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Arjun Khemani Podcast
#26 – Jeremy Shearmur: Epistemology, Austrian economics, and The Life of Karl Popper

#26 – Jeremy Shearmur: Epistemology, Austrian economics, and The Life of Karl Popper


Jeremy Shearmur is a fellow emeritus in philosophy at the Australian National University. He is the author of Hayek and After and The Political Thought of Karl Popper. He also worked as assistant to Karl Popper for eight years.

Topics we discuss are well captured by the timestamps below.

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0:00 - The commonalities (and differences) between Austrian economics and Popperian epistemology

14:34 - Young Popper’s socialism

25:35 - The sociology of philosophy

29:20 - Two different aspects to Popper’s approach to teaching

36:11 - The situation at the Institute for Humane Studies at GMU

45:45 - Popper’s personality, work ethic, and other interests

52:11 - Against the self-expressionist theory of art

56:24 - Why the ideas of Popper and Hayek aren’t mainstream

1:10:03 - Anarcho-capitalism

1:23:02 - Closing remarks

If you are interested in Jeremy's Zoom based conferences on Karl Popper's work, you can contact him at:

Full transcript

The commonalities (and differences) between Austrian economics and Popperian epistemology

Arjun: Where do you find the most compelling overlaps between Austrian economics and Popperian epistemology? And where do you think they fundamentally contradict each other?

Jeremy: Okay, one has, I think, in addressing this, to split the issue up into different bits, because when you talk about Austrian economics, you might have different things in mind. Clearly, there is the work of Karl Menger and what followed on from him. Within that, there are then various different splits. So Wieser was mildly inclined towards socialism. Some people use Austrian economics as a way of actually referring to Mises and to Rothbard and so on. But there are also people, such as myself, who would tend to want to say, in contemporary terms, one needs to look more at the kind of ideas that you get in Hayek.

Now, if you split these things up, stuff becomes really rather complicated, but, let me take issues in a particular order. First of all, there are the kind of methodological ideas that you get set out in Mises but also in Hayek. Now, Mises’s ideas are complex in the sense that he made claims along the lines of saying that really everything could be developed on the basis of a pure logic of choice, and given the existence of human action, then things just dropped out from that. However, it must also be said that for Mises, this was going to be complemented by a lot of stuff which he would have classified as historical, but where other people would have claimed that it was theoretical.

In Hayek, you get ideas which in certain respects, that's to say with regard to human action itself, are not dissimilar to Mises, but there are significant differences between them. On the one side, Hayek stressed very strongly that there were important issues concerning how institutions functioned and in different ways as ways of transmitting information and so on, and the investigation of this, as I'd understand it for Hayek, was something that was empirical. A third element in Hayek was this, that he also stressed the ideas about the structure of capital and the trade cycle. And these in Hayek seem to me best understood as something close to what Popper discussed as a metaphysical research program. That's to say, there were a certain number of distinctive themes. Hayek himself really never fully elaborated these. His pure theory of capital was going to be an attempt to do this in detail. But it turned out that amongst other things, to do what Hayek was wanting to do, as I understand it, would have required mathematics that certainly wasn't available to Hayek at the time.

But there was in a way a big and quite interesting problem, which is this. Hayek emphasized this sort of quasi deductive character of the development of theory in that area. He also said, what Popper had to say about testability was important. If you look at what was probably the most elaborate attempt at the time to spell out a theory of the trade cycle as pertaining to the Great Depression, that by Lionel Robbins, the real difficulty there seems to me to have been that he set out following that kind of Austrian approach, an account which could have been correct in the sense of the trade cycle as being a consequence of an expansion of capital expenditure on an unrealistic basis, and the consequence of this not being sustainable in the economy as a whole gave rise to the depression.

The difficulty about it is that it seems that while that effect might have been present, what he was trying to explain was basically a mountain, and what you get from Robbins is something that could equally well have been a description of a molehill sitting on the top of the mountain. And I think at the very least, one needed to have, in this context, discussion about the quantitative aspects of what's involved. And there were also issues, and, elaborating these and discussing the details of it gets well beyond my pay grade. But there was a question as to whether one could get into something, which Haberler referred to as the Secondary Depression, which Hayek seemed to say, this might occur under some circumstances, where, Hayek's reaction seemed to be, well, the big problem with Keynes’ approach was it was put forward as a general approach, rather than one which was specific to particular historical circumstances.

