*  ESSAY *

Advancing the Philosophy of Classical Liberalism

Popper and Bartley Challenge the Authoritarian Structure of Western Thought

Rafe Champion, 2009

Revised version of The Philosophy and Economics of Liberalism (1986)


It is likely that the major causes of human suffering in modern times have been fanaticism and attachment to defective economic doctrines. On the matter of fanaticism, Karl Popper and William W Bartley have identified and corrected a significant weakness in the Western tradition of rationality. Their contribution potentially eliminates one of the intellectual props of fanaticism and thereby strengthens the philosophy of freedom which travels under the flags of libertarianism and classical liberalism. In the light of this advance it seems that true lovers of freedom have always been forced to work against the authoritarian grain of Western thought because the dominant intellectual traditions, rationalist and irrationalist alike, unwittingly sponsor dogmatism and intolerance. Even those who challenge this authoritarian heritage usually share a powerful and unconscious assumption with their opponents. Popper and Bartley labelled this theory "justificationism" and liberals help to sustain opposition to their cause if they propagate this theory. This self-destructive tendency should cease when the implications of this insight are developed and disseminated.


In this essay "liberalism" refers to the "Old Whig" philosophy sketched in Hayek's "Why I am not a conservative" (postscript to The Constitution of Liberty). The much discussed resurgence of non-socialist or classical liberalism alongside people travelling under the label of neoconservatism" creates an urgent need for liberals of the Old Whig persuasion to pay attention to Lord Acton's warning.

"At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare and its triumphs have been due to minorities that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition".

Therefore it is imperative to clarify the distinction between liberal and conservative philosophies, to strengthen the liberal position and to make it more attractive to humanitarians who have often stampeded into the collectivist camp out of disgust with the smugness and rigidity of some conservatives.

The failure in the market of ideas

Classical liberalism is a non-authoritarian creed. It draws its strength from the non-coercive power of reasoned argument, in contrast with systems that depend on brute force or on intimidation by intellectual or moral authorities.

The survival and progress of liberalism depends on a free market in ideas, free of the cramps on trade (in criticism) that are imposed by cartels, monopolies and various forms of protectionism in the mind industry. On top of this people tend to be hostages to the first ideas that they take on board, altered on occasion by shifts of allegiance which occur by processes akin to religious conversion. This has hardly changed with the advent of mass primary, secondary and lately higher education. Clearly education and instruction alone do not furnish the habits and disciplines that are required for continuing intellectual growth and for the imaginative criticism of received opinions.

Bartley's work provides an explanation and an antidote to this situation. He explored the logical limits of rationality and the problem of bringing criticism to bear upon fundamental beliefs, especially the "ultimate presuppositions" of ideology and metaphysics. He confronted the perennial problem of validation and the dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism. This dilemma arises as follows: If a belief claims validation by a supporting argument, what justifies the support? Where and how does the chain of justification stop? If one attempts to provide reasons for the supporting argument then an infinite regress can be forced by anyone who presses for more supporting statements which in turn demand justification. It appears that this can only be avoided by a dogmatic or arbitrary decision to stop the regress at some stage and settle on a belief at that point.

This dilemma creates "conscientious objections" to open-mindedness because a logical chain of argument apparently justifies dogmatism and resistance to counter arguments. To the despair of people who want to make full use of evidence and arguments to pursue both truth and more effective actions, their opponents can abort these pursuits and defeat the principle of rationality on apparently impeccably logical grounds. Bartley retrieved this situation when he followed up an insight from Karl Popper who located a barely recognised and previously uncriticised assumption that permeates Western thought; this can be summed up in the formula.

Beliefs must be justified by an appeal to an authority of some kind, generally the source of the belief in question, and this justification makes the belief either rational, or if not rational at least valid for the person who holds it.

