the Rathouse
Rafe Champion

Independent scholar, based in Sydney, Australia

A reworked version of a paper delivered at the conference on Austrian thought at the turn of the twentieth century.
University of Texas, Arlington

The Plan of the Paper

1.Locating this paper in my research program
2.The epidemiology of Popperism in Australia and New Zealand
3.The four Popperian “turns”
4.Smith and Popper on Aristotelian/Austrian realism
5.How a theory of conjectural knowledge would  have  helped Carl Menger

The Research Program

Exploring the synergy of Popper and the Austrian school of economics & social studies
Retrieving Critical Rationalism from the dustbin of history
Taking up the opportunity that Mises, Parsons and Popper missed
Advancing the classical liberal agenda

The theoretical core of the program is to explore and unpack the implications of Popper’s ideas (the Popper/Smith framework) for economics and the human sciences. This has practical implications for the classical liberal agenda to address our problems of debt, Big Government intervention and regulation.

Unfortunately Popper’s profile has shrunk to a point where a rescue program is required. There is more on this and the other parts of the program in Appendix 1.

A historical strand of the program will trace the descent of several lines of ideas from the time in the 1930s when Ludwig von Mises, Talcott Parsons and Karl Popper were practically on the same page regarding the framework required for the social sciences. These three leaders in their fields could have formed a common front to provide an alternative to the historicism and positivism that dominated in the explosion of the social sciences after WW2.

The Spread of Popper’s ideas in New Zealand and Australia

Popper -> Parton -> Leeper -> Barley -> Champion
New Zealand     Melbourne        Adelaide

A short story to suggest that students in Australia may have been more likely to obtain a favourable introduction to Popper if they studied Soil Science rather than Philosophy.

Popper to Carnap 5 July 1945

”I have courses in Logic, Ethics, History of Philosophy, Introduction to Philosophy, Political Philosophy and I have, besides, an [adult education] course under the title ‘Philosophy of Nature and Society’, and a course for research workers on Scientific Methods (with discussion of their practical research problems which have led to considerable practical results; a kind of poly-clinical advisory agency for agricultural chemists, etc). The course, which has just ended, was very interesting and successful. It is comforting to find that philosophy can be of some practical use! My hatred against the empty verbalism and scholasticism of the vast majority of philosophical writings is increasing proportionally with the time I have to devote to the teaching of such matters.” (Shearmur and Turner, 91).

One of the agricultural chemists in the class was Hugh Parton who is immortalized in a footnote to the chapter on Corroboration in The Logic of Scientific Discovery as the man who suggested “corroboration” as the term to replace “confirmation”. In 1946 he travelled to Melbourne on agricultural business and stayed with Geoff Leeper, a soil scientist at the university. He told Leeper about Popper and The Open Society which was hot off the press at the time. During the 1950s when Leeper was Professor of Soil Science one of his students, Keith Barley, was also a fellow member of the secular humanist society on campus (The Rationalist Club). Leeper told Barley about Popper. In the 1960s I travelled from Tasmania to Adelaide for postgraduate studies with Keith Barley and when I decided to abandon Agriculture in favour of Sociology he lent me The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society to help.

For a contrast, consider the experience of Manning Clarke, who became one of our leading historians, as recorded in his memory of arriving at Melbourne University in the 1940s.

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

The leading philosophers at Melbourne for many years combined allegiance to Wittgenstein and Marxism. The head of the other significant philosophy school in the nation (at that time) at the University of Sydney was John Anderson who was the towering intellectual influence in the city for several decades (a big fish in a small pond). Anderson was a classical scholar, an empiricist and an outspoken secular freethinker. He invited Popper to join the school in 1945 but Popper went to London instead. Although he was willing to have Popper on staff there was no mention of Popper’s work in his publications or his courses.

Popper’s four “turns”

From “justification” to conjectural knowledge
From subjective beliefs to objective, inter-subjective or public knowledge
The social or institutional turn to critical appraisal of conventions & rules of the game
Taking on board the vital role of metaphysical ideas

The standard account of Popper as a falsificationist does not do justice to the full extent of his program, starting with the first step which can be described as a full-blooded “conjectural turn”, to claim that even our best theories may be rendered problematic by new evidence, new criticisms and new theories. This anticipated the “hermeneutic turn” when appreciation of the theory-dependence of observations and arguments became more widespread in the wake of Kuhn and the modern French theorists.

