2016, p. 1).2* Whatever the reason, they were deeply unsettled by the prospect of the Brexit question being subject to a referendum. For that is to:

… risk that this crucial vote is decided not on the basis of the best available information and analysis but on gut feeling and short-term mood swings. This is no way to decide upon fundamental issues of democracy and sovereignty for years to come (Gow and Meyer 2016, p. 1).

Elsewhere, other commentators are similarly unsettled.3* One analyst, writing on-line for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has suggested that the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland ought to become an independent nation raised the question of ‘…whether a democratic system is beneficial or detrimental to the governance of a country made up of many nations’ (Suetyi 2014). Another on-line Carnegie commentator lamented the Brexit referendum as being symptomatic of ‘… an unpleasant nationalism, which interprets everything in terms of the greatness of Britain’ (Wollard 2016).

Admittedly, it might seem excessively democratic of the UK government to have asked its people to decide whether they wanted the UK to remain a member of the EU so soon after establishing, by means of a similar referendum, that the people of Scotland wished to remain a part of the UK. But it is not the short interlude between the two referendums that seems to animate these commentators. On the contrary, my own sense is that what troubles some is that these decisions place their faith in a philosophy of open society and democracy. They seem unsettled by the fact that the decisions are significant and are being made by means of a democratic referendum that is itself preceded by an open critical discussion. Indeed, although they mostly refrain from explicitly saying it, it seems obvious that some think that democracy enabled one of the worst ideas of the century to be posed as a referendum question—an idea so bad that its adoption jeopardizes civilization and open society.

Forewarnings of the rise of such post-democratic sentiment were issued long ago (Siedentop 2000; Crouch 2004; Oborne 2008; Hitchens 2009). Post-democracy, however, was the term coined by the political economist Colin Crouch (2004) to describe a society in which the institutions of democracy become a formal shell for the closed broking arrangements of the politico-economic elite comprising politicians, banks, multi-national corporations, inter-governmental bodies, lobbyists and media organisations. Anti-Democracy, of course, would dispense with even the formal shell.

How should one view this situation? Is a democracy, with the power to both appoint and dismiss its leaders, an acceptable form of control on the management of a society and its state institutions? Is a society that asks of each and every enfranchised adult that they think critically about, and take a measure of responsibility for, the social laws and arrangements under which they live, a society that asks too much of its people? In place of the burden of asking all to share in this strain, is it not more desirable to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling a society, or even a multitude of societies, to established decision-makers and authorities who know what is best for everyone? What kind of society would that be? And how do anti-democrats convince a democratic people to transit from one kind of state to the other?

Seventy-one years ago, Karl Popper’s (1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]) The Open Society and Its Enemies posed pretty much exactly the same set of questions. That resonance raises further questions of interest: whether that book’s problem situation is in some sense perennial and whether it thereby contains ideas of lasting value. All importantly, would answering any of these questions help to explain why so many Britons refuse to endorse the political project of the European Union? Or is their thinking simply predicated upon a bad idea?

The Open Society and Its Enemies

Karl Popper’s (1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]) The Open Society and Its Enemies is widely regarded as an important contribution to twentieth-century social and political philosophy and it remains in-print to this day. In his intellectual biography, Popper (2002a [1974]) described how he left Austria in 1937, first staying in England before accepting a lectureship in New Zealand. It was in New Zealand, against the distant back-drop of the tragedy enveloping Central Europe, that he wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies (OS&E).

The book, which Popper (2002a [1974], p. 131) described as his ‘war effort’, complemented an earlier series of papers on the methodology of the social sciences (Popper 1944a; 1944b; 1945);4 but neither work directly mentioned the war. It is a book that different readers might take very different lessons from. This is not because it is hard to understand or because it was written for the benefit of a specialist audience. On the contrary, it is written in a simple and direct style that ‘…presupposes nothing but open-mindedness in the reader’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. vii). Yet as the Popper scholar David Miller (2006, p. 13) noted ‘…the text teems with arguments; the abundant notes, on a huge range of peripheral topics, only add to the profusion of thoughts’. Indeed, Popper later said that he regretted not explicitly stating in the book ‘what it was all about’ (2012 [2008], p. 132; see also Popper (2012 [2008], chapter 16). Consequently, discerning what exactly OS&E is all about—as opposed to what a particular chapter is about—presents a significant problem to an exegete.

Recently, however, this difficulty has been considerably eased. After The Open Society (Popper 2012 [2008]), edited by Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner, assembles a collection of previously unpublished or uncollected papers on social and political philosophy that Popper authored in the period 1940-1994. This collection, which is largely drawn from archival sources, includes correspondence, lectures and draft papers that illuminate the themes, contents and problem situation of OS&E. Thus the exegesis of OS&E that is presented here is informed by this complementary volume and especially its chapter 14—a previously unpublished manuscript of an untitled talk that Popper gave, seemingly in 1946 to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and possibly elsewhere, and its chapter 16—various drafts of the preface to the American second edition of OS&E that were written in the period 1948-1950. Taken together, they offer an additional insight into what Popper’s own nutshell exegesis of OS&E looked like, the problem situation that it sought to address, and what, precisely, Popper considered to be the enemies of the Open Society: not the personage of Plato, Hegel and Marx, but the ideologies of ‘historicism’, ‘collectivism’ and ‘irrationalism’.5

That said, my reading of OS&E, at least as a work of social and political philosophy, is that it is a defence of two political ideals: open society and democracy. By an open society, Popper meant ‘…a form of social life, and the values which are traditionally cherished in that social life, such as freedom, tolerance, justice, the citizen’s free pursuit of knowledge, his right to disseminate knowledge, his free choice of values and beliefs, and his pursuit of happiness’ (Popper 2012 [2008], p. 240; see also (1966a [1945], chapter 10 §VIII). And by ‘democracy’ he meant something equally specific: a form of government in which the rulers can be dismissed by the ruled without violence or bloodshed (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 7 §II; see also Popper 2012 [2008], chapter 41).

Furthermore, I think that these ideals reflect ideals for the individual life and the historical life of a society; but they are peculiar because each reflects a kind of anti-ideal ideal. This is because they are sceptical as to whether there is a single ideal life for all men and women, just as they are sceptical as to whether there can be an absolute and unchanging ideal society and state.6 Consequently, the political ideal that is embodied by openness is the freedom of men and women to discover their own ideals whilst respecting and tolerating the ideals of others. And the political ideal that is embodied by democracy is not that the people should rule, it is that the people should have institutional methods that are capable of dismissing political leaders without resort to violence and bloodshed—a capability that becomes especially ideal when the political leadership of a state seeks to close down openness.

Yet how does a move to close down an open society succeed? This is the question that implicitly made OS&E pertinent to understanding the European politics of its time. It is also the question that makes the book pertinent to understanding the European politics of today.

Volume I of OS&E (Popper 1966a [1945]) begins with an epigraph taken from Samuel Butler’s (1872) Erewhon:

It will be seen… that the Erewhonians are a meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose, and quick to offer up common sense at the shrine of logic, when a philosopher arises among them who carries them away… by convincing them that their existing institutions are not based on the strictest principles of morality.7

Popper (2012 [2008], chapter 24) later revealed that he selected it in order to stress the perennial tendency of intellectuals to lead an attack on the Open Society. Such attacks, he argued, are not made by appealing, as is widely supposed, to wickedness; what they appeal to is ‘moral enthusiasm’ (Popper 2012 [2008], p. 234).

But the moral appeal, whatever its particular form, is the dressing to the main course. This is an offer to fulfill a powerful psychological desire: to artificially close down or arrest change within society. In place of the discomforting demands of having to adapt to the constant change that is generated by the freedom of the Open Society, a leader and/or their intellectual guru offers something that is more secure, more prosperous, more innocent, more romantic or more beautiful (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 10 §II). An open society thereby closes itself down: its people surrender to what Popper called ‘the strain of civilization’ (1966a [1945], p. 176). Instead of taking personal responsibility for their own life and its contribution to the historical life of their society, the individual averts the responsibility by passing it to those who offer a perfected and ideal arrangement, one that supposedly harmonizes the society and each individual’s contribution to it, whilst also arresting those developments that threaten the perfected ideal. And of course, there may be little to no need for democratic accountability in such an arrangement; for the coming of the perfected arrangement may be presented as being inevitable, or its requirements may be presented as being only understandable by the intellectual or established leadership elite. The enemies of the Open Society thereby successfully replace the political ideals of openness and democracy by those of closure and tyranny.

The principal philosophies that OS&E presented as the enemies of the Open Society were those of Plato, Hegel and Marx to whom Popper attributed a series of ideas that he thought to be supportive to closure and tyranny, most notably what he called: ‘historicism’, ‘collectivism’ and ‘irrationalism’; but also corollaries such as ‘messiahs’, ‘prophets’, ‘principles of leadership’, ‘philosopher kings’, ‘noble lies’, and ‘utopianism’. These ideas do not always form an alliance—although they may do so. By a form of insinuation, OS&E thereby suggested that these ideas had become the intellectual armoury of the totalitarian political projects of the book’s time—the ideological enemies of the Open Society and a form of anti-democratic politics that it must at all costs oppose (Popper 1966a [1945], Introduction; 2012 [2008], chapters 14, 16). To Popper, they were also the ideologies that a philosophy for post-war reconstruction had to at all costs avoid (Popper 1966a [1945], p. vii, Introduction; 2012 [2008], chapters 14, 16).