Bartley labelled this theory "justificationism" and he showed how it creates a demand for positive (certain) justification which can never be met for the reasons outlined above. The solution is to abandon the quest for positive justification and instead to settle for a critical preference for one option rather than others in the light of critical arguments and evidence offered to that point. A preference may (or may not) be revised in the light of new evidence and arguments. This appears to be a simple, commonsense position but it defies the dominant traditions of Western thought which have almost all taught that some authority provides (or ought to provide) grounds for positively justified beliefs. Western epistemology is mostly concerned with theories of justification; in contrast Bartley's non-justificationist stance requires a theory of criticism. Bartley followed Popper and located four forms of non-justificationist criticism; the test of evidence; the test of logic and internal consistency: the check against well-tested scientific theories and the "check on the problem".

Three metacontexts

Bartley published his solution to the logical problem of rationality in The Retreat to Commitment (Knopf, 1962; Open Court 1985) and in "Rationality versus the theory of rationality" in The Critical Approach to Science and Philosophy (Ed. Mario Bunge, Free Press of Glencoe, 1964). Subsequently he developed an ecological approach to explain the nature and implication of his achievement in "The philosophy of Karl Popper: Part III. Rationality, criticism and logic" (Philosophia, 1982). It is helpful to note that the inspiration for Bartley’s work along these lines came from a lecture by Popper “On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance”, the Annual Philosophical Lecture that Popper read before the British Academy (of Science) in 1960. This is printed as the Introduction to Conjectures and Refutations and a summary can be found at this address. In this paper Popper identified the authoritarian (anti-libertarian) structure of western philosophical thought in all its various forms – the doctrinaire religions, classical empiricism and Cartesian rationalism, the philosophy of ordinary language.

Bartley examined the context of arguments to explore how dialogues may be polluted by dogmatism and some of its consequences. He makes a distinction between positions, contexts and metacontexts. A position indicates a theory or belief about something; for example "I like cheese". Positions are adopted or postulated in contexts ie. the context of lunchtime. Different positions are logically and empirically possible in any context and this raises the question of the attitude that prevails regarding the acceptance and change of positions. These attitudes constitute what Bartley calls metacontexts and he has focussed on three of them:

The “Western” tradition of justificationism.

The “Eastern” tradition of non-attachment.

A tradition of non-dogmatic critical preference which he calls”comprehensive critical rationalism" or "pancritical rationalism".

The “western” and “eastern” labels should not be taken literally because there are traditions of non-attachment in the west and it is not impossible to find dogmatic schools of thought in the east.

The justificationist tradition (or metacontext) sponsors attachment, entrenchment, and the rigid adherence to positions, exemplified by "truw believers" of all kinds. In the Western tradition there is also a quest for progress and the growth of knowledge. But entrenchment is not consistent with the desire for growth and this means that the Western tradition of epistemology contains a deep-seated tension between the "liberal" tendency to growth and progress, against the "conservative" tendency to entrenchment and rigidity.

The Eastern way of non-attachment sponsors a lack of commitment and entrenchment but this tradition is not particularly concerned with science or the growth of knowledge and in some of its forms it results in total apathy about life and affairs of the world.

The third metacontext sponsors the growth of knowledge, aided and abetted by relentless creative and imaginative criticism. This creates a healthy environment for the generation of new ideas and the elimination of error.

In the light of these ideas, we can discern a number of possible attitudes towards positions, notably those espoused by relativists, fideists (true believers) and pancritical rationalists.

Relativists tend to be disappointed justificationists who realise that positive justification cannot be achieved. From this premise they proceed to the conclusion that all positions are pretty much the same and none can really claim to be better than any other. There is no such thing as the truth, no way to get nearer to the truth and there is no such thing as a rational position.

True believers embrace justificationism. They insist that some positions are better than others though they accept that there is no logical way to establish a positive justification for a belief. They accept that we make our choice regardless of reason: "Here I stand!” Most forms of rationalism up to date have, at rock bottom, shared this attitude with the irrationalists and other dogmatists because they share the theory of justificationism.

According to the pancritical rationalists, or exponents of critical preference no position can be positively justified but if rival positions are subjected to criticism and tests, one or more may be more robust than others. This type of rationality holds all its positions and propositions open to criticism and a standard objection to this stance is that it is empty; just holding our positions open to criticism provides no guidance as to what position we should adopt in any particular situation. This criticism misses its mark for two reasons. First, pancritical rationalism is not a position, it is a metacontext and as such it is not directed at solving the kind of problems that are solved by adopting a position on some issue or other. It is concerned with the way that such positions are adopted, criticised, defended and relinquished. Second, Bartley does provide guidance on adopting positions; we may adopt the position that to this moment has stood up to criticism most effectively. Of course this is no help for dogmatists who seek stronger reasons for belief, but that is a problem for them, and it does not undermine the logic of critical preference.