But the thrust of all of this, and it will be a matter for discussion amongst specialists in this area, both people in the Austrian tradition and people outside of it who were aware of the tradition would be to work out really what the approach amounted to, but also, I think, to work out a way of taking into account, whether or not what was being offered fitted the particular circumstances in which they were developing it. And it seemed to me that in principle, Hayek say allowed for this, but didn't really get into the details of it, not least because his own theory in the end wasn't fully elaborated, but I think from my perspective, the problem of the Misesian approach is that it seems to suggest that much too much can be done on an a priori basis, rather than having to pay attention to institutions and different patterns of how things work.

Now, if one compares this stuff to Popper, then I guess one can say this. Popper certainly was in agreement with Hayek with regard to methodological individualism, and you could say in this context that there were also commonalities with Mises’s ideas about human action. However, there were a couple of problems about this with regard to Popper. One is that in an odd way, he was influenced in his ideas in this area in part by Hayek and indirectly by Mises, but also he emphasized very strongly a theme from Marx, namely of action taking place as rational in particular social circumstances, and, there is a question of how or whether these two heritages really meld together particularly well.

And so what I'd say there is, there are certain kinds of commonalities, but on the other hand there are differences, and Popper tended to emphasize both methodological individualism and testability. And with regard to methodological individualism, he fussed around as to whether we should be taking human action simply to be purely subjectively rational or whether we should work with models in which what we do is work with ideas about the action as being adequate to the situations in which people are operating. And again, there are various different comments scattered at different points, to put them all together would be a bit complicated. But that at least gives you one strand of this.

A second is Mises’s non interventionism. And here he and Popper are in disagreement. But Popper would really tend to say, look, any action by humans or by, human beings or by government will have unintended consequences, which may be problematic, and Popper's approach to politics was really to say what we need to do is to try to develop mechanisms which will allow for effective critical feedback about where things are going wrong. While this emphasis on unanticipated unintended consequences was a big theme in Mises and is often used by Misesians, as an argument against government action at all is recognized by Popper, but he takes a different kind of lesson from it.

He also says we need to bear in mind that whatever the government is doing, it's going to affect the welfare of lots of people, and so we need to be careful and tentative and so on that score.

Now, the third theme in all of this are the differences between Popper and Hayek. Now, it's important to bear in mind what the character of Hayek's views was. Which is that basically, Hayek is an interventionist, but his concern was how do you have the government do what in his judgment it needs to do in ways that aren't damaging to people's freedom or to the overall operations of the economy. And his work really, Constitution of Liberty, Law, Legislation and Liberty and countless papers were really an attempt to put forward an approach, to solve this particular kind of problem. And there is in this respect, an important point to note, really, that is, if you take people who were members of the Mont Pelerin society, there was a significant divide between Mises and some of the people associated with FEE and so on, and then subsequently Rothbard and anarcho-capitalists on the one side, and on the other side, people who were in many ways in agreement with Henry Simons, Friedman, and Hayek and a bunch of the other Chicago people who really wanted to have a system of markets within systems of rules, and in which for them the big problem was how do you accomplish what in their judgment needs to be accomplished by government in ways that don't, to use an australianism, stuff up the workings of the market economy and human freedom. And so on this score, Popper was much closer to Hayek and Friedman and so on.

However, there are two other important points. The first of them is that Popper wasn't an economist. And while he paid attention to the concern for, that consumers should be able to make decisions about what they wanted and so on. He didn't have a sort of global picture of a well working market economy that Hayek had. The key theme for Popper tended to be work taking account of human fallibility and working by means of what he called piecemeal social engineering. Small scale social experimentation, but with feedback as to whether or not it was effective.

In terms of the big divide in Mont Pelerin, Popper was very much closer to Hayek and Friedman and so on than he was to Mises, but he also differed from them in not taking a systematic economic approach.

Young Popper’s socialism

Arjun: You've written before, “It seems to me that it is the tradition of classical liberalism, as exemplified by Hayek's work, that also offers us the best institutional model for putting into practice Karl Popper's insights about our need to learn by trial and error in political and social affairs.”

Not that it matters much, but do you think Popper really believed this? Some of his earlier writings suggest, at least to me, that he had some socialist tendencies.

