Notes on Thomas Trzyna’s book Karl Popper and Literary Theory: Critical Rationalism as a Philosophy of Literature

This is an academic defence of the rational and humanistic tradition in literary studies that is out of favour in the universities at present where the humanities and social sciences have been radically politicised by the left. There may not be much readership for this book on campus but it is a welcome and much-needed contribution to explore Popper’s critical rationalism in literary studies.

The aim is to demonstrate how a robust critical framework can help the reader to find more in the books they read. The first part of the book is concerned with critical frameworks and the second consists of close readings of several particularly interesting and complex works of fiction.

The centrepiece of the first part is the comparison and contrast of James Battersby’s philosophical framework with critical rationalism as expounded by Karl Popper and William W Bartley. Bringing Bartley’s work to attention is a significant contribution in itself because grasping Popper’s “non-justificationist” or non-foundationalist approach as explained by Bartley can be revelatory in understanding where Popper is coming from. Popper’s falsificationism – the insistence that scientific systems must be susceptible to refutation by empirical tests – is only one aspect of the critical method. The objective of the method is to form critical preferences for one proposition or theory or interpretation rather than another – preferences that can change in response to new evidence and new arguments. This is a more fluid and flexible approach to complex materials than the over-simplified interpretation of falificationism that demands decisive knock-down decisions to resolve differences of opinion.

Trzyna (page 51) cites Battersby:

“a large part of this prospective project…would be concerned with showing that some schemes are demonstrably truer, more right, and better than others and that some statements within a given scheme are right, fit and true and some are wrong, unfit and false”.

Trzyna correctly notes that Battersby is wavering between “truer, more right and better” and the uncompromising “wrong, unfit and false”. Taking on board the language of critical preference allows for degrees of fitness and unfitness, better and worse interpretive frameworks and better and worse interpretations. The analysis becomes richer in the light of “perspectivism” (looking from different angles) which allows for separate appraisal of various aspects of a work, so one poem might be robust in versification but articulate a morally depraved theme while another might also be brilliant in rhyme and metre but deal with a trivial theme such as a pebble on a path rather than a major moral or intellectual challenge like the great tragedies of Shakespeare and Racine.

Trzyna broached the very important topic of interpretive frameworks using the example of the poet Anne Finch (1661-1720) who injected what came to be known as romantic elements (dwelling on shades of moods) into her poetry that was initially shaped by the Augustan classicism of the period. Wordsworth discovered her some time later and saluted her “proto-romanticism” to acknowledge her “full worth” (38). The suggestion is that Anne Finch did not have the stature or influence in her time that was warranted by her achievement, partly because her work did not fit the Augustan paradigm and no doubt also for other reasons including her gender.

Trzyna notes the previous work of DeSalvo and Creed using Popper’s “three world” theory of objective knowledge to focus on the contents of the work as an object for public or intersubjective appraisal rather than an expression of the feelings of the author. Surprisingly little has been made of Popper’s theory of language because it links in an interesting way with his theory of objective contents of thought. More on that in another post.

Moving on to Trzyna’s close reading of selected works where the idea is to promote the enjoyment and understanding of literary works rather than deconstructing them. This is where the rubber of critical theory meets the road of living works of literature. The question is, does the theory help the reader to extract more from the works including enjoyment and a sense of spiritual elevation? This is no simple question because literary works have very different things to offer and some challenging and confronting books are not obviously enjoyable or inspirational. This applies to several of the pieces that Trzyna selected for his study.

The first is a densely layered and disturbing short story by Jean Toomer from a book about his first trip to the Deep South of the United States. The theme of the story is hidden menace and the unresolved mystery of prostitute and her dead child. Trzyna describes how the students in a small class read and reread the few pages of the story testing different conjectures about the meaning and implication of various passages in the text. The process was rewarding in coming to grips with the complexities in the work but no consensus emerged.

There is a chapter on the novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding and his meditations on the problem of forgiveness. Forgiveness was more than a literary concern for Fielding because in this time on the bench as a magistrate he had occasion to sentence at least one criminal to hang. He was also pressing for more humane conditions in prisons and the abolition of public executions in addition to developing a police force and making provision for the poor.

In “Le Clezio, ,Levinas, Popper and the Problem of Parmenides” Trzyna explored works by Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio and Emmanuel Levinas and their fascination with the ideas of Parmenides. The CR connection is that Popper was also a deep student of Parmenides. Le Clezio is an academic and also a prolific of more than forty books that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 2008. He was described as “an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”.

Le Clezio’s body of work speaks to the concerns of colonialism and the marginalization of disadvantaged groups such as North Africans in Europe. He travelled extensively in North Africa and explored the varieties of Islamic faith. At some stage he moved from France and lives in New Mexico after some time with a tribe in Mexico. The novel Desert that Trzyna selected for close reading is a densely layered mediation on the nature of being and personal identity, set among desert tribes.

Levinas (1906- 1995) is an equally complex case because he is Lithuanian-born with Jewish ancestry, he grew up in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution and now he is a French national writing in French. He was an academic and did not write fiction. He is distinguished for work on Jewish philosophy, existentialism, ethics, phenomenology and ontology. His work is only explored briefly in this chapter to record his interest in the complexities of the self-aware mind in relation to issues of death and infinity.

Trzyna pursued hs Popperian analysis in “J. M. Coetzee and The Childhood of Jesus” where he touched on two novels, Elizabeth Costello (2003) and The Childhood of Jesus (2013). The first touches on themes of mathematics, radical vegetarianism and the satire of Thomas Swift’s Gullivers Travels. The dystopian theme persists in The Childhood of Jesus which appears to be an elaborate satire on Christianity or maybe Christianity misunderstood.

The issue of interpretation is pursued in relation to Shakespeare’s most problematic play Timon of Athens. This was probably written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton and there are questions about whether it should be in the Folio, how often it was performed and whether it was left unfinished with various aspects of the plot and the character of Timon left incomplete.

The longest reading is “The Eumenides: We Suffer into Truth”, a study of Jonathan Littell’s 2006 novel Les Bienevillantes that was translated as The Kindly Ones. The book runs to almost a thousand pages, won the most prestigious French literary awards and was translated into several languages. Trzyna suggests that the title is best translated by the name of the third play in the trilogy by Aeschylus The Eumenides however if you are not familiar with the story of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra , who killed his mother in order to avenge her murder of his father and was pursued by the Furies to punish him then the classical reference does not help.

The book is a long novel written as the autobiography of a German who lived a seriously deranged existence before World War 2 and then participated in horrendous crimes in a death squad during the Holocaust. The exploration into the mental states of the protagonist continues after the war when he returns to a more or less normal life as a manager of a lace factory with a wife and grandchildren. The account of the brutalization that is summarized in Trzyna’s study does not encourage me to read the original! The deeper issues that concern the author are the human proclivity for evil and the capacity to survive it and resume normal existence.

“The Limits of the Theory: The Gospel of Mark and the Ineffable” is an excursion into biblical exegesis with some references to Willlam W Bartley and his account of the research on the historical Jesus in Retreat to Commitment. The last study is just three pages on “Patrick Modiano and the Bucket: a Note”. Modiano won the Nobel for literature in 2014. He has written some thirty short novels mostly concerned with imaginative constructions of aspects of his own life. Trzyna selected this work to illustrate the difficulty of interpreting work where there is no clear organizing principle, like the bucket of observations collected without a systematic purpose.

I have not read any of the books and so I am not in a position to comment on Trzyna’s comments. The complexity of the analysis defies paraphrase and I can only hope that some readers of this review may be tempted to sample some of the books cited.

Posted in epistemology | Leave a comment

Commentary on the worldview of Pope Francis

Pope Francis and the Caring Society edited by Robert M Whaples, Independent Institute, Oakland Calif, 2017.

The question “is the pope a Catholic?” used to be rhetorical but tragically that is no longer the case in light of the concessions that Pope Francis may be prepared to make to the Chinese government. In early 2018 it seemed that he was  about to recognize the Communist Party as a spiritual authority with the power to appoint bishops in defiance of the wishes of the Church leadership in China. I am not sure where that has gone since but this is a chilling prospect for those who are aware of the brutal official suppression of Christians in parts of China in recent times.

This is not the first fire that Pope Francis has lit because he is probably best known for his damning comments on capitalism and markets. The contributors to this collection are inclined to be charitable and attribute these views to a genuine passion to help the poor and his experience of crony capitalism in Argentina. The free enterprise Independent Institute in the United States has responded with a collection of papers led by the late Michael Novak who wrote the Foreword not long before he died in February last year.

Many of the contributors are Christian believers and they have bent over backwards to embrace the dialogue (an awkward posture). They hope that he might be prepared to learn some economics like the Polish Pope John Paul. They work through the economic issues, especially the power of markets to liberate the poor provided that there is a framework of law and property rights and a vibrant civil society to support charitable giving.

One of the Pope’s most baffling blind spots is his opinion that absolute poverty is still growing around the world. This ignores the well documented advance of a billion or so people in India and China due to the move away from collectivism on the land and some other market-oriented reforms. The editor could have referred to Chile as the success story of South America due to the reforms put in place under Pinochet on advice from some free enterprise economists. These have been substantially retained under the relatively leftwing administrations which have ruled since Pinochet restored democracy.

One of the contributors charted the evolution of Papal economic commentary from John XIII in 1961 who wanted the greatness of a nation to be measured by its redistribution of prosperity, followed by Paul VI who called for a coordinated effort by wealthy nations to help the emerging nations. Twenty years later John Paul II demanded that “the market be appropriately controlled…to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied”. Benedict XVI likewise insisted that markets “must be intentionally put at the service of society” backed up by global government “with real teeth”. Pope Francis is both the first Pope from the developing world and from South America so not surprisingly he has recycled these corrosive and economically illiterate mantras with even more insistence and enthusiasm.

Samuel Gregg contributed an outstanding chapter “Understanding Pope Francis, Argentina, Economic Failure and the Teologia del Pueblo.” Like Michael Novak he has a deep appreciation of the affinity between Catholic social thought and the free enterprise school of Austrian economics, a topic which he pursued during a spell in Sydney at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney in the 1990s. The Austrians stress the vital role of the entrepreneur and the danger of easy money, Keynesian deficit budgeting and all kinds of over-regulation with red and green tape

Gregg provides an elegant and concise history of the melancholy decline of Argentina during the twentieth century from the high point when it was one of the richest nations in the world and Buenos Aires ranked with the great cities of Europe. The decline started in the 1930s and became precipitous after the war under the charismatic populist Juan Peron who roused the masses and in years of (mis)government entrenched a deep “class” divide in the nation: workers against the middle class, Argentines against foreigners, trade unions against employers.

By the 1980s the nation was in such dire straits that a Peronist Prime Minister Carlos Menem surprisingly embarked on serious liberal reforms. Much of this was on the right track but the vital element of labour market reform was not achieved due to the Congress and the powerful Peronist trade unions. Large numbers of state-owned firms were privatised and shed labour to become profitable but the labour market could not adjust so the unemployment figures and the budget situation rapidly deteriorated. In the subsequent “Great Depression” liberal economic policies were, as usual, blamed for problems not of their own making.

The future Pope came to maturity in that economic environment and in 1998 he wrote a small book Dialogos entre Juan Pablo II y Fidel Castro containing such gems as “no one can accept the precepts of neoliberalism and consider themselves Christian” and “Neoliberalism brings about unemployment, coldly marginalizing those who are superfluous…[and] corrupts democratic values by alienating them from the values of equality and social justice”.

Several contributors pay attention to the Pope’s wayward and scientifically illiterate views on the environment and ecological issues with a summary of his position on these issues in the Conclusion by Robert Murphy. A chapter by Philip Booth on “Property Rights and Conservation: The Missing Theme” indicates that the Pope and his advisors know nothing of the very large literature on free market environmentalism. A chapter on “Capitalism and Private Charitable Giving” explains that Pope Francis looks to government intervention to save the poor and has no faith in private charity. “The Family Economics of Pope Francis” demonstrates yet again that he has a collectivist approach with little appreciation of individual rights including property rights.

Concluding with a comment on the China front. Given the profound ignorance and antipathy that the Pope has demonstrated towards the function of markets, property rights and individual rights it is not entirely surprising to see his willingness to form a partnership with the communists. Is he a Catholic? This must prey on the minds of those Christians who have suffered persecution and torture in China and those Catholics who see the militant atheism of communism as a mortal threat to the Church.


Posted in open society | 1 Comment

The Duhem Problem: The Bayesian Turn

CHAPTER 3 of my thesis Aspects of the Duhem Problem.