Liberalism and its Metacontexts

A metacontext may be compared with an ecological niche such as a nutrient broth or a seed-bed where some types of organism or plants thrive while others are stunted or killed outright. The metacontext of pancritical rationalism is hospitable to liberalism, while in contrast the justificationist metacontext is potentially lethal for the tradition of free thought. Liberalism has been forced to constantly work "against the grain" of the justificationist metacontext and so has survived precariously, with the gains of one generation often lost to the forces of irrationalism and authoritarianism in the next. But even worse than working against the grain, the traditional theory of rationality (based like its opponents on the assumption of justificationism) actually supports the justificationist metacontext. So rationalists, like Bertrand Russell, of the justificationist variety, unwittingly nurture the seedbed of their destruction.

This explains why the survival of liberalism is so precarious, why it needs auxiliaries to support its causes and why civilisation lapses into occasional bouts of irrationalism. Episodes such as the Nazi holocaust and the "generation of 1968" are generally regarded as strange aberrations in the normally rational Western tradition, perhaps calling for psychological analysis of the individuals involved, for studies of "the authoritarian personality" or ruminations on the "contradictions of developed capitalism" or the decline of religious faith. But seen from the perspective of Bartley's work such failures of reason are only to be expected, especially during times of upheaval and uncertainty (as at present). And as long as this dogmatic or justificationist “metacontext” remains dominant our traditions of rationality, tolerance and freedom will remain fragile and liable to collapse at any time of social or political crisis.

Many important insights flow from Bartley's account of the alternative metacontexts. It can be argued that justificationism accounts for virtually all forms of fanaticism and psychological rigidity. It accounts for the refusal of most philosophers to accept Popper's solution to the problem of induction and his theory of conjectural knowledge. It explains the trials and tribulations of creative people, innovators and pioneers of all kinds who have often been driven literally mad by the difficulty of penetrating closed minds with new ideas. Bartley has precipitated "metacontext shift" in Western thought which calls for a complete rewriting of the history of ideas and a reconstruction of logic, morals and epistemology. In the light of this reconstruction some lines of thought will be turn out to be bankrupt (linguistic philosophy, much of sociology and economics) and others will come into their own, among them the Popperian school of philosophy and the Austrian school of economics.

Popper and Hayek retrieved

Three problems regarding apparent tensions in Popper's and Hayek's liberalism are here addressed and resolved in the metacontext of pancritical rationalism. These are the conflict between Hayek's "moral iconoclasm" and "moral conservatism", a similar problem with Popper's theory of tradition and an apparent difference of emphasis between Popper and Hayek on rationality and the scope for critical appraisal of traditions.

The heart of liberalism is the critical attitude towards tradition but this stance is rendered problematic by the demand for positive justification which critics can use to force the dilemma of infinite regress versus dogmatism. This results in a problem for Hayek, as described by one of his greatest admirers.

John N Grey in “F A Hayek and the rebirth of classical liberalism”, (Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982) noted:

One of the commonest critiques of Hayek's work (is) that it straddles incompatible conservative and liberal standpoints... and Hayek continues to advocate a strong form of moral conventionalism, resisting the claims of those who see modern morality as in the need of radical reform. There is thus tension, perhaps irresolvable in terms of Hayek's system, between his Mandevillian moral iconoclasm and his moral conservatism.

Similar comments have been made on Popper's theory of tradition and criticism, with the argument running as follows: Popper accepts that we need traditions to provide a framework of expectations and regularities in social life, otherwise we would be "anxious and confused". But Popper also urges a rational (critical) attitude towards traditions and beliefs of all kinds. This raises the same questions as that posed above on Hayek's iconoclasm and conservatism.