It is beyond the scope of this paper to engage with Popper’s multi-faceted argument in very much detail. Neither is it feasible to offer a detailed discussion of how Popper located the aforementioned ideas in the philosophies of Plato, Hegel and Marx, nor of how his analysis was received by adherents of those philosophies.8 But, for the purpose of this essay, it is important to discuss the meaning of these terms as Popper presented them. By implication, if Popper’s diagnosis is correct, a society that values openness and democracy will be deeply suspicious of any political project that carries the slightest whiff of closure and tyranny. This is a fundamental reason why, or so I shall argue, so many Britons refuse to endorse the political project of the European Union. And it also explains, at least to my satisfaction, why they are right not to do so. Let us consider the nature of the EU’s political project in these terms.

Anti-Democratic Politics

For Popper (1966a [1945], p. 124; see also 2012 [2008], chapter 41), there are two types of government. Firstly, those in which the rulers can be dismissed by the ruled without violence or bloodshed; that is to say those with democratic institutions that are capable of doing this. Secondly, those in which the ruled cannot do this; that is to say an anti-democratic dictatorship or a tyranny.

To emphasise the point that in a democratic institutional arrangement a government must face a ‘day of judgement’, Popper was fond of citing Pericles of Athens: ‘Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it’ (1966a [1945], p. 7; 2012 [2008], p. 368). And if a post-democratic political class emerges, in which the politicians of different political parties are wholly interchangeable because their policies are essentially all the same, then the people of the Open Society, if they sufficiently value a tradition of democracy, may try to found a new political party. Much thereby depends upon the vigilance and strength of character of a people in upholding what is often nothing more than tradition.9

For all of their imperfections, the Open Society and the institutions of a democracy are therefore bulwarks against any political class seeking to reduce politics to a closed process of entreaties, broking, negotiations, cronyism and ‘Danegeld’ arrangements. This was memorably summarised by the socialist British Parliamentarian Tony Benn (1998) when he said that democracy poses 5 little questions to the powerful:

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

This is, in my view, a fundamental reason for the Brexit referendum occurring. The EU has long been accused by Brexit campaigners of being anti-democratic by design: its government is not formed from an elected Parliament, cannot be collectively dismissed by a demos, mostly does not have its legislation initiated by those who are elected to its European Parliament, and has a judiciary that is increasingly empowered to override the law of its democratic member states wherever it finds it to be contrary to EU law. As an institutional structure, the EU declares itself to be ‘unique’ (European Union 2016). But even those who favor the creation of a federal European government that is elected by a unified European demos—a United States of Europe—concede that this is unlikely to happen any time soon. Indeed, the EU’s present institutions were described by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister and a supporter of the project of European Union, as being:

…designed purposely to ensure that laws could be passed without any serious scrutiny by any sovereign parliament vested with the authority of democracy’s final arbiter, the people (Varoufakis 2016, pp. 223-224).10

Indeed, the EU’s institutional structure is so hard to understand that it is probably fair to say that hardly any members of the British general public fully understand it. Nonetheless, I very much doubt that many Britons would find the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon’s Article 8b provisions on the democratic principles of the EU to be satisfactory (European Union 2007). For instance, that ‘citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament’—the Parliament, one should remember, from which the EU’s executive leadership are not selected. Nor, I suspect, do they feel particularly enfranchised by their democratic entitlement to submit, as an individual and if accompanied by at least 999,999 others from a significant number of EU member states, a proposal to the European Commission that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties—all of which are predicated upon an ever-closer union of the EU’s member states. And then there are the reports of the mind-boggling ‘back-room’ deals that precede the ‘election’ of the President of the European Parliament (Waterfield 2014).

Of course, the famous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on European Union does permit the holding of a Brexit-style referendum on withdrawing from the EU and this is an exercise in popular democracy. But one should note what is being permitted. It is not that a popular referendum may be used to advise the elected representatives or rulers of a democracy to dismiss another set of elected representatives or rulers. What is permitted, and what the Brexit referendum may initiate, is that a member state may ‘withdraw’ from the Union and seek to negotiate an agreement for the arrangements for its withdrawal, or failing that, leave without such a negotiated agreement. In other words, the EU permits a member state to decide to exile itself or be banished.

What a significant number of Britons do seem to feel is that they are increasingly ‘governed by Brussels’, but they do not understand how, or even why, they are governed by Brussels, nor why the supposedly sovereign UK parliament that they do elect cannot change the way that they are governed by Brussels, or rather, why they cannot do so without first getting the approval of a multitude of rulers from other EU member states and EU bodies that they cannot name, did not elect, and cannot dismiss. Those embedded within this semi-closed system of government do not even seem to recognize the potential damage done to its public image when they openly characterize it as a process of entreaties, broking and bargaining (House of Commons 2015; Tusk 2015; 2016). And Britons could only wonder at the complete indifference of the EU’s leadership when a party wishing to withdraw the UK from the EU effectively won, by any commonly-used measure, the UK elections to the European Parliament in 2014 (BBC News 2014). Indeed, it was only the prospect of further electoral success for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in the 2015 general election of representatives to the UK Parliament, that seemingly brought matters to a head—not through any EU-led initiative, but with the decision of the more mainstream Conservative Party to include a manifesto pledge to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU and subsequently hold a referendum on Brexit (The Conservative Party 2015).

But an anti-democratic politics, according to OS&E, usually goes hand-in-hand with the move to close down an open society. Surely, the EU, as a project of post-war reconstruction, was not informed by the philosophies that inspired totalitarianism. Did it not bury historicism, collectivism and irrationalism alongside their corollaries of ‘messiahs’, ‘prophets’, ‘principles of leadership’, ‘philosopher kings’, ‘noble lies’, and ‘utopianism’?

Sadly, I think not.


‘Historicism’ is a doctrine that comes in a variety of guises (Popper 1957; 1966a [1945]; 1966b [1945]; see also Gellner 1964). In its more elaborate forms it presents the history of a society, or group of societies, as being governed by a natural law of succession, or by laws of historical development. In its simple forms it presents human history as having an intrinsic meaning, or as unfolding according to an inexorable law of historical destiny, or very simply that a chosen people, or a class of people, or a group of peoples, has a destiny or fate.11

A historicist doctrine typically places historical events into a developmental series by using a deterministic theory that purports to explain the series, or it gives the events a meaning or justification. Thus it makes history in the traditional sense of a chronicle of events almost superfluous to the historicist account of that history. No matter how tragic and unfortunate the events may be, they are always simply the conditions on which the remorseless logic of a supposed ‘law of destiny’ or ‘law of development’ sets to work. In other words, And the Weak Suffer What They Must (Varoufakis 2016). For this reason, Gilbert Ryle memorably described historicism as the ‘Juggernaut theory of history’.12 It presents a picture of a society as if it were a train travelling along a track, with individual persons aboard it, all inevitably bound to arrive at a terminus station called ‘Collective Destiny’.

My own sense is that the juggernaut theory underwrites the commonplace and long-established political talk of Europe having a ‘destiny’, of there being a ‘two-speed’ and ‘multi-speed’ Europe, of there being an engine unit of ‘Kern Europa’ etc. Indeed, the EU, and its forerunner institutions, have explicitly flirted with a historicist narrative to justify the Treaty of Rome’s (European Economic Community 1957) objective ‘…of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. This is most clearly present in the Solemn Declaration on European Union agreed by the Heads of State of the then European Economic Community’s members in Stuttgart in 1983.13 This solemnly declared that:

The Heads of State or government, on the basis of an awareness of a common destiny and the wish to affirm the European identity, confirm their commitment to progress towards an ever closer union among the peoples and member states of the European Community (European Community 1983). 14*

Popper returned again and again to attack the perniciousness of historicism in his writings (Popper 1957; 1966a [1945], chapter 22; see also Popper 1994, chapter 7; 1997, chapters 1, 2, 5; 1999, chapters 10, 12; 2012 [2008], chapters 8, 33). Throughout his life, he classified Karl Marx as a most influential historicist theorist, often calling historicism ‘the Marxist trap’ (Popper 1999, p. 133).15 He argued that historicist doctrine traps the individual in moral chains. The supposed inevitability of factual events enables the taking of personal responsibility to be averted. And surely, all are better off swimming with the tide of history, than foolishly attempting to hold it back. Indeed, if something is widely perceived to be inevitable then it is also close to inevitable that those who resist its coming will be dismissed as swivel-eyed cranks, gadflies, or fruitcakes. Even more damningly, such individuals may be judged as unnatural, wicked, or criminal. In a nutshell, historicist morality reduces moral standards to current and prophesied future facts; it invites a ‘moral positivism’ or ‘moral futurism’, or that ‘Coming Might is Right’ (Popper 1966b [1945], p. 206 [emphasis in original]; see also 1966b, p. 393).

Indeed, for the moral futurist, the right thing to do may not be to sit back and wait for the inevitable to happen. They may decide that their duty is to aid its coming and lessen the birth-pangs—to act as a midwife.16 And, of course, if a belief in a supposed historical common destiny becomes the official ideology of a society’s state institutions, then that belief will hold implications for persons within that society. This is because the power of the State’s institutions will make the belief a force, even if the belief is false. The established institutions of the State will promote the rightness of the historicist prophesy. Cue the various inter-governmental Treaties of European Union, all uncritically premised on the ‘solemn’ assumption that there is a European identity, that the people of Europe share a common destiny tout court, and that the peoples of Europe must submit themselves to the doctrine of Acquis Communautaire.17

That historicist morality became a feature of the Brexit debate seems, at least to me, also a matter of the historical record. Indeed, voting to remain in the EU was explicitly presented by its supporters to be the ‘moral’ choice because of the economic opportunity and security that it supposedly guaranteed as compared to the unknown economic risks and insecurities that were attributed to the Brexit option. In the words of the UK Prime Minster, David Cameron (2016):

The economic case is the moral case—for keeping parents in work, firms in business, Britain in credit, the moral case for providing economic opportunity rather than unemployment for the next generation. Where is the morality for putting that at risk for some unknown end?… It is the self-destruct option.