The previous chapter concluded with an account of the attempt by Lakatos to retrieve the salient features of falsificationism while accounting for the fact that a research programme may proceed in the face of numerous difficulties, just provided that there is occasional success. His methodology exploits the ambiguity of refutation (the Duhem-Quine problem) to permit a programme to proceed despite seemingly adverse evidence. According to a strict or naive interpretation of falsificationism, adverse evidence should cause the offending theory to be ditched forthwith but of course the point of the Duhem-Quine problem is that we do not know which among the major theory and auxiliary assumptions is at fault. The Lakatos scheme also exploits what is claimed to be an asymmetry in the impact of confirmations and refutations.

The Bayesians offer an explanation and a justification for Lakatos; at the same time they offer a possible solution to the Duhem-Quine problem. The Bayesian enterprise did not set out specifically to solve these problems because Bayesianism offers a comprehensive theory of scientific reasoning. However these are the kind of problems that such a comprehensive theory would be required to solve.

Howson and Ubrach, well-regarded and influential exponents of the Bayesian approach, provide an excellent all-round exposition and spirited polemics in defence of the Bayesian system in Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach (1989). In a nutshell, Bayesianism takes its point of departure from the fact that scientists tend to have degrees of belief in their theories and these degrees of belief obey the probability calculus. Or if their degrees of belief do not obey the calculus, then they should, in order to achieve rationality. According to Howson and Urbach probabilities should be ‘understood as subjective assessments of credibility, regulated by the requirements that they be overall consistent (ibid 39).

They begin with some comments on the history of probability theory, starting with the Classical Theory, pioneered by Laplace. The classical theory aimed to provide a foundation for gamblers in their calculations of odds in betting, and also for philosophers and scientists to establish grounds of belief in the validity of inductive inference. The seminal book by Laplace was Philosophical Essays on Probabilities (1820) and the leading modern exponents of the Classical Theory have been Keynes and Carnap.

Objectivity is an important feature of the probabilities in the classical theory. They arise from a mathematical relationship between propositions and evidence, hence they are not supposed to depend on any subjective element of appraisal or perception. Carnap’s quest for a principle of induction to establish the objective probability of scientific laws foundered on the fact that these laws had to be universal statements, applicable to an infinite domain. Thus no finite body of evidence could ever raise the probability of a law above zero (e divided by infinity is zero).

The Bayesian scheme does not depend on the estimation of objective probabilities in the first instance. The Bayesians start with the probabilities that are assigned to theories by scientists. There is a serious bone of contention among the Bayesians regarding the way that probabilities are assigned, whether they are a matter of subjective belief as argued by Howson and Urbach ( ‘belief’ Bayesians’) or a matter of behaviour, specifically betting behaviour (‘betting’ Bayesians).

The purpose of the Bayesian system is to explain the characteristic features of scientific inference in terms of the probabilites of the various rival hypotheses under consideration, relative to the available evidence, in particular the most recent evidence.


Bayes’s Theorem can be written as follows:

P(h!e) = P(e!h)P(h) where P(h), and P(e) > 0

In this situation we are interested in the credibility of the hypothesis h relative to empirical evidence e. That is, the posterior probability, in the light of the evidence. Written in the above form the theorem states that the probability of the hypothesis conditional on the evidence (the posterior probability of the hypothesis) is equal to the probability of the evidence conditional on the hypothesis multiplied by the probability of the hypothesis in the absence of the evidence (the prior probability), all divided by the probability of the evidence.


e confirms or supports h when P(h!e) > P(h)
e disconfirms or undermines h when P(h!e) < P(h)
e is neutral with respect to h when P(h!e) = P(h)

The prior probability of h, designated as P(h) is that before e is considered. This will often be before e is available, but the system is still supposed to work when the evidence is in hand. In this case it has to be left out of account in evaluating the prior probability of the hypothesis. The posterior probability P(h!e) is that after e is admitted into consideration.

As Bayes’s Theorem shows, we can relate the posterior probability of a hypothesis to the terms P(h), P(e!h) and P(e). If we know the value of these three terms we can determine whether e confirms h, and more to the point, calculate P(h!e).

The capacity of the Bayesian scheme to provide a solution to the Duhem-Quine problem will be appraised in the light of two examples.


Dorling (1979) provides an important case study, bearing directly on the Duhem-Quine problem in a paper titled ‘Bayesian Personalism, the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, and Duhem’s Problem’. He is concerned with two issues which arise from the work of Lakatos and one of these is intimately related to the Duhem-Quine problem.

1(a) Can a theory survive despite empirical refutation? How can the arrow of modus tollens be diverted from the theory to some auxiliary hypothesis? This is essentially the Duhem-Quine problem and it raises the closely related question;

1(b) Can we decide on some rational and empirical grounds whether the arrow of modus tollens should point at a (possibly) refuted theory or at (possibly) refuted auxiliaries?

2. How are we to account for the different weights that are assigned to confirmations and refutations?

In the history of physics and astronomy, successful precise quantitative predictions seem often to have been regarded as great triumphs when apparently similar unsuccessful predictions were regarded not as major disasters but as minor discrepancies. (Dorling, 1979, 177).

The case history concerns a clash between the observed acceleration of the moon and the calculated acceleration based on a hard core of Newtonian theory (T) and an essential auxiliary hypothesis (H) that the effects of tidal friction are too small to influence lunar acceleration. The aim is to evaluate T and H in the light of new and unexpected evidence (E’) which was not consistent with them.

For the situation prior to the evidence E’ Dorling ascribed a probability of 0.9 to Newtonian theory (T) and 0.6 to the auxiliary hypothesis (H). He pointed out that the precise numbers do not matter all that much; we simply had one theory that was highly regarded, with subjective probability approaching 1 and another which was plausible but not nearly so strongly held.

The next step is to calculate the impact of the new evidence E’ on the subjective probabilities of T and H. This is done by calculating (by the Bayesian calculus) their posterior probabilities (after E’) for comparison with the prior probabilities (0.9 and 0.6). One might expect that the unfavourable evidence would lower both by a similar amount, or at least a similar proportion.

Dorling explained that some other probabilities have to be assigned or calculated to feed into the Bayesian formula. Eventually we find that the probability of T has hardly shifted (down by 0.0024 to 0.8976) while in striking contrast the probability of H has collapsed by 0.597 to 0.003. According to Dorling this accords with scientific perceptions at the time and it supports the claim by Lakatos that a vigorous programme can survive refutations provided that it provides opportunities for further work and has some success. Newtonian theory would have easily survived this particular refutation because on the arithmetic its subjective probability scarcely changed.

This case is doubly valuable for the evaluation of Lakatos because by a historical accident it provided an example of a confirmation as well as a refutation. For a time it was believed that the evidence E’ supported Newton but subsequent work revealed that there had been an error in the calculations. The point is that before the error emerged, the apparent confirmation of T and H had been treated as a great triumph for the Newtonian programme. And of course we can run the Bayesian calculus, as though E’ had confirmed T and H, to find what the impact of the apparent confirmation would have been on their posterior probabilities. Their probabilities in this case increased to 0.996 and 0.964 respectively and Dorling uses this result to provide support for the claim that there is a powerfully asymmetrical effect on T between the refutation and the confirmation. He regards the decrease in P from 0.9 to 0.8976 as negligible while the increase to 0.996 represents a fall in the probability of error from 1/10 to 4/1000.

Thus the evidence has more impact in support than it has in opposition, a result from Bayes that agrees with Lakatos.

This latest result strongly suggests that a theory ought to be able to withstand a long succession of refutations of this sort, punctuated only by an occasional confirmation, and its subjective probability still steadily increase on average (Dorling, 1979, 186).

As to the relevance to Duhem-Quine problem; the task is to pick between H and T. In this instance the substantial reduction in P(H) would indicate that the H, the auxiliary hypothesis, is the weak link rather than the hard core of Newtonian theory.


The point of this example (used by Lakatos himself) is to show how a theory which appears to be refuted by evidence can survive as an active force for further development, being regarded more highly than the confounding evidence. When this happens, the Duhem-Quine problem is apparently again resolved in favour of the theory.

In 1815 William Prout suggested that hydrogen was a building block of other elements whose atomic weights were all multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen. The fit was not exact, for example boron had a value of 0.829 when according to the theory it should have been 0.875 (a multiple of the figure 0.125). The measured figure for chlorine was 35.83 instead of 36. To overcome these discrepancies Prout and Thompson suggested that the values should be adjusted to fit the theory, with the deviations explained in terms of experimental error. In this case the ‘arrow’ of modus tollens was directed from the theory to the experimental techniques.

In setting the scene for use of Bayesian theory, Howson and Urbach designated Prout’s hypothesis as ‘t’. They refer to ‘a’ as the hypothesis that the accuracy of measurements was adequate to produce an exact figure. The troublesome evidence is labelled ‘e’.

It seems that chemists of the early nineteenth century, such as Prout and Thompson, were fairly certain about the truth of t, but less so of a, though more sure that a is true than that it is false. (ibid, page 98)

In other words they were reasonably happy with their methods and the purity of their chemicals while accepting that they were not perfect.

Feeding in various estimates of the relevant prior probabilities, the effect was to shift from the prior probabilities to the posterior probabilities listed as follows:

P(t) = 0.9 shifted to P(t!e) = 0.878 (down 0.022)
P(a) = 0.6 shifted to P(a!e) = 0.073 (down 0.527)

Howson and Urbach argued that these results explain why it was rational for Prout and Thomson to persist with Prout’s hypothesis and to adjust atomic weight measurements to come into line with it. In other words, the arrow of modus tollens is validly directed to a and not t.

Howson and Urbach noted that the results are robust and are not seriously affected by altered initial probabilities: for example if P(t) is changed from 0.9 to 0.7 the posterior probabilities of t and a are 0.65 and 0.21 respectively, still ranking t well above a (though only by a factor of 3 rather than a factor of 10).

In the light of the calculation they noted ‘Prouts hypothesis is still more likely to be true than false, and the auxiliary assumptions are still much more likely to be false than true’ (ibid 101). Their use of language was a little unfortunate because we now know that Prout was wrong and so Howson and Urbach would have done better to speak of ‘credibility’ or ‘likelihood’ instead of truth. Indeed, as will be explained, there were dissenting voices at the time.


Bayesian theory has many admirers, none more so than Howson and Urbach. In their view, the Bayesian approach should become dominant in the philosophy of science, and it should be taken on board by scientists as well. Confronted with evidence from research by Kahneman and Tversky that ‘in his evaluation of evidence, man is apparently not a conservative Bayesian: he is not a Bayesian at all’ (Kahneman and Tversky, 1972, cited in Howson and Urbach, 1989, 293) they reply that:

…it is not prejudicial to the conjecture that what we ourselves take to be correct inductive reasoning is Bayesian in character that there should be observable and sometimes systematic deviations from Bayesian precepts…we should be surprised if on every occasion subjects were apparently to employ impeccable Bayesian reasoning, even in the circumstances that they themselves were to regard Bayesian procedures as canonical. It is, after all, human to err. (Howson and Urbach, 1989, 293-285)

They draw some consolation from the lamentable performance of undergraduates (and a distressing fraction of logicians) in a simple deductive task (page 294). The task is to nominate which of four cards should be turned over to test the statement ‘if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side’. The visible faces of the four cards are ‘E’, ‘K’, ‘4’ and ‘7’. The most common answers are the pair ‘E’ and ‘4’ or ‘4’ alone. The correct answer is e and 7.

The Bayesian approach has some features that give offence to many people. Some object to the subjective elements, some to the arithmetic and some to the concept of probability which was so tarnished by the debacle of Carnap’s programme.

Taking the last point first, Howson and Urbach argue cogently that the Bayesian approach should not be subjected to prejudice due to the failure of the classical theory of objective probabilities. The distinctively subjective starting point for the Bayesian calculus of course raises the objection of excessive subjectivism, with the possibility of irrational or arbitrary judgements. To this, Howson and Urbach reply that the structure of argument and calculation that follows after the assignment of prior probabilities resembles the objectivity of deductive inference (including mathematical calculation) from a set of premises. The source of the premises does not detract from the objectivity of the subsequent manipulations that may be performed upon them. Thus Bayesian subjectivism is not inherently more subjective than deductive reasoning.


The input consists of prior probabilities (whether beliefs or betting propensities) and this raises another objection, along the lines that the Bayesians emerge with a conclusion (the posterior probability) which overwhelmingly reflects what was fed in, namely the prior probability. Against this is the argument that the prior probability (whatever it is) will shift rapidly towards a figure that reflects the impact of the evidence. Thus any arbitrariness or eccentricity of original beliefs will be rapidly corrected in a ‘rational’ manner. The same mechanisms is supposed to result in rapid convergence between the belief values of different scientists.