Other "turns" include the “objectivist turn” to break with the obsession with the justification of beliefs and instead to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of theories that are stated in a public, inter-subjective or “objective” form. Then there is Popper’s “social turn” to examine the function of institutions, traditions, conventions and “rules of the game” in science and society. And finally the “metaphysical turn” to recognise the pervasive influence of philosophical or metaphysical ideas which are the framework assumptions or presuppositions of thought.

There is more on the turns in Appendix 2 because the central issue in this paper is the congruence of the Popper’s “metaphysical research program” with the framework of ideas that Barry Smith found in Menger’s economics.

Smith, Popper and the Program of Austrian Realism

Smith explored the philosophical roots of Carl Menger’s economics and he found a number of Aristotelian framework presuppositions which demarcate “Austrian realism” from German  philosophy at the time (Smith 1990 and 1995).  (1990)  (1995)

The following exposition is extracted from Smith (1990), to spell out the "Austrian-Aristotelian" program in the form of seven general points and three extra points for the social sciences. In each case the extent of agreement with Popper’s program is noted.

1. “The world exists, independently of our thinking and reasoning activities.” 

This coincides with Popper’s realism, including physical and mental entities, plus (in Smith’s words) “other sui generis dimensions, for example of law and culture”. Somewhere Popper referred to social institutions as a “possible world 4”.

2. “There are in the world certain simple ‘essences' or `natures' or ‘elements', as well as laws, structures or connections governing these, all of which are strictly universal.”

Popper took a similar metaphysical view of the uniformity of the laws of nature which he depicted in his later work as “propensities”, a very Aristotelian locution. For Popper these are the subject matter of the generalizing or theoretical sciences (in contrast to historical studies).

3. “Our experience of this world involves in every case both an individual and a general aspect.”

Smith found both radical empiricism and essentialism in Menger and other Aristotelians such as Brentano. “Radical empiricism” here is simply an aspect of realism which does not imply the epistemology of empiricism (accumulation of sense impressions): it means that individual apples and atoms exist in addition to the universal laws that regulate their characteristics and behaviour. And Menger’s essentialism involved the search for causal laws, not protracted conceptual analysis which both Menger and Popper deplored.

[Quote Menger on the undesirability of conceptual analysis and refer to Popper on essentialism in Chap 11 of  OSE (on Aristotle), section 10 of Poverty and section x of Quest.]

A difference appears with Popper at this point. Smith wrote “Menger is, like other Aristotelians, an immanent realist. He is interested in the essences and laws manifested in this world, not in any separate realm of incorporeal Ideal Forms such as is embraced by philosophers of a Platonistic sort.”  In contrast (citing Frege and Bolzano as precursors)  Popper expounded a theory of objective “world 3” knowledge which can be compared and contrasted with Plato’s world of Forms (Refs). The major difference is that Popper’s world 3 entities are both manmade and autonomous. The implications of this theory are not fully worked out because it has generally not been taken seriously.

Smith cited Menger’s view that the goal of research in the field of theoretical economics can only be the determination of the general essence and the general connection of economic phenomena. (Menger 1883, p. 7, n. 4, Eng. p. 37)

“The theoretical scientist, then, has to learn to recognize the general recurring structures in the flux of reality. And theoretical understanding of a concrete phenomenon cannot be achieved via any mere inductive enumeration of cases. It is attained, rather, only by apprehending the phenomenon in question as a special case of a certain regularity”  (Menger 1883, p. 17, Eng. pp. 44f.)

Compare Menger’s “apprehension” with Popper’s conjectures as the creative (but fallible) source of ideas?

4. “The general aspect of experience need be in no sense infallible (it reflects no special source of special knowledge), and may indeed be subject to just the same sorts of errors as is our knowledge of what is individual.”

In a nutshell, knowledge of both particulars and universals is fallible and conjectural.  Our perceptions, our intuitions and even widely accepted scientific knowledge can be wrong. At the same time, theories that are known to be false or superseded can be accurate enough for technological and engineering purposes.

