Unfathomed Knowledge

W.W. Bartley.    Unfathomed Knowledge,  Unmeasured Wealth:  On Universities and the Wealth of Nations.  Open Court.  1990

Bartley  was one of the most original and productive of the students inspired by Popper. He died in 1990 at the tragically early age of 55 but still managed to establish himself as a brilliant  scholar, editor and biographer.  His most significant contribution was to develop Karl Popper's ideas on knowledge and belief to give new life to the rationalist tradition.  As an editor he salvaged Lewis Carroll's lost writing on symbolic logic and a major work by Karl Popper which languished in galley proofs for more than two decades. He also edited Hayek's last book The Fatal Conceit. In addition he wrote best-selling biographies of Wittgenstein and Werner Erhard, founder of est. He initiated a project to publish the collected works of Hayek at the University of Chicago Press and he was working on the authorised  biographies of Popper and Hayek.

Starting with his project to develop Popper's views on the nature of knowledge and belief to solve one of the long-standing philosophical problems of rationality.  This is the problem of establishing foundations for rational or justified beliefs.  More precisely, it is the problem of 'the infinite regress versus dogmatism'.  This occurs when a person tries to provide a justification for every proposition that they utter.  A clever opponent can keep on demanding justification for every supposedly 'justifying' statement that is offered, until one or other party goes home for dinner or the justifier decides to take a dogmatic stand at some point.

This dilemma has been a thorn in the side of supposedly rational people since it was formulated by the ancient sceptics.  Traditional religious faiths have provided a refuge for many people, but this shelter has become increasingly flimsy under the impact of writers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud.  Countless modern writers have identified 'the death of God' as an unspeakable catastrophe, leading to a cultural crisis, 'a crisis of belief and a crisis of authority'.

Examples are available on all sides:  the devastation of the traditional 'inductive' method of science by David Hume, the degeneration of modern philosophy into the study of 'language games', the relativism that is routinely taught in the humanities and the social sciences, the destruction of moral discourse by Marxism, the sadism and nihilism projected by many serious artists and writers, the 'progressive' contempt for traditional good manners and decorum in favour of coercive activity to enforce  'politically correct' opinions, the glorification of Mafia hitmen by Hollywood.

Popper and Bartley have addressed and rectified the very framework of thought which creates the problem in the first place. In short, they rejected the demand for conclusive justification.  Popper set the ball rolling with his non-authoritarian theory of knowledge, expounded in an address to the Royal Academy of Science and reprinted as the Introduction to Conjectures and Refutations (1963)He identified the authoritarian structure of  traditional epistemology (and politics) expressed in the question 'What source of knowledge is the valid authority?' (in politics, the traditional question is 'Who  should rule?').  In each case the question is wrongly put.  There are  many sources of knowledge and we need to bring imaginative criticism to bear upon all of them to eliminate error and generate new directions for research.  In politics we need to develop institutions to keep our rulers under control so they cannot do too much damage however incompetent or corrupt they may be (see Chapter 7 'On Leadership', in The Open Society and its Enemies.)

Bartley pursued Popper's insight, defining the root of the problem as the 'justificationist' tradition, 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."

But what is the source of authority?  In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Empiricism sensory experience is the authority - seeing is believing.  Continental Rationalism, following Descartes, claims that the locus of authority resides with intellectual intuition.  Both Empiricism and Rationalism evolved in conflict with traditional religious authorities, and their essentially individualistic ethos was recruited by the political movements seeking liberty, equality and fraternity.  However these new modes of thought did not challenge the justificationist framework of debate in which the rival schools waged their battles for intellectual, moral and political authority. 

With the hidden premise of justificationism laid bare, Popper and Bartley proceeded to criticise it, showing that we can dispense with the aim of positive justification without giving up anything that really matters, such as respect for arguments, for evidence, and for the truth. The theory of rationality which emerges from their work is not a theory of justified belief, it is a theory of critical preference between options.  A critical preference for a car, a scientific theory or a polical allegiance can be formed in the light of evidence and arguments available up to date, and the preference may be revised in the light of new evidence or new arguments.  It may even be possible to specify in advance what kind of evidence or arguments would prompt a shift of position. This would appear to be nothing more than common sense, but it is an  attitude that has the whole Western tradition of justified belief against it.

Bartley's major work on these themes can be found in his book Retreat to Committment (1962, 1983), and in a major paper Rationality versus the Theory of Rationality (1964). 

More recently Bartley broadened his focus to explore 'the ecology of rationality' to see how dialogues and the institutions of learning can be polluted by dogmatism.  His posthumous book, Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth: On Universities and the Wealth of Nations, probes the depressed state of the American universities.  He first explains how we live in a potentially  expanding universe of knowledge  due to the 'unfathomed objective contents' of our theories and  their unexpected implications. These emerge during the clash of ideas when rival products are subjected to imaginative criticism and practical tests. However the dynamics of the 'expanding universe' insight are denied by most theories of knowledge which are embedded in the justificationist mode and concentrate on the 'statics' of beliefs and their validation.

He then turns to the economic structure of the campus knowledge industry, pointing out that the universities defy market principles in that consumers (students) do not buy, producers (staff) do not sell and owners (Boards and trustees) do not control. This structural defect, assisted by constraints on the free trade in criticism imposed by the prevailing justificationist attitude, has converted the academies into a network of fiefdoms, guilds and mutual protection rackets.

The major part of the book describes 'The Curious Case of Karl Popper', whereby the professional philosophers have almost completely suppressed Popper's thoughts within the trade.  Local examples are the failure of The Australasian Journal of Philosophy to review a series of important books by Popper in the early 1980s and the lack of engagement with his ideas in Life Among the Scientists, the anthropological study by Max Charlesworth and others of the philosophy of scientists.  The root of the problem is the dominance of ideas from Wittgenstein (Mark II) whose theory of 'language games' disintegrated philosophical discourse into isolated compartments devoted to this or that special 'game'.  Kuhn's theory of the intellectual leadership by self-appointed cliques provides the perfect self-serving rationale for these narrow specialists who are desperately threatened by Popper's ideas. 

Bartley's book is not just a critique because he offers a program to revitalise the marketplace of ideas and regenerate the life of the mind.  The essential element is imaginative criticism to  discover problems (the growing points of learning). In addition, scholars need to follow the ramifications of their problems across the artificial boundaries between subjects. Further, in the language of economics, the mind industry must be deregulated from the constraints imposed by  so-called authorities, by over-specialisation  and the tyranny of fashion. It needs to be  re-regulated by the internal controls of genuine scholarship which  cannot be imposed from above.

Bartley gives a profoundly disturbing account of the mind industry but the overall message is hopeful, perhaps even wildly optimistic about the prospects for improvement.  Wider understanding of his own work on rationality could be decisive in the long term.  Immense resources of creative energy are locked up by justificationist theories of knowledge and discourse.  These resources may be released by the ideas of Popper and Bartley but they have been so thoroughly marginalised in the universities that their ideas may need to be kept alive outside the academies if they are to survive for the benefit of future generations.

Rafe Champion, April 1992

For similar views on the problems with education and universities, see Jacques Barzun in the Revivalist - Summer edition.

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