To stand up, this latter argument must demonstrate that convergence cannot be equally rapidly achieved by non-Bayesian methods, such as offering a piece of evidence and discussing its implications for the various competing hypotheses or the alternative lines of work without recourse to Bayesian calculations.

As was noted previously, there is a considerable difference of opinion in Bayesian circles about the measure of subjective belief. Some want to use a behavioural measure (actual betting, or propensity to bet), others including Howson and Urbach opt for belief rather than behaviour. The ‘betting Bayseians’ need to answer the question – what, in scientific practice, is equivalent to betting? Is the notion of betting itself really relevant to the scientist’s situation? Betting forces a decision (or the bet does not get placed) but scientists can in principle refrain from a firm decision for ever (for good reasons or bad). This brings us back to the problems created by the demand to take a stand or make a decision one way or the other. Even if some kind of behavioural equivalent of betting is invoked, such as working on a particular programme or writing papers related to the programme, there is still the kind of problem, noted below, where a scientist works on a theory which he or she believes to be false.

Similarly formidable problems confront the ‘belief Bayesians’. Obviously any retrospective attribution of belief (as in the cases above) calls for heroic assumptions about the consciousness of people long dead. These assumptions expose the limitation with the ‘forced choice’ approach which attempts to collapse all the criteria for the decision into a single value. Such an approach (for both betting and belief Bayesians) seems to preclude a complex appraisal of the theoretical problem situation which might be based on multiple criteria. Such an appraisal might run along the lines that theory A is better than theory B in solving some problems and C is better than B on some other criteria, and so certain types of work are required to test or develop each of the rival theories. This is the kind of situation envisaged by Lakatos when he developed his methodology of scientific research programmes.

The forced choice cannot comfortably handle the situation of Maxwell who continued to work on his theories even though he knew they had been found wanting in tests. Maxwell hoped that his theory would come good in the end, despite a persisting run of unfavourable results. Yet another situation is even harder to comprehend in Bayesian terms. Consider a scientist at work on an important and well established theory which that scientist believes (and indeed hopes) to be false. The scientist is working on the theory with the specific aim of refuting it, thus achieving the fame assigned to those who in some small way change the course of scientific history. The scientist is really betting on the falsehood of that theory. These comments reinforce the value of detaching the idea of working on a theory from the need to have belief in it, as noted in the chapter on the Popperians.


What do the cases do for our appraisal of Bayesian subjectivism? The Dorling example is very impressive on both aspects of the Lakatos scheme – swallowing an anomaly and thriving on a confirmation. The case for Bayesianism (and Lakatos) is reinforced by the fact that Dorling set out to criticise Lakatos, not to praise him. And he remained critical of any attempt to sidestep refutations because he did not accept that his findings provided any justification for ignoring refutations, along the lines of ‘anything goes’.

Finally, let me emphasise that this paper is intended to attack, not to defend, the position of Lakatos, Feyerabend and some of Kuhn’s disciples with respect to its cavalier attitude to ‘refutations’. I find this attitude rationally justified only under certain stringent conditions: p(T) must be substantially greater than 1/2, the anomalous result must not be readily explainable by any plausible rival theory to T…(Dorling, 1979, 187).

In this passage Dorling possibly gives the game away. There must not be a significant rival theory that could account for the aberrant evidence E’. In the absence of a potential rival to the main theory the battle between a previously successful and wide-ranging theory in one corner (in this case Newton) and a more or less isolated hypothesis and some awkward evidence in another corner is very uneven.

For this reason, it can be argued that the Bayesian scheme lets us down when we most need help – that is, in a choice between major rival systems, a time of ‘crisis’ with clashing paradigms, or a major challenge as when general relativity emerged as a serious alternative to Newtonian mechanics. Presumably the major theories (say Newton and Einstein) would have their prior probabilities lowered by the existence of the other, and the supposed aim of the Bayesian calculus in this situation should be to swing support one way or the other on the basis of the most recent evidence. The problem would be to determine which particular piece of evidence should be applied to make the calculations. Each theory is bound to have a great deal of evidence in support and if there is recourse to a new piece of evidence which appears to favour one rather than the other (the situation with the so-called ‘crucial experiment’) then the Duhem-Quine problem arises to challenge the interpretation of the evidence, whichever way it appears to go.

A rather different approach can be used in this situation. It derives from a method of analysis of decision making which was referred to by Popper as ‘the logic of the situation’ but was replaced by talk of ‘situational analysis’ to take the emphasis off logic. So far as the Duhem-Quine problem is concerned we can hardly appeal to the logic of the situation for a resolution because it is precisely the logic of the situation that is the problem. But we can appeal to an appraisal of the situation where choices have to be made from a limited range of options.

Scientists need to work in a framework of theory. Prior to the rise of Einstein, what theory could scientists use for some hundreds of years apart from that of Newton and his followers? In the absence of a rival of comparable scope or at least significant potential there was little alternative to further elaboration of the Newtonian scheme, even if anomalies persisted or accumulated. Awkward pieces of evidence create a challenge to a ruling theory but they do not by themselves provide an alternative. The same applies to the auxiliary hypothesis on tidal friction (mentioned the first case study above), unless this happens to derive from some non-Newtonian theoretical assumptions that can be extended to rival the Newtonian scheme.

The approach by situational analysis is not hostage to any theory of probability (objective or subjective), or likelihood, or certainty or inductive proof. Nor does it need to speculate about the truth of the ruling theory, in the way that Howson and Urbach speculate about the likelihood that a theory might be true.

This brings us to the Prout example which is not nearly as impressive as the Dorling case. Howson and Urbach concluded that the Duhem-Quine problem in that instance was resolved in favour of the theory against the evidence on the basis of a high subjective probability assigned to Prout’s law by contemporary chemists. In the early stages of its career Prout’s law may have achieved wide acceptance by the scientific community, at least in England, and for this reason Howson and Urbach assigned a very high subjective probability to Prout’s hypothesis (0.9). However Continental chemists were always skeptical and by mid-century Staas (and quite likely his Continental colleagues) had concluded that the law was an illusion (Howson and Urbach, 1989, 98). This potentially damning testimony was not invoked by Howson and Urbach to reduce p(H), but it could have been (and probably should have been). Staas may well have given Prout the benefit of the doubt for some time over the experimental methodology, but as methods improved then the fit with Prout should have improved as well. Obviously the fit did not improve and under these circumstances Prout should have become less plausible, as indeed was the case outside England. If the view of Staas was widespread, then a much lower prior probability should have been used for Prout’s theory.

Another point can be made about the high prior probability assigned to the hypothesis. The calculations show that the subjective probability of the evidence sank from 0.6 to 0.073 and this turned the case in favour of the theory. But there is a flaw of logic there: presumably the whole-number atomic numbers were calculated using the same experimental equipment and the same or similar techniques that were used to estimate the atomic number of Chlorine. And the high p for Prout was based on confidence in the experimental results that were used to pose the whole-number hypothesis in the first case. The evidence that was good enough to back the Prout conjecture should have been good enough to refute it, or at least dramatically lower its probability.

In the event, Prout turned out to be wrong, even if he was on the right track in seeking fundamental building blocks. The anomalies were due to isotopes which could not be separated or detected by chemical methods. So Prout’s hypothesis may have provided a framework for ongoing work until the fundamental flaw was revealed by a major theoretical advance. As was the case with Newtonian mechanics in the light of the evidence on the acceleration of the moon, a simple-minded, pragmatic approach might have provided the same outcome without need of Bayesian calculations.

Consequently it is not true to claim, with Howson and Urbach that “…the Bayesian model is essentially correct. By contrast, non-probabilistic theories seem to lack entirely the resources that could deal with Duhem’s problem” (Howson and Urbach, 1989, 101).


It appears that the Bayesian scheme has revealed a great deal of power in the Dorling example but is quite unimpressive in the Prout example. The requirement that there should not be a major rival theory on the scene is a great disadvantage because at other times there is little option but to keep working on the theory under challenge, even if some anomalies persist. Where the serious option exists it appears that the Bayesians do not help us to make a choice.

Furthermore, internal disagreements call for solutions before the Bayesians can hope to command wider assent; perhaps the most important of these is the difference between the ‘betting’ and the ‘belief’ schools of thought in the allocation of subjective probabilities. There is also the worrying aspect of betting behaviour which is adduced as a possible way of allocating priors but, as we have seen, there is no real equivalent of betting in scientific practice. One of the shortcomings of the Bayesian approach appears to be an excessive reliance on a particular piece of evidence (the latest) whereas the Popperians and especially Lakatos make allowance for time to turn up a great deal of evidence so that preferences may slowly emerge.

This brings us to the point of considering just how evidence does emerge, a topic which has not yet been mentioned but is an essential part of the situation. The next chapter will examine a mode of thought dubbed the ‘New Experimentalism’ to take account of the dynamics of experimental programs.

Posted in epistemology | Leave a comment

Stephen Toulmin on Popper

Given the high marks assigned to Toulmin for his commentary on Kuhn and the affinity of his program with that of Popper (evolutionary epistemology vs formalism) , what does he say about Popper? The short answer is that he dismissed Popper as one of the formalists.

Does this mean that there is a problem with Popperian exegesis rather than with the contents of Popper’s ideas. How did Toulmin read Popper and only see a positivist who used falsification rather than verification as his lodestone?

Popper’s Objective Knowledge should have indicated the overlap of their evolutionary programs but that book came out in the same year as Toulmin’s Human Understanding so he would not have read it in time but there were plenty of signs that Popper was heading that way before the collection appeared in one volume.

At a conference on the state of British philosophy at the mid-century Popper wrote that he was more concerned with serious problem-solving rather than paying attention to what the other philosophers were up to but maybe he could have been more alert to the damage that could be done when massive numbers of students flooded into the universities in the postwar expansion and started to take on all the fads and fashions of the time. Jarvie suggested in his Rethinking Popper paper (conference 2007, proceedings published 2009) that Popper maybe should have been more active in networking and empire-building.

Turning to Toulmin on Popper. In the Conclusion there are several critical references to Popper. Before commenting on these, recall where Toulmin is coming from: his project is to establish or re-establish a relationship between philosophy and science (both theory and practice) which he considered did not exist at the time due to the obsession of the philosophers with logical proof or some similar form of justification of beliefs. He advocated an evolutionary or ecological approach to the community of scientists and their ideas as they exist at the time. [He wrote “Sir Karl Popper’s capsule description of scientific method as a dialectical succession of ‘conjectures’ and ‘refutations’ can at once be reinterpreted in evolutionary terms: it lays down the ecological conditions on which alone variation and selection can lead to effective scientific change.” P. 140, my italics.]

Toulmin’s wanted to formulate a revised concept of rationality which is not a property of ideas or people but instead it is a matter of the attitude which people adopt towards contending ideas and the way they form critical preferences and if necessary revise them in response to changing circumstances. (He did not use the term ‘critical preferences’)

All of that suggests that Toulmin was not just working in the same vineyard with Popper but also producing a very similar kind of wine! However he was more concerned with his differences with Popper than the similarity which he identified at page 140 (above). This of course is appropriate if the differences are real.

He started the Conclusion by taking aim at the idea that the acceptability (rationality) of scientific theories depends on their “comparative logicality”. He suggested that some people (naming Popper, Lakatos and Kuhn) were trying to “extend the notion of rationality beyond the scope of formal logic and to find some way of reapplying it in situations involving conceptual change” (479). He thought that this was misleading if it was interpreted as a move in the right direction because fundamentally he himself was moving in the opposite direction. “Popper and his associated have all taken the formal logician’s approach as a starting point [and] conceptual change has continued to be more or less of an anomaly for them [and they are] extending an analysis of ‘rationality’ which is still primarily formal.” (479)

His own concept of rationality is not based on formal entailments, inductive logic or the probability calculus because his ecological approach allows him to approach the central problems of decision-making in a community with “no appeal (such as Popper makes) to an arbitrary, a priori demarcation criterion as the definition of science.” (480).

He saw Popper as being concerned with problems of formal proof or refutation and he regarded ‘falsifiability’ as Popper’s alternative to ‘verifiability’ as “the universal, timeless lest of a genuinely scientific hypothesis”. Even when Popper softened his position to allow corroboration as well as refutation, still his concern was “the acceptability of propositions rather than the applicability of concepts; while his approved procedures of rational investigation – i.e. scientific testing, refutation, and/or corroboration – have continued to be variants on those of earlier propositional logicians.” (480-81)

Toulmin insisted that Popper never shifted from his dedication to “a set of general a priori conditions, which have been imposed on all scientific reasoning from outside, by his own – ultimately arbitrary – definition of what is to count as a ‘scientific’ hypothesis, theory or concept” (481) He suggested that Lakatos might advance beyond Popper by paying more attention to the historical record but still there was the problem of interpreting the historical record.