This is the equivalent of Popper’s conjectural turn (Champion, 2011). See Smith (1996) for the essential paper which is reprinted in the collection containing Champion (2011).

Smith’s “fallibillistic apriorism” and Popper’s conjectural knowledge both stand against the strong form of apriorism that many people identify with Austrian economics. This is a major impediment to the serious consideration of Austrian ideas in the mainstream, as indicated by Samuelson’s comment about trembling for the future of the discipline (quoted in Blaug).

5. “We can know, albeit under the conditions set out in 4, what the world is like, at least in its broad outlines, both via common sense and via scientific method.”

“Taken together with 3, this aspect of the Aristotelian doctrine implies that we can know what the world is like both in its individual and in its general aspect, and our knowledge will likely manifest a progressive improvement, both in depth of penetration and in adequacy to the structures penetrated. “

Smith referred to a statement from Menger  in Principles about our capacity to build a higher  and more productive culture as “human beings penetrate more deeply into the true essence of things and of their own nature' (1871, p. 4, Eng. p. 53).

6. “We can know what this world is like, at least in principle, from the detached perspective of an ideal scientific observer. Thus in the social sciences in particular there is no suggestion that only those who are in some sense part of a given culture or form of life can grasp this culture or form of life theoretically.”

5 and 6 are further statements of realism and our capacity to learn more about nature and the social world with no concession to radical subjectivism or cultural relativism. That is consistent with Popper’s critical rationalism and his concern with the growth of knowledge.

7. “The simple essences or natures pertaining to the various different segments or levels of reality constitute an alphabet of structural parts. These can be combined together in different ways, both statically and dynamically (according to co-existence and according to order of succession).”

No Popperian locution comes to mind which replicates that proposition which translates into a fairly uncontroversial statement about the existence of various levels of structural organization in nature

Smith added three more points to demarcate the ideas of  “Austrian realism” from the kind of ideas that dominated in Germany which are found in the their most influential forms in the work of Hegel and Marx.

8. “The theory of value is to be built up exclusively on ‘subjective' foundations, which is to say exclusively on the basis of the corresponding mental acts and states of human subjects. Thus value for Menger in stark contrast to Marx is to be accounted for exclusively in terms of the satisfaction of human needs and wants. Economic value, in particular, is seen as being derivative of the valuing acts of ultimate consumers."

See Popper in Poverty recycling Hayek’s position on thinking about social objects.

9.”There are no ‘social wholes' or ‘social organisms'.”

See Popper’s criticism of holism and collectivism in favour of MI and the Scottish/Austrian view of the evolution of social institutions, in The Poverty and OSE.

"10. There are no (graspable) laws of historical development." 

As Popper argued in The Poverty of Historicism (1957).

Those points add up to a position that is very close to Popper's metaphysics, his ontology and his epistemology. Smith argued that Menger formed his position from the version of Aristotelian thought that was circulating in Austrian circles.  Popper developed his position in his lifelong debate with historicists, positivists, inductivists, instrumentalists, subjectivists and determinists, and his critique of the conventional (Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum theory.

Smith went on to write about the implications of the ten point program.

"Many of the above theses are of course thin beer, and might seem trivially acceptable. Taken together, however, they do have a certain metaphysical cutting power.”

Indeed they do, for those who are aware of the metaphysical presuppositions which pervade our thinking. [Quote Hayek on the way arguments are concentrated on points of difference and not the major assumptions that are often shared and so are the most dangerous and influential ideas, for example the shared assumption of  “justificationism” while empiricists and rationalists quarrel without end].

That is an outstanding example of British understatement, to describe as “small beer” a set of prescriptions which rule out historicism (theses 2, 6, 8, 9 and 10) and positivism (theses 3 and 5), and “constructivism”  and hermeneutic relativism as well (theses 1 and 5).

