Cracking the Dogmatic Framework of Thought
This article shows how the little-known work of William W. Bartley has the potential to vastly increase the effectiveness of skeptical resistance to superstition and prejudice in their many forms and varieties. Creative problem solving and imaginative criticism is straitjacketed by the dogmatic 'true belief' framework of Western thought. This framework generates on the one hand true believers who insist that they have the truth in their grasp, on the other hand relativists and nihilists who think that truth and falsehood are indistinguishable. The framework can be cracked with the aid of ideas from Karl Popper and William W. Bartley to create an intellectual environment where imaginative criticism and the pursuit of knowledge will flourish. In this environment the swamp of unreason and prejudice may be drained, instead of merely being held back in one place while it spreads elsewhere.

At the end of the paper is a suggestion for a course on critical thinking that could be used as an introduction to philosophy.





The last two or three centuries have been widely regarded as the age of Science and Reason. This has been viewed with satisfaction or despair according to taste. The twentieth century has certainly been the age of Science par excellence but superstitions of many kinds have persisted, while new ones have flourished. These include the mysticism of the 'mind of God' variety springing from popular interpretations of quantum physics, the myth of racial superiority and the smorgasbord of cults and sects on the fringe of organized religion.
This coexistence of superstition with science and reason suggests that there is something wrong with science and reason, as they have been generally understood. Karl Popper explored this possibility and identified some major structural problems in the dominant schools of Western thought. William W. Bartley followed Popper to show that we tend to be hostages to a dogmatic framework of thought in which knowledge and rationality depend on “true belief”. This is essentially a religious framework but it is still being promulgated in the mainstream of academic philosophy and it tends to persist even when people turn away from conscious adherence to religious beliefs. The true belief framework, not surprisingly, generates true believers who do not accept the challenge of creative self-criticism that is required to eliminate error and generate fresh problems and insights.

Many problems are illuminated by the discovery of the dogmatic framework of thought.

* The dogmatic framework can be seen at work in all fanatics.

* It partly accounts for the suspicion or even hatred of novelty which creates so many problems for innovators and those who explore new worlds of thought. (The situation has been reversed in some fields of art and literature where shocks and novelties are pursued for their own sake).

* Philosophers have largely rejected Popper's ideas because his theory of tentative (conjectural) objective knowledge rejects both the quest for foundations and the concept of “knowledge as belief” which is generally assumed in philosophical circles.

* Self-improvement methods from Dale Carnegie to the modern 'consciousness-raising' movement have not helped people as much as they might because their positive elements are undermined by rigid adherence to the bad habits of a lifetime (I know that's silly but that's just me.)

The Dogmatic Structure

Popper identified an authoritarian strand at the heart of Western epistemology in a paper delivered to the Royal Society in 1960 and reprinted as the Introduction to Conjectures and Refutations. In this paper he set out to resolve some aspects of the dispute between the British and the Continental schools of philosophy. The British school insisted that the source of all genuine knowledge was observation; in contrast the Continental school promoted intellectual intuition, the perception of clear and distinct ideas, as the basis of true beliefs.
Popper pressed two claims:

1.Both sides were wrong.
2.Each had more in common than they realised.

As to each side being wrong, he argued that observation and reason each have roles to play in the growth of knowledge, but neither can be described as authoritative sources of knowledge.

As to their common features, they share a certain religious tone in their authoritarian attitude to the alleged sources of knowledge. They also share the naively optimistic view that the truth is clearly visible to all those who are willing to see it, meaning those who employ the right method and the right source of knowledge.

Popper showed how overly optimistic theories of knowledge, combined with a strong element of moralism about being right, produce a very nasty downside - the conspiracy theory of ignorance. George Orwell described this as applied by Catholics and Communists: "Each of them tacitly claims that 'the truth' has already been revealed, and that the heretic if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of 'the truth' and merely resists it out of selfish motives".
Popper explained that the traditional theories of knowledge are essentially concerned with authoritative sources of belief. Consequently no amount of debate between rival schools does anything to challenge the authoritarian framework assumptions that they all share.
In contrast, he argues that no ideal sources exist and all "sources" are capable of leading us in the wrong direction. He proposed to replace the question of sources by very different questions: "How can we generate better ideas to promote the growth of knowledge?" and "How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?"' For new ideas we have to make use of our imagination. For error-elimination we have to use all forms of criticism to the best of our ability (see the four forms of criticism described in my previous article on Popper).
The question of the sources of our knowledge, like so many authoritarian questions, is a genetic one. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may legitimate itself by its pedigree...if possible from God.

His own approach derives from the view that pure and certain sources do not exist, and that questions of origin or of purity should not be confounded with questions of validity, or of truth.
This insight into the authoritarian tradition inspired Bartley to pursue a fundamental critique of the quest for positively justified beliefs, an error, which he labeled "justificationism". The target of Bartley's critique is the dogmatic or 'true belief' theory of rationality which demands positive justification as the criterion of rationality. This demand is 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.

The problem is to specify a suitable authority for certified beliefs. In the Anglo Saxon tradition of Empiricism the authority of sense experience was adopted. In the Continental Rationalist tradition, following Descartes, the locus of authority resides with the intellectual intuition. Both Empiricism and Rationalism evolved in conflict with ancient intellectual and religious authorities and their essentially individualistic ethos was recruited by political movements seeking liberty, equality and fraternity. But they did not challenge the deep-seated theory of justificationism, which provided the common framework of thought in which the rival schools waged their battles for intellectual, moral and political authority.