Jeremy: Oh, yes. Look, I can explain this in the following way. Basically, when Popper was a young man, he was a moderate socialist. He, really, I think, became convinced that socialism faced an insuperable problem in terms of bureaucracy. That's to say that if one took, socialist approaches, if they were, I think he was concerned with stuff which wouldn't have been systematic in its approach, not only were there the economic problems, which were around, but which he wasn't particularly concerned with. But I think his big concern was, if you're going to do anything like what the socialists in Vienna wanted, what you would be doing is putting an enormous amount of power into the hands of layers and layers of bureaucracy, and that there just didn't seem to be any serious account of how this was supposed to be controlled, in such a way that it would, actually realize the socialists ideas.

Now, what then happened were two things. First of all, Popper, when he was in New Zealand, wrote his Open Society and Its Enemies, and when he got to the end of that, he received a copy of Hayek's Road to Serfdom, and he found in some ways to his encouragement, but in other ways to his dismay, that Hayek had actually developed a whole bunch of arguments, which in many ways were similar to his, but from a very different perspective.

And what one finds is a kind of commonality in terms of the sort of critique of large scale planning that was being championed at the time. And I think, in this, one has to bear in mind that what one's talking about in the road to serfdom isn't an argument about the problems of economic calculation under socialism. It's rather about what would happen if you tried as it were, to accomplish socialist style goals by trying to superimpose them by way of governmental planning onto a market economy. And essentially what you get is Hayek and Popper offering kind of complimentary critiques of this, but being conducted on a very different basis.

Popper was also very grateful to Hayek because Hayek managed to get Popper's Open Society placed with the publishers. Popper was in New Zealand, which always had a very remote feel to it, but really it was almost the backside of the moon at the time, but Popper liked to micromanage things. And so he gave detailed instructions to friends of his who were trying to place the book with publishers in England and America as to how they should proceed, which in many respects were totally unrealistic. And Popper didn't like, the work of Karl Mannheim, and Mannheim had been taken on by Routledge as an editor of a series, and Popper, I think, was afraid, lest his own society got into the hands of what was associated with Mannheim, and so he said no to Ernst Gombrich, who was doing this, no, you shouldn't approach, Routledge. Hayek had been publishing with Routledge and basically once he got popular OK, had a quick word with his editor there and the thing was accepted.

But also Hayek was able to manufacture a job as a reader, which is a kind of lower level position than a professor in the British and also Australian academic systems. When a part time professor retired and Popper was then able to be a candidate for this and he wasn't a shoo in for the position and Hayek didn't get him the job but, he effectively got the LSE to create a position which Popper was then able to get into. The result of this was that Popper felt incredibly grateful to Hayek and felt that he was an intellectual ally but also recognized that he had major disagreements with him, but was reluctant to air these in print.

Now, what about the stuff from me that you were quoting? Popper was, in my judgment, never a Hayekian. Popper and Hayek said nice things about one another, but he, in a sense, didn't really buy into Hayek's systematic approach. He also had severe reservations about Hayek's criticisms of the idea of social justice. And all told, he didn't come out in print against Hayek, but he didn't ally himself with him beyond generalities. And in fact, in private, he was in many ways quite critical. My argument was a rather different one. My argument was that there are problems about how the government is supposed to learn by trial and error. That, in particular, Popper, talked about what he described as the rational unity of mankind. And this was the notion that anyone might be in a position to raise pertinent criticisms of government policy. And in a certain sense, just because everyone knows their own situation, the situation of their occupation, of their families, of their neighborhood, they are going to have a kind of knowledge about how policy is impacting these things which, people who are running the public service aren't going to have.

What Popper doesn't do is to explain how this system of critical feedback is really supposed to work, and I think that this, I don't know if there are any good models of this anywhere. I think Popper would say we need to learn by trial and error about this, but I think personally that things go very badly wrong. In Britain at the moment, an old and well established democracy, you have horrendous things where the policy of the National Health Service with regard to dentistry has just been set in a completely inept way so that poorer people simply can't get to subsidized dental services at all, so they end up pulling out their own teeth and they're almost at every turn there are things that are just not working on the level of Policy and where they don't appear certainly within the British system to be effective means of getting the difficulties identified and action taken to change how things are working. And my own view is there are considerable advantages to working, to putting as much as one can in the private sector and the voluntary sector, not least because it's fairly standard. If you read biographies of really effective entrepreneurs, they are endlessly talking about learning by trial and error.

