This essay shows how William W Bartley and Karl Popper have created a major shift in the Western tradition of rationality, a shift which immensely strengthens the philosophy of liberalism. 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, sponsor dogmatism and intolerance.  Even those who challenge this authoritarian heritage usually share a powerful and unconscious assumption with their opponents.  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 the Popper/Bartley innovation are developed and disseminated.

By unpacking some of the implications of Popper's critique of the authoritarian structure of western thought, Bartley generated a non-authoritarian line of thought which opens up new vistas for the evolution of liberalism and eliminates some apparent tensions and inconsistencies in the ideas of Popper and Hayek.  Thus Bartley's work secures a significant part of the achievement of Popper and Hayek.  In turn their ideas will help to rescue the economics of liberalism.  For some generations, liberals have worked against the main currents of opinion on what constitutes 'scientific' economics.  These opinions are part ideology and part metaphysics; they are seldom discussed in an open-minded manner and they are widely supposed to be beyond rational criticism. Popper and Hayek have furnished an alternative metaphysics which retrieves liberal economics and Popper's recently published theory of metaphysical research programmes provides a framework for critical comparison of rival schools of thought in economics.


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 'Neonconservatism' and the 'New Right' 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 conservatives.  In the light of classical liberalism and Hayek's dissent from conservatism, there is no longer any need for people aged 20 or thereabouts to prove that they have a heart by embracing socialism.

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. 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. [Bartley's major works on this topic are his book The Retreat to Committment (1962 and 1983) especially the second edition which contains many innovations and refinements of his thinking, and two major papers (1964) and (1982).]

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 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 followed up a clue provided by Popper in his lecture titled 'On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance' (reprinted as the Introduction to Conjectures and Refutations). He explored how unstated assumptions create a demand for positive (certain) justification which can never be met. 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 implications of his achievement in 'The philosophy of Karl Popper: Part III. Rationality, criticism and logic' (Philosophia, 1982). He examined the context of arguments to explore how dialogues may be polluted by dogmatism and various of its consequences. He makes a distinction between positions, contexts and metacontexts. A  position indicates a theory or belief about something.  Positions are adopted or postulated in contexts. 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 justificationist tradition (or metacontext) sponsors attachment, entrenchment, and the rigid adherence to positions. 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 tendency to growth and progress, and the 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 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 pancritical rationalists, or exponents 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 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, pancritical rationalism is not a position, and so 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 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 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 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 metacontext, which sponsors dogmatism and fanaticism.  And as long as this 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 is conceivable 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. It may, according to Bartley that Popper 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 and much of sociology) 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 problems 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 replies:

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 reproduces 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 accept 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 the outstanding moral philosophers of modern times.  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.


The initial plan for this essay contained two roughly equal parts, the first showing the importance of Bartley's work and the second showing how Popper's metaphysics retrieves the leading ideas of the Austrian school of economics. The compression required to treat two themes in a limited space threatened to render both intelligible and so the second is sketched as a series of theses, pending a more systematic account.

The problem addressed here is that noted by Ludwig Lachmann, writing in Roads to Freedom (Ed. Streissler, Routledge, 1969); the arsenal of economic thought once served the friends of the market economy but is now more useful to their enemies.

The liberal aim is to advance the general understanding of political economy to a point where people will  no more be inclined to pursue open-ended protectionism and interventionism than to equip the fire brigade of petrol to put out fires.

Many schools of thought impede the necessary understanding of political and economic systems.  Among these are; mathematical equilibrium theory in microeconomics; Keynesian and neo-Keynesian macroeconomics; Marxist analysis and others which postulate non-individualistic models of behaviour; and collective choice theory.

These schools of thought are sustained by three protective devices, often acting together;

a)The guild mentality (professional brand loyalty).

b)Ideological commitments (another form of brand loyalty).

c)The influence of metaphysical theories, especially determinism, reductionism, holism and essentialism (conceptual analysis). These theories exert a profound influence on the formulation of problems and on the types of methods that are deemed to be acceptable. They also tend to restrict the field of search for solutions.