There is also a hint of contradiction between Popper's anticonservative argument in "Towards a rational theory of tradition" (Conjectures and Refutations) and Hayek's "The errors of constructivism" (New Studies). Popper's essay was a reply to Oakeshott's thoroughly conservative critique of the critical and reformist attitude towards traditional forms and practices. In reading Hayek's critique of constructivist rationalism it appears at first that he is adopting Oakeshott's position because he insists that we cannot subject our traditional heritage to criticism and "rational" reform at a stroke. But as his argument unfolds it turns out that he and Popper are converging on the same position from different directions because their polemic targets are the diametrically opposed theories of complete conservatism and radical iconoclasm.

They both adhere to a position of "critical rationalism" which takes account of the limitations of human knowledge and accepts that we need institutions and traditions without conceding that any of these are exempt from criticism in the light of all other values. They clearly adopt the stance of "critical preference" rather than "justified belief" and the suggestion of tension between iconoclasm and conservatism in their work arises from the implicit assumption that a moral belief can only be held and acted on if it is positively justified, beyond doubt. This assumption is part and parcel of the justificationist metacontext and people who hold this assumption cannot comprehend the notion of a tentative belief or a critical preference, made on the basis of evidence and arguments in hand but to open to change in the future.

In the metacontext created by Bartley no problem arise in dealing with Popper's and Hayek's views on tradition and the critical function of reason. This should have a valuable effect in freeing these two great Old Whigs from the reservations that many people feel about the perceived ambiguity of their stance. Many writers in the anti-socialist camp have made limited use of Popper and Hayek, and then often for purely negative purposes (battering Marxists), not for the more positive purpose of promoting liberal alternatives to the interventionist drift of public policy. In mixed liberal/conservative journals such as Quadrant and Encounter very few references to Popper and Hayek are found, and they are quite likely to be critical and uncomprehending. Similarly Popper and Hayek are scarcely mentioned in books on the Liberal Party of Australia which of course reflects the extent to which it is a conservative party, liberal only in name.

Popper and Hayek on the modern problems of liberalism

Liberalism is supposed to be under siege these days from a battery of critics who find fault with the alleged basis of liberalism in the "Cartesian subject" or the "individualistic social atom". Max Charlesworth wrote in the Age Monthly Review (October, 1985)

The 18th and 19th Centuries' view of the autonomous, asocial individual, which Mill and Russell absorbed with their mother's milk and did not question, has been subjected to radical criticism from a number of very different quarters.

He instanced the Marxist critique of "possessive individualism" the Freudian emphasis on unconscious motivation, Foucalt's death of the autonomous individual and Lacan's theory of the subject as a mere vehicle of language. This line of thought is exemplified by Michael Sandel in his contribution to the volume Liberalism and its Critics (ed. Sandel, Blackwell, 1984). Sandel advocates a collectivist moral theory, against the individuality of liberalism, backed with the claim that the liberal theory of the individual is incoherent.

Freed from the dictates of nature and the sanctions of social roles, the deontological subject is installed as sovereign, cast as the author of the only moral meanings that there are...we are self-originating sources of valid claims.

Against this "liberal" view Sandel replied:

But we cannot regard ourselves as independent in this way without great cost to those loyalties and convictions whose moral force consists partly in the fact that living by them is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are.

This argument does not refute the liberalism of Popper and Hayek, indeed Sandel reproduced part of the case that Hayek brought against the constructivist rationalists. Sandel's case is confused by a lack of specificity in his critique (work of liberals is scarcely cited) and his own positive case is not convincingly developed. But the collectivist thrust is clear enough, as it is with other participants in the revival of Hegelian ideas. Bhiku Parekh wrote in Contemporary Political Philosophers (Martin Robertson, 1982).

...the categories in terms of which most political philosophers conceptualise the state are rooted in nineteenth century liberalism and are almost wholly inadequate. Hegel's Philosophy of Right has more to say about the nature of the modern state than does the work of our contemporaries.

