Final Draft

Hayek, Bartley, Popper

Justificationism and the Abuse of Reason

For a collection of Hayek papers

William Warren Bartley III had three strings to his bow as an original philosopher, a biographer and an editor. This paper takes up his major philosophical contribution which Hayek used in The Fatal Conceit to support his critique of constructivist rationalism. This is the concept of “justificationism” which Bartley identified as a major and pervasive philosophical error. Bartley picked up this idea from Popper’s criticism of the authoritarian strand in western epistemology and political theory.

“The traditional systems of epistemology may be said to result from yes-answers or no-answers to questions about the sources of our knowledge. They never challenge these questions, or dispute their legitimacy; the questions are taken as perfectly natural, and nobody seems to see any harm in them.  This is quite interesting, for these questions are clearly authoritarian in spirit.  They can be compared with that traditional question of political theory, 'Who should rule?', which begs for an authoritarian answer such as 'the best', or 'the wisest', or 'the people' or 'the majority'. (It suggests, incidentally, such silly alternatives as 'Who should be our rulers: the capitalists or the workers?', analogous to 'What is the ultimate source of knowledge: the intellect or the senses?')  This political question is wrongly put and the answers which it elicits are paradoxical (as I have tried to show in chapter 7 of my Open Society).  It should be replaced by a completely different question such as 'How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers (whom we should try not to get, but whom we so easily might get all the same) cannot do too much damage?'  I believe that only by changing our question in this way can we hope to proceed towards a reasonable theory of political institutions.” (Popper, 1963, 25)

The key point in the passage is “these questions are clearly authoritarian in spirit”. Popper and Bartley used the term “justificationism” to describe the philosophical quest for “justified true beliefs”, based on the appropriate authority. They argued that this quest is misplaced because foundationalist justification cannot be achieved, although it is possible to justify a preference for a particular position in the light of evidence and arguments produced to date, on the understanding that the preference can change in the light of new evidence and arguments.

The first section of this paper notes the damaging effect of moral relativism and the subversion of traditional values by the constructivist rationalists who Hayek subjected to protracted criticism. His “abuse of reason” project is a part of the defence of classical liberalism, specifically a defence of the little recognized but all-important moral framework. 

The second section examines the failure in the market of ideas which creates problems for classical liberalism, sketches the core problem of rationality, the dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism, and introduces Bartley’s proposal for a solution.

The third section sketches the various responses to the dilemma and the way that classical liberalism has suffered from the “justified belief” framework. It notes that academic philosophy and the ‘true belief” religions tend to propagate the framework of justificationism and the “true belief” mindset.

The fourth section shows how the non-justificationist approach resolves some tensions in the treatment of rationality and criticism in the work of Popper and Hayek. The final sections briefly describe Jan Lester’s application of Bartley’s ideas in political economy and a rejoinder to the deconstructionists in literary theory.

1. A Land Mine in Western Thought

The Fatal Conceit contains a passage on The Justification and Revision of Traditional Morals where Hayek explained that the demands for justification of traditional mores cannot be provided in the way demanded by the theory of rationality and science  based on “constructivism, scientism, positivism, hedonism and socialism”. The result is a persistent and radical assault on traditional values which is intellectually incoherent but is no less destructive for that reason. Closely related to this is the problem that Paul Craig Roberts described as “a land mine at the very basis of Western thought” (Roberts, 1991). 

“The 18th century Enlightenment had two results that combined to produce a destructive formula.  On the one hand, Christian moral fervor was secularised, which produced demands for the moral perfectibility of society.  On the other hand, modern science called into question the reality of moral motives.”