They've got systems there where they can discover that something isn't successful and they get rid of it. In government, they tend to say, oh dear, yes, that's a shame. Let's spend more money on it. And so it's on that kind of score that it seems to me. But if one considers the learning mechanism side of Popper, then it actually works better as things stand in the private sector rather than the public sector, although you do need, I think, to have government and governmental activities. And so the problem of how to get effective critical feedback working is really important. It doesn't disappear, but at the very least, I think you shouldn't put all your eggs into one basket. Another kind of parallel is that you might look at the Utopia section of Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia as something that speaks quite effectively to a situation where, we want to try various things out, but we can be pretty sure that most of our ideas aren't going to work out, they're not going to be successful, and which allows for learning by trial and error and so on, and it's for that reason that I was, that I made the suggestion that I did, to which you were referring.

The sociology of philosophy

Arjun: So you mentioned effective entrepreneurs, and I find it interesting how many people just tend to discover Popper’s ideas “accidentally”. And they seem to apply Popperian principles in their own life and tend to be successful doing that. I think that's an interesting case.

Jeremy: That's right, but I think myself that Popper has lost out rather badly, just really in many respects because of the sociology of the organization of the discipline of philosophy. He was himself someone who got ideas in many different areas. and he was very much a generalist who would pursue lots of different ideas into detail at a time when the profession was becoming more and more specialized. Popper also, he was briefly in the U.S., he delivered William James lectures at Harvard, but he never really took up positions in the U.S. on a long term basis, and I think just didn't really quite realize how academic professions worked. And so he became a rather isolated figure with a number of people who were keen on his work working with him at the London School of Economics. But in Britain, outside of that, there was, while his work was acknowledged, people didn't, I think, grasp in some ways what he was really up to. And where the increasing tendency towards specialization spoke against his approach.

But it seems to me that we're in danger these days of work fragmenting into lots and lots of specialized stuff where people aren't able to keep an overview of what the more general debate is like. If you ask people about what are the options for governmental economic policy, my suspicion is that very few people would be able to give an account of what, just on the back of an envelope, alternative approaches would be and what their pros and cons are. But we lose out on this also with regard to something like COVID, where you tend to get, government taking advice from a number of specialists, instructions being given to the rest of us, but where there isn't any way in which people can actually get their questions answered, in which they can actually see what the state of the debate is like, between people who know what they're talking about on such matters. And so they tend to say, oh, I'm going to research this myself, meaning I'm going to read any damn silly thing I come across on the internet and become convinced about that. 

So I think that there is a, a problem, not just about the neglect of the specific themes in popper, but also of the disappearance of this concern for a kind of well informed generalist public sphere, where we just end up by being bamboozled by the work of cranks and the unexplained work of specialists, and it really becomes very difficult to make sensible decisions.

Two different aspects to Popper’s approach to teaching

Arjun: I've heard you talk about your experience at the Institute for Humane Studies at GMU. How do you think traditional research programs in economics, and perhaps in other fields as well, fail to embody or are at odds with Popperian principles of learning and knowledge creation? 

Jeremy: Inside that, there are a number of different things. Let me say a tiny bit, first of all, about Popper and education, and then I can say a little bit about the IHS when I was there. In Popper, I think there are two different tendencies which were never fully reconciled to one another. On the one side, he emphasized the way in which intellectually everyone, ordinary people, kids, just across the board, is intellectually active, and is driven by various problems and concerns, and in this context, he was really strongly opposed to the sort of formulaic and rote learning emphasis of a lot of traditional instruction. There is, though, I think, a problem, which was in some ways exemplified in lectures of his that I attended, because I was a undergraduate student at the LSE when he was still lecturing there, because sometimes I remember a lecture on the philosophy of social science, and he basically came into the room and said, all right, what problems have you got?

Now, the difficulty there was that you got a room full of people, there was no agenda set, and if you asked people about problems even concerning the social sciences, there would be likely to be as many problems as people, and that what interested one person probably would be of no interest to anyone else. And that course was a disaster. By contrast with that he gave another course which followed some of the writing that he'd done on the pre Socratic philosophers, and he was concerned with broad ideas as responses to just how one understands the world as a whole, what explains the stability of the world, what are things made of, and so on, and where he told this as a story in which basically he told us about some problems they were working on, which could be explained to us all quite easily as to what these problems were. He then explained how a particular theory addressed these ideas, and then he explained criticisms that have been made of it, and how another theory could be seen as an alternative to it. And he went through the history in this way, explaining to us how it was that human knowledge could be understood as a sequence of problems, tentative theories, criticism, alternative theories, and so on.

