From a review of 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 Karl 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.
His posthumous book Unfathomed Knowledge 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 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, an 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 dogmatic 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.