Popper and Hayek are not trapped by the critiques of "social atom" theories of individualism, nor by critiques of theories which depend on a mythical "social contract" in which such atoms established a social order for mutual support and protection. If social contract theory is indeed at the heart of classical liberalism then Popper and Hayek provide a vital corrective. They accepted that humans were social or communal animals long before the discovery or invention of language and the formulation of ideas about freedom and individualism. The real thrust of the collectivist critique of individualism is to destroy the belief that individualism provides justification for liberal principles. But in the metacontext of pancritical rationalism it is apparent that positive justification cannot be provided for any set of beliefs and the liberalism of Popper, Hayek and Bartley does not depend on the attainment of that impossible goal.

Freed from apparent tensions in the new metacontext, Popper and Hayek emerge as significant moral philosophers. Moral and political philosophy have been largely emptied of moral and rational content by the influence of analytical philosophy, which promotes conceptual analysis and Marxism, which promotes the rigid defence of ideological stances. This situation is radically transformed by the contribution of Bartley, Popper and Hayek who have showed that we should not seek positively justified beliefs, nor should we strive to refine concepts and sharpen definitions. Instead we should formulate and criticise standards which act as "rules of the game" in social life, whether at the domestic level (who puts out the garbage) or at the level of the Constitution of the State (how do we limit the powers of the rulers). This approach cuts through the verbalism which bogs down traditional discourse on morals and politics because it is constantly in touch with practical problems and their possible solutions.

Other Applications of the Theory of Non-justificationism

Three other applications are sketched here (1) closely related to the above, the tension between the “Humean” and “Kantian” elements that Kukathas identified in his study of Hayek, (2) Lester’s use of Popper and Bartley in Escape to Leviathan and (3) a rejoinder to the deconstructionists in the theory of literature.

Chandran Kukathas on the tensions in Hayek

The following argument is taken from this review of Hayek and Modern Liberalism. In this book Kukathas pursued  some of Gray's intimations on the dissonance in Hayek's system between his "Mandevillian moral iconoclasm" and his moral conservatism, between his traditionalist and libertarian tendencies and between his rational and sceptical allegiances. The bottom line of my argument is that these problems can be resolved by rejecting the foundationist turn in Hayek's thought.

Kukathas argued that Hayek's defence of liberalism would not hold because it rests on presuppositions that are incompatible. On the one hand, the scepticism and moral relativity of Hume, on the other, Kant's quest for rationally justified foundations of belief. The tension between these contrary tendencies emerged time after time as Kukathas explored Hayek's views on the key issues in political philosophy.

In his capacity as a conservative and sceptic Hayek asserted that ethics is not a matter of choice because "our morals are not (and cannot be) the product of design but are the result of a natural selection of traditions." However the traditionalist Hayek was driven to seek reasons for adhering to traditional morality and he had a rationalist's concern to defend principles such as the market order and the rule of law that are required for his vision of human progress. But to pursue these principles he was obliged to adopt an agenda of radical reform to "free the process of spontaneous growth from the obstacles and encumbrances that human folly has erected." But if these obstacles belong to our traditional heritage, then where do we stand to put the lever of reform under them? Tensions of this kind prompted Kukathas' conclusion that the foundations of Hayek's liberalism will not hold. This conclusion begs the question that Kukathas raised in his final chapter on modern liberalism. "First, is it a defensible ideal and, secondly, how might it be defended?"

These questions took on fresh urgency when John Gray announced in the Postscript to the revised edition of his book on Liberalism that he had defected from liberalism due to its lack of rational foundations. This is a rather odd stance because Minogue's contribution to Traditions of Liberalism (CIS 1988) shows that whatever classical liberalism may be it is not a foundationist enterprise. A similar view is implicit in a major, though unargued, conclusion by Kukathas that "Liberal theorists should turn away from their preoccupation with uncovering Kantian foundations for liberalism, and look again to Hume."

In Hume we find a critical temper of mind, a blend of scepticism with respect for the truth and for valuable traditions. At the same time he recognised the need for continual improvement in our knowledge, our institutions and our practices. The challenge is to sustain Hume's critical mood without lapsing into the corrosive form of moral relativism, which denies that there is any rational way to choose between rival theories or moral principles. The usual rejoinder to this latter view is to insist (like Kant) that there is indeed some authoritative source of justified beliefs. Unfortunately, opinions differ on the appropriate authority and all such theories run into the dilemma of "the infinite regress versus dogmatism".