And this was brilliant to sit through, but it also seems to me to exemplify something really important, and that's the following. That Popper, like many progressivist writers on education, emphasized the role played by human creative activity. But he also at one point mentions that if people had, as it were, to invent everything for themselves, they wouldn't really get as far as Adam and Eve have managed to get. And if you think about Popper's ideas concerning knowledge, a key problem is this. We may have an existing theory, we may have a bit of common sense knowledge, but it doesn't really work very well. We may become aware that there are problems about it. How to get to something better, is a matter of creative activity. There's no formula for it, but it's also the case that the development of knowledge typically works by way of individuals, and individuals interacting with other people, coming up with many different ideas, exploring them. And so the notion, which I think some of the progressive writers on education, including some people influenced by Popper, get to is that they behave as if each individual learner could invent the sum total of human knowledge for themselves, and one, they can't, and two, to the degree to which they make it look as if they are, what is happening is a piece of intellectual cheating, where the instructor tries to extract from things that people are coming up with, something they never could have come up with.

And on this score, it seems to me that Popper's approach in his second lot of lectures that I attended was the right one to take, where you have to tell people about the problems. You have to tell people about what some of the suggestions were. You have to work with them in exploring these things critically, rather than thinking that they can invent anything much from themselves. And there's another theme in Popper where he says, look, a key thing is really to get people attuned to what he called the third world, to discover within it all of these incredible things, which we couldn't have invented individually, which we typically could have no idea even existed, and then to enrich and form ourselves by way of critical interaction with these things. And I guess what I would say is that Popper's own approach, really, has to my mind much too much of the influence of the first kind of approach in it, and really needs the second.

The situation at the Institute for Humane Studies at GMU

Now, you also asked about the Institute for Humane Studies. The situation there was rather a slightly strange one. The IHS had a rather odd history, and it would take up this podcast and more if I were to tell it, but should you be interested in that, I'd be very happy on some other occasion to talk about the IHS. But when I was there, particularly Walter Grinder, who was a very intelligent and well read and thoughtful man, had come to the conclusion, really, that a classical liberal approach, or a libertarian approach, really needs to introduce people to how these sorts of ideas relate to many different facets of human knowledge. And so an underlying theme there was the need to take different spheres of human knowledge, certainly in the humanities and social sciences, as complementary studies rather than just diving in on one of these.

A second concern was that he thought, and I think correctly, that the dynamics of the intellectual world were very much set against classical liberal and libertarian ideas. And you can see this in many ways today. Just look at the figures in the U.S. for the number of professors who are sympathetic to Republicans as opposed to Democrats. If you then, and here if I can make a slightly offensive remark, try desperately to forget all of the people who then identified Republicanism or Conservatism or whatever with Trump, which seems to me, well, that will be another story, which I don't want to go on about now.

Walter was concerned with the notion of the importance of identifying people who were interested in classical liberalism, and then, in a sense, trying to develop them so that they would be able to undertake work in research universities. His judgment for that was that work coming out of these sets the predominant agenda for academic work in the United States and through that in many ways for the world. And that, typically what one would get would be people who became interested in classical liberalism or libertarianism and then in a sense thought that they had all the answers and if they then, however bright they were, then went on to graduate school, they would either tick off formidably all the people they were working with or as it were, they would read the signs and understand that actually, while this still may be what motivates them in their heart, it's of no earthly use in terms of getting a job, and that the expectation would be that they should fit in with the ideas of the person who'd be their supervisor and panel, and they would then exercise a certain kind of patronage in terms of helping them to get at least interviews for jobs and through that various placements.

Now, the IHS, while I was there, was doing two things. On the one side, it was running liberty and society programs, which were offering an interdisciplinary approach to quite tough minded classical liberal and libertarian ideas. On the other, and this is what I was involved with, was working with people in different disciplines in choosing a graduate school, in dealing with problems that they came across, in essentially trying to get them to negotiate with their supervisors what would be an academically interesting topic, which also was something which related reasonably to their classical liberalism. And this was really very difficult.