Moreover, the purported ‘moral case’ was quantified in the very best traditions of moral positivism. By assuming that the UK would be unable to negotiate any favorable trade deals whatsoever under the Brexit scenario, HM Treasury successfully managed to construct an econometric model that estimated the opportunity foregone by a Brexit option to equal £4,300 of GDP per household after 15 years (HM Government 2016).18 Political standards of good government were thereby entirely reduced, Erewhonian style, to a measurement of the value of economic production.


Like historicism, ‘collectivism’ also comes in a variety of guises (Popper 1966a [1945]; see also O’Neill 1973). In its most simple form it presents itself as tribalism or ‘… the emphasis on the supreme importance of the tribe, without which the individual is nothing at all’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 9). To Popper, a tribal society exhibits a ‘… magical or irrational attitude to the customs of social life’, one that ‘… lacks the distinction between the customary or conventional regularities of social life and the regularities found in nature’; for instance, one ‘…with the belief that both are enforced by a supernatural will’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 172). A tribal society is therefore rigid: its social conventions, customs and regulations are not open to critical consideration, evaluation or discussion. The individual’s social position is largely prescribed by custom and their social action may be proscribed by taboo. Hence changes to the way of life within a tribal society are infrequent: ‘… taboos rigidly regulate and dominate all aspects of life’ (Popper 1966a ([1945], p. 172). This is what Popper meant by ‘the Closed Society’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 57).

But tribalism is a simple and natural form of what Popper more generally called ‘collectivism’: “… a doctrine which emphasizes the significance of some collective or group, for instance ‘the state’ (or a certain state; or a nation; or a class) as against that of the individual” (1966a [1945], Chapter 1 fn. 1). Moreover, collectivist doctrines are often based upon the psychological desire to artificially close or arrest change within a society, supposedly alleviating the uneasiness of ‘the strain of civilization’ by returning to the security, innocence and beauty of a tribal society (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 176). A Closed Society may therefore be either naturally closed as per the tribal society, or artificially closed through the adoption of a collectivist doctrine. And a collectivist doctrine that seeks artificially to close a society will embody a moral standard. In a nutshell, ‘the criterion of morality is the interest of the state’ (Popper 1966a [1945], p. 107 emphasis in original).

Popper argued that collectivism, with its emphasis on the primacy of some abstract whole—the tribe, the State etc—may connect with a historicist doctrine via the corollaries of ‘holism’ and ‘utopianism’ (Popper 1957, p. 17, p. 46; 1966a [1945], p. 80, p. 157). Holism is the idea that a social group, or a people, is more than the sum total of its members, more than the persons who comprise it.19 But historicists, with their idea that a society moves as a whole toward a destiny or fate, are inclined to interpret ‘whole’ as ‘the totality of all properties or aspects of a thing, and especially of all the relations holding between the constituent parts’ (Popper 1957, p. 76). Popper (1957) held such a notion to be confused, for wholes in that sense, can be neither described nor studied because their content is infinite. Hence, the doctrines of historicism and collectivism travel to the terminus station of ‘Collective Destiny’ on a train called ‘Holistic Jargon’. Furthermore, in a historicist prophesy, the destination point of ‘the whole’ may be a perfected ideal: an Ideal State or a utopia.

Popper (1966a [1945]) classified Plato as a most influential collectivist theorist and a historicist of sorts. He opposed what he regarded as Plato’s doctrine of tribal collectivism, and his historicist sociology of how to arrest the degeneration of the Greek City State, with a doctrine of ‘individualism’. The latter, in contrast to the former, emphasizes the supreme importance of the individual man and woman and his or her conscience (Popper 1966a [1945], p.100; (2012 [2008], chapter 7). Popper regarded individualism as a component to ‘humanitarianism’, or the doctrine that there is a basic ‘unity of mankind’ and that there are no natural divisions between, for instance, Greeks and barbarians, free men and slaves (Popper 1966a [1945], Chapter 5 fn. 13), or for that matter Europeans and non-Europeans, or the British and the rest of the world. He contrasted the jurisprudence of a humanitarian individualism with what he called the ‘totalitarian justice’ of Plato’s tribal collectivism (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 6). For Popper, individualism produced an ‘equalitarian’ concept of justice, characterized by no one being above the law and all being subject to the same law; a law that is administered impartially to all in the same courts (Popper 1966a [1945], chapter 6). Today, this doctrine is usually summarized by the phrase ‘the rule of law’, at least in the jurisprudence of English law.20

For Popper, the doctrine of a humanitarian individualism places only those constraints on individual freedom that are necessary for social co-existence, whilst allowing all to share in those advantages of social life which membership of a state may offer and the protection of liberty may afford.21 In a nutshell, ‘… the State is to exist for the sake of individuals and not… the individual for the sake of the State’ Popper 2012 [2008], p.66 emphasis in original). Popper therefore presented humanitarian individualism and equalitarianism as ‘fundamentally a liberal theory’ (Popper, 1966a [1945], p. 111). He contrasted it with what he considered to be Plato’s authoritarian collectivism and his holistic perfectionism and utopianism. To Popper, Plato defended inequality on the basis of the natural privileges of natural leaders. The famous Platonic philosopher kings, with their access to the eternal Forms, were placed by Plato above all ordinary men.22 They alone had access to the form of the Ideal State—the utopian blueprint for the organisation of the whole of society. Hence only the messianic elite can devise a political programme to perfect society, by harmonizing all of its elements, arresting unwanted change, and protecting the actual state from degeneration. Consequently, the individual’s purpose is to do whatever is deemed necessary to maintain and strengthen the philosopher king’s leadership of the collective. Popper (1966a [1945], chapters 6, 7, 8) proposed that other Platonic principles and doctrines follow as corollaries. Notably, a ‘principle of leadership’: that nobody, not in the smallest matter, should be without a leader telling them, via rules and directives, what to do and how to do it. And the doctrine of ‘the noble lie’: that the leadership elite may tell whatever lies that are deemed necessary to implement the Ideal State.

My own sense of the EU is that it is a taboo-laden, collectivist, utopian project very much in the tradition of Platonic political philosophy. To pursue a project of ‘ever closer union’ amongst the peoples of Europe is to pursue an undefined objective for an indefinite collective. It may therefore, in my mind, quite properly be called both holistic and utopian. To insist that the undefined objective be pursued no matter what its implications are revealed by experience to be is to make its definition or limitation taboo. To establish a European court and treaty-based system of law that penetrates inside the EU’s member states and takes precedence over national laws, often guided by the supreme goal of pursuing an ‘ever-greater union’, is not to dispense justice in the interest of an individualist humanitarianism, it is to pursue an authoritarian collectivism. For the individual may now be taken to exist not even for the purpose of their own state, but for the purpose of constructing a superstate. Even the crushed and destitute individuals of Greece have their role to play in creating such a superstate, whereas those who do not share the idealised vision, and use democracy to campaign against it, are labeled ‘déserteurs’ (Juncker 2016). And although the Ideal State is not one based upon an obvious form of nationalism, or the political principle that the political and the national unit should be congruent (Gellner 1983), it is, in my mind, based upon a misplaced or confected form of nationalism, one that seeks to create a political unit where no national unit previously existed. For the political project of European Union can hardly be unproblematic in its anti-nationalism and it is extremely uncritical to view it as some form of ‘little goody two-shoes’ in that regard. Indeed, thinking about nationalism presents a serious philosophical challenge (Agassi 1999). My own sense is that a project of European Union cannot avoid either being a peculiar form of nationalism or a peculiar form of internationalist imperialism. It may be interpreted as Europeanism and this is manifest in the fact that the EU has a flag, anthem, motto and diplomatic corps in addition to it being a protectionist customs union. Indeed, whereas the general principle of nationalism can, at least in theory, be asserted in a non-chauvinistic, universalistic way, that is compatible with a basic doctrine of the ‘unity of mankind’, by simply saying that a plurality of human cultures and social conventions adds to the diversity of the world and may each and all freely trade with one another and have its own body politic, it is not clear, at least to me, that a Europeanist nationalism does this. Ab initio, it seems to assume that all forms of nationalism, except its own form, are dangerously chauvinistic and egoistic. And it infers from this that the right thing to do is to chip them away through a process of harmonization and homogenization. Thus viewed, the EU’s supposed anti-nationalism is merely another seductive form of Erewhonian morality.