These tendencies might appear to be contradictory but they have not balanced each other.   Instead they have produced an explosive mixture of moral indignation and moral relativism or scepticism.  The first leads to attacks on traditional mores and institutions while the second pre-empts any defences that might be offered. This is no small matter, as demonstrated by McClosky’s work on “the bourgeoise virtues” (McCloskey, 2010) and Popper’s reference to the all-important moral framework of society (Popper, 1963, 351). [Note 1]

Hayek turned to Bartley’s critique of “justificationism” for additional philosophical support. This appears to be the first use of this concept in Hayek’s published work on the abuse of reason.

“No matter what rules we follow, we will not be able to justify them as demanded; so no argument about morals – or science, or law, or language – can legitimately turn on the issue of justification (see Bartley, 1962/1984, 1964, 1982)…The issue of justification is indeed a red herring, owing in part to  mistaken  and inconsistent assumptions arising within our main epistemological and methodological traditions, which in some cases go back to antiquity”. (Hayek, 1988, 68)

If the issue of justification is a red herring, the question has to be asked; “What is the defensible position for a critical rationalist to adopt towards traditional values and mores?” The answer is that we can form “critical preferences” for particular theories or traditions by comparison with rival theories and traditions. Traditions, values, mores and ways of life are not beyond criticism and they need to be evaluated in terms of the outcomes that they produce.

2. The Failure in the Market of Ideas

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 intimidation by intellectual or moral authorities. The survival and progress of liberalism depend on free trade in ideas, unconstrained by the cramps on trade in criticism that are imposed by cartels, monopolies and various forms of protectionism in the mind industry. Bartley’s book Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth provides a wealth of detail on that topic (Bartley, 1991). On top of this, people tend to be hostages to the first ideas that they take on board.

“Every new theory encounters opposition and rejection at first. The adherents of the old, accepted doctrine object to the new theory, refuse it recognition, and declare it to be mistaken. Years, even decades, must pass before it succeeds in supplanting the old one. A new generation must grow up before its victory is decisive.” (Mises, 1978, 196)

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. Inspired by Popper’s critique of the authoritarian structure  of western thought in epistemology and politics, noted in the extract at the head of this essay, Bartley explored the logical limits of rationality and the problem of bringing criticism to bear upon fundamental beliefs.  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. [Note  2]

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 scientific truth and more effective actions, their opponents can defeat the principle of rationality on impeccably logical grounds.  Bartley followed up an insight from Karl Popper who located a barely recognised and previously uncriticised assumption regarding justification and the justification of beliefs 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 labeled this theory “justificationism” and he showed how it created a demand for positive 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.  An important contribution to the literature on this topic is Notturno’s explanation of the way traditional foundationalism morphed into what he called “floating foundationalism” in an attempt to take on board the idea that our knowledge is fallible while maintaining the framework of “justified true belief” (Notturno, 2003).

What are the roots of justificationism?  Perhaps there is some biological basis, or it may arise from the fact that we all grow up surrounded by larger people who know more than we do and constantly remind us of this. It may arise from the nature of conventional education, which promotes dogmatic modes of thought.  But in addition to all these factors there is the tradition of justificationism itself, which states that we should strive to obtain justified beliefs, a theory endorsed by almost all Western philosophers from Plato to the present day. In the words of Ayer

“For what would be the point of our testing our hypotheses at all if they earned no greater credibility by passing the tests? We seek justification for our beliefs, and the whole process of testing would be futile if it were not thought capable of providing it” (Ayer, 1982, 134).

So justificationism persists as a subjective attitude or disposition, supported by a pervasive and powerful intellectual tradition. In addition to the influence of academic philosophers in perpetuating this tradition (by example and practice, if not by overt articulation) it is likely that all the “true belief” religions propagate the same mindset by appealing to the appropriate authority to support the doctrines of the faith.

3. Responses to the dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism

In the light of the dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism, we can discern three attitudes towards positions: relativism, “true belief” and critical rationalism [Note 3]

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 an 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 critical rationalists, the exponents of critical preference, no position can be positively justified but it is quite likely that one (or more) will turn out to be better than others in the light of critical discussion and tests. 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, critical rationalism is not a position. It is not directed at solving the kind of problems that are solved by fixing on a position. It is concerned with the way that such positions are adopted, criticised, defended and relinquished.  Second, Bartley did 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 people who seek stronger reasons for belief, but that is a problem for them, and it does not undermine the logic of critical preference.

