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Making Sense of Popper

Mises Daily: Monday, May 28, 2001 by

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A review of Malachi Hacohen, Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902–1945. Cambridge: University Press, 2000. 610 pp. + xiii. Index. ISBN 0 521 47053 6. Hardback.
In this article, I will suggest that market liberals and libertarians can gain a great deal from Popper's ideas, provided that they put to one side some of his ideas about the capacity for state intervention to correct problems such as mass unemployment.

For example, Jan Lester's book, Escape from Leviathan, shows how the critical rationalism of  Popper and Bartley can be mobilised to assist in a powerful and economical formulation of libertarian principles. I will use some comments on Hacohen's book as a springboard to launch some thoughts about the potential contribution of Popper's ideas to classical liberalism in general and Austrian economics in particular. 

Popper died in 1994 at the age of 92. This is the first comprehensive book to appear on his life and work. It surely will be the standard reference for some time, because the author had access to most of the relevant papers and also because he had assistance from some longstanding colleagues of Popper, such as Colin Simkin and John Watkins, both now deceased. Hacohen is a historian based at Duke University, and this book, which started as a doctoral dissertation, has been twenty years in the making. It is a very well-written book, unlike many dissertations that are upgraded for publication.

People tend to polarise in their opinions on Popper: Either they love him or they hate him. For some, he is the most overrated philosopher of the century, while others note that he is hardly mentioned in North American philosophy courses. Leftists dismiss him as an anti-Marxist; libertarians dismiss him as a social democrat; the Frankfurt School condemns him as a positivist; to many logical empiricists, he is an irrationalist.

It is likely that Popper will be better appreciated when he is better understood. His critical rationalism, his nonauthoritarian epistemology, and his indeterminism fit like a glove with the ideas of Mises and Hayek. His views on economics and state intervention in the market are inconsistent, and when the inconsistencies are eliminated, the thrust of his thinking is very much in the direction of minimal-state liberalism. It must be emphasised that this claim concerns the tendency of his ideas, regardless of his personal views.

This interpretation of Popper's liberalism will not be music to the ideas of Malachi Hacohen. In the final section of the book, he appeals to Left liberals to take fresh heart from rereading Popper, to regain their enthusiasm for reform and win back the ground that was lost during the years of Thatcher and Reagan. Fortunately, this is only one aspect of the book. In several other respects, it is a fine achievement—in reconstructing the early part of Popper's intellectual career, especially his relationship with Hayek; in providing a portrait of Popper, the person; and in conveying a sense of the social, political, and intellectual life of Vienna in exciting and dangerous times.  

For the purpose of this review, I will pass rapidly over Hacohen's account of Popper's progress in the philosophy of science that culminated in Logik Der Forshung (1934)—though, for many people, this will be the central feature of the book. In addition to the intellectual content of the book, it practically saved his life. Publication of this book and the support of some English contacts enabled him to secure a lecturing job in New Zealand in 1937 and thus to escape from the holocaust, which engulfed sixteen of his relatives.

Similarly, I will not dwell on the process of writing The Open Society and its Enemies and the drama of its publication. I will focus, instead, on Hacohen's revealing account of Popper's relationship with the ideas of the Austrian economists and the way that his liberalism was challenged and altered by the influence of Hayek. I will then proceed to some speculative thoughts about the wider significance of Popper's ideas, especially some that appeared after 1945.

Popper's ideas on the growth of scientific knowledge developed as a critique of the dominant school of the time: the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, which gathered around Professor Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970), and Otto Neurath (1883-1945). Inspired by Ernst Mach, they proposed to drive metaphysics out of science by ruling statements "out of order"—strictly meaningless, unless they could be verified by empirical evidence.

The most obvious casualties of the verification principle were religion and metaphysics—the original targets—though there were others, such as moral principles (collateral damage) and some that were less obvious, including the principle itself and, most regrettably, the laws of science. When these laws are stated in their strong form, along the lines of "All swans are white," they cannot be verified by any number of observations of white swans, simply because you cannot be certain that you have sighted all the swans in the universe. This dilemma and problem of induction (justification of theories based on evidence) was never resolved, but still, positivism—known as logical empiricism in North America—remained a dominant influence.

By 1959, when Popper's first book appeard in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery, the logical empiricists were well-entrenched in the universities of the West, and Wittgenstein's second phase of language analysis was at its peak of popularity. Consequently, Popper has been practically sidelined in academic philosophy. That is a loss in itself. In addition, many students have turned to the relativism of Rorty and continental philosophy, out of frustration with the arid technicalities of probability theory—the last stand of logical empiricism.

Popper addressed a different problem from that of meaning and metaphysics because he was concerned with the way that evidence can be used in science, in contrast wtih pseudo-sciences, such as astrology, that 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 to demarcate between testable statements on the science side of the line ("All ravens are black," which is logically refuted by the observation of a white raven) and various categories of statements on the other side of the line (morals, metaphysics, methodological principles, and, incidentally, nonsense).