A Case Study: How Popper and Smith Could Have Helped Menger


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

Postscript. At the conference Gilles reported on research in the Menger archive in Japan. [Hayek’s biographical sketch of Menger revealed that he was a serious fisherman and he also had one of the three largest public libraries on record at the time. Some 20,000 or 30,00 volumes on economics went to a university in Japan, some papers went to Greensboro. I don’t know about the rest of the collection which ranged from philosophy and history to psychology, biology and anthropology]. Menger heavily annotated the margins of the books in his library. He also left annotated drafts in addition to the material that his son used to release a revised second edition of Principles. The suggestion is that an improved version of Principles or at least further development and clarification of Menger’s ideas can be obtained from those annotations and other scattered material in drafts if they are accessed by students who are more in tune with Menger’s perspective than was the case with his son Karl who became a stalwart member of the logical positivists and was never numbered among those who kept alive the tradition of Austrian economics. This prompted the idea that Menger needed word processing facilities as much as he needed a theory of conjectural knowledge to advance his program.


Bibliography required.

Appendix 1. The Research Program

Four major strands in the program are (1) to rehabilitate Popper’s reputation by revealing the extent to defective criticism  of his ideas (2) to explore the synergy of Popper and the other Austrians, (3) to describe the opportunity that passed by in the late 1930s when Mises, Parsons and Popper had very similar views on the methods of the social sciences, and (4) to advancing the classical liberal agenda.

The first strand will produce a report on some dozens or scores of philosophy books (historical studies, introductory texts and “state of the art” reports) that perpetuate errors regarding Popper’s views, not just controversial interpretations but statements that can be refuted by simply referring to the primary texts and the logic of his arguments. These errors of commission have contributed to errors of omission where Popper’s ideas (and those of his associates) are not covered at all.

This is a list of standard errors and rejoinders.

On the second leg of the program, this paper is a contribution, following a line spelled out in a talk at the Vienna Popper Conference in 2002.

As for (3) this paper (rejected by the Australian History of Economic through journal and held up by a referee at the Review of Austrian Economics) indicates the alignment of von Mises, Parsons and Popper in the 1930s.  The point is that the three masters and their apprentices should have engaged in debate to build on their shared ideas and to explore their differences, while they formed a common front against positivism and historicism.

The next step is to pick up a number of programs that flowed from the work of the three masters and subject them to a critical review in the light of the Popper/Smith framework principles. This has been done for one program, that of  the sociologist Jeffrey C Alexander, possibly the most ambitious and productive of the followers of Talcott Parsons. In the course of his career he moved from “neo-functionalism” to a position of “deep cultural theory” which incorporates practically every tradition in the social sciences biut not Popper and the Austrians.

Fourth, one of the functions of frameworks is to create winners and losers. My thesis is that the Popper/Smith program will support Austrian economics and also classical liberalism. Crucial in this respect is conjectural or fallibillistic or “non-authoritarian” knowledge, and the closely related idea of non-justification that Bartley picked up from Popper and elaborated.

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 intimidation by intellectual or moral authorities.

Given the historical preponderance of authoritarian (dogmatic or justificationist, “true belief”) 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.

Some papers along these lines, first a paper written for the 1985 Gotto Prize for classical liberal studies, this was submitted in the Pacific Zone but did not make the cut for the two papers to proceed to the final evaluation. In the footnotes there is a reference to Austrian economics as a Popperian research program but I was too timid to suggest that in the text. Why worry, it has never been published.

Second a paper on essentialism and the collectivist state, a critique of the error of extended conceptual analysis (deplored by Menger and extensively criticised by Popper) and the way it has debilitated intellectual work in philosophy and the humanities.

Third, a paper in press with a collection of papers by various authors, on aspects of Hayek’s work. This paper notes the way that Hayek and Bartley used the idea of non-justificationism to illuminate some issues and it points to some other implications and applications of conjectural or fallibillistic knowledge.

Fourth, the Introduction to my collection of papers Reason and Imagination indicates some of the social and political implications of the theory of conjectural objective knowledge.

Appendix 2. More on Popper’s Turns.