Turning to explore the “empirical basis” for Toulmin’s criticism of Popper, the search should cease a year or two before 1972 when Human Understanding was in press and it was to late to incorporate new material from Popper’s published work such as the collection Objective Knowledge.

What can we make of the claim that Popper used falsifiability as an arbitrary, a priori definition of science and the functional equivalent of verifiability in the program of the logical positivists and logical empiricists? To the contrary, it would seem that Popper’s approach to falsification was very much like Toulmin’s requirement that ideas should be worked out in the context of the scientific situation at the time in a particular scientific community.

Popper described his adoption of the criterion as a response to the situation in Vienna when Marxists, Freudians and followers of Adler all claimed that their systems were scientific and all-embracing in their explanatory power. In contrast, Einstein was prepared to formulate his theory in a way that permitted observational or experimental tests, with the risk of refutation. Popper saw a fundamental difference between the two kinds of theories, each of which was supposed to be scientific and he decided that the capacity for falsification was a very desirable characteristic for a system which claimed to be a science.

That means that Popper’s falsifiability criterion was not really a definition of science (he was not into definitions!) but a proposal to adopt a critical attitude towards theories and especially to check whether they were open to empirical testing. It was a proposal or a convention and its merit was to be judged by its helpfulness in coming to grips with problems in the theory of knowledge (and the practice of scientist). As for being timeless and a priori, Popper noted that there are degrees of testability (so the line of demarcation is not sharp) and the testability of particular theories will change with progress in theory and experimental technology.

Turning to the philosophy of science the aim was verification or inductive probability and the inductive method was regarded as the hallmark or criterion of science. Popper saw that there were intractable logical problems with verification and also induction. He might have been satisfied with his useful job as a schoolteacher (he wrote an amusing paper in All Life is Problem Solving to explain how he became a philosopher by accident) but as a good government worker (“I am from the government and I am here to help”) he probably wanted to help the positivists so he made up a lot of arguments that might have changed their minds and the direction of their work. In the event he did not succeed, beyond persuading Carnap to adopt testability as the criterion of meaning which probably did more harm than good by promoting the appearance that Popper was really one of them.

The same perception was no doubt reinforced by Popper’s persistent engagement with the positivists and their successors on the logic of demarcation and induction. Jarvie suggested that his ongoing debate on those topics distracted people from picking up the social or institutional turn which was present in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, albeit in a muted form. Popper’s close engagement with the logic of demarcation and induction may be misled Toulmin who missed the point that it is ok to focus on logic when logical issues are at stake, which was all the time for the logical empiricists. But Popper was playing a much bigger game and for all his demands that scientific systems should be testable it was quite clear that much more was required for a good theory. Testability was a minimum requirement, like a steering wheel for a car, but no salesman would list the steering wheel among the selling points! The theory had to have explanatory power, it had to be consistent with other well tested theories, and so on.

Rounding off this note before it gets too long, I really want to find out what Toulmin through about Popper’s objective knowledge and the evolutionary approach when Popper’s collection appeared. More research required!


Posted in epistemology, science | Leave a comment

More on Stephen Toulmin and Kuhn

Finishing the story of Toulmin’s critique of Kuhn. He traced the evolution of Kuhn’s ideas through five stages (1) his account in The Copernican Revolution (1957), (2) a public talk about revolutions at Worcester College in Oxford in 1961, (3) the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions published in 1962, (4) a series of papers written in response to criticism and (5) the revised edition of The Structure in 1970 and “Reflections on my critics” in Lakatos and Musgrave (eds) also 1970.

He concluded that the strong formulation involving paradigms and revolutions was designed for effect, to “shock the sensibilities” of the bourgeoisie like avant garde art. In response to criticism Kuhn had to water down the amount of change required for an episode to count as a revolution until the “mini revolutions” became so small and localized that he was left with the fairly familiar old idea that there is constant change in different parts of a vigorous field. Sometimes there is a much larger change (Copernicus-Kepler-Galileo-Newton and later Einstein) which has more far-reaching effects but the transition is not rapid or irrational and large areas of the discipline (not to mention science at large) are hardly perturbed by the process.

The debate lasted through most of the ‘60s and by 1965 Kuhn had shifted his focus from the rare occasions where there was major conceptual reform to less drastic episodes because even his prime cases were “somewhat less than ‘revolutionary’” in the technical sense hinted (but hardly defined) in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This meant that he watered down the extent of revolutions to allow for more and more “micro-revolutions!

So Kuhn “quietly abandoned the central distinction around which his theory had been built in the first place – that between conceptual changes taking place within the limits of an overall paradigm and those involving the replacement of an entire paradigm.” (114) Finally in the second edition of the book “Kuhn now complained” that his readers had taken too seriously the idea of paradigms as changes of world-view and all the ancillary apparatus of incommensurability and the like.

Toulmin suggested that authors may well revise their ideas in the light of misunderstandings by readers but in this case the earlier “misunderstood” ideas were a great deal more interesting than the revised version!

“and if this reinterpretation had been the whole truth, his original choice of the term ‘revolution’ was note merely a rhetorical exaggeration but something worse…that choice of phrase was grossly misleading; for it simply disguised a familiar logical distinction in an irrelevant historical fancy dress.” (115)


Posted in epistemology, science | Leave a comment

A note on Stephen Toulmin as a critic of Kuhn and the logical positivists

Stephen Toulmin 1922-2009 was a British-born philosopher, heavily influenced by Wittgenstein but also a full bottle on the history and philosophy of science. In 1972 he published Human Understanding:  General Introduction and Part I: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. He planned to follow with two more parts at two-year intervals – Part II “The Individual Grasp and Development of Concepts” and Part III “The Rational Adequacy and Appraisal of Concepts”. I don’t think he produced the second and third parts as planned although he did write more books, I will have to do some research on that.

A computer science student in Adelaide 1967 showed me Toulmin’s early book Foresight and Understanding and this was probably the first serious philosophy book that I read before discovering Popper the following year. It stayed with me when the student became disenchanted with his studies and left. I spent some time reading it and thinking about his arguments although with little benefit that I recall.

Over the years I have seen some of his work, he never appeared to be keen on Popper although they are both credited among the people who revived evolutionary epistemology. He was critical of Kuhn in the debate with Popper at the 1965 Bedford College Conference – see his contribution to the Lakatos and Musgrave (eds) volume.

In this book Human Understanding he comes out swinging against Kuhn! His most powerful criticism is that Kuhn misread his own historical studies of the Copernican and the Einsteinian revolutions when he used them as the basis of his story about normal science, paradigms   and scientific revolutions. He came very close to claiming outright fraud by Kuhn in his misrepresentation of the historical record.

Kuhn’s original story ran along the lines that scientists diligently and uncritically cleave to the ruling paradigm until so many anomalies accumulate that they cannot be ignored and then there is a rapid and irrational or non-rational revolution when the field or at least the younger and more agile scientists switch to work on the new paradigm. The protagonists of the old and the new are divided by their assumptions, their perceptions and their terminology so they cannot effectively communicate to manage a rational transition to the new way of thinking. Someone wrote “funeral by funeral, the old paradigm fades away” or words to that effect.

Over some years Kuhn modified that position until it became almost unrecognizable although the Kuhnian zealots did not really pay much attention to the more reasonable and no longer exiting or revolution version of the master.

I think Toulmin’s criticism is devastating although he allowed that Kuhn’s work did have the merit of demonstrating the failure of the logical positivists and logical empiricists.

Before turning to the critique of Kuhn I will note Toulmin’s larger game plan to put philosophy back in touch with the real world of science. That means getting away from the obsession with the formalism of the logical positivists and the logical empiricists which hogtied the mainstream of the philosophy of science since the 1930s when the positivists created the philosophy of science as a professionalised academic specialty.

“This thesis can be summed up in a single, deeply held conviction: that, in science and philosophy alike, an exclusive preoccupation with logical systematicity (sic) has been destructive of both historical understanding and rational criticism. Men demonstrate their rationality, not by ordering their concepts and beliefs in tidy formal structures, but by their preparedness to respond to novel situations with open minds – acknowledging the shortcomings of their previous procedures and moving beyond them” (Preface vii).

He noted the persistence of the seventeenth century presuppositions regarding the Euclidean model of certainty, so “A properly formulated system of scientific concepts could claim intellectual authority on condition that it measured up to the standards of rigour and certainty set by geometry…Claims to true knowledge must be backed either by incorrigible, self-authenticating data [Empiricism] or by arguments as complete and rigorous as those of pure mathematics [Rationalism] and preferably by both” (18).

This meant that there could be no such thing as conjectural knowledge.

Faced with the intractable problems with actual empirical knowledge – uncertainty of sense perception, interpretation of data, the problem of induction, epistemologists attempted to discover what kind of conditions could enable other sciences to achieve something like the authority of the “formal, demonstrative sciences”.

Eventually that became for many the “very defining task of philosophy”, to “find additional principles or premises which would bring arguments from substantial fields of inquiry up to the mathematical ideal. The alternative course, of challenging the formal ideal itself, seemed to them a betrayal of philosophy: abandoning all philosophical claims to ‘rational certainty’ and opening the gates to sceptics” (19)

That is part of the background where Toulmin sets the stage to present his alternative to the “rational certainty” or “justified true belief” approach to rationality, scientific practice and the study of the growth of knowledge.

Criticism of Kuhn on paradigms and revolutions

His criticism of Kuhn is important because Kuhn was the major influence in promoting a very different path from the ruling tradition of empiricism/positivism but for Toulmin that is no better than the old school. He has parted company with the logicism and formalism of the positivists/empiricists and also Popper who he aggregated with them.

Toulmin disputed the key features of Kuhn’s arguments in The Structure (1962) and he disputed them on the basis of Kuhn’s own cases, first Copernicus and the other the dethroning of Newton by Einstein. First the Copernican revolution.

“As his historical analysis makes clear the so-called ‘Copernican Revolution’ took a century and a half to complete and it was agued every step of the way…however radical the resulting changes in physical and astronomical ideas and theories it was the outcome of a continuing rational discussion and it implied no comparable break in the intellectual methods of physics and astronomy.” (105) He went on to say that the scientists who were trained in the pre-Copernican system did not to be forced or cajoled into changing their minds, there was no need for a quasi-religious conversion because the evidence and the arguments were there to convince them over a period of time.

The same process occurred in the ascent of Einstein’s revolution. Far from failure of communication between rival schools there was a period of disputation over several decades and some scientists accepted the new physics more willingly than others but eventually the evidence and arguments carried the day. Toulmin noted that many theoretical physicists worked through the years from 1890 to 1930 and they lived through the changeover. Their testimony should indicate whether there was any breakdown in communication of the kind which was supposed to occur in a Kuhnian revolution. However, contrary to the “paradigm change” account: “After the event many of them explained very articulatedly the considerations which prompted their decision to switch from a classical to a relativistic position; and they reported these considerations as being the reasons which justified their change, not merely the motives which caused it. They did not use the language of conversion “ ‘I can no longer see Nature as I did before…’ Nor did they treat it as the outcome of non-rational or causal influences: ‘Einstein was so very persuasive…’ or ‘I found myself changing without knowing why…’ or ‘it was as much as my job was worth…’. Rather they presented the arguments that sanctioned their change of theoretical standpoint” (104).

Although this book appeared in 1972 it seems to have had no impact on Kuhn’s profile or indeed any profile of its own in the HPS literature. It is a little strange that I did not encounter these arguments or references to this book by Toulmin during the time I studied the history and philosophy of science for a Master of Science, not to mention all the other HPS literature that I consumed since the 1970s. The reference to Human Understanding came in a piece by Terrence Hutchinson in The Journal of Economic Methodology. He has been credited or blamed for introducing Popper to the economists with a book in 1938 (although he took a more positivist line and the Popper bits were a few sentences in German in the notes at the back of the book). Anyway it was a happy accident that I followed up his more recent work in several books and articles in the literature on the philosophy and methodology of economics.