The big problem about that was that Walter tended to think that what was needed was to keep people's interest in a wide span of ideas going and at the same time get what support from IHS they could, so as to continue their distinctive approach in graduate school. But in effect, the pressure on people in graduate school was typically too great to enable them to do those kinds of things. And, I, from a distance, and we also used to operate a kind of network. So we put graduate students, say, in history in touch with other historians who might have related ideas and right across the academic spectrum. But this didn't really work very well in terms of the dynamics of how American academic life actually worked out. And you tend to get two consequences. Either you get people who did work, which was true to their ideas, but dug them into a hole so that they might get a job in a college somewhere, but they couldn't really do work which would exercise much influence over anything, or they would do work, which one could see how it related to their classical liberal concerns, but which really became mainstream in its orientation, or they would just go native, as it were, where they were, and they might say in my heart I'm still a classical liberal, but yes, I do admit you wouldn't be able to tell this, or they might find that they are in a situation, say in economics, where work in a classical liberal tradition could fit, provided that it was stripped from anything that had to do with classical liberalism.

And there was a chap who's now teaching at George Mason, who I knew very well, who was doing economics at New York University and was interested in issues to do with game theory. And he was concerned in some respects with problems posed by the operation of credit bureaus and so on for individuals in an economic setting and would write papers which explain the background to that and then went into game theoretic work. And I remember his telling me that he'd got an offer from a really good journal to publish, but where they said, in effect, we'll take your paper if you get rid of that historical crap at the beginning. And so the difficulty really was that the dynamics of how things were working meant that what IHS was trying to do was difficult.

It's interesting for what it's worth that I've found parallels with some people who are conservative evangelical Christians have found, namely, that they find themselves in a similar kind of situation. They may have people who are really very good scholars, but who, in effect, find that the disciplinary pressures, in terms of how the sociology of the profession works, just make it very difficult for them to do their own thing. Another kind of tactic is obviously that which has been taken by the Mises Institute, where, their wish is to, don't make any compromise and whatever, but, the problem of this is that no one in the academic world then ends up listening to them at all.

Whereas I think there are actually a number of people who went through the IHS program who, in their own different ways, really have exercised a certain influence on the academic world. I wouldn't have done things quite how Walter did them. But I think that in some ways, it was quite successful. In other ways, I think there is a big problem there, facing classical liberalism in a hostile, intellectual world.

Popper’s personality, work ethic, and other interests

Arjun: Very interesting. Now, you worked very closely with Popper for eight years. And we have his ideas and I think they are the best explanations in epistemology. But I'm just curious to learn more about what Popper was like as a person. Did you find him embodying his own philosophical ideas in his daily life? Perhaps you could share any life principles you might have learned from him. 

Jeremy: Okay. What I have to say is this. Popper, and this seems to run right through his life, was really living for intellectual problems and activities. And I was first working with him when he was a bit younger than I am now. And he basically would get up in the morning and would engage with intellectual problems and issues. I would then call him from the office that I had at the London School of Economics, and talk with him and be given a whole list of photocopying and books that he wanted. It has to be said that Popper was working prior to the existence of personal computers and the internet and email and anything. Everything was really being done on a very different basis.

But he was incredibly hardworking, incredibly dedicated. If he was concerned with a problem, he would just basically work on that. And his life consisted of him sitting at a desk, working on problems, reading stuff, relating to them, and so on.

And then he had a certain number of visitors. There was a chap, a British, academic and then Member of Parliament and broadcaster called Bryan Magee, who was a good friend of his and used to come and visit him from time to time, and would bring a newspaper and talk with him about current affairs as well.

Arjun: His introduction to Popper's ideas, I think, is one of the best short books that you could read.

Jeremy: Yes, that's certainly good, but he was influenced more generally by Popper's Ideas and also in his own interpretation of social democracy was very much influenced by Popper, but, Popper was also in touch with a bunch of other people, including his old friend Ernst Gombrich, the art historian, and so on. But Popper would be diligently working away on things. He typically wrote on long, false cap size, sheets of treated paper, which were very smooth to write on. His wife would then usually type up a first draft of things on her typewriter. He would then correct them. At that point, they would then be given to me, and I would typically go out to see him once or twice a week. These would be taken back, I would go over them, because while Popper's English style was good, it worked on very much a Popperian basis. So if he got engaged in something, he'd lose the sense of his English style and it would be influenced by Germanic style and so on, but he would then go back and correct it.