If this is an accurate diagnosis, then the Platonic principle of leadership might also fall into place. Cue the EU’s infamous bureaucracy of directives and regulations on everything from the prohibition of powerful vacuum cleaners [regulation 666/2013] and incandescent light bulbs [directive 2005/32/EC], to the way that prices must be marked on goods for sale [directive 98/6/EC], to the way that goods ‘that appear to be other than what they are’ must be presented [directive 87/357]. And cue the philosopher kings who must supply this leadership: the 28 unelected Commissioners of the EU. And cue perhaps the adoption of the doctrine of the noble lie—given the many quotes attributed to the architects and leading figures of the EU that suggest exactly this.23


The political ideals of the Open Society have far-reaching consequences. A skepticism as to whether there is a single ideal life for all men and women, or whether there is an absolute and unchanging ideal form of society and state, a respect and tolerance of all but the intolerant—these are all at odds with the idea that life, society and state must be constructed, reconstructed and directed by some superior intellect in possession of a blueprint design. The anti-ideal ideals of the Open Society mean that there are no values that can unquestionably justify their imposition on others, for there is no way to determine the ultimate ends of political action purely by rational means (Popper 2002b [1963], chapter 18; 1966a [1945], chapter 9). Quite simply: different men and women may value different ends. A politician may use rational argument to clarify the consequences of their political programme and this may assist each to make a decision as to whether they support it—at least it may amongst those who value argument and are willing to listen. But a politician cannot use rational argument to determine conclusively the acceptability of those policies. And what each individual chooses to support and do with their lives is what helps shape the individual and collective future; it is not determined by that future. Our futures are actively shaped by the collective inter-personal critical endeavour—by our learning from others and from our experience, and by the exercise of our always fallible critical reasoning and decision-making autonomy.

This is how Popper (1966b [1945], chapter 24) connected his social and political philosophy to his theory of knowledge and rationality: the philosophy that he and his followers called ‘critical rationalism’ (Popper 1966b [1945], p. 232; see also Notturno 2000). Theories, statements, political programmes are not themselves rational, they cannot be justified as true or right by being derived from what is written upon a foundation stone or from what is uttered by some supposedly super-rational authority. What may be rational is our attitude toward them. As Popper’s colleague William Bartley III later put it:

A rationalist becomes one who holds everything—including standards, goals, criteria, authorities, decisions and especially any framework or way of life—open to criticism (Bartley 1990, p. 238).

To think otherwise, for instance to insist that the ultimate ends of political action can be formulated as an unquestionable principle, or as a preamble to a EU treaty whose contents are placed beyond the reach of criticism, is ultimately the equivalent of adopting an irrationalist attitude. For only taboo, or an appeal to passion, or a resort to power or violence, can quell or coerce those who disagree with it.

The Brexit referendum was a long time in the making, but it seems obvious to me that the UK’s relationship with the EU has been beset, throughout its history, by a fundamental clash of attitude toward the problem of rationality.24 This may be illustrated in many ways. For instance, whereas one might say that the modern attitude of the British toward what it means to be British, is to not to take too seriously the question of what it means to be British, membership of the EU required, as previously noted, the UK’s one-time government to make a solemn declaration affirming the British people’s European identity. And whereas a fundamental feature of the UK’s unwritten constitution is that there is no law that a UK Parliament cannot change by the ordinary process of legislation, one can hardly say that the European Parliament, Commission, Council and treaty-based system of law operate on a similar principle. To many Britons, these institutions seem to operate on the principle that if progress to ‘ever closer union’ has a benefit it is used as a justification for more of the same, and if it fails to produce an immediate benefit then… it is used as a justification for more of the same. The disconnection between these differing attitudes to rationality was conspicuous when the UK government developed its own methodology for critically testing the implications of joining the single currency Euro-zone (Potton and Mellows-Facer 2003). This involved an appraisal of the implications in the form of 5 tests that were very different to the so-called ‘convergence criteria’ that the EU’s Maastricht Treaty insisted upon and, despite the subsequent course of history in the southern European member states, ostensibly still insists upon. Indeed, the European Commission’s (2015) attitude to problem solving and learning from experience may be gauged from its publication entitled A Short Guide to the Euro. It details a timeless solution and an ideal end: that the euro and economic and monetary union ‘…allow our economies to function more efficiently and effectively, ultimately offering Europeans more jobs and greater prosperity’. Thus far, this is difficult to reconcile with the lived experience of millions of Europeans.25

Go, tell the Spartans, passerby,

That here, by Spartan law we lie.


The political project of the European Union may have been conceived as a response to the darkest chapter in European history. Its architects may have acted with the very best of motives, seeking to reconstruct European politics in a way that ended any prospect of further wars between the nation states of Europe. The EU is therefore easily presented as a very laudable and very moral enterprise that is in the very best traditions of peaceful co-operation and civilized conduct.

But this essay has argued that it is nonetheless a project which is impregnated with the very philosophical ideas about politics, history and society that its architects ought to have sought to escape from. Its architects were conscious of their philosophical problems, but not of their philosophical prejudices. These prejudices were the ideologies that Karl Popper diagnosed and exposed in The Open Society and Its Enemies: historicism, collectivism and irrationalism. Their handmaiden is an anti-democratic politics. His was a diagnosis of the past that is also a diagnosis of our own time. Perhaps it is even a diagnosis for all of time, or at least until the day that the last democratic people of the last Open Society surrender to the ‘strain of civilization’ and are seduced by ‘…an intellectual who convinces them that their existing institutions are not based on the strictest principles of morality’. And indeed, most strikingly in the Brexit debate, if popular commentary is in any way accurate, it is the non-intellectual and non-expert classes who are democracy and the Open Society’s stalwart defenders.

Brexit is therefore not among ‘the worst ideas of the century’. Rather, it may be interpreted as the most recent and best reaction of a democratic and critically-minded people to the worst ideas of the last century and of the many centuries that came before. It may be interpreted as a reaction to the perennial ideologies of historicism, collectivism and irrationalism: a reaction to anti-democratic politics and the enemies of the Open Society.

And I suspect that Popper, being someone with a perspective on philosophy and history that was beyond the reach of most, foresaw the essential problem. In 1992, seven months after the Maastricht Treaty on European Union (European Union 1992) was signed, he made a brief speech when aged 90 to mark the passing of his former colleague Friedrich von Hayek. In it he offered these interesting remarks:

Hayek’s books about the legal framework are full of thoughts about the protection of legal institutions. His thoughts recall the problem situation and the atmosphere of the founders of the American constitution. I fear that few care nowadays for these problems…The neglect of Hayek’s ideas can be gauged by their lack of influence upon the plans for a United Europe, with an executive bureaucracy in Brussels, without a clear responsibility to any democratic control, and a parliament in Strasbourg without any competence to control the all-powerful bureaucracy. I think we should learn from our mistakes and start again, very simply with sovereign democratic states bound by treaties of close cooperation and mutual assistance, and a programme for the defence of peace.

It is clear that the architects of the current plans for Europe have not studied Hayek – not even the founding fathers of the American constitution. But I fear that their ideologies make it somewhat unlikely that they will turn to these vitally important sources. Our dreams, if any, should not be of a strong Europe, but of a peaceful and civilized Europe (Popper 2012 [2008], pp. 409-410).


1*        On a turnout of 72.2%, the referendum result was declared as 17,410,742 (51.9%) to leave the EU and 16,141,241 (48.1%) to remain in the EU. See, The Electoral Commission (2016).

2*        The returns to the Electoral Commission later revealed that the referendum campaign was the most expensive in British history: £16,152,899 being spent in support of a ‘Remain’ outcome and £11,534,426 being spent in support of a ‘Leave’ outcome. See, The Electoral Commission (2017).

3*        The unease has continued. For instance, after the referendum, The Royal Institute of Philosophy broadcast a facilitator-led discussion between four British philosophers: 3 supporting ‘Remain’ and 1 ‘Leave’. The discussion addressed the question of whether the EU referendum was a truly democratic process and whether the outcome of the vote should in some way be ‘resisted’. See, The Royal Institute of Philosophy (2017).

4          The papers were later published in book form as Popper (1957).

5          I acknowledge Joseph Agassi’s (2010) review essay of After the Open Essay which contains many interesting remarks on exegeses and on the important contribution that Shearmur and Turner’s edited collection has made to the understanding of Popper’s social and political philosophy.

6          The question of whether man is perfectible is one of the central issues of traditional philosophy. See John Passmore (1970) for a detailed discussion of its long history, which also reaches sceptical conclusions.

7          Butler’s story describes a civilization called ‘Erewhon’ whose morality and logic is characterised by reversals when compared to that of England. For instance in Erewhon children are held responsible for their own birth; illness is punished as a crime, whereas crime is treated as an illness; debate about the rights of animals and vegetables leads to hunger etc.

8          For a brief survey see Keuth (2005, part II).

9          Popper’s social philosophy presents traditions as playing ‘…a kind of intermediate and intermediary role between persons (and personal decisions) and institutions’ (Popper 1966a, Chapter 7 fn. 7* [emphasis removed]). See Popper (2002b [1963], chapter 4) for a further discussion.

10       Yanis Varoufakis’s And The Weak Suffer What They Must? (2016) supplies a compelling history of the EU, the establishment of the Eurozone single currency area, and the background to his own resignation as Greek finance minister after he refused to accept that the terms of the Eurozone’s bail-out of his bankrupt nation respected its sovereignty.

11       It ought to be noted that Popper (1957, p. 17) distinguished ‘historicism’ from what he called ‘historism’. To him, ‘historism’ was the doctrine that theories and opinions reflect the predilections and interests of a historical period. As such, Popper accepted historism and he often argued that understanding a social and historical context may be relevant to understanding the theories and ideas that are developed within it. See, for example, Popper (2002b [1963], chapter 2). Unfortunately, other writers use the term ‘historicism’ to represent what Popper called ‘historism’ creating the prospect of terminological confusion. For a discussion, see Page (1995).

12       See the publisher’s blurb to the fifth paperback edition of volume 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1966a). It quotes Ryle’s (1947) review from Mind. Gilbert Ryle was one of the leading figures of British twentieth-century philosophy.