Posted in epistemology | 4 Comments

The Cost of Positivism in the 20th Century

Toby Huff in Max Weber and the Methodology of the Social Scienes (Transaction Books, 1984) suggested that the philosophy of science that Weber was reading read at the turn of the century was in better shape than the positivism that took off later under the inspiration of Mach, Wittgenstein and Russell. This means that the philosophy of science went backwards under the influence of positivism.
Question 1. Would the world be any worse off if the complete corpus of writing on Logical Positivism and Logical Empiricism disappeared in a puff of smoke? In other words, what novel, robust and helpful ideas emerged from that prolonged effort?
Question 2. What was the dollar cost of that enterprise (salaries, on costs, travel, publications, etc etc)?
Question 3. What was the opportunity cost – the value of other work that might have been done instead?
Is this too hard on the positivists? Someone suggested that it was a great service to remind people of the importance of logic and evidence. But how many scientists needed to be told that?
The devil was in the details of the way that evidence was supposed to be used, either for verification or for assigning a numerical probability to theories. The Carnap program to assign objective probabilities never worked and the Bayesian quest for subjective probabilities appears to be on the same track.
What about the need to tame the proliferation of metaphysical nonsense? How did positivism propose to achieve that? The verification criterion of meaning never worked, it may have been finally give up but it seems that the search for a criterion of “cognitively significant” utterances continues to the present day.
The late Liam Hudson wrote some interesting comments on psychology of the “rat and pigeon” variety which could be applied to some of the strands of mainstream economics. He warned that the pursuit of any really new (and desirable) conception of psychology would be met with fierce resistance in the profession. To the extent the venture was successful it would result in a substantial redistribution of effort.
“Activities now seen as significant will appear trivial, and vice versa.”
One of the things that has created huge problems for this kind of re-thinking is the deeply rooted distrust of ‘highfalutin’ theory and especially metaphysics in the mainstream of science and in the dominant schools of the philosophy of science. This contempt for metaphysics can be found in Hume’s advice to “commit it to the flames” and it has come down to us in the line of thought that is often called British empiricism even though its strongest expression appeared in the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. Alfred Ayer brought logical positivism back to England and he launched it in the English-speaking world with his book “Language Truth and Logic”. This made no impression before WWII but it caught a wave of iconoclasm among the host of new students who flooded the universities after the war. The movement began to spread beyond Europe in the late 1930s as the members of the Vienna Circle, many of them Jewish, fled for their lives. In was promoted with great zeal in the United States, led by Carnap and Hempel, under the revised brand name “Logical Empiricism”.
Manning Clarke, the Australian historian, recorded the flavour of encountering the crusading spirit of the positivists, round about 1940.
“The first time I sat down in the ‘caf’ at Melbourne University I asked politely ‘Would you please pass the salt?’ My neighbour, a gifted woman, looked at me with the eye of the saved for the damned and said. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I decided to listen to what was going on. In the ensuing weeks I picked up a new vocabulary. I often heard the word ‘tautology’: that, I gathered, was a sin against the Holy Ghost. I heard the phrase ‘non sequitur’. I was often asked: ‘Is that a verifiable proposition?’”
In a similar vein Priestley wrote in Literature and Western Man.
“The dismissal of metaphysics as mere fancy, ethics as a waste of words, left a vacuum, not to be filled by philosophy reduced to a narrow edge and its ally, science. It may be objected that logical positivism is highly technical and difficult, not for the general public. But any doctrine – and especially one that is new, original, and as irreverent and ruthlessly intolerant as any undergraduate would wish it to be – cannot be brilliantly expounded to some of the brightest young men in twenty or thirty universities without having some effect both inside and outside those universities. A certain atmosphere was created…that seemed to narrow and chill the mind.”
There are at least two problems with the verification principle: first, many scientific propositions, such as universal laws in the form “all ravens are black” cannot be strictly verified (we can never observe all the ravens in the universe) and so are strictly meaningless according to the verification principle.
Secondly, a whole array of important principles, topics, theories and discourses were thrown into the bin of “meaningless nonsense”. In this bin we find ethical, moral and political principles, that is, the principles that determine the way we live our lives and attempt to organise our social and political arrangements. We also find the principles of method or (in more learned language) “methodology” the spoken and unspoken maxims of procedure and protocol in scholarship and research. And we also find, at a deeper level, the metaphors, themes and presuppositions which dictate the questions that we ask about our subject matter and what sort of theories and explanations are acceptable as possible answers to those questions.
Clearly, civilised life and progressive research are unlikely to prosper if all the above matters are ruled out of court as “meaningless”. Most people did not adopt the tenets of positivism and the positivists themselves had to find some way around their own doctrines. However, anyone who tried to obtain sustenance from what was supposed to be the latest in rigorous philosophical thinking could only be confused and frustrated, in precise ratio to their efforts to make sense out of the doctrines of the positivists.
Posted in epistemology | 2 Comments

Jacques Barzun. A brilliant career

Jacques Barzun (1907 – 2012) was probably best known for his writing on education at all levels until Dawn to Decadence reminded people of the remarkable breadth and depth of his scholarship. He specialised in the cultural history of modern times and it is likely that few people have engaged in a more thorough and invigorating manner with the leading issues in the field. The sheer bulk of Barzun’s output is prodigious, bearing in mind his teaching and administrative responsibilities. He wrote more than twenty books, edited a similar number and contributed countless chapters to others, plus journal articles, Introductions and Forewords for books by other authors.

He fought a long battle against what he called hokum, ideas with no basis, which gain spurious credibility by repetition (in the way that so many celebrities are celebrities for no other reason than that they are regarded as such by the media and society pop pundits). One of these bits of hokum is the description of the 1800s as the century of laissez faire. He pointed out that the era of laissez faire in Britain was probably as short as a decade, from the repeal of the tariffs on imported grain (the Corn Laws) to the introduction of the Factory Acts and similar regulations.

His reputation achieved a remarkable boost when his massive and scholarly book Dawn to Decadence appeared in the year 2000 and quickly became a surprising best-seller. This was not entirely a new experience for Barzun because he was touched by the fickle flame of popularity in 1956 when he featured on the cover of “Time” magazine. However his profile waned during the 1960s when his brand of deep but politically disinterested scholarship fell out of fashion.

In the Author’s Note, Barzun advised that he set out to be “selective and critical rather than neutral and encyclopedic”. Those who have tried to read this wrist-breaking 900 page tome in bed will be pleased that he did not set out to be more informative, and that the scope of the work was only the last 500 years. The book can be seen as a contribution to the culture wars, subtitled “500 Years of Western Cultural Life – 1500 to the Present” the aim is to counter those who would either build a wall against the past or, alternatively, draw upon the past to support the case of the adversary culture against the whole project of western civilisation.

Asked about the origins of his remarkable last work, and the reason why it came so far behind the main body of his writing, he explained:

”When I was just beginning to teach, about 1935, I thought I would write a history of European culture from 1789 to the present. I was dissuaded from it by a friend of my father’s who was the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale. I was doing research there and he asked me what I was doing, and I told him, and he said, ‘Oh, young man, please don’t do any such thing. You’ll write about things that you know at first hand, and you will fill the rest out with things you get out of secondary texts. There’s no need of that at any time.’ So I said, ‘How long should I study original works before I begin?’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you wait until you are 80.’ I think I waited until I was 84, 85.”

The Man

Barzun grew up in Paris and Grenoble, the only child in a household where his parents conducted a modernist salon. His father worked in the Ministry of Labour but his heart was elsewhere. He wrote novels and poetry and hosted the likes of Apollonaire, who taught Jacques how to tell the time on his watch, and Marie Laurencein who painted his portrait. Other regular visitors included the painters Gleizes and Duchamp, the composer Varese and foreigners such Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington and Stegan Zweig. Members of the older generation such as Andre Gide also appeared occasionally to find out what the wild young men were up to.

During the war his father was withdrawn from active service to undertake diplomatic missions and after a journey to America he offered Jacques the alternative of completing his studies at a leading British university such as Oxford, or a leading American college. The young Barzun had been reading James Fenimore Cooper and other books about the red Indians, so he opted (hopefully but unrealistically) for New York.

He completed high school in the USA and in 1923 he entered Columbia College, graduating four years later at the top of his class. This earned him a lecturing position at Columbia University where he became a full professor in 1945, Dean of the Graduate Faculties in 1955, and the inaugural Dean of Faculties and Provost of the University in 1958. This level of involvement in administration by a serious teacher and scholar has few parallels and it adds authority to his account of the travails of the universities that flowed from their mushroom-like growth. In 1967 he resigned from his administrative duties and focussed on teaching and writing until his retirement in 1975. Subsequently he continued writing, lecturing and working in various posts including Literary Advisor to Scribeners, a directorship of the Peabody Institute for Music and Art at Baltimore, and membership of the Board of Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

He started teaching as an undergraduate, tutoring students of French. Two of his middle-aged pupils showed so much benefit from his assistance that the head of the department in a major university invited Barzun to a meeting. He laughed aloud when confronted with a seventeen year old, who he had contemplated offering an instructorship. As a postgraduate student he formed a small commercial venture with some colleagues “a perfectly legal and honest tutoring mill, whose grist managed to renew itself as we managed to put the backward rich through the entrance exams of famous colleges not our own”. During that period he also wrote short crime fiction and book reviews under a pseudonym. One of the books furnished him with a formative experience. Whitehead’s “Science and the Modern World” convinced him that there was no essential tension between the “two cultures” and ever after he envisaged science and the arts as potentially harmonious joint tenants in the house of intellect.

Some of his early teaching experiences were tinged with melodrama.

“A big bruiser of a student whom I had failed came to my office threatening bodily harm, then hounded me by phone, wire and letter, pleading that I should pass him ‘in the name of Christian brotherhood’ for he had ‘powerful friends in Brooklyn’. Nothing happened, but two years later, the tide turned in my favour. Another student, an impressive-looking middle-aged man in an Extension course, made a point of showing his gratitude, first by inviting me to his Turkish restaurant and then intimating that if I had any enemies he would only be too glad to get rid of them for me gratis.”

In the 1930s he became closely associated with Lionel Trilling when they shared a famous course on Great Books. They also became close friends and during this time Barzun was near the centre of the progressive intellectual culture of New York, though unlike Trilling and most others he was never a committed man of the left. A reporter from the “Austin Chronicle” took this up in an interview with Barzun after the launch of “Dawn to Decadence”.

JB: I had no Marxist colouring, such as they had…I stood aloof, although not hostile, and I take it they weren’t hostile to me. They deplored my blindness.

AC: You started writing about Romanticism when that was not very popular. It’s funny, you were aloof from Marxism, but also from the reaction to it, which was influenced so much by T.S. Eliot.

JB: Yes, I was always against the current. Eliot of course got it from Babbit, who got it from the French eminences of anti-Romanticism. What I read about Romanticism didn’t agree with what was said about it. Everything in the books was contrary to fact and legitimate conclusions of fact. Including all sorts of fabrications, simply lies that had gotten into the critical stream and were reproduced over and over again without being checked.

AC: You seem temperamentally more comfortable being at the limit of the Zeitgeist than being in the center of things.

JB: Well, I would call that the historian’s detachment.

The Books

His first serious research produced a dissertation on class and race in pre-revolutionary France, and in 1937 this work was published in Race, A Study in Modern Superstition. This was not written as a tract for the times but as a part of a deep scrutiny of cultural history, although by that time the issue of race had become something more than an interesting topic for a doctoral dissertation. Barzun noted that “The daily newspaper told us what uses could be made in our own century of the protean idea of Race. No longer was race simply one among many issues. The appeal to race, class or nation was in truth an epidemic attempt to supply a new motive power for social evolution. It expressed a desperate desire to breath life into the two European idols of Progress and Determinism”.

At that point Barzun wrote On Human Freedom in an attempt to offer a civilised alternative to old idols and new dogmas. The next major instalment in his project was Darwin, Marx and Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941). The nomination of Wagner rather than Freud in the trinity of emblematic modern minds is a sign of Barzun’s profound interest in music and the arts. He argued that these men achieved their reputations by catching the spirit of the age, like surfers on a wave, backed by the formidable public relations exercises mounted by their followers . This earned them the status of intellectual icons despite their lack of originality and the significant flaws in their systems. He described in some detail how all the leading ideas of evolutionary theory, socialism and the leading role of the artist were commonplace for decades before the big three started work.

Barzun was especially critical of the way that their adherents promoted determinism and scientism, with truly disastrous political consequences in the twentieth century. This runs parallel to Popper’s concern with the myths of historical destiny and Hayek’s critique of a certain kind of rationalism whereby utopian social reformers have felt obliged to recreate society in the shape of their dreams. In addition to the shortcomings of their systems, two of the three titans were monstrously egocentric and unprincipled exploiters of their friends and denigrators of their enemies. These personal characteristics became prominent in the modus operandi of their followers, setting the tone for bad manners in transactions between intellectuals that have persisted to the present time.

Barzun’s critique of the cult of evolutionary theory and the canonisation of Darwin himself is impressive but it is difficult to identify where Barzun stands on the scientific status of evolutionary theory and this is the least convincing part of his work. He appears to be dissatisfied with materialism and determinism without explaining whether he adhered to vitalism, or some form of mysticism or religion. This underlines the problem of pursuing such a wide-ranging research project without the assistance of co-workers, so his reach may have exceeded his grasp at some points. This is especially apparent when he attempted to locate his work in the context of twentieth century physics and biology, where he was operating too far from his base in history and cultural studies.