As described above, the damaging assumption here is that beliefs are only rational or valid if indeed they are positively (certainly) justified. And, as described, the answer is to abandon the quest for positive justification and settle for a critical preference for one option rather than others, in the light of arguments and evidence offered to that point. This appears to be a simple, commonsense position but it defies the dominant traditions of Western thought which are mostly concerned with theories of justification. If the stance of "critical preference" is adopted then the tension between the Humean and Kantian tendencies in Hayek's thought may be resolved.

With Hayek's foundational problems in order then some of the difficulties that Kukathas located in the body of his work may dissolve in turn. For example, the cluster of liberal policies (free trade, limited government, the rule of law etc) may be held on the grounds of critical preference over their rivals, given the larger objectives of peace, freedom and prosperity. Such a preference does not rest on faith or foundations, merely on the evidence of centuries of conscious or unconscious experimentation.

Jan Lester on liberty, welfare and anarchy

Jan Lester’s book Beyond Leviathan (Macmillan 2000) possibly represents a landmark in the literature of liberalism on two counts. One is these is the robust statement of his major thesis on the compatibility of free markets, liberty and welfare. The other is the way he uses the non-authoritarian theory of rationality expounded by Popper and Bartley. A review essay on the book can be found on line

His statement of the “compatibility thesis” runs as follows:

“In practice (rather than in imaginary cases) and in the long term, there are no systematic clashes among interpersonal liberty, general welfare, and market anarchy, where these terms are to be understood roughly as follows: ‘interpersonal liberty’ is ‘not being imposed on by others’; ‘general welfare’ is ‘people having their unimposed wants satisfied’; ‘market anarchy’ is ‘unrestricted libertarian trade’; and the underpinning conception of ‘rationality’ is ‘agents always attempt to achieve what they most want under the perceived circumstances’ “(page 2).

Those who seek linguistic precision may be alarmed that his terms are to be understood roughly.  Lester has quite deliberately avoided the kind of extended and unhelpful conceptual analysis (endless definition of terms), that Popper called “essentialism”. An anonymous reviewer for Amazon Books noted the remarkable amount of meat that is packed into the book. This is partly due to the self-conscious avoidance of essentialism, partly to Lester’s firm grasp on his materials and party to the mode of argumentation that he has adopted, following the non-justificationist or non-foundational line that has been articulated by Popper and Bartley.

The main characteristic of this approach is that it only attempts to achieve what is possible, namely the formation of a critical preference for one option rather than another, in the light of the evidence and arguments that are available up to date. Lester did not attempt the impossible, that is, to provide a logically conclusive proof of his case. What is possible is to propose a theory or a doctrine and subject it to criticism, then if it stands up we may proceed with that theory or doctrine until such time as an alternative is proposed that has better credentials and stands up to criticism at least as well as the previous candidate.

Lester pointed out that this resulted in a book that is full of other people’s criticisms of liberty, anarchy and free trade, with his rejoinders. One reader described this as a “set them up and knock them down” method, to which Lester he replied that he did not regard this as a valid criticism because it is precisely what critical rationalists, and indeed everyone else, should be doing. This may be contrasted with those who use the justificationist method to “build it up (yet again) and ignore the counter-arguments”.

A rejoinder to Howard Felperin on deconstructionism in literary studies

The following argument first appeared in a volume of Critical Review devoted to postmodernism. A short form of the review can be found on line.

Howard Felperin wrote Beyond Deconstructionism to explain and in part to defend the contribution of the deconstructionists in the contemporary dialogue on literary studies. It appears that the deconstructionists have adroitly located the weak point of Western philosophy, that is, the problem of establishing firm foundations for rational or supposedly justified beliefs, and the closely related problem of working out where to stop when a critic persists in asking for a statement to justify the previous statement that was offered in support of a position. This formulation of the problem of rational belief can be traced back to the ancient skeptics, among whom the work of Sextus Empiricus provides the first motto in Howard Felperin's Beyond Deconstruction. What the deconstructionists have not yet done, however, is to pursue the kind of response to this problem that has been suggested by W. W. Bartley's work on the limits of criticism and the ecology of rationality. Following Bartley it can be argued that the deconstructionists proceed from a correct premise (there are no authorities to justify the foundations of belief) to a false conclusion (there is no way to form a tentative critical preference for one theory rather than another).