13       Confusingly, the communiqué was issued on behalf of the ‘European Community’ which at that time did not formally exist. The Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (or Common Market) in 1957. It was renamed the ‘European Community’ by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 and became one of the so-called ‘three pillars’ of the ‘European Union’ that the Treaty also established —the others being concerned with intergovernmental cooperation. The institutions of the European Community were abolished and absorbed into the European Union as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007.

14*     The outcome of the referendum on Brexit has of course destroyed the continued feasibility of presenting an ‘ever-closer union’ as ‘the destiny’ of Europe. In the aftermath, the EU Commission had to completely rethink how to present not only the historical evolution of the European Union, but also the options for the EU’s future development. These are detailed in the EU Commission’s (2017) Whitepaper on the Future of Europe. Reflections and Scenarios for the EU27 by 2025. To give a flavor of its contents, ‘kern’ or ‘core’ Europe is rephrased, George Bush style, as ‘a coalition of the willing’. Nonetheless, old habits die hard. Given the document’s title, the EU Commission seemingly thinks that the UK is leaving the continent of Europe and not just the EU.

15       But as noted a historicist theory need not resemble that of Marx, Engels etc. Marxism may be viewed as replacing the destiny of a chosen people, or the destiny of a nation, with the destiny of the working class (Agassi 1999).

16       Cf. Karl Marx (1867): ‘And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement—and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society—it can neither clear by bold leaps; nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs’.

17       The term is French and means ‘that acquired by the community’. The doctrine of acquis communautaire asserts that the provisions of the various treaties on European Union, and EU law more generally, has primacy and prevails over any member state’s national law and constitutions. The doctrine is applied via the European Court of Justice.

18       It would seem that some place this report in the pantheon of UK government sponsored ‘dodgy dossiers’ (Blake 2016). Another respected British economics commentator classified the report as being in the tradition of those produced by George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (Halligan 2016).

19       Popper (1957) held this idea to be unobjectionable if it was a shorthand label for the idea that special properties or aspects may emerge from an organised structure of relations. Economics has long studied such phenomena. In more recent times, system dynamic and complexity scientists have specialized in understanding it across all kinds of natural and social domains.

20       See, for example, Bingham (2010).

21       For Popper, this does not entail laissez-faire economics. See Popper (1966b [1945], chapter 17 §III).

22       Indeed, on Popper’s reading of Plato’s Republic, the only person fully qualified to join the ranks of the Philosopher Kings is Plato himself (Popper, 1966a [1945], chapter 8).

23       The quotes nearly always lack proper citation. But see, for example, Anonymous (2014).

24       It is beyond the scope of this paper to do so, but one might even formulate an argument that this clash of attitude has its origins in differences between the so-called ‘Continental’ and ‘British’ versions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Deutsch (2012) summarises the clash with the formula that the Continental Enlightenment was utopian because its philosophes and aufklärer thought problems to be soluble but not inevitable, whereas their British counterparts thought problems to be both soluble and inevitable because each solution begat new problems. Interestingly, Deutsch (2012, p. 66) presents Karl Popper as ‘the twentieth century’s foremost proponent of the British enlightenment’, even though Popper was born in Austria. See also, Porter (2001, chapter 6) for a study of how differences in the constitutional polities of the European nations produced different Enlightenment experiences.

25       For an overview of the impact of the Euro currency union on several of its participant nations, including ordinary persons, see Hewitt (2013).














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The Author

Rod Thomas is employed as a senior lecturer by a UK University. He has published several articles on Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy of critical rationalism in the journals Philosophy of Management and the Cambridge Journal of Economics.


Posted in open society | 15 Comments

Summary of Popper’s lectures at the LSE

For many years Popper delivered a series of 15 lectures as an introduction to the philosophy of science. They were designed for undergraduates but many other people attended.

While Popper was alive Mark Notturno started work on a reconstruction of the lectures based on transcripts of tape recordings.  Work stopped with 12 of the 15 completed.

When I look at the unsatisfactory books on the philosophy of science, I often wonder what a good book would look like. What would I write myself?  Of course Popper was not writing a book, he lectured without notes and the theme of each lecture was the same each year but he talked about what was on his mind at the time.

  1. Values

Welcome to the lecture. Do not expect too much because I am a very bad lecturer and the important part of learning is what you do yourself. Be free to interrupt and to criticize.

Degrees of understanding and levels of criticism.

The distinction between tentative criticism and serious criticism that is based on good understanding of the issue (but understanding can always be improved).

The wrong reason to go to university, to learn to speak impressively.

The proper reason is to find out how little we can ever know.

The overwhelming importance of simplicity and clarity.

We should try to educate people to tell the difference between a charlatan and an expert.

Confusing clarity with precision. Clarity and simplicity are ends in themselves but precision is context-dependent.

Second point for the day, on fast and slow reading. Not enough people recognize the difference between skimming and reading. And the first part of scientific method is the method of reading a book.

Don’t believe me, but do try to understand me and be prepared to argue, to criticize me and force me to clarify my views.

2. Scientific Method

No such thing. On the non-existence of subjects (just problems) and no such thing as a “scientific method” that can reliably deliver the goods. Demonstrated by Planck, a great scientist with only one great discovery, and Einstein failed to achieve his next great break for 40 years after his initial achievements.

The Webbs (founders of the London School of Economics), Mill and the idea that we start by collecting material.

Observe!  Observe what?

First thesis, science starts from problems, not from observations.

The problem with textbooks, lack of historical background and context.

The mythical origin of geometry – measuring fields on the Nile

Plato’s cosmology and the disaster of Euclid’s textbook, regarded as an authority rather than a report on work in progress at the time.

Revealing Popper’s secrets, the four-step schema.

Problem -> Tentative Solutions -> Error Elimination by Criticism and Testing -> New Problems

  1. Problems

Repeating the basic message of the course – starting with problems.

Finding problems: known problems, problems that you find, the problem of starting with problems that are too hard.

Solving a problem should create more problems.

How to find solutions? No recipe (see Planck and Einstein above).

The historical approach (among others) but what about finding good ideas?

Still no recipe, just have ideas and criticize them.

The search for ideas by observation and the bucket theory of the mind.

Exams as a dipstick to find the level of knowledge in the brain.

Inborn knowledge, expectations and the active role of trial and error.

Preliminary criticism of induction, inductivism and the sunrise, refuted millennia ago by the discovery of the land of the midnight sun!

The resort to probability in place of certainty to prop up induction.

Inductivists like Carnap die frustrated but still calling for more work…

4. Diarrhesis

Why he does not believe in definitions.

How diarrhesis is different from the usual obsession with definitions.

He challenges the idea that useful discussion has to start with shared assumptions or presuppositions.

He argues that the more disagreement on assumptions, the better, citing 5th century BC Greeks vs Egyptians and other eastern cultures.

The corrosive effect of Marxism and Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge.

Culture clash and the piecemeal elimination of prejudices.

Aristotle, essences and the origin of the obsession with definitions (with reference to the handbook on good driving by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police).

The alternative approach, clarification, which he calls diarrhesis.

Two points, diarrhesis is only used when necessary and it is used for clarity, not precision.

The myth of the framework, people who stop learning, who think they have nothing to learn from people who have conflicting opinions.

5. Understanding

Breaking out of frameworks.

Killing bad ideas before they kill us.

Understanding and the four-stage problem-solving schema.

Start with problems rather than theories because the theory cannot be understood apart from the problem and this raises the question of understanding.

There is a school in social science which sees understanding as the unique feature of the social sciences.

Some quantum physicists deny that you can ever really understand.

The danger of teaching maths and science with no history of the problem situation – hence no real understanding.

The discovery of spectral lines in 1913 created the need for a statistical theory to account for probabilistic events at the quantum level: the need cannot be understood without a grasp of the evolving problem situation.

How do we understand the problem? By trying (and failing) to solve it.

The importance of making many mistakes in order to understand better.

The role of education to permit people to identify charlatans from experts .

The importance of serious testing and the history of science as refutations which created new problems and hence new science.

6. Cosmology

The lead up to Newton’s theory shows how science advances by the criticism and refutation of theories to explain the origin and structure of the universe (cosmologies and cosmogonies).

Our success in science is amazing considering how close we are to the ants and how far they are from having science and understanding of their situation.

Myths are the starting point, like the Maori myth of NZ being pulled out of the sea by a fisherman.

The first problem of critical (scientific) cosmology was to account for the stability of the fixed stars and the eccentric movements of some others, the wanderers, the planets.

The concentric crystal spheres led to the Ptolomaic system, then the heliocentric suggestion of Copernicus, then the equations of Kepler.

In the neo-Platonic religious background light had great significance: for cosmology that put the sun in the centre: for religion it meant letting light (God) into the churches, hence the gothic design with big windows replacing the Norman and Roman designs.

The geocentric and the heliocentric theories are completely equivalent with regard to observation.

What is wrong with armchairs for scientists?

7. Explanation

Science was inspired by curiosity and explanation can be seen as the historical aim of science.

Explanation is always deductive.

Other views on the aim of science – prediction and practical application (the American pragmatists).

The logic of deductive explanation from the explicans (the cause) which consists of a universal law plus initial conditions, to the explicandum (what was to be explained).

Explanations can be circular or ad hoc and science advanced as the demand for non-circular explanations became more strict.

Better ideas about explanation emerged to avoid charges of circularity and ad hoc explanations.

Aristotle founded the essentialist school of explanation, using “essences” which are supposed to represent the rock bottom of explanation, leaving no more questions.

Modern opponents of essentialism are usually instrumentalists or pragmatists.