In the course of writing about Darwin, Marx and Wagner he discovered how the movement of ideas around 1800 labelled Romanticism had been distorted and misrepresented by subsequent commentators. That became the topic of his next book Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1943). He suggested that the Romantic movement had brought back into favour some important ideas connected with social purposes and human attributes that the materialism of the eighteenth century and the violence of the French revolution had obscured. However these valuable elements were swept aside in a wave of unscholarly denigration.

“The early, or Romantic part of that [nineteenth] century was held in particular detestation and contempt: it was naïve, silly, wrongheaded, stupidly passionate, criminally hopeful, and intolerably rhetorical. The word ‘romantic’ in fact stood for these defects wherever they might be found…As a student of history, and particularly of cultural history, I thought I saw clear evidence that twentieth-century notion of Romanticism was an illusion. As for a change of direction in our culture, I would have welcomed it whatever its form – classical, primitive or archaic. It struck me, however, that a true change would require a break, not with what had happened a century earlier or with its lifeless imitations, but with what had happened only thirty years before with Impressionism and Symbolism, which had done their work and could be deemed new and fresh only by virtue of a cultural lag.”

Education, Intellect and the Academies

In his book on romanticism he laid the foundation for subsequent writing on art and aesthetics in the twentieth century, of which more later. He moved on to a series of works on the education front, starting with Teacher in America, first published in 1944. (The Preface is on line). This book is a tour de force of the major deficiencies and impediments in the education system from school to college, ranging from the notion that learning has to be fun, various misguided fads promoted in Teacher Training Schools and the soul-destroying drudgery of the PhD ordeal. In The House of Intellect (1959) he explored the influences that distract people from clear, direct and critical thinking. He pointed out that intellectuals themselves have been the major agents in the erosion of the life of the mind along with the influence of distorted views of Science, and the unhelpful contribution of Business inspired by misplaced Philanthropy.

”The intellectual class has been captivated by Art, overawed by Science, and seduced by Philanthropy. The damage done by each has been that of heedless expansion combined with a reliance on the passage of time to restore order and decency”.

He described some problems that result from the well-meaning efforts of foundations and corporations to ameliorate the human condition by funding university-based research and the international exchange of ideas. One is the impact on departmental budgets when foundations give short-term grants (with inadequate allowance for overheads), and the beneficiaries expect to be kept on in perpetuity. The other is the diversion of effort from serious long-term projects into preparing grant applications to attract funding for “exciting and relevant research” and preparing papers (similarly exciting and relevant, and identifying the need for further research), for international conferences. Barzun anticipated some sceptical comments by C Wright Mills who described conferences as junkets to permit professors to pursue their feuds and vendettas in exotic locations while younger players scramble for positions in the academic marketplace.

In Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1963), Barzun catalogued and criticised many conflicting and incoherent perceptions of science that are abroad in the land, some of them exerting a malicious influence on the humanities and many of them either trivialising or sensationalising the activities of scientists.

”If science students leave college thinking, as they usually do, that science offers a full, accurate, and literal description of man and Nature; if they think theories spring from facts and that scientific authority at any time is infallible, and if they think that science steadily and automatically makes for a better world – then they have wasted their time in the science lecture room and they are a plain menace to the society they live in”.

The downside of that situation is the durability of creation science in the US, where the practitioners can play on the general lack of understanding of the provisional nature of scientific findings at frontier of knowledge and the critical and imaginative approach required for good scientific research.

In 1968 he published his revealing and extremely well informed account of the alarming tendencies in American higher education due to explosive growth in the universities at a time of great confusion about their aims and about the traditions and disciplines which nurture learning and scholarship. As if to underline his concerns, The American University appeared in 1968, the very year that students around the world started setting fire to their campuses, including his own. The conflagration started in time for him to put a note in the Preface to state that this did not prompt him to change a word that he had written. The Australian universities, in their rapid expansion and loss of focus, followed much the same path, a decade or two behind the US lead, without anyone visibly learning anything from the US experience that was clearly spelled out in 1968. It is interesting to note that the name of Barzun appears to be missing from the debates that have raged on higher education in this country, which suggests that his work in this area was done in vain so far as our academics and intellectuals are concerned.

The Arts

Another arm of his cultural project was to sort out the positive and negative elements in modern art, an area where he had a head start with his early exposure to some of the practitioners before 1914. His major positive statement on art appears in a collection of papers titled The Energies of Art which is a defence of certain types of revolutionary practices with genuine artistic merits which were not fully appreciated due to the distraction created by others who set out to deliberately affront the sensibilities of the general public. He claimed that the generation of artists who were in their prime during the period 1900 to 1914 were laying the foundations for major advances in art, transcending the schools of classicism, romanticism, naturalism and symbolism that held the stage during the previous two centuries.

”There was this new surge of creation, inventiveness, new techniques, which gave promise that the 20th century would be one of the great productive periods of Western culture. It all collapsed into the tensions of the First World War. There were hundreds of thousands of gifted people killed. They were part of a break; they made a chasm. The generation that came to literary and other activities in the Twenties were very young men who did not have their elders’ guidance and lacked a sense of resistance to their elders, both of which are necessary to true literary creation.”

So instead of consolidating the start that was made pre-1914, the arts have suffered from a number of debilitating ideas which Barzun subjected to criticism in his 1972 Mellon Lectures. These were published in a book titled The Use and Abuse of Art. He examined the rise of art as a substitute for religion in the nineteenth century, so art simultaneously became the “ultimate critic of life and the moral censor of society”. The next phase in that development was Estheticism and Abolitionism during the period 1890 to 1914, with the tradition of the New resulting in the unremitting destruction of past art as a point of reference for any moral or aesthetic standards. He wrote “By making extreme moral and esthetic demands in the harsh way of shock and insult, art unsettles the self and destroys confidence and spontaneity in individual conduct.”

”Art in this function has helped to undermine the assumptions that the state and civilized society are valuable or admirable, thus impairing the effectiveness of political and social institutions and proving the destroyers’ own case. By linking the growing interest and respect for art in modern times with the ‘dominance of bourgeoise values’ Art has effectively turned on art itself by becoming a vehicle for every kind of assault on traditional standards of beauty, craft, morality and commonsense.”

This was written thirty years ago and all that has changed is the increased number of students who are exposed to more advanced “theory” to justify the assault of Art on our senses and sensibilities. In the fourth lecture he moved on to another piece in the crazy pavement of modern art, the function of art as redeemer, linked with the concept of art as a substitute for religion. Barzun accepted the common ground, that the power exerted by great art on receptive persons is a religious power, and he pursued the consequences that can follow when that kind of influence is not checked by critical thinking and a sense of history. He discussed the individual and collective forms of salvation through Art that have been promulgated for 200 years. By the term collective salvation he means the appeal of revolutionary art which offers the artist a special role, first as evangelist and later as beneficiary, in the utopian society brought about by the revolution.

Finally he turned his attention to the troubled relationship between Science and Art, describing how artists have entered into competition with scientists to claim some of the respect and the material benefits that have been generally granted to modern Science. One of the fruits of this endeavour has been the proliferation of “art bollocks”(not his term), the use of pretentious jargon to emulate the (supposed) precision and profundity of scientific discourse. He thoughtfully provided a sample, with a translation.

“For Rousseau a painting was a primary surface on which he relied physically as a means for the projection of his thought [Translation: Rousseau wanted to paint on canvas]. Rousseau does not copy the exterior aspect of a tree: he creates an internal rhythmic whole conveying the true, grave expressionism of the essentials of a tree and its leaves in relation to a forest…But his style was established neither derivatively nor in obedience to fashion. It stemmed from the determination of his whole mind as it incarnated his artistic ambitions. [Rousseau painted just as he liked, and he liked painting trees].”

As Barzun approaches his centenary he can look back on a body of scholarly work that few people can equal. However he is entitled to be disenchanted with the apparent failure of this body of work to exert the humanising and invigorating influence on cultural studies that one would have expected. It may be that he has suffered instead of gained by the expansion of the universities. William W Bartley, in his posthumous collection of writings on scholarship and the universities Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth (1990) propagated the counterintuitive idea that the expansion of the universities, more especially the dissemination of examinable knowledge, represents a threat to the growth of knowledge and even to literacy itself. Such a view would have been regarded as ludicrous when three per cent of people went to universities, but nowadays with 30% on campus (and some talk of 60%) it looks more plausible.

Clearly Barzun challenged too many academic empires. Also, like some other original and independent scholars such as Edmund Wilson and R G Collingwood, he did not establish a significant school or following. This is apparent in the collection of papers in his honour, From Parnassus (1976) which is disappointing in the very ordinary quality of the contributions. Moreover the biographical piece by Lionel Trilling is practically useless because Trilling fell ill and died leaving little more than rough notes. This is most unfortunate because Trilling, as a longtime colleague and friend off campus, might have shed some light on little-known aspects of Barzun, such as the unbuttoned man in his domestic setting, and some insights into the demons and aspirations that drove him to read and write so much.

Light-hearted addendum, from the interview with the Austin Chronicle.

JB: Allen Ginsberg was a student of Lionel’s, and of mine, not in our joint course, but separately. But we joined together to save him from the penalties of the law, because he was involved in a very bad affair with an older man who seduced him sexually and used him to help dispose of the corpse of a man that this fellow had killed. Poor Allen, aged 17 or 18, helped to dump this body into the Hudson River. Well, was he in trouble there! With the help of the dean of the college, who also knew Allen, the dean, Lionel, and I waited on the district attorney who fortunately was a Columbia graduate and we said, “This youth is really innocent, although he committed an awful blunder and he’s also very gifted in the English Department.” We didn’t say he was a poet or that might have queered his chances! And that it would be a catastrophe to turn him over to a criminal court and put him in jail. We had to go again to a judge in Brooklyn, I think, because Allen came from Brooklyn or something. Anyway, the district attorney wasn’t enough, so we went to a second hearing, which was much more sticky. But Allen was let off.

AC: You knew he was a poet even back then.

JB: Oh yes. He showed me his writing. He’d send me things.

AC: Did he send you “Howl”?

JB: No, I don’t think he did. He sent me a letter from India, where I think he got a fellowship to spend a year or so. He sent me a letter that read, I’ve just met a wonderful guru who can read minds. “I want you to” – Allen had a way of saying “I want you to do this, I want you to do that” — “I want you to get him a position in the Philosophy Department.” I wrote back, “Dear Allen, the members of the Philosophy Department want nothing so little as to have their minds read.”





Posted in epistemology | 2 Comments

Hulsmann on von Mises

Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism. Mises Institute, Auburn, Alabama, 2007. Hardback, 1150 pp, index.

Jorg Guido Hulsmann, professor of economics at the University of Angers in France has written a monumental biography of Ludwig von Mises. Running over 1100 pages there is space for generous coverage of the historical and intellectual background and close attention to his major works and the salient features of his private life and social relations.

Mises (1881-1973) is one of the sleeping giants of the 20th century. For many decades he was the leader of the “Austrian school” of economics and social thought but he is scarcely a household name, even among economists and classical liberals where he should be well known and appreciated. It is appropriate that he lived almost from the time that Carl Menger published the book that launched the Austrian school to the year before the conference at Royalton in the US that signalled the revival of the tradition.

The Austrians adopt an evolutionary or ecological approach to social and economic systems to emphasise the role of individual initiative and planning in a framework of traditions, organizations and institutions (especially markets). They were virtually buried in professional circles by the rise of Keynes and mathematical economics. Being skeptical of mathematics and robust free traders they were dismissed for many years as unscientific and reactionary. A head count in the professional association in the US indicated that they are out-numbered by other schools by 50 to 1, despite robust growth since the revival of the 1970s.

The first quarter of the book is Young Ludwig and The Austrian School. This sketches the social, political and intellectual context for his life and work, including an endearing portrait of Carl Menger, the founder of the school. The second quarter is Officer, Gentleman, Scholar, covering the start of this career, his first major scholarly works on monetary theory, socialism and the politics of nationalism, and his involvement with Max Weber in the politics of the social science society. The third is Mises in his Prime including the years he spent in Geneva with the opportunity to address intellectual issues without the distraction of a bureaucratic day job. The fourth is Mises in America, from 1940 to 1973, a time when the school was practically invisible. This includes some little-known insights on the internal strains of the Mont Pelerin Society and some gossip from the Ayn Rand circle in New York which for a time included libertarians like Murray Rothbard and also von Mises.

When he was born the Austro-Hungarian empire encompassed Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, as well as parts of present-day Poland, Romania, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro. After World War I the empire was dismembered in the name of national self-determinism, and so the Balkans were balkanised, laying the foundations for further conflagrations up to the present day. The glory of the empire at its height can be seen from the number and size of the public buildings, monuments and museums in Old Vienna today.