In Popper's scheme, there is no doubt about the meaningful nature of discourse on moral principles, aesthetics, metaphysics, and methodology. Principles and proposals on the "non-science" side of the line can be discussed rationally in terms of their adequacy for their purposes, their consistency, and their consequences, though such discourse was made extremely difficult by the positivists.

As for induction—the supposedly logical process that purports to provide a basis for justified true beliefs based on evidence—Popper proposed that science does very well without it. He argued that scientists can proceed (like "Austrian" entrepreneurs in the marketplace) by means of  speculations (investments) controlled by criticism (the market), 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 deductive threads. These views have a great deal of appeal for working scientists, especially those of a creative or innovative turn of mind, because they tend to practice what Popper preached.

Popper was never invited to join the inner circle of the Vienna Circle, and it is interesting to find in Hacohen's account that second generation "Austrians" played an important supporting role while he developed his ideas. He attended the mathematical symposium run by Karl Menger (son of the founder of the Austrian School of economics) and the seminar of Ludwig's brother Richard von Mises. Attendance at these groups  was important as a sign of  personal recognition, and the Mises group  was an excellent forum to develop Popper's ideas on probability.

With Logik der Forschung in print in 1934, Popper turned his attention to the social sciences, where he identified a cluster of problems associated with the notion of determinism and historical inevitability, which he called "historicism." This work proceeded fitfully until Popper made his escape to New Zealand, where he began to write in English, starting with a paper entitled "What is dialectic?" He then began serious work on a book to be called The Poverty of  Historicism.

Hacohen's approach to this is exciting and illuminating because he deftly sketches some important background information, starting with the debate between Menger and Schmoller in the 1880s and also the calculation debate that was sparked off by Ludwig von Mises in the 1920s.  He describes Popper's excursion into the social sciences, including the vital role of Felix Kaufman and others as stimulants and foils in the development of his ideas. Some light is shed on the way Popper picked up the ideas of the Austrian School of economics—especially by way of Weber—and used them selectively for his purposes. 

Hacohen writes:  "His interest in economics was limited and his knowledge of it sketchy. He had read Austrian economist Bohm-Bawerk's criticism of Marx and his theory of capital, and he had picked up some marginal utility economics from it. He had also heard much about Carl Menger (1840-1921), founder of Austrian economics, but knew neither his work not that of other Austrian economists."

One of the intellectual errors that Popper considered to be linked with historicism is the obsession with terms, their definitions, and their true meanings, which he labeled "essentialism." The section on essentialism in The Poverty of Historicism only occupies half a dozen pages, but as Popper researched its origins with Plato and Aristotle, his "marginal notes" on the history of historicism and its relationship to totalitarian thinking grew into a large book in itself, The Open Society and its Enemies.

Unfortunately, one of Popper's closest colleagues during the writing of OSE was a young lecturer in economics named Colin Simkin, who was enthusiastic about Keynes and welfare-state intervention. This influence was not calculated to shift Popper from socialism toward market liberalism; that impetus came later, from Hayek. After Popper recovered from the desperate labours of writing The Open Society, he began to read papers and correspondence from Hayek while he returned to his abandoned project on the poverty of historicism and reworked his notes into a series of  journal articles. These were published in Hayek's journal—after they had been rejected by G.E. Moore, editor of Mind, on grounds that they were not sufficiently philosophical.

Hayek's reaction to OSE was gratifying. He did not object to interventionism or social engineering (in principle), though he preferred not to use those terms himself. In the course of their exchanges, Popper became more alert to the dangers of state intervention, and he took on board Hayek's distinction between legal rules—where government action to change the "rules of the game" may be legitimate and even helpful—and discretionary orders by officials of the state, which are prone to abuse and, hence, are highly dangerous.

A system of  rules, adjusted step by step in the light of discussion and experience, permits orderly, evolutionary change. In contrast, the use of discretionary intervention introduces unpredictability and the perception that social life is irrational and insecure. People become susceptible to conspiracy theories, while social, religious, and ethnic divisions are aggravated, especially if certain groups are favoured.

Popper wrote (Open Society, chapter 17): "The use of discretionary powers is liable to grow quickly, once it has become an accepted method, since adjustments will be necessary, and adjustments to discretionary short-term decisions can hardly be carried out by institutional means. . . . governments live from hand to mouth, and discretionary powers belong to this style of living—quite apart from the fact that rulers are inclined to love these powers for their own sake."

In this way, Popper's thinking moved toward a minimum state, with intervention limited to controlling the abuse of power, though, unfortunately, he misread the nature of economic power.