Instrumentalists nowadays defend science but originally instrumentalism was a weapon used by the Church against science (Cardinal Bellarmino vs Giadorno Bruno and Galileo) against science! Similarly Berkeley used instrumentalism to criticize Newton’s science and also the calculus.

According to modern instrumentalists we make theories for prediction, in contrast, according to Popper we make predictions to test our theories.

8. Scientific Knowledge

Science begins and ends with problems.

P -> TS -> EE -> New P

This runs contrary to the expectation that science should end with less problems and more knowledge.

For standard epistemology real knowledge means justified true beliefs, that is knowledge which is (a) true and (b) which we have sufficient reasons to believe to be true.

Scientific knowledge never satisfies the most severe conditions and so we never know for certain, and we never know how long may be required to find that it is false.

Scientific knowledge has no authority, even though it is the best knowledge that we have.

The quest for authority became a quest for sources or criteria of truth, for knowledge with a pedigree.

Historically, there came a great desire to escape from dogmatism and rely on something other than Aristotle, instead to rely on senses and reason, however these became authorities in their turn.

Popper is in favour of reason and also in favour of evidence from the senses but neither can be regarded as authorities.

He is not concerned with sources or pedigrees. Science begins when a theory is presented for discussion and criticism.

He is happy for scientists to disagree, for problems to be open and the contest between theories to be undecided.

It is not a healthy situation where scientists are unanimous, that is most likely due to lack of imagination and criticism to generate new problems and rival theories.

In contrast Kuhn regards unanimity (the shared paradigm) as healthy and normal.

Science is revolution in permanence and criticism is the lifeblood of science.

9. Truth

Criticism or error elimination in the four-step schema is an attempt to eliminate what is false to strive to arrive at the truth.

Omniscience is not a practical aim of science, instead truth should be regarded as a REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE (following Kant).

Given the model of proof from maths and logic, epistemologists have been very keen to find a proof for the truth of scientific theories.

That led the search for a CRITERION – Descartes (clear and distinct ideas), Bacon (clarity and directness of perception).

The over-optimistic “manifest theory” of truth and its counterpart, the conspiracy theory of error. Failures of criterion theories of truth led to relativism, the corrosive form of skepticism – there is no such thing as truth.

Between the optimists and the pessimists, the pragmatists sought a middle ground in the success of theories.

Two other “middle ways” between optimism and pessimism, the COHERENCE and CONVENTION theories of truth.

Viennese efforts to get clear on various correspondence theories – Schlick and Wittgenstein.

Tarski’s solution, and the rehabilitation of the correspondence theory, using modern logic, to maintain the regulative idea of truth.

10. Falsity

More discussion of truth, Tarski and metalanguages.

The law of the excluded middle: unambiguously formulated statements are either true or false, no middle ground (proved by Tarski).

This is signaled as a preliminary statement in advance of the discussion of theories in economics and the social sciences in the next lecture, where we have to operate with theories that we know are false.

Same applies in astronomy where all our models are over-simplifications; the sun and planets treated as “masspoints”; the sun is not really an ellipsoid (it has craters and bulges); light exerts pressure on planets which is practically always neglected in calculations.

Reality is too rich to depict in a model, we abstract and select according to our problem and purpose at the time, and according to our theoretical knowledge at the time.

Our picture of the world is always defective, always false and over-simplified and always contains real mistakes in addition to the over-simplifications.

11. Social Science

A story: a critic of Popper’s views on Plato first stated that Popper was wrong to identify Plato as a forerunner of totalitarianism, then later he wrote that Plato was indeed a forerunner of totalitarianism and Popper’s criticism was misguided because totalitarianism is inevitable due to its strength and efficiency. Between the two criticisms the Russians launched sputnik into space, which triggered something like hysteria in the free world with a panic about the state of western education and science.

Speculations on things that could kill science: too much money, the publication explosion (good buried under bad), angling for money at the expense of good science, hostility of the mediocre to the producers because the unproductive fear they will miss out on the big money.

Hopeful signs (in those days of the 1950s) that many students and scientists were still more interested in learning than money.

Serious concern about the split in the social scientists between factfinders and theoreticians. The factfinders were dominant and made fun of the theorists but they had no theories worth testing and many became part of the advertising industry.

Moving on to the methods of the social sciences, first of all, is there a difference from the natural sciences, perhaps due to the “Oedipus effect” of predictions which become self-fulfilling?

He found that a similar effect could occur in the natural sciences using calculating machines.

He rejected the idea that the natural sciences are intrinsically more objective, the rationality of science depends on the free exchange of criticism (and is undermined when that is reduced).

“Objectivity consists in the clash of biases, not their elimination”.

Beware of anything that appears to be intuitively self-evident.

Another story: a scientist was investigating why the leaves of a plant twist to the left in New Zealand as opposed to the right in England. After working for a year on the problem he attended a Popper lecture, then he checked and found they twisted to the right. No problem!

Bacon on “confirmation bias”, seeing what our theories (prejudices) tell us to find. Bacon’s solution was the empty mind (no assumptions), Popper’s solution is to subject all assumptions to critical analysis, use observations as criticisms, not confirmations.

On the differences between natural and social sciences, for the most part the difference are not what people think they are, but there is a difference, and that is the use of the rationality principle.

12. The Rationality Principle (RP)

Hume, Rousseau and Freud on human irrationality.

Freud as a rationalist: we act rationally within the limits of our knowledge at the time AND understanding the cause of neurosis should result in a cure.

Popper’s rationality principle means explaining actions in terms of the situation (situational analysis).

Not a hypothesis to be tested, but a principle of method (a “rule of the game” of social science):

The rule: Try to explain things rationally.

The RP is the functional equivalent of a law of nature in a deductive explanation which starts with a situation (laws and initial conditions, the situation) and produces an effect, the action.

The RP “animates” the model that we make to explain the actions that generate social phenomena of all kinds (war, inflation, unemployment etc).

We know it is false because it is over-simplified, abstracted from the full complexity of the world, like our models and theories in the natural sciences.

The RP should not be confused with personal rationality which is the willingness to correct our ideas.

The RP is a principle of explanation and a heuristic, a guide on what to look for in social situations.

The next major point in the lecture is the nature and function of institutions – social, political, cultural.

Study of institutions raises all the most interesting and important questions in the social sciences. Among the institutions are traditions.

Traditions have an almost biological basis.

The various ways we learn – trial and error, imitation, systematic research.


Posted in epistemology | 2 Comments

Popper, Smith and Carl Menger’s economics

Karl Popper and Barry Smith on the Metaphysical Research Program of Austrian Realism and Carl Menger’s Economics.

An unpublished paper delivered at a conference on Austrian thought at the University of Texas (Arlington) in 2013. I don’t expect everyone or indeed anyone to read it right through – this is a way of getting the paper on line so I can send the link to interested people instead of attaching a word file to email.

Barry Smith located an Aristotelian or “Austrian realism” framework of ideas which underpinned Carl Menger’s economics. In Popper’s terms this framework is a “metaphysical research program”. The elements of the framework are replicated in the program that Popper elaborated in his long debate with the historicists, the positivists and the quantum physicists. Another parallel in the thinking of Popper and Smith is the theory of conjectural or fallibillistic knowledge. This paper argues that if Menger could have accessed a theory of that kind he might have advanced his program instead of turning to methodological issues after he wrote the first of several planned volumes of economic theory. Today, if the Aristotelian/Austrian/Popperian framework can be revived, the Austrian contribution to the mainline of economics will be better appreciated and economics may be more effectively integrated with sociology and all the disciplines of the humanities including law, politics, and cultural studies.

This paper is one of the products of a program to explore the synergy of the ideas of Karl Popper and the Austrian economists, especially in relation to the policy agenda of classical liberalism. This involves unpacking the implications and applications of several “turns” that Popper pursued in epistemology and methodology.

The synergy is obscured by some obvious differences, notably between Popper’s interventionist tendencies in economic policy and the laissez faire of the Austrians, and between Popper’s theory of conjectural knowledge versus the foundationalistic apriorism that Rothbard and Hoppe took from von Mises. The first is not a matter of philosophy or methodology and the second was resolved when Smith demonstrated that fallibillistic apriorism (equivalent to Popper’s conjectural knowledge) is an adequate platform for Austrian economics, so there is no need for the foundationalist variety (Smith, 1996).
The paper is organised as follows: first a section on the Popperian “turns”, then a section comparing the essential elements of the Aristotelian/Austrian framework that Smith found in Menger’s economics with Popper’s program. Then a section on the problems that Menger encountered in “the Methodenstreit” with the suggestion that a theory of conjectural or fallibillistic knowledge would have enabled him to press on with his theoretical program.

The Popperian Turns
The six “turns” are (1) conjectural or hermeneutic (2) objective, (3) against conceptual analysis or essentialism, (4) social or “rules of the game”, (5) biological or evolutionary and (6) metaphysical. These aspects of Popper’s thinking are not generally appreciated and they are seldom brought to the attention of students in the mainstream of teaching and research.

The conjectural, hermeneutic or non-justificationist turn means that Popper rejected the traditional concern of the theory of knowledge with the justification of our theories (typically our beliefs) by reference to some authority or foundational source of knowledge. The objective turn depicts knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, as a human product, spelled out for public inspection and criticism.

On the “anti-essentialist turn”, he did not accept that it is helpful to pursue extended analysis of concepts to “explicate” them or make them more precise. Against “essentialism” and the quest for linguistic precision he favoured clarity of speech and writing as a means to an end in the discussion of substantive problems, that is, the problems that concern working economists. “Never let yourself be goaded into taking seriously, problems about words and their meanings. What must be taken seriously are questions of fact, and assertions about facts: theories and hypotheses; the problems they solve and the problems they raise.” (Popper, 1976, section 7).