For example, holism precludes methodological individualism. Determinism rules out the kind of discretionary activities that are required for freedom of choice. Reductionism eliminates novelty, creativity and the emergent properties of complex, evolving systems. Essentialism in the form of conceptual analysis converts substantive problems into word games.

Professional brand loyalty may be dissolved in the new metacontext of pancritical rationalism created by Bartley.

Ideological allegiances may likewise be undermined by the new metacontext and by a better grasp of cause and effect which will show open-minded interventionists that their policies produce the reverse of the intended effects.

The effects of defective metaphysical theories are probably the most insidious of the three protective devices because they trap people who might otherwise resist brand loyalties. Popper and Hayek offer an alternative mix of methods and metaphysics individualism and the repudiation of conceptual analysis.

Metaphysical theories cannot be avoided but they have been banned in the philosophy of science for a century due to the dominance of positivism. Consequently metaphysical beliefs are adopted unconsciously and therefore uncritically.  Popper has kept alive the critical discussion of metaphysics in relation to scientific problems (especially in physics) and has recently published a theory of metaphysical research programmes which provides a framework for comparative analysis of rival metaphysics (Metaphysical Epilogue to Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, Hutchinson, 1982). Some elements of the metaphysical program that Popper sketched for physics can be found among the animating principles of the Austrian school of economics (for example non-determinism, realism (versus instrumentalism) and objectivism (versus the idea that "the world is my dream"). So Austrian economics can be depicted as a Popperian research program, in some respects. Given that Popper was an Austrian, this makes the Austrian program Even More Austrian!

In the same way that the metacontext of pancritical rationalism nourishes and sustains the philosophy of liberalism, the metaphysics of Popper and Hayek will enable the politic economy of liberalism to flourish and reveal its full power and fertility.

For example consider the praxeology of Ludwig von Mises.

In all its branches this science is a priori, not empirical. Like logic and mathematics, it is not derived from experience...what we know about our actions under given conditions is derived not from experience, but from reason.

How can this position by justified? Mises adopts a neo-Kantian stance to claim that the framework of individualistic, purposeful action is given as an a priori truth of economic behaviour. But this idea has been lampooned by critics who demand empirical verification to justify claims to scientific status for a theory.

What are we to make of this demand for justification? If it cannot be provided, must we discard the methods and the findings of the Austrian school of liberal economists? The answer is that we do not need to discard the method, but nor do we need to claim that it is a priori true. This assertion is a part of von Mises attempt at justification within his own neo-Kantian metaphysics. In the Popper/Hayek/Bartley scheme as method cannot be absolutely justified, though it may be accepted and used if it stands up to the various forms of criticism noted on page 3. Especially important is the check on the problem, posed as the question; does the method help to produce theories which promote understanding of economic processes? By this criterion the Austrian method has proved its mettle but this achievement is rendered invisible to many people by the protective devices sketched above. Caldwell's review of the Austrians in Beyond Positivism (George Allen & Unwin, 1982) while itself sympathetic shows the profound skepticism which the bulk of the profession feels for the followers of Menger and Mises.


The philosophy of liberalism needs to be liberated from the predominantly dogmatic Western tradition. Popper's non-authoritarian theory of knowledge took a huge step in this direction and Bartley completed the task with his critique of justificationism. This creates a radically new metacontext of thought in which new ideas can flourish and errors can be speedily eliminated. The economics of liberalism need to be liberated from the professional guild mentality, from the claims of rival ideologies and from defective metaphysics. Popper and Hayek have provided an alternative set of metaphysical theories and in a non-justificationist metacontext deep-seated ideas such as determinism, reductionism, essentialism and collectivism can be subjected to critical appraisal.

Rafe Champion

Writings on W.W Bartley
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Submitted as an entry to the Gotto Prize under the auspices of the Mont Pelerin Society (1985)
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