Liberalism has been forced to constantly work against the grain of the received opinions, locked in place by the justificationist or true belief mindset so the gains of one generation have often been lost to the forces of irrationalism and authoritarianism in the next. But the really penetrating insight provided by Bartley’s work is that traditional theories of rationality (based on the assumption of justificationism) perpetuate the justificationist tradition/framework/mindset and  hence the dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism. Hence it seems that rationalists of the justificationist variety, like Bertrand Russell (who was described as a “passionate skeptic”, unwittingly nurture the framework that creates so many problems for rationalists.

This helps to explain why the survival of liberalism is 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 wilder excesses of the generation of '68 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 in the justificationist framework, which sponsors dogmatism and fanaticism.  And as long as that framework  remains dominant our traditions of rationality, tolerance and freedom will remain fragile and liable to collapse at any time of social or political crisis (as in Greece, circa 2012). One of the thought-provoking results of his analysis is to identify academic philosophy and the “true belief” religions as major vehicles which perpetuate the justificationist framework.

4. Popper and Hayek retrieved

Some problems regarding apparent tensions in Popper's and Hayek's liberalism can be addressed and resolved in the non-justificationist framework. 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.

“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.” (Grey,1982).

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.

Kukathas raised the same issues in his study of Hayek. As a conservative and sceptic Hayek asserts 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" (Kukathas, 1989, 190). However the rationalist Hayek is driven to seek reasons for adhering to traditional morality and he has a rationalist's concern to defend those 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 is obliged to adopt an agenda of radical reform to "free the process of spontaneous growth from the obstacles and encumberances 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 prompt Kukathas's conclusion that the foundations of Hayek's liberalism will not hold.

This conclusion begs the questions that Kukathas raised about classical liberalism in his final chapter. "First, is it a defensible ideal and, secondly, how might it be defended?"  He suggested that "Liberal theorists should turn away from their preoccupation with uncovering Kantian foundations for liberalism, and look again to Hume" (Kukathas, 1989, ix). In Hume we find critical scepticism combined with respect for the truth and for valuable traditions. At the same time he recognized the need for continual improvement in our knowledge, our institutions and our practices. The challenge is to sustain a critical attitude without lapsing into the corrosive and nihilistic forms of moral relativism which deny 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 fall foul of the dilemma of 'the infinite regress versus dogmatism' as described above.

However if the stance of "critical preference" is adopted the tension between the Humean and Kantian tendencies in Hayek's thought may be resolved. This is very much the position stated by Hayek in a previous paper.

“The proper conclusion from the considerations that I have advanced is by no means that we may confidently accept all the old and traditional values.  Nor even that there are any values or moral principles which science may not occasionally question.  The social scientist who endeavours to understand how society functions, and to discover where it can be improved, must claim the right to examine critically, and even to judge, every single value of our society.  The consequence of what I have said is merely that we can never at one and the same time question all its values.  Such absolute doubt could lead only to the destruction of our civilisation” ((Hayek, 1978).

This stance is not problematic in the framework of critical preference.  With his foundational problems in order some of the difficulties 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 some millenia of conscious or unconscious experimentation.

Both Popper and Hayek (at least in their better moments) can be described as advocates of the non-justificationist framework 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. In that mood (or mode) they 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 mindset 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.

5. Jan Lester on liberty, welfare and anarchy

Lester’s book Beyond Leviathan 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 explicitly used the non-authoritarian theory of rationality with attribution to Popper and Bartley. His statement of the “compatibility thesis” ran 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’ “(Lester, 2000, 2).

