For nerds. William W Bartley on the universities

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.

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9 Responses to For nerds. William W Bartley on the universities

  1. .

    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.

    Excellently put. A succinct summary of why universities are often lagging the employer markets they are meant to in part serve.

  2. Rafe Champion

    It was probably Buchanan or some economist who first used that turn of phrase and Bartley picked it up.
    When Bartley was working on The Fatal Conceit he had occasion to drive Hayek around in his car, so the passenger seat became known as the Hayek Chair.
    The Austrian economist Peter G Klein, now at Baylor, bought the car so for a time he was the custodian of the Hayek chair.

  3. Tintarella di Luna

    Thank you Rafe, your posts are always interesting and provide quite a mind’s banquet and that’s why I like this blog.

  4. one old bruce

    Rafe, maybe a good chance to ask you, what do you make of David Stove’s opposition to Karl Popper? Anti-‘postmodernists’ picked up Stove a decade ago for their polemic, although the fad seems to have cooled.

    Stove blames Popper for ‘post-truth’ postmodern whatever fads. That’s what I couldn’t accept when others thought Stove was a discovery.

    (The hunt for the enemy who supposedly ‘brought down western civilisation’ continues in a cartoonish series of fads, perhaps going back to Lutherans rants about ‘popery’ to my eyes).

  5. one old bruce

    In fact, western civilisation has been arguing about the status of Truth from Plato through Aristotle, to the great Medieval ferments over Nominalism.

    His wikipedia page quotes Stove lumping Popper in with Feyerabend and labelling them ‘irrationalists’. I know the details are in the ‘Positivism dispute’ of the Frankfurt school. The latter arouse horror among American conservatives, so they usually avoid studying them. I’ll bet a lot of Americans see Popper as to hard to pin down as a result.

  6. Rafe Champion

    This is my rejoinder to David Stove’s silly little book.
    I went onto a Stove website where the headline branded Popper as a cause of POMO and requested an example of a POMO who was influenced by Popper. The best they could manage was Feyerabend but broke with Popper in the 1950s and abused him (ad hom) for the rest of his life. After repeated requests failed to produce an example they took down the claim.
    There is more to be said but not tonight.

  7. one old bruce

    Good stuff! Thanks Rafe.

  8. one old bruce

    I love this analogy (yours?):

    ‘For Popper the aim of science was the pursuit of truth.

    How do we pursue truth? By conjecture and (attempted) refutation.

    What is the role of empirical evidence in this venture? Testing.

    When we are about to climb a ladder to a great height, why do we try our weight on the rungs before we begin to climb (or test the rung before applying our full weight as we climb?)

    To see if the rungs of the ladder will bear our weight.

    Is the goal of our endeavours to break the ladder? No, it is to climb the ladder safely.’

  9. Rafe Champion

    On a point of detail the dispute with David Stove and the positivists/inductivists was quite different from Popper’s confrontation with the Frankfurters.
    Incidentally the Frankfurt school almost took refuge at the London School of Economics in the 1930s but when Hayek got wind of it he ran across the campus to Beveridge the Director and put a stop to it.
    Here is Popper’s retrospective account of the so-called positivism debate, so-called because Habermas called Popper a positivist.

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