Mises, Popper, and Hayek all saw a role for the state in tending the legal institutions of a liberal order, and Mises even cast this role in the language of social engineering. In Liberalism: The Classic Tradition, he wrote: "The organization of human society according to the pattern most suitable for the attainment of the ends in view is a quite prosaic and matter of fact question, not unlike, say, the construction of a railroad or the production of cloth or furniture. . . . Problems of social policy are problems of social technology. . . ."

Despite the precedent created by Mises, Hayek took exception to Popper's language of social technology and social engineering because he had identified the main enemy of freedom and civilisation as the constructivist rationalist who thought he could impose a pattern upon the organisation of a whole economy, like an engineer working from a blueprint.

Popper hoped that modifying his language to talk about "piecemeal engineering" would eliminate any holistic or utopian connotations and capture the process of step-by-step tinkering that is required to design machinery. This is clearly a process that has nothing to do with sweeping changes across the whole of society, because it is limited to one kind of machine at a time, which is, moreover, subjected to continuous appraisal as to its actual performance!

Popper was concerned with freedom, and he was equally concerned with human suffering and deprivation, so 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 monoply, the consumers may have to pay to cart away the rubbish produced by the monopolist. He was not a redistributionist; he was not unduly concerned about disparities in wealth, provided that there is a safety net and all have the opportunity to do better. 

He never worked out what should be done about mass unemployment, the major cause of widespread suffering (apart from war). Apparently, he left this to other people who were more familiar with the problem in detail. He might have consulted W.H. "Bill" Hutt on collective bargaining and the strike threat to find out the role of labour-market rigidities in unemployment. He came nearest to his own breakthrough in economics in the course of appraising Marx on capitalism in chapter 20 of OSE. In the course of examining Marx's theory of excessive labour supply, Popper wrote:

"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."

Of course, Marx did not observe exploitation, and wages were rising while his theory predicted the reverse. It seems that Popper almost discovered the truth by logical analysis, despite the view which he inherited from all the socialist and conservative critics of industrialisation who believed in the devastating impact of "unrestrained capitalism."

The point is that if Popper had ever thought through the implications of his fleeting insight to grasp how competition, innovation, and increased productivity create wealth and employment, he could have recast his political economy on thorougly free-market lines. Hacohen deplores the way that Popper became a "cold warrior" and never regained the socialist fire of his youth. In fact, he became increasingly suspicious of social–democratic governments because they constantly increased the scope of governement intervention, driven by special-interest groups and the crazy logic of failed interventions, which demand more of the same thing rather than a reexamination of the original agenda. Others will deplore Popper's failure to revisit The Open Society, if only to insert a new preface or appendix, to indicate how his thinking had moved on.

Even as it stands, The Open Society contains powerful arguments to contest Hacohen's agenda. For example, Hacohen wrote:

"The debate [on democratic reform] has never taken place because in the wake of the Reagan–Thatcher revolution, the [L]eft, especially in the United States, has despaired of rationalizing politics and found consolation  in a barren and largely misguided cultural politics. . . it has promoted the particular and sometimes conflicting interests of minorities and middle-class women. . . [with some] achievements. . . against the backdrop of the welfare state's retreat, increasingly divergent distribution of wealth. . . . There are excellent Popperian grounds to promote minorities and women. . . ."

What are the Popperian grounds for promoting the members of minority groups and women, in advance of others equally or better qualified? Popper's program for equalitarian justice is described in Chapter 6 of The Open Society: "(a) an equal distribution of the burden of citizenship, i.e. of those limitations of freedom that are necessary in social life; (b) equal treatment of the citizen before the law, provided, of course, that (c) the laws show neither favour nor disfavour towards individual citizensor groups or classes; (d) impartiality of the courts of justice." 

Given these these principles, affirmative action is clearly unjust. It does not meet the requirements of principles (b) and (c) above. It is also collectivist in treating people, not as individuals, but as members of a particular group. In addition to violating the principles of justice, there are other Popperian considerations that are relevant to affirmative action, especially the injunction to take account of the unintended consequences of policies, just in case they are worse than the problem that the policy was supposed to solve.

One of the perverse consequences of affirmative action is to cast doubt on the genuine merit of every member of the favoured ethnic groups and of every woman who achieves a qualification, a job, or any position that supposedly depends on either competition or meeting objective criteria of merit.  Another is to provide well-justified grounds for resentment among those of the nonfavoured groups. (Quite likely, this is a major reason for the durability of racist attitudes—a useful byproduct for the coercive utopians because it "justifies" ongoing "antiracist" intervention.) Another outcome is to make a mockery of standards. 

In the same way that Hacohen's  book went beyond Popper's biography from 1902 to 1945 to promote his own ideological agenda, I will conclude with some suggestions about the way that Popper's ideas support market liberalism. None of these, with the possible exception of nonjustificationism and the nonauthoritarian theory of knowledge, are original to Popper, but he has provided powerful and sustained arguments for all of them that contribute greatly to the library of libertarian thinking.