The social turn means taking account of the social nature of science and the function of conventions or “rules of the game” in scientific practice. Kuhn and the sociologists of knowledge are generally given credit for drawing attention to the social factor in science, however Jarvie in The Republic of Science (2001) identified what he called the “social turn” in Popper’s earliest published work, for example in Sections 4, 5, 9, 10 and 11 in The Logic of Scientific Discovery. The social turn also appeared in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society and its Enemies, first published in 1945 and in the final sections of The Poverty of Historicism. Wittgenstein and his followers could have made a contribution in this field if they had adopted a critical approach to the theoretical and practical implications of important real-life games, rules and conventions. For example they could have examined the impact of Keynesian economic policy on the convention of balancing State budgets or the shift in the concept of democracy from limited government under the rule of law to majority rule, and the erosion of responsible government by the “vote-buying motive”.

Biological themes can be found in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (dating from the original Logik der Forschung in 1935). “We choose the theory which best holds its own in competition with other theories; the one which, by natural selection, proves itself the fittest to survive.” (Popper, 1959, 108). That was only a hint of Popper’s interest in the biological approach which he revealed in the 1960s when he delivered a series of papers that are collected in Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Popper’s “metaphysical turn” attracted little attention although it is the most striking difference between him and the positivists. For this paper the most significant of the turns are the first, to address the blockage in Carl Menger’s program, and the last, to explain how unexamined metaphysical frameworks create winners and losers among research programs.

Against the justification of beliefs. In traditional epistemology the central concern was (and remains) the justification of beliefs. Philosophers persist with attempts to justify beliefs by various strategies including inductive logic and many texts do not even mention that Popper provided an alternative program. This can be described as a full-blooded “conjectural turn”, to claim that even our best theories may be rendered problematic by new evidence, new criticisms and new theories. This dates from 1935 and it anticipated the “hermeneutic turn” in the mainstream when the work of Kuhn and the modern French theorists made much of the theory-dependence of observations.

Attempts to justify beliefs generate an infinite regress. The alternative to the quest for justified beliefs is to form tentative critical preferences for theories (or policies) on the basis of their capacity to solve their problems and stand up to various forms of criticism, including experimental and practical tests. Bartley developed some of the implications of Popper’s “non-authoritarian” theory of knowledge and his “non-justificationism”. (Bartley, 1962, 1964, 1983). Smith’s exposition of “extreme fallibillistic apriorism” is also a theory of conjectural objective knowledge (Smith, 1996).

Metaphysical research programs. The metaphysical turn is a striking difference between Popper and the logical positivists, whose signature idea was to render all talk of metaphysics strictly meaningless. Popper developed the theory of metaphysical research programs during the 1950s as he worked on The Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery. It flows from the idea that we should look at the history of a subject, and its current status, in terms of its problem situations.

In science, problem situations are the result, as a rule, of three factors. One is the discovery of an inconsistency within the ruling theory. A second is the discovery of an inconsistency between theory and experiment – the experimental falsification of the theory. The third, and perhaps the most important one, is the relation between the theory and what may be called the “metaphysical research programme”.
By raising the problems of explanation which the theory is designed to solve, the metaphysical research programme makes it possible to judge the success of the theory as an explanation. On the other hand, the critical discussion of the theory and its results may lead to a change in the research programme (usually an unconscious change, as the programme is often held unconsciously, and taken for granted), or to its replacement by another programme. These programmes are only occasionally discussed as such: more often, they are implicit in the theories and in the attitudes and judgements of the scientists.
I call these research programmes “metaphysical” also because they result from general views of the structure of the world and, at the same time, from general views of the problem situation in physical cosmology. I call them “research programmes” because they incorporate, together with a view of what the most pressing problems are, a general idea of what a satisfactory solution of these problems would look like. (Popper, 1982, 161)

The idea of the program can be applied to Popper’s own work, to see it as the unpacking of the implications and applications of his key ideas to problems in many fields. This “programmatic” approach to research apparently anticipated both Kuhn’s “paradigm theory” and the methodology of scientific research programs. Leaving aside the question of priority, the decisive difference between Popper and the others is the critical approach. Criticism of the paradigm/hard core assumptions is not recommended by Kuhn and Lakatos but criticism is the lifeblood of Popper’s program and that applies to the metaphysical theories that constitute the MRP. So the most important function of Popper’s theory of MRPs is to invite and encourage criticism of framework assumptions and the critical comparison of the assumptions that animate rival programs.

Wong provided a striking and original example of Popperian program analysis in his critique of Samuelson’s demand theory and Birner explained the coherence and power of Hayek’s work by describing it as a program to pursue an evolving research agenda that he set from the beginning of his publishing career (Wong, 2006 and Birner, 1994).

The Aristotelian/Austrian Frameworks of Smith and Popper
Smith explored the philosophical roots of Carl Menger’s economics and he found a number of Aristotelian framework presuppositions which demarcated “Austrian realism” from German philosophy at the time (Smith 1990, 1995). The following account draws on Smith (1990), to spell out the “Austrian-Aristotelian” program and the extent of agreement with Popper’s program.

1. “The world exists, independently of our thinking and reasoning activities.” This coincides with Popper’s realism regarding the external world, and also mental entities, plus (in Smith’s words) “other sui generis dimensions, for example of law and culture”.

2. “There are in the world certain simple ‘essences’ or `natures’ or ‘elements’, as well as laws, structures or connections governing these, all of which are strictly universal.” Popper took a similar metaphysical view of the uniformity of the laws of nature which he depicted in his later work as “propensities”.

3. “Our experience of this world involves in every case both an individual and a general aspect.” Smith found both radical empiricism and essentialism in Menger and other Aristotelians such as Brentano. “Radical empiricism” here is simply an aspect of realism which does not imply the epistemology of empiricism (accumulation of sense impressions): it means that individual apples and atoms exist in addition to the universal laws that regulate their characteristics and behaviour. And Menger’s essentialism involved the search for causal laws, not protracted conceptual analysis which both Menger and Popper deplored (Menger, 1985, 37). Smith noted that Menger was concerned with a priori categories (‘essences’ or ‘natures’) which exist in reality and the task is to specify the structures and connections among such essences, for example between economic categories such as value, rent, profit, the division of labour and money.

Theoretical economics has the task of investigating the general nature and the general connection of economic phenomena, not of analyzing economic concepts and of drawing the logical conclusions resulting from this analysis. The phenomena, or certain aspects of them, and not their linguistic image, the concepts, are the object of theoretical research in the field of economy. (ibid, 37)

The theoretical scientist, then, has to learn to recognize the general recurring structures in the flux of reality. And theoretical understanding of a concrete phenomenon cannot be achieved via any mere inductive enumeration of cases. It is attained, rather, only by apprehending the phenomenon in question as a special case of a certain regularity. (ibid, 44.)

Menger’s “apprehensions” appear to be the functional equivalents of Popper’s conjectures which are the creative (but fallible) source of ideas.

4. “The general aspect of experience need be in no sense infallible (it reflects no special source of special knowledge), and may indeed be subject to just the same sorts of errors as is our knowledge of what is individual.” In a nutshell, knowledge of both particulars and universals is fallible and conjectural. Our perceptions, our intuitions and even widely accepted scientific knowledge can be wrong. This is the equivalent of Popper’s “conjectural turn”. Smith’s “fallibillistic apriorism” and Popper’s conjectural knowledge both stand against the strong form of apriorism that many people identify with Austrian economics.

5. “We can know, albeit under the conditions set out in 4, what the world is like, at least in its broad outlines, both via common sense and via scientific method….Taken together with 3, this aspect of the Aristotelian doctrine implies that we can know what the world is like both in its individual and in its general aspect, and our knowledge will likely manifest a progressive improvement, both in depth of penetration and in adequacy to the structures penetrated. “

6. “We can know what this world is like, at least in principle, from the detached perspective of an ideal scientific observer. Thus in the social sciences in particular there is no suggestion that only those who are in some sense part of a given culture or form of life can grasp this culture or form of life theoretically.”
5 and 6 are further statements of realism and our capacity to learn more about nature and the social world with no concession to radical subjectivism or cultural relativism. That is consistent with Popper’s critical rationalism and his concern with the growth of knowledge.

7. “The simple essences or natures pertaining to the various different segments or levels of reality constitute an alphabet of structural parts. These can be combined together in different ways, both statically and dynamically (according to co-existence and according to order of succession).” No Popperian locution comes to mind which replicates that proposition which translates into a fairly uncontroversial statement about the existence of various levels of structural organization in nature.

Smith added three more points to demarcate the ideas of “Austrian realism” from the kind of ideas that dominated in Germany which are found in the their most influential forms in the work of Hegel and Marx.  8. “The theory of value is to be built up exclusively on ‘subjective’ foundations, which is to say exclusively on the basis of the corresponding mental acts and states of human subjects. Thus value for Menger in stark contrast to Marx is to be accounted for exclusively in terms of the satisfaction of human needs and wants. Economic value, in particular, is seen as being derivative of the valuing acts of ultimate consumers.”  9.”There are no ‘social wholes’ or ‘social organisms’.” And 10. “There are no (graspable) laws of historical development.”