And so anything that he wrote was the product of endless versions of trial and error, and so on. But, I would then go back with these things, he'd work over them again. He would tend to waste an enormous amount of time pottering around with small points of punctuation and so on. But, he was really hard at it all the time. And sometimes if he got engaged with an intellectually exciting idea, he would just work right through the night on it. And this is when he was in his 70s. His wife, and he, but particularly his wife, liked a very quiet setting, and they had, moved from a rather noisy, house in London, which they didn't like, to a house in the countryside about 30 miles away from London, about as far away from London as they were allowed by the LSE's regulations to be, and I'd have to come out there, but his wife liked the quiet, but they would also sometimes use go on holidays.

But, if they went on holidays, it would usually be to Switzerland or the Austrian mountains and so on. And after Popper had been there a little while, I would get handwritten manuscripts being sent back to me. He would just keep solidly at it. He was someone whose knowledge was incredibly wide ranging. Even to strands in philosophy that he didn't have any particular sympathy for. So that he knew a fair amount about phenomenology. And he would talk about other things. When he was a young man, he'd been very interested in music. And he'd done training in music. And he'd got,‘ they had a small grand piano in the main room of the house, but he'd got problems with his ears, so that he would hear things coming at a different pitch, but he would still occasionally play on this, and themes to do with music, really enchanted him and influenced him a lot. He also used to do mountaineering when he was a young man and had some books on mountaineering, which he would sometimes read. But basically, he was just, I guess one could say, quite puritanically dedicated to different aspects of academic work. And this was very much his life. 

Against the self-expressionist theory of art

Arjun: That's amazing to hear. He does mention a lot, in his intellectual autobiography about his love for music and he even talks about art, which was very interesting to me, and he rejects the self expressionist theory of art, basically. And, I wonder if you have anything to say about that?

Jeremy: Yes, it's a strong theme. It relates in many ways to ideas that he developed about language following Carl Bühler, who was a teacher of his. And basically, Popper thought that expression was trivial and that really, one should look at art and music as people engaged in certain kinds of problem solving. There are interesting parallels between his ideas there and some of Ernst Gombrich's work. I don't know if you know Gombrich's Art and Illusion, which is an interesting historical study of the development of perspective in painting and representation, but where Gombrich's ideas are on very similar lines to what Popper has had to say. But I think Popper generally takes a view, and it parallels actually, although Popper didn't really read his work on this, some of R.G. Collingwood's ideas about the significance of problem solving in the 19th century in aesthetics and of learning. And I think that for Popper, generally, it's engagement with World Three Objects. It is grappling with problems, working by trial and error, and so on, which is the key to things rather than any notion of self expression, because, you could say that while this is a slightly subdued theme in Popper, a really important theme in Popper's work is the significance of intersubjective criticism.

This is set out in his ideas about the foundations of knowledge, but I think more generally, if one turns to what he has to say about the myth of the framework, he says really that some people have thought that you can only actually have a useful conversation with people whose premises you share. And for Popper, almost the opposite is true. What really is important is that you are fallibilistic about your own ideas and see other people as people from whom you might learn. And obviously, this is something that we acquire through the early stages of education, and if we're lucky, with continuing interaction with other people. But we also internalize these things. So in many respects, for Popper, rather than just self expression, the key thing is an interplay with intersubjectively determined standards, and obviously these are fallible. One might come to the conclusion that the standards that have been accepted in some particular discipline are themselves problematic. But what you then need to do is to think, okay, how do I engage with other people so as to change these matters?

Why the ideas of Popper and Hayek aren’t mainstream

Arjun: Yes. Why do you think Popper and Hayek's ideas have not become as mainstream? I know we talked about this before, but I think a lot of people have this assumption about Popper that he was just a falsificationist, but there's just so much more to him that people are, frankly, just unaware about. So I'm curious to hear why you think that is. 

Jeremy: Okay. What I'd say about it is, in part, it goes back to issues about the sociology of the organization of academic professions and to the development of a high degree of specialization. Second, I think it's the case that when Popper was at the LSE, he had relatively few students who could pursue work at an advanced level, and his department was really one of the history and philosophy of science. So while there were people who were engaged with other issues, for example, John Watkins had originally been appointed to a position in political science and then moved to join Popper and had got wider interest, but there's a sense in which a lot of Popper's concerns were pursued, in a rather narrow area and that the people who worked with him typically became philosophers of science, but in a state of a discipline where, Popper's approaches in these areas weren't very much appreciated. You've also, I think, got the problem that Popper really didn't produce popular work. He produced, you could say that the Open Society, if you just take the text of that, is a semi popular work. But, typically more interesting and wide ranging ideas are scattered across different essays and even his key ideas in the logic of scientific discovery, people may pick that up.