Writers, scholars, administrators, entrepreneurs and revolutionaries moved backwards and forwards between the major centres of the empire. They created a rich tradition of culture and learning that was multicultural in a way that is scarcely comprehensible to Anglo-Saxons. With at least ten languages in the empire, they fed on the thoughts of Russians, Poles and Germans with the same facility that they absorbed ideas from England and France, thought their accents betrayed them when they fled to safety in the west during the 1930s.

Some of the most important threads of modern thought passed through Vienna, not necessarily through the university but also through the coffee shops and private seminars. The best known were the circles of Schoenberg (progressive music) and the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. Others included a Freud group and seminars convened by Ludwig von Mises, Karl Menger (son of the great economist) and Richard Mises (brother of Ludwig).

Mises was born of Jewish parents in Galica, now located in the Ukraine. His father was an engineer and his brother Richard was a physicist and mathematician. The family moved to the ancestral home in Vienna where he took a doctorate in law. In 1903 he read Carl Menger’s classic book The Principles of Economics (1871) and he recorded that this experience “made an economist of me”. In 1906 he took a doctorate in economics and from 1909 to 1934 he worked in the Austrian Chamber of Commerce , much of the time as the chief of the finance department, giving advice to the Government on monetary and financial policy. During the Great War when he served with the artillery in the Ukraine, suffered minor injuries and collected seven war service medals.

The first of his three major books was The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) which applied the concept of marginal utility to money and also set forth the first version of the Austrian theory of the trade cycle. In 1913 he was appointed as a Professor at the university, not a paid post but one that entitled him to give lectures if he could attract an audience. Due to Menger’s inactivity during the 25 years before he died in 1921 and Boehm-Bawerk’s early death in 1914 it was left to Mises to consolidate the Austrian program, not by teaching undergraduate students but through his writing and his seminar where the leading lights included Hayek, Haberler, Machlup, Morgenstern in economics as well as Alfred Schutz and Felix Kaufman in sociology and philosophy.

His next major work was Nation State and Economy (1919), written to analyse the destructive forces of nationalism and national self determinism that were abroad, the most obvious example being the dismantling of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The idea was to liberate national, linguistic and racial groups from the yoke of empire but Mises saw things differently. He believed that the local tensions between different groups could be handled in the framework of the empire, given free trade, free movement of people and a light hand of central administration. In the event the local tensions were increased by decentralization because the local minorities agitated to be released from the yoke of the local majority, or demanded the national frontier should be moved so they could join the majority in the adjacent state.

In Socialism (1922) Mises launched a wide-ranging critique of the doctrines of central planning, the elimination of competitive markets and nationalisation of the means of production. For those with eyes to see, the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire, and the failures of nationalisation elsewhere, did not come as a surprise. The Scandanvian nations do not refute the hypothesis because they maintain the private sector and largely open markets to fund their welfare provisions.

There is an Australian connection with the English translation of Socialism. The official translator was an economist named Jacques Kahane. Walking in a London park Kahane encountered the Australian journalist, bohemian and editor Brian Penton (1904-1951). He was in England, acting as business manager for Jack Lindsay’s Franfolico Press. Penton and Kahane became close friends, indeed he was an occasional house guest with Penton and his wife, and they both dedicated their first books to him. In the case of Penton this was the almost unreadable Landtakers (on line with the Gutenburg Project of Australia. According to Penton’s biographer they collaborated in the translation and this encounter with the cutting edge of anti-socialist thought served Penton well when he challenged the pillars of the “Australian Settlement” (White Australia, tariffs and central wage fixing) in the 1940s.

Mises saw what was likely to happen when Hitler came to power and he moved from Vienna to Geneva in 1934. When Hitler swallowed Austria some Nazi agents raided his apartment and stole his library. He no longer felt safe in Switzerland and he moved on to the US in 1940.

Through the 1920s and 1930s he wrote a series of papers on philosophical and methodological issues and it is interesting to recall this time when Mises spent his days trying to steer the Austrian economy and the nights grappling with the fundamentals of economics (Grundprobleme der Nationalekonomie). Not far away Karl Popper taught high school maths and science, then went home to work on the fundamentals of scientific method (Grundprobleme der Erkenntnistheorie).

In Geneva Mises completed the German version of his most important work which later appeared in English as Human Action (1949). Hulsmann has a chapter on The Epistemological Case for Capitalism, reflecting the importance that Mises assigned to the correct methods of investigation. Human Action begins with almost 200 pages of preliminaries including the doctrine that the laws of economics should be based on a priori meditations on the nature of human action. Mises thought that positivism and empiricism worked in the natural sciences but they would be the death of proper economics. However this position adds no value to his economics and it renders his work suspect to other schools of thought that are dedicated to scientific methods.

The book is outstanding as an intellectual biography and also as the story of a flesh and blood human being making his way through desperately troubled times. There are some nice human touches, like his professional rivalry with his younger brother and his extended courtship of an ex-actress Margit Sereny which only ended in marriage after his mother died. There is an exciting section on their escape to the US through France as the Germans moved in. Mises learned to drive in middle age and he demonstrated more enthusiasm than skill. At least twice he almost drove off the road in the Alps and there were two other moderately serious accidents. There are some stories about his argumentative social encounters with Ayn Rand.

Hulsmann writes clearly and has done well to keep the story moving on several fronts. It is a remarkable work of scholarship, ten years in the making. Someone counted over a thousand footnotes and the bibliography runs to 30 pages. He has been well served by the Mises Institute which published the book after one academic press rejected the manuscript for its size and another wanted to price the book well over $100US. It is available at a reasonable price and at a kilo in weight it is excellent value, pound for pound as we used to say. It is also a monument to the crafts of the printer and book binder with clear typeface, good sized font, wide margins, excellent paper and superb presentation all round.

It will sit nicely on the shelf alongside Malachi Hacohen’s equally monumental biography of Karl Popper.  It is probably available to read on line at the site of the Mises Institute.

Posted in epistemology | 2 Comments

Hacohen on Popper

Review of Malachi Hacohen, Karl Popper, The Formative Years, 1902-1945. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Karl Popper almost came to the University of Sydney in 1945. John Anderson invited him to join the staff in Philosophy but Popper delayed his decision in the hope of an offer from the London School of Economics. When that offer came Professor Anderson was spared the confrontation with a colleague as assertive and argumentative as himself.

Popper died in 1994 at the age of 92 and this is the first comprehensive book to appear on his life and work, although he detailed account stopped halfway through Popper’s life. Hacohen is a historian based at Duke University and he has charted the evolution of Popper’s thinking with close attention to his intellectual influences and the explosive social and political tensions in Vienna which informed his thoughts on politics and ultimately prompted his flight to New Zealand. Over twenty years in the making, this is likely to be the standard reference for some time because the author had access to some recently opened archives and he also interviewed some longstanding colleagues of Popper such as Colin Simkin (from New Zealand) and John Watkins (of the London School of Economics) who are no longer with us.

The book has at least four different aspects, each of considerable interest. One is the reconstruction of Popper’s intellectual career as he groped towards his seminal work in the philosophy of science and politics. The second is to give some impression of Popper the person, the being of flesh and blood who is practically invisible in his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest. The third is the recreation of the social and political milieu of Vienna, the life of high culture and intellectual achievement that thrived but finally expired under the volcano of fascism and anti-Semiticism. The fourth is Hacohen’s mission to reclaim Popper for the social democrats, to snatch him back from the clutches of the Cold War liberals and the New Right.

So far as Popper the person is concerned, Hacohen had great difficulty in getting anywhere near the emotional roots of Popper’s life. He was so much a man of ideas that everything else appeared to be secondary (after early thoughts of a career in music), including his own comfort and the convenience of anyone who had dealings with him.

Hacohen reports that Popper worked for 360 days of the year, all day, without the distraction of newspapers, radio or TV. Several times a month, even in old age, he worked all night and some friend such as Bryan Magee would get an early morning call from Popper, bubbling with excitement to report on his latest ideas. Popper lived well out of London near High Wycombe and when Magee gained Popper’s confidence he was invited to visit, taking the train to “Havercombe” (in Popper’s heavily accented English). When I made the trip to Havercombe, Popper arranged to meet me at the station, carrying a copy of the BBC Listener, presumably to pick him out from all the other elderly gentlemen of middle-European extraction who might be thronging the platform at 2.00 on a Wednesday afternoon. In the event, he left the magazine at home and the kiosk had sold out so he had to buy The Times and fold it to the size of the Listener.

Of course he was the only person in sight apart from the Station Master. Popper, then aged 70, had what his research assistant tactfully described as a “very positive” attitude to driving. Fortunately it was not far to his home and there were few other cars on the road. Safely home, our conversation laboured, and he frequently pushed a tray of choc-chip cookies towards me. Later he lamented to his assistant that I had eaten a whole weeks supply of his favorite cookies in one afternoon. These aspects of Popper are the other face of the man who some described as “the totalitarian liberal”.

Magee endorsed the view that Popper’s personal behaviour often belied his liberal principles. In fairness, he added that Popper had to endure persistent and gross distortions of his ideas by philosophical and political opponents. Hacohen has resoundingly corrected the rather odd view propounded by David Stove regarding the motivation for Popper’s challenge to orthodoxy in the philosophy of science. Stove suggested that this was done in the frivolous spirit of the Jazz Age, so if other people wanted scientific theories to be verified, highly probable and justified, Popper would have them falsified, improbable and conjectural.

In fact it is difficult to imagine anyone more divorced from the spirit of the Jazz Age than the priggish, puritanical, non-smoking, non-drinking young Popper. Apparently his idea of a good time outside working hours was a session as a voluntary helper in Alfred Adler’s social work clinic in the slums of Vienna. Following Tolstoy’s ideas on the dignity of manual labour Popper tried various jobs and he completed an apprenticeship to become a qualified cabinet maker. Apart from a teenage flirtation with the communist movement Popper’s nearest approach to radicalism was Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances which he attended out of a sense of duty to explore contemporary music. However, when he started serious writing for publication there was no time for that kind of distraction and often on weekends Popper would sit with his wife in a coffee shop writing drafts which she typed up on a portable typewriter.

Popper’s lack of progress in the community of professional philosophers needs to be understood against the background of the ideas that dominated Anglo-Saxon philosophy under the influence of Wittgenstein in his two phases. It needs to be remembered that the philosophy of science was not institutionalised in the 1920s and there was only a handful of academics in that field in the world. The issues that are now addressed by some hundreds and maybe thousands of fulltime staff and students around the globe, were in those days the preserve of small groups of interested people, including working scientists, many of them outside the universities, like Charles Sanders Peirce and Bertrand Russell for much of their lives.

Such was the Vienna Circle of logical positivists who gathered around Professor Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970) and Otto Neurath (1883-1945). Their spiritual predecessor was Ernst Mach (1838-1916) a philosopher-physicist in the strong empiricist tradition of David Hume whose mission was to purge science of metaphysics and place it on the firm “positive” foundations of sensation. Few philosophers have had such a deep and wide-ranging influence. In Hacohen’s words “He virtually became the official philosopher of Viennese progressivism” (and far beyond) through his influence in psychology, physics (the young Einstein), literature (Robert Musil), painting (the Impressionists), social philosophy (Joseph Popper-Lynkus).

They pursued Mach’s positivism, with Russell’s Principia their inspiration and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus providing the program. This was essentially a war on metaphysics by application of the strict “verificationist” definition of meaning. They proposed that statements should be regarded as literally meaningless if they could not be confirmed or verified by evidence. The propositions of logic and mathematics were exempt from the requirement for verification on the understanding that they are true by definition and they do not pretend to convey information about the world.

The most obvious casualties of the verification principle were religion and moral principles, though there were others that were less obvious, including the principle itself and, most regrettably, the laws of science. When these laws are stated in their strong (universal) form they cannot be verified by any number of observations. This dilemma, with the unsolved problem of induction, represented twin “skeletons in the cupboard” of positivism, but still the circle gained worldwide influence, and they did institutionalise the philosophy of science with a series of conferences in the 1930s with the sponsorship of luminaries such as Bertrand Russell. Then the predominantly Jewish and left wing members of the circle had to scatter for their lives, like Popper himself, and they were dispersed far and wide by 1939.

Manning Clarke recorded in his autobiography The Quest for Grace something of the flavour of encountering the crusading spirit of the positivists, round about 1940.

The first time I sat down in the ‘caf’ at Melbourne University I asked politely ‘Would you please pass the salt?’ My neighbour, a gifted woman, looked at me with the eye of the saved for the damned and said. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I decided to listen to what was going on. In the ensuing weeks I picked up a new vocabulary. I often heard the word ‘tautology’: that, I gathered, was a sin against the Holy Ghost. I heard the phrase ‘non sequitur’. I was often asked: ‘Is that a verifiable proposition?