Popper argued in favour of the points 8, 9 and 10 in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies. Smith’s ten points add up to a position that is very close to Popper’s metaphysics, his ontology and his epistemology. Smith argued that Menger formed his position from the version of Aristotelian thought that was circulating in Austrian circles. Popper developed his position in his lifelong debate with historicists, positivists, inductivists, instrumentalists, subjectivists and determinists, and his critique of the conventional (Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum theory.

Smith went on to suggest that the implications of the ten point program “
“do have a certain metaphysical cutting power.” And indeed they do, ruling out historicism (theses 2, 6, 8, 9 and 10) and positivism (theses 3 and 5), and “constructivism” and hermeneutic relativism as well (theses 1 and 5).

How Popper and Smith Could Have Helped Menger
“The Methodenstreit”, the ill-tempered debate between Menger and Schmoller of the “younger German historical school” started with Menger’s book on the methods of the social sciences (1883). It continued with sporadic exchanges between other members of the rival schools after the principals retired from the contest.
The point of this case study is to suggest that Menger was stuck for want of a theory of fallible or conjectural knowledge. He had to account for the foundations of scientific knowledge in economics and he did not succeed, being forced to resort to such devices as “the rule of cognition” to make his case in the face of difficulties with empirical evidence as the foundation. With the epistemological innovations furnished by Smith and Popper, Menger could have pressed on with his research program, elaborating and extending his basic insights and appealing to the explanatory power of his theories rather than justification by any special method of investigation.

The outcome of the Methodenstreit was inconclusive because neither party considered that they had anything to learn from the other. The debate has been sometimes depicted as a conflict of “theory versus history” or perhaps “induction versus deduction” but Menger did not disparage history, he just insisted that historical studies need to be informed by principles of explanation in the form of universal laws and the general theories which he and the “Manchester free traders” considered to be the core of the discipline. He perceived that the lack of interest in his Principles on the part of the historical school was a problem of methods.

 “In a word, the progress of science is blocked because erroneous methodological principles prevail…[supported by powerful schools]…clarification of methodological problems is the condition of further progress.” (Menger, 1985, 27)

Bostaph (1978) identified eight issues in the debate, ranging from the criteria for designating the various branches of the subject, through the role of theory in explaining events, to whether “necessary” or universal causal laws can be formulated and tested using empirical data. The central issue was the possibility of “causal realism” in economics, and the existence of universal general theories, which Schmoller and the historical school denied, insisting that laws of historical development  might be found, if at all, by accumulating historical data.

In addition to the personal vitriol in the exchange there are two major reasons why that issue was not resolved ; first, Bostaph explained that the protagonists and most of the subsequent commentators did not fully understood the epistemological issues that were at stake (Milford and Birner are notable exceptions). Second, Menger himself did not have a solution to the central issue, namely the justification or the basis or the rationale for accepting and using the laws that he postulated.

 “The conclusion that the differences between the position of the historicists and that of Menger were minor compared to the similarities seems wholly unsupported. The differences in epistemological beliefs were so great that the debate …was not resolved because the fundamental sources of the disagreement lay unidentified and (substantially) untreated by both factions. The epistemological points at issue are matters of crucial importance to anyone who attempts to be self-conscious about his own methodological choices…because an inappropriate choice can (potentially) lead to a lifetime of wasted effort.” ( Bostaph, 1978, 15)

In that paper Bostaph did not indicate what the more correct or helpful result of the debate might have been if the epistemological issues had been directly addressed. He considered that Menger did well to state his assumptions and prescriptions in such a thorough manner and to seek for a methodologically self-conscious economic theory.
“For these reasons alone, there is ample cause to be glad that Menger was drawn into a Methodenstreit and did publish his methodological and epistemological views. It is only to be regretted that his research work on these topics later in life has not been published.” (ibid, 15)

It is even more regrettable that Menger’s concern with methodology distracted him from completing the additional three volumes that were originally planned to follow Principles. Bostaph cited several sources in Hayek to suggest that this was the case. In a later paper, with the benefit of Smith’s account of the Aristotelian/Austrian realism that informed Menger, Bostaph was more specific about the core issue.

“Unfortunately, neither Menger nor Schmoller recognized [the conflict between Humean nominalism and Aristotelian/neoscholasticism] and so never debated the most fundamental issues that separated them – their strongly differing theories of concepts, or universals, and of causality.” (Bostaph, 1994, 460). Bostaph concluded that Menger pinned his hopes for establishing exact universal laws on a combination of abstraction and simplification to establish ‘typical’ economic phenomena and then to discover the connections between these phenomena. “An ‘exact’ or causal law was an absolute statement of necessity to which, Menger pointed out, exceptions were inconceivable because of ‘the laws of thinking’.” (ibid , 463)

That did not represent a satisfactory solution and Milford and Birner discussed Menger’s unresolved efforts to find a way forward. According to Milford “He [Menger] examined this epistemological position primarily with respect to two problems: the problem of concept formation and the problem of justifying strictly universal statements.” (Milford, 1990, 225). Menger did not accept what he called the “realistic-empirical orientation of theoretical research” whereby repeated observations lead to laws, as repeated sunrises may suggest a law regarding the daily appearance of the sun. He rejected that form of simple induction for reasons much the same as Hume’s famous critique “although strangely without quoting him.” (ibid, 227)

A process of abstraction from the observed phenomena is required to penetrate to the exact or strictly universal laws which lie behind experience. This calls for recourse to “the rule of cognition” which was never properly explained.

Exact research solves the second problem of the theoretical sciences: the determination of the typical relationships, the laws of phenomena…Exact science, accordingly, does not examine the regularities in the succession, etc., of real phenomena either. It examines, rather, how more complicated phenomena develop from the simplest…in their isolation from all other influences…[so with strictly typical elements, exact measure, and isolation from other factors ] on the basis of the rules of cognition characterized by us above [we] arrive at laws of phenomena which are not only absolute but according to our laws of thinking simply cannot be thought of in any other way but as absolute. (Menger, 1985, 61)
That left the issue unresolved, hanging on the question of the “rule of cognition”. Birner also examined how Menger ran into problems with the justification, verification or foundations for universal laws. “For Menger (and his contemporaries, with the possible exception of Whewell) the logical or epistemological problem of the relation between exact and empirical theory is a problem about the justification of knowledge: [how can knowledge] be given a foundation that is true beyond doubt?” (Birner, 1990, 250)
At this point Menger encountered the problem of induction, which he recognized as a serious matter.

Menger’s joint justificationist-inductivist theory of knowledge entails that abstraction is conceived of as a process rather than as the description of a set of hypotheses with particular properties, regardless of how they were arrived at. But Menger is not a naive inductivist. He is well aware of the logical problem that arises if one maintains that general, universally valid laws can be derived from a finite number of observation statements. (ibid, 250)

Menger turned to the construction of “pure” or idealised types as a way out of the dilemma but he never broke out of the inductivist framework and he was stuck on a fourfold predicament.

 Exact laws are: (1) not a prior truths; (2) nor the result of conceptual analysis; (3) nor are they empirical; (4) and they can be and must be justified. Item 3 seems to be unproblematic in view of Menger’s idea that exact laws are laws of ideal phenomena. But..Menger thinks that (5) exact laws contribute to our understanding of the real world…Menger’s justificationism-cum-inductivism makes it impossible for him to solve the epistemological level problem while at the same time maintaining both his methodological distinctions and his realism. (ibid, 251-2).

There is a desperately simple resolution to Menger’s central dilemma when we have the benefit of Smith’s fallibillistic apriorism and Popper’s theory of conjectural knowledge. These eliminate the demand for justification (in its strong form), that is, for certain foundations of theoretical propositions or a surrogate for certainty in the form of a numerical probability or degree of confirmation. Such warrants have yet to be provided despite the efforts of the logical positivists and the logical empiricists who followed them. The alternative is to evaluate theories in terms of their capacity to solve problems, to illuminate economic events, to permit the further elaboration of explanatory theories, to formulate effective policies, etc.

If Menger had not felt obliged to shore up the foundations of his system with a solution to the problem of justification, if he had simply appealed to the power and coherence of his approach, he could have pressed on with the extra volumes that he planned to complete the series after Principles. While the Methodenstreit performed a function in laying bare some issues in epistemology it did not produce a solution and the unresolved issues distracted Menger from his great task of theoretical development. The tools required to solve the espistemological problem only became available some decades later with Popper (1935, 1959) and Smith (1996).

It is suggested that the Aristotelian/Austrian framework which animated Menger’s economics and was reinvented by Popper is a robust alternative to the positivism and empiricism that became dominant in the philosophy of science in the twentieth century. Some of the tenets of the Austrian economists, but not the framework, were taken up by the mainstream of the profession, but as positivism rose in the 1930s and significant differences emerged between the Austrians and others, these differences were resolved in favour of the mainstream by weight of numbers rather than arguments. The framework assumptions of rival research programs could not be addressed effectively under the ban on metaphysics imposed by the positivists.

Frameworks include epistemological and methodological theories as well as ontological and metaphysical assumptions. One of the functions of frameworks is to create winners and losers. In economics the winners in the positivist/empiricist framework include general equilibrium theory, the “measure and model” approach, Keynesian macroeconomics, econometrics, mathematical game theory and the general demand for mathematical rigor. These developments isolated economics from the social sciences and humanities at large, and even from the world “outside the window”. If the Aristotelian-Austrian-Popperian framework can be revived, some alternative programs will thrive, especially the Austrians and the political program of classical liberalism. More important, the framework will facilitate the re-integration of economics, sociology, and all the disciplines of the humanities including law, politics, and cultural. The theory of conjectural or fallibillistic knowledge is an important addition to the Aristotelian/Austrian framework.

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