Infinite Regress versus Dogmatism

The true belief framework is fundamentally flawed due to the perennial problem of validation and the dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism. Sextus Empiricus was one of the first people to draw attention to this (circa 200 AD) and more recently David Hume made it topical with his devastating critique of induction. The dilemma arises as follows: If a belief claims validation by a supporting argument, what justifies the support? Where and how does the chain of justifications 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 resistance to counter arguments by suggesting that the only way out of the infinite regress is to place an arbitrary limit on criticism at some point: 'Here I stand'. To the despair of people who believe in reason, their opponents can defeat the principle of open-ended criticism and debate on impeccably logical grounds, simply by pointing to the problem of the infinite regress.

Critical Preference

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.

Bartley published his solution to the logical problem of rationality and the limits of criticism in the early 1960s but the impact of his work was blunted by several factors. He first spelled out his ideas in the context of the evolution of modern Protestant theology and neither the theologians nor the philosophers took much notice. Some regarded Bartley as an eccentric theologian with a tendency to atheism. The problem of rationality is generally posed in non-logical terms and so Bartley's logical approach is likely to be regarded as unimportant or irrelevant. Threats to rationality are often depicted as psychological (pace Freud and Jung) or sociological (Marx) or due to relativity (Einstein) or uncertainty and indeterminism (Heisenberg.) In addition, as a revolutionary innovation Bartley's theory renders redundant most of the academic debate about rationality and belief. This is a threat that many professional philosophers are more than happy to hold at bay.

The Ecology of Rationality: Three Metacontexts

Bartley elaborated his initial insights using what he called an ecological approach to explain the implications of rejecting the dogmatic structure of thought. He examined the context of arguments to explore how dialogues may be polluted by dogmatism and he drew 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 i.e. 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 'ideal types.'

1. The Western 'true belief' tradition of justificationism.
2. The Eastern tradition of non-attachment.
3. A tradition of non-dogmatic critical preference which he calls 'comprehensive critical rationalism' or 'pancritical rationalism'.

The justificationist tradition (or metacontext) is expressed in the 'true belief' approach to rationality and knowledge. Valid knowledge consists of true beliefs and rationality consists of holding fast to them. This approach dominates the mainstream of the philosophy of science and it may be a relict of the true belief religions, which dominated the evolution of Western thought. The justificationist approach sponsors attachment, entrenchment, and the rigid adherence to positions, exemplified by the people who would not look through Galileo's telescope and the toddler who insists "I hate cheese" without ever having tasted it. In the Western tradition there is also a quest for growth and progress which is inconsistent with entrenchment. Consequently the Western tradition of epistemology contains a deep-seated tension between the 'liberal' tendency to growth and progress, and 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. In some of its forms it results in total apathy about life and affairs of the world. In fact the East/West division is probably a misleading because there is a Western tradition of pacifism and withdrawal from the world, and the East is not devoid of dogmatism and fanaticism. But Bartley was concerned with certain “ideal types” or models of thought and the distinction is valid even if the geography is suspect.

The third metacontext sponsors the growth of knowledge aided and abetted by relentless creative and imaginative criticism. This provides a healthy environment for the generation of new ideas and the elimination of error. Some species of thought may not survive easily in this new intellectual econiche while others are likely to flourish and multiply.

Relativism, Dogmatism and Critical Preference

In the light of Bartley's ideas we can discern a number of possible attitudes towards positions, notably those of relativism, dogmatism (called “fideism” in the scholarly literature) and critical preference (or in Bartley's unfortunately clumsy language, “pancritical rationalism”.) Relativists tend to be disappointed dogmatists who realise that positive confirmation cannot be achieved. From this correct premise they proceed to the false 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.

Fideists are people who believe that knowledge is based on an act of faith. Consequently they embrace whatever they want to regard as the truth. If they stop to think about it they may accept that there is no logical way to establish a positive justification for their beliefs or any others, so they insist 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 fundamentalists because they share the same 'true belief' structure of thought.
According to the stance of critical preference no position can be positively justified but it is quite likely that one, (or some) will turn out to be better than others are 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, the stance of critical preference 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, not for exponents of critical preference.


Bartley's work shows how rationalists of the dogmatic or justificationist variety help to maintain the 'true belief' structure of thought. In this structure our opponents can always win if they force the issue and demand that rationalists produce truly justified beliefs. The dilemma of the infinite regress versus dogmatism will defeat the rationalists every time they take up the challenge. The dogmatic, 'true belief' structure of thought is the seedbed for the weeds of irrationalism and many rationalists (such as inductivists in the philosophy of science) unwittingly nurture and sustain it.

This explains why it has been so hard for rationalists to usher in a genuine 'age of reason' by persuading people to relinquish supposedly 'irrational' authorities, especially those of religion. As long as the quest for foundations of justified belief persists as the unstated and uncriticised framework of thought, revivals and offshoots of irrationalism in various forms will constantly threaten rationality.

The point is to drain the swamp of unreason and not just dam it up or push the waters back in one place while they spread somewhere else. It may be that the decisive implement for this task of 'drainage' is the 'critical preference' mode of thought, informed by the insights of Popper and Bartley on the authoritarian tradition of Western epistemology and rationality.

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