Felperin was prepared to look on the bright side and hope that good will come from the loss of foundations of belief. Commenting on the disappearance of privileged vantage points for authoritative statements, he suggested that this may be a very sad situation if literature and criticism are viewed 'by analogy with science, as a body of knowledge.'  But he suggested that literature does not have to be approached like this, perhaps we might become liberated from the obsession with positive knowledge, and so 'if literary activity is conceived not as issuing in a body of knowledge but in a mode of being, the absence of certainty or consensus in the study of texts is no longer a disability' . Of course his reference to science as a body of knowledge betrays complete ignorance of post-Popperian philosophy of science, but this was only to be expected following his uncritical references to other philosophical sources such as Wittgenstein and Kuhn.

So the challenge of deconstruction as interpreted by Felperin is to find some way to move forward without foundations of belief, to achieve progress in knowledge and understanding of literature without expecting to produce a body of positive knowledge that is immune to change and revision. But what is the 'mode of being' that makes this possible? This is where the work of Popper and Bartley applies – they replied to the deconstructionist challenge at a deeper philosophical level than is usually offered by literary scholars and critics, certainly a deeper level than Felperin ventured. Bartley followed Popper in exploring the implications of the breakdown of traditional theories of knowledge and rationality which depend on various authorities for belief. This gives Popper and Bartley some common ground with the deconstructionists and their work contributes to the current literary debate in two ways. First, it clarifies the logical core of the position that the deconstructionists have occupied to conduct their reign of terror against opponents. I am not aware of any really clear articulation of this position in relation to deconstructionism, it just appears to operate as a powerful and pervasive but unstated subtext of debate. Second, it suggests a way to move forward to create a kind of philosophical space (a metacontext) where the absence of certainty or consensus in the study of texts is no longer a source of anxiety nor an excuse for obscurantism, seemingly for its own sake or for the sake of intimidating opponents by “obscurantist terrorism” (Foucault’s term to describe the tactic of writing in an incomprehensible manner and then accusing critics of failing to understand your position).

This analysis suggests that deconstruction is not so much a radical novelty as a revival of ancient skepticism in a new form. It draws its plausibility from the breakdown of virtually all theories of rationality and criticism in the face of the 'dogmatism versus infinite regress' dilemma. This in turn arises from the authoritarian tradition (the justificationist metacontext) of Western thought. However, it seems that Popper and Bartley have shown that this authoritarian tradition is not required to sustain viable theories of knowledge and rationality.


Liberals of the classical variety can gain a great deal from replacing theological or “true belief” theories of knowledge with the “critical preference” approach. The “true belief” tends to generate true believers who think that when they have hold of the truth (by reference to the proper authority) they are allowed to be intolerant of differences of opinion, whether on matters of religion, morals or politics. A difference of opinion may even be attributed  to  moral deficiencies on the part of the unbeliever, or to a conspiracy on the  part of some malevolent power that seeks to keep people from knowing  the  truth.  That kind of thinking underpins fanaticism and intolerance in many and varied forms, including political totalitarianism, cults of all kinds and institutions such as  the  Inquisition that attempt to save people from  their  own error and sin.

Given the historical preponderance of authoritarian theories of  knowledge the traditions of  democracy  and  tolerance  wherever they exist at present must be seen  as  truly remarkable  developments.  They  are  also highly  fragile  which accounts  for  their  tendency  to break  down  during  times  of emergency such as war.  Similarly, under stress,  reasonable and tolerant people can break down and  lapse into dogmatic and uncritical thinking.  This observation is not a concession   to  pessimists  who  believe  in  the   unregenerate irrationality of people. Quite the reverse; in view of the almost universal acceptance of authoritarian theories of knowledge it is difficult to see why people are ever tolerant and how a tradition of  tolerance ever took root.  This situation can  be expected to improve with wider understanding of  Popper's non-authoritarian theory of knowledge and  Bartley's contribution to the ancient problem of rationality and the limits of criticism.

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