The turn to conjectural objective knowledge

In traditional epistemology the central concern was (and remains) the justification of beliefs . In “Epistemology without a knowing subject” (in the collection of papers in Objective Knowledge) Popper wrote

"This [traditional approach] has led students of epistemology into irrelevancies: while intending to study scientific knowledge, they studied in fact something which is of no relevance to scientific knowledge. For scientific knowledge simply is not knowledge in the sense of the ordinary usage of the words ‘I know’. While knowledge in the senses of ‘I know’ belongs to what I call the ‘second world’, the world of subjects, scientific knowledge belongs to the third world, to the world of objective theories, objective problems and objective arguments…Thus my first thesis is that the traditional epistemology, of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and even of Russell, is irrelevant, in a pretty strict sense of the word. It is a corollary of this thesis that a large part of contemporary epistemology is irrelevant also.” (p.108).
In the course of explaining Popper’s turn from “justificationism” to critical rationalism, Bartley pointed out that all attempts to justify beliefs end up in an infinite regress. The alternative to the quest for justified beliefs is to form tentative critical preferences for theories (or policies) on the basis of their capacity to solve their problems and stand up to various forms of criticism, including experimental and practical tests.

The social turn

The discovery of the social factor in science is often attributed to Kuhn and the sociologists of knowledge, however Jarvie identified what he called the social turn in Popper’s earliest published work, and especially in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society.

Hayek wrote about the constitution of liberty and Jarvie found in The Logic of Scientific Discovery the beginning of a “constitution for science”, that is, a set of conventions or rules to ensure that theories are exposed to criticism, especially empirical tests. Popper’s focus on the institutional framework of science is explicit in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society and its Enemies and in the final sections of The Poverty of Historicism on situational logic and the institutional theory of progress.

The metaphysical turn

Finally, the little-noticed metaphysical turn, possibly the most striking difference between the later Popper and the original logical positivists, whose signature idea was to render all talk of metaphysics strictly meaningless. Popper briefly mentioned the theory of metaphysical research programs in the autobiography written for the Library of Living Philosophers (Popper 1974, and 1976) but it was several years before it appeared in more detail in the Metaphysical Epilogue to the third volume of The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.
The three books of the “Postscript” are Realism and the Aim of Science (Volume 1), The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism (Volume 2) and Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (Volume 3). They contribute to Popper’s long campaign in support of realism, indeterminism and objectivism which in turn support human freedom, creativity and rationality.

“Realism” has two parts, the first pursues various forms of inductivism and the second attacks the subjective interpretation of the probability calculus. “The Open Universe” critiques both scientific and metaphysical determinism and traces the linkage between metaphysical determinism and subjective probability theory. This third volume carries the defence of realism and objectivism into the heart of quantum theory to challenge the dominant assumptions of the Copenhagen interpretation. Bartley points out in the editor’s introduction that this is a profoundly cosmological work, where “the basic theme of Karl Popper’s philosophy – that something can come from nothing – obtains its basis in physics”.

The book contains a ‘Metaphysical Epilogue’ that is remarkable (in addition to being the basis of Lakatos’s theory of scientific research programmes) because it provides a key to understanding a set of themes that unify Popper’s whole system of thought (the keystone to his arch of thought it you like). This gives some clues as to the depth of his thinking and the reason why it has been so badly received in the profession at large.

Popper’s theory of MRPs flows from his theory that we should look at the history of a subject, and its current status, in terms of its problem situations.

"In science, problem situations are the result, as a rule, of three factors. One is the discovery of an inconsistency within the ruling theory. A second is the discovery of an inconsistency between theory and experiment – the experimental falsification of the theory. The third, and perhaps the most important one, is the relation between the theory and what may be called the “metaphysical research programme."

"By raising the problems of explanation which the theory is designed to solve, the metaphysical research programme makes it possible to judge the success of the theory as an explanation. On the other hand, the critical discussion of the theory and its results may lead to a change in the research programme (usually an unconscious change, as the programme is often held unconsciously, and taken for granted), or to its replacement by another programme. These programmes are only occasionally discussed as such: more often, they are implicit in the theories and in the attitudes and judgements of the scientists."
"I call these research programmes “metaphysical” also because they result from general views of the structure of the world and, at the same time, from general views of the problem situation in physical cosmology. I call them “research programmes” because they incorporate, together with a view of what the most pressing problems are, a general idea of what a satisfactory solution of these problems would look like."

The Return of  Austrian Realism as a Metaphysical Research Program