I have already mentioned the critical rationalism, or "nonjustificationism," of Popper and Bartley that was used to good effect by Jan Lester. The principle of open-ended criticism and nonjustificationism is a poweful antidote to rigid and unimaginative thinking. Popper's first formulation of critical rationalism occurs in chapter 24 of OSE, and a revised version with an acknowledgment of Bartley occurs as appendix to volume 2 in post-1962 editions of the book. Some of the implications of "nonjustificationism" are effectively articulated in William W. Bartley's major book, The Retreat to Commitment, especially in a number of appendices to the revised Open Court edition. More widespread understanding of the position of "critical preference" rather than the quest for logically unattainable "true beliefs" would immensely facilitiate the critical appraisal of deep-seated ideological prejudices and the pursuit of self-defeating public policies.

Closely related to nonjustificationism is Popper's nonauthoritarian theory of knowledge, which he spelled out in the Introduction to "Conjectures and Refutations." In that essay, he identified the deficiencies of "manifest truth" epistemologies, specifically classical rationalism and empiricism, according to which knowledge should be based on an appropriate authority, respectively Reason (or Intellectual Intuition) and Sense Data. The alternative to belief (based on the appropriate authority)  is critical preference based on the evidence and the arguments that have been produced to date. Popper's nonauthoritarian epistemology is, of course, an appropriate adjunct to a nonauthoritarian theory of politics and his critique of all theories of political sovereignty in chapter 7 of The Open Society.

Moving on to Popper's theory of metaphysical research programs and his explicit defense of the metaphysical principles of realism, nonreductionism, nondeterminism, and objectivism. These theories support the reality of human choice and our capacity to transcend our instinctual and traditional heritage to create new ideas and other kinds of innovations with commercial, cultural, and intellectual value.

It must be emphasised that Popper's objectivism is quite compatible with Austrian subjectivism because he has expounded a pluralistic ontology of material bodies, subjective minds, and objective knowledge. This provides a corrective to the reductionist tendencies of traditional psychology and also to the subjectivist orientation of traditional epistemology.

Finally, some concluding comments on the wide-ranging implications of the research program that flows from Popper's work, especially its capacity to liberate the potential of many other lines of thought that have been suppressed or devalued. These include the Austrian School of economics, individualism in literature, and the political philosophy of classical liberalism. Common to these movements is the notion of the creative individual, who has a degree of autonomy and the capacity to be an agent, not merely a passive response mechanism. This perspective is not compatible with determinism, reductionism, and holism, which are part and parcel of the dominant metaphysics.

In economics, the old program sponsors various forms of economic determinism and analysis of aggregates. The theory of literature has been dominated by I.A. Richards' psychologism (precursor of the New Criticism), by psychoanalytical probing for themes of neurotic maladjustment in artists and their products, by Marxist reductionism and its offspring, structuralism. The creative function of the author is replaced by the confluence of drives and influences. Counterattacks on these overtly reductive tendencies (by T. E. Hulme, T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, and the deconstructionists) have not succeeded because much of the old metaphysics is common to both parties. Some genuine progress in the theory of criticism could result in literature becoming once again an agent of civilised values instead of being a vehicle for the expression of boredom, hatred, and pessimism. A critical review of In Defense of Reason by Yvor Winters could be a starting point for a program of renovation.

In psychology, the reductionist program is clearly apparent in the two major schools of psychoanalysis and behaviourism that share the old metaphysics however much they are antagonistic toward each other. One of the victims of the dominant program is George Kelly's "inquiring man," who lives by a process of conjecture and refutation.


Political theory and practice are dominated by collectivist ideas such as "social justice," originally propounded by Plato and revived by Hegel and the socialists. These ideas have poisoned the theory of democracy which is almost universally summed up in the simplistic formula: "majority rule." Under the influence of this formula, persecuted minorities attempt to secede to form their own majority, and freedom fighters establish new dictatorships.

In the climate of a nonreductive and individualistic metaphysics, it may be possible to explain that the task for democracy is not just to establish a representative system of some kind but to secure the rights of individuals against unreasonable interference from other people and from the state itself. A revival of these minority interests depends on recruiting people from the dominant orthodoxies where they tend to be "locked in" by three influences: first, by the guild mentality, or professional brand loyalty; second, by ideological commitments (another form of brand loyalty); and finally, by the hidden hand of unexamined metaphysical beliefs. The third is probably the most insidious influence, because it traps people who might otherwise be prepared to resist brand loyalties.

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Rafe Champion is an independent writer in Sydney, Australia. Buy the book. His personal site: http://zap.to/rafechampion. His e-mail address: rchamp@bigpond.net.au.