As the circle pursued their program in the 1930s two other forces loomed up on the horizon. One was an intellectual challenge from a young schoolteacher, the other was the lengthening shadow of the swastika.

Popper’s career did not pursue any steady course through the 1920s. His father was ruined by the postwar inflation and Karl left home to live in a commune in an old army barracks. Decked in army surplus attire he attended courses in science and mathematics as an unmatriculated student at the university, eking out a living by coaching overseas students. (Arthur Koestler was studying engineering at the university at the time, until he departed to support Zionism in Palestine). There was no prospect of a career and he engaged in socialist causes and social work.

His early experience as a voluntary teacher with a group called the “Young Proletarians” was not inspiring. The working-class children were resistant and greeted the young teacher with loutish behaviour. Things improved after Popper challenged the leader of the roughnecks to a boxing match. Eventually he found a place to train as a proper school teacher, in a newly formed Pedagogic Institute that was established to support Glockel’s school reform movement. There he learned philosophy and psychology from Karl Buhler (1879-1964), took on board Kant’s view on the projection of intellectual categories upon the world, moved his focus from the psychology of learning to the logic of theory formation and testing, and courted and married a fellow trainee-teacher. Josefine Henninger “Hennie” (1906-85) was a physical education teacher who became Popper’s greatest helper.

Popper addressed a different problem from that of meaning and metaphysics because he was concerned with the difference between science, where evidence matters, and pseudo-sciences such as astrology where theories appear to be based on observations but are actually “unsinkable”. His exemplar of science was Einstein’s theory which might have been refuted by a particular set of observations on the eclipse of the sun. Inspired by this example Popper advanced his criterion of falsifiability (testability) along with a set of conventions or “rules of the game” of science to ensure that the truth of theories can be tested by evidence. It is worth noting that testable statements are not confined to the “hard sciences” or even to the natural sciences, and Popper’s “rules of the game” can be applied to investigations in any field including history and literature. As for induction, Popper proposed that science could do without it, making its way by means of speculations controlled by criticism, especially the criticism of experimental or observational tests. On this account science is not an edifice based on observational foundations, it is more like a hot air balloon that is tethered to the “earth” of facts and observations by thin deductive threads.

These ideas on demarcation and induction formed slowly as Popper conducted endless discussions and debates with members of the inner Vienna Circle (Viktor Kraft and Herbert Feigl) and others on the periphery, such as Heinrich Gomperez. It was Herbert Feigl, after a nightlong session, who proposed that Popper should write a book. Hacohen provides a dramatic account of the writing, revision and publication of Logik der Forschung in 1934, one of a series of monographs produced by the Vienna Circle (it appeared in English in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery). All manner of problems intruded, political tensions were on the rise, the inner Circle members were divided on the acceptability of the book, Popper’s first effort had to be cut almost in half, the editor procrastinated for months before reading the manuscript, Popper was madly impatient to get into print and rubbed everyone up the wrong way, there were paper shortages, other books to be considered for publication in the series.

Hacohen gives a lot of credit to the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle for putting up with Popper’s Steppenwolf-like activity, prowling on the fringe of the circle where Schlick, Carnap, Neurath et al. huddled around their campfire, seeking warmth and consolation from the dying embers of the verification principle They accepted Popper’s book because most of them perceived that it had merit even if none of them really agreed with Popper’s turn from verification and induction to a theory of conjectural knowledge that may be tested but is never confirmed, or even assigned a numerical probability.

In the background to all this intellectual activity there were ebbing and flowing tides of political revolution. The communists plotted, the anti-communists reacted, the socialists took control of the Vienna city council in democratic elections, the Jewish problem created ongoing tensions. Hacohen has a special interest in the Jewish problem and he may have overdone this part of the narrative but his account of the shifting balance of power between the rival forces is engrossing. Popper had huge admiration for many aspects of the socialists’ program but he despaired of their tactics – they talked violent revolution (though their moderate leadership did not believe in it) and this prompted a violent reaction which they were not sufficiently organised and resolute to match, even when they had the numbers to prevail.

Against them were arrayed the conservative bourgeoisie and much worse elements of the kind that flocked to Hitler’s banner. Eventually Hitler annexed Austria and all bets for civilisation were off. Those who could see the writing on the wall, like Popper and Ludwig Mises (Hayek’s teacher), escaped if they could. Mises fled to Switzerland, just before his apartment was raided. Popper’s teacher Karl Buhler was less fortunate, he was arrested and interned for some weeks until he had the chance to escape by walking over the border to attempt a new life in the United States. Later on Popper counted sixteen relatives who perished in the holocaust.

With Logik der Forschung launched, Popper’s focus shifted to politics and the social sciences. His major concern was the failure of Marxism to provide a bastion against the rise of fascism and he attributed this more than anything to an intellectual error, namely the doctrine of historical inevitability. He labeled this “historicism” and he returned to his notes on “the poverty of historicism” in 1938 when he was settled at Canterbury College, Christchurch. By that time he was writing in English and his closest colleague was Colin Simkin, a young NZ economist (aged 26 when he met Popper). Popper had a low opinion of the social sciences although he thought that mathematical economics had turned the corner, an opinion based on almost complete ignorance of the field. He relied heavily on the young Simkin for an introduction to the innovations of Keynes and for advice on the capacity for social engineering by democratic governments to control major problems such as monopolies and mass unemployment.

In return for this dubious assistance, he offered Simkin the advice to develop his mathematical skills in order to pursue the path of macroeconomic modeling. This advice turned out to be a something of a disaster for Simkin because it seems that this lifelong project failed to bear fruit. Simkin later came to the University of Sydney to assist in the battle against the Marxists in the Department of Economics.

Despite all the pressures of the times, the loneliness and isolation of New Zealand, the dreadful news from home, the threat of the Japanese advance, his teaching load and problems with his Professor (described in Roger Sandall’s book The Culture Cult), The Open Society and its Enemies was eventually written and dispatched. This book can be seen as a kind of “Battle of Britain” in the world of ideas, a desperate counterpart to the struggle where young men daily took to the air in the skies over the South of England with the future of civilisation virtually in their hands. On the other side of the world a relatively young Karl Popper patrolled the stratosphere of the world of ideas, confronting those from Heraclitus and Plato to the present day whose ideas he thought were undermining the cause of freedom and the open society. Like the young men in their Hurricanes and Spitfires, he did not fly in vain. The Open Society joined Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to provide twin pillars of resistance to totalitarian thinking post WWII.

The Open Society and its Enemies is a monumental defence of democratic principles and a demolition of many pervasive ideas that render our traditions of rationality and tolerance dangerously fragile under the pressure of social and political crises. Chief among these is the utopian impulse to recreate society in the image of someone’s dreams. There is some debate as to whether Popper’s dramatic view of science as a succession of revolutions is consistent with the relative conservatism of his political philosophy. In fact there is no conflict because both garments are cut from the same cloth of critical rationalism, the spirit of criticism, respect for arguments, for the truth and for the rights of individual people.

In view of Hacohen’s plea to the socialists of the world to rally behind the ideas of Popper it is essential to work out whether Popper provides support or resistance to policies of state intervention along socialist or social democrat lines. Popper is generally regarded as a social democrat because he supported state intervention to counter monopolies and unemployment, to protect the economically weak from the economically strong. To assess the legitimacy of Hacohen’s claim on Popper it is helpful to examine the impact of Hayek on Popper, and also to consider some of the implications of Popper’s ideas that he never followed to their logical conclusion.

Briefly, it appears that when Popper’s views are adjusted to take account of his misunderstanding of the nature of monopoly and the real causes of unemployment, his basic principles place him with minimum state liberals or even libertarians. The important assumption here is that the mass unemployment of the 1930s was caused by injudicious state intervention (by minimum wage laws, by central banks and tariff barriers etc), and by excessive trade union power, not by the inherent instability of free markets.

Hacohen describes Popper’s correspondence from Hayek which commenced in 1943 while The Open Society was still in manuscript. Hayek’s reaction was gratifying but he took fright at Popper’s language of social technology and social engineering because he (Hayek) had identified the enemy, even more than the historicist, as the constructivist rationalist (the coercive utopian) who thought he could impose a pattern upon the organisation of a whole economy, like an engineer working from a blueprint.

Popper was concerned with freedom and he was equally concerned with human suffering and deprivation, after his formative years surrounded by the abject poverty in Austria after the Great War. Like the Prince of Wales visiting the out of work Welsh miners during the Great Depression, he knew “Something has to be done!” For this reason he reserved the right of the state to intervene so that the economically powerless could not be exploited by the economically powerful. He was a free trader in goods because he recognised that under monopoly, the consumers may have to pay to cart away the rubbish produced by the monopolist.

What was to be done about mass unemployment, the major cause of widespread suffering (apart from war)? This was never specified, though he would have learned the dangers of state interference with the labour market if he had read the works of W. H. Hutt on collective bargaining and the strike threat or (some time later) The Case Against the Arbitration Commission by P P McGuinness. Popper came near to a breakthrough in economics in the course of appraising Marx on capitalism and the “excessive” labour supply that supposedly leads to exploitation. He wrote in Chapter 20 of The Open Society:

What is not so clear, and not explained by Marx either, is why the supply of labour should continue to exceed the demand. For if it is so profitable to ‘exploit’ labour, how is it, then, that the capitalists are not forced, by competition, to try to raise their profits by employing more labour? In other words, why do they not compete against each other in the labour market, thereby raising the wages…It appears that the phenomena of ‘exploitation’ which Marx observed were due, not, as he believed, to the mechanism of a perfectly competitive market, but to other factors – especially to a mixture of low productivity and imperfectly competitive markets.

Low productivity and imperfectly competitive markets! These are recognised by free traders as a consequence of inappropriate and counterproductive government intervention. Interference with the labour market has been particularly damaging and it appears that the immediate cause of mass unemployment in Australia during the Great Depression was the fact that award wages were only reduced by 10% at a time when prices had fallen by much more than that figure. One of the best kept secrets of modern history is the comfortable situation of the people who remained employed for the duration at 90% of the previous wage rate while tens of thousands had no regular income at all. This secret was leaked, not by a historian or a sociologist or even by an economist but by the novelist Jessica Anderson in Tirra Lirra By The River.

As a result of Hayek’s influence Popper emphasised that state intervention should take the form of laying down clearly formulated rules, and state officials should not be empowered to issue discretionary orders to achieve particular short-term aims. He became more alert to the dangers of increasing state power, he insisted that social democratic policies should never be envisaged as a “cure-all” and he warned that socialists of good will should be alert to abuses of power that could result from increased state activity, however well meaning the original intention might be. In March 1944 he wrote to Hayek “I think I have learnt more from you than from any other living thinker, except perhaps Alfred Tarski”.

The result of all this is distressing to Hacohen.

In the postwar years, Popper no longer demonstrated commitment to reform…He never disavowed piecemeal engineering, but he argued that its purpose was to decrease, not increase, state power. He also showed growing sympathy towards libertarianism, and did little to stop the conservative onslaught of the 1980s.

Hacohen cited a reference to a 1982 interview where Popper expressed some sympathy with anarchism…”It was, he said, an unrealisable ideal but the closest we can get to it, the better off freedom is”.

Hacohen’s statement above seems to assume that decreasing the extent of Big Government and the “nanny state” does not count as reform. Such is the gulf that has opened up between socialism and common sense. Hacohen hopes that the left can be reinvigorated by Popper’s ideas, properly understood, to regain their sense of mission, to recover from the setbacks of the Thatcher and Reagan years, take the offensive and move forward again. I have a similar hope, that the left can move forward, but in a very different direction, the direction of classical liberalism, the direction pointed by Mises and Hayek, and by Popper in his stance as a minimal state liberal.

Despite this negative conclusion regarding one of Hacohen’s aims I do not want to leave the reader with an unfavourable impression of the book. It is a work of quite remarkable scholarship, well organised, clearly and vigorously written. It will provoke debate among friends of Popper’s ideas, and perhaps among others who are less friendly. It should lead to a reconsideration of Popper’s low standing in contemporary philosophy. It stands as a monument to Popper’s indomitable spirit and to the support of many people, not all of them adequately recognised by Popper himself, who helped him on his way. These include some members of the Vienna Circle, Karl Buhler, Robert Lammer (the diligent first reader of Logik Der Forschung), Ernst Gombrich and Colin Simkin. May they never be forgotten.

I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Keith Barley, Reader in Agronomy at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, Adelaide, who lent me The Open Society and Its Enemies in the spring of 1968.

This is now published in the paper edition of Reason and Imagination (Amazon).



Posted in epistemology | 1 Comment