The main characteristic of Lester’s approach is that he only attempted to achieve what is possible, namely the formation of a critical preference for one option rather than another. He did not attempt 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. As a result of that approach, Lester pointed out that his book contains a lot 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 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”.

6. A rejoinder to Howard Felperin on deconstructionism in literary studies

Howard Felperin wrote Beyond Deconstructionism to explain and 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. 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 or interpretation of a work of literature, 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. The challenge of deconstruction in his view 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 is helpful because 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 explored the implications of the breakdown of traditional theories of knowledge and rationality which depend on various authorities for belief. This gives him some common ground with the deconstructionists because they both reject foundations. Bartley’s 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. But the logical problem caused by justificationism is not generally articulated, it just operates as a powerful but unstated subtext of debate. Second, Bartley has suggested a way to move forward in the comparative analysis of works of literature, forming critical preferences in a kind of philosophical space where the absence of certainty or consensus is not 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).


It appears that Bartley has provided a weighty crowbar to apply to the wall of irrationalism. Where best to apply the point of this instrument?  One approach is to challenge irrationalists at every opportunity but this may not work due to the capacity of people to ignore rational arguments when it suits them.  A complementary approach is to focus on rationalists, with the aim of ensuring that we get rid of their own justificationism. While rationalists help to perpetuate the justificationist framework and mindset, irrationalism can be seen to be parasitic on rationalism. If rationalists cease to maintain the framework of justificationism then irrationalism will have to sustain itself without the unwitting assistance of its enemies. Irrationalism can be regarded as a kind of disease, a form of intellectual AIDS carried by rationalism, waiting only for the right conditions to become manifest (social or political crises of some kind, or even simply personal stress). The rationalist tradition has done remarkably well considering the logical problems In Its foundations and one can only be optimistic about its future prospects, as Bartley's work becomes better known.

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 serious social dislocation.  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 fundamental 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 if students of philosophy are all exposed to the ideas of Popper and Bartley to ensure 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. It will also be helpful if the “true belief” religions can explore ways to promote the valuable elements of their doctrines without at the same time propagating the “true belief” framework.


1.Popper referred to the moral framework in a paper  “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles”   delivered to the Sixth Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Venice in 1954. It is reprinted in Popper, 1963.

2.   Bartley developed his ideas in a series of publications, starting with The Retreat to Commitment in 1962, reprinted with important additions in appendices in 1984, and two major papers (Bartley, 1964 and Bartley, 1982). The two papers and other related material can be found on line at this address

3.   Bartley actually called his theory of rationality pancritical rationalism, or comprehensively critical rationalism, and contrasted it with critical rationalism, however that refinement is not necessary for the purpose of the argument in this paper


Ayer, A. J. (1982) Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, Counterpoint, London.

Bartley, W. W. (1962/1984)  The Retreat to Commitment, Knopf,  New York, 2nd revised and enlarged edition, Open Court, La Salle.

Bartley, W. W. (1964)  “Rationality Versus the Theory of Rationality”, in Mario Bunge, ed, The Critical Approach to Science and Philosophy, New York, The Free Press.

Bartley, W. W. (1982) “Rationality, Criticism and Logic”, Philosophia, pp. 121-221.

Bartley, W. W. (1991) Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth: On Universities and the Wealth of Nations. Open Court, La Salle.

Felperin, H. (1987) Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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

Hayek, F. A. (1978) “The Errors of Constructivism” in New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas, Routledge, London.

Hayek, F. A. (1988)  The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kukathas, C. (1989) Hayek and Modern Liberalism, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Lester, J. C. (2000) Escape from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled, Macmillan, London.

McCloskey, D. N. (2010) Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain The Modern World, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Notturno M. A. (2003)  On Popper, Wadsworth, Canada.

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

Roberts P. C. (1992)  A Land Mine in Western Thought, Commentary, May.

Von Mises, L. (1933/1978) Epistemological Problems of Economics, University of New York Press, New York.

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