I remember when I was doing a first year course in logic at the LSE, which was actually taught after Popper's style, the pre Socratic style, not the regular way, I was recommended I read The Logic of Scientific Discovery, but the problem is that while the first part of it you can engage with it, then immediately moves to a whole lot of technical stuff, the significance of which really isn't explained. And Popper himself tended sometimes to get caught up with technical problems, the wider interest of which he didn't really bother to explain to other people.

But I think that the consequence of this really is that the interaction between the way in which Popper was working, the fact that his approach was a distinctive and minority one in the field, and the ever growing specialization of academic work means that it just didn't get much of a hearing. I also think that in the U.S., there's an odd way in which, while, say, John Dewey's ideas about the philosophy of science are very different from Popper's, they influence quite a number of people in ways that made them a bit immune to the impact of what Popper was doing. And Dewey was for quite a long time a significant and persisting influence on American philosophy.

As to Hayek, I think a key issue really was that there has been a systematic unwillingness on the part of British and American academics to engage with people who are seen as politically conservative or classical liberal. So that there is a sense in which Hayek is known about, I'm going to qualify this in a second. If one reads what is typically said about Hayek, he tends to be treated as if he was a kind of simple disciple of Mises without people actually quite understanding what his substantive views were. And there is a sort of oddity, which is that in Britain and in America, various notions that people call socialism are very popular. But no one actually explains what it is that they are talking about. That's to say, what is going on in a market economy but with more generous benefits?

And one might then say, if it's that, just how are you explaining the bias that you're exhibiting towards your own nationals? There's a sense in which socialists are typically internationalists but tend to embrace theories the thrust of which is to say, it's our duty to look after our own citizens and go hang the rest of the world. The only thing that you've got in terms of Hayek was in Britain when Mrs. Thatcher came to power. There were a number of British academics on the left who, as a consequence of this, started to engage seriously with Hayek’s work. And these were people like David Miller, the Nuffield College David Miller, not the chap who worked with Popper, Raymond Plants, Andrew Gamble. There were a number of these people. And, one then started at least to get a bit of a useful discussion. The problem is that people who were attracted to Hayek's work tended really to be very thin on the ground. In Britain, there used to be three or four people, Norman Barry, Chandran Kukatas, Myself and John Gray.

And John Gray then went into weird and wonderful things of his own. Barry died. It's really quite a sad story because there just weren't the people there to engage critically and to develop these things in the way in which they should have been done. There's also a sense in which it seems to me, and one finds this on the part, for example, of people in the British government at the moment, who are attracted to Thatcher, but they tend just to repeat slogans rather than actually working out what kind of public policy approaches are really called for. So much of it just seems to me to be superficial and, quite frankly, idiotic. And all sorts of real problems that need to be addressed just haven't been. And the situation, I find, really is getting very depressing because in the U.S., there are very few people. it seems to me, who are still pursuing any form of classical liberal approach at all.

If I look back to when I was in the U.S., at that time, there was the Mises Institute doing their thing, there was Cato, there was Liberty Fund, Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). And also Heritage. Heritage is now basically trying to offer ideas for a new Trump administration. Liberty Fund, in my judgment, has really been taken over by an odd kind of conservatism. Cato is still certainly continuing, but they don't have the kind of funding that they did in the past. And FEE seems to me, it's certainly there but is relatively ineffectual. And I think that particularly in terms of hard hitting work on policy ideas, and actual academic engagement, There are real difficulties. And it seems to me that IHS now has really, for tactical reasons, trying to pitch its approach to things which they think may be more attractive to people who are sympathetic to American style liberalism, which seems to me to be a terrible mistake but it really becomes rather depressing.

And where the Republican Party in the U.S., Trump seems to have swallowed everything. And in Britain, the people who were influenced by Boris Johnson into a kind of and milder version of Trump style populism are still very influential. And I find that, I am not a conservative, and I think it's important really to differentiate between classical liberalism and conservatism, but, the more traditional conservatives either are just muted or have gone off the rails into kind of weird conspiracy theories. Now, there is a risk that this is the sort of perspective that someone of my age will have on the world, and things used to be, but I think certainly they could have been much better. You say, what did you do, Jeremy? And well, the job market wasn't very good. And I went and taught at the Australian National University and Australia is very nice, but for an academic, it's roughly like being dead. That's to say you're there, you're doing things, but you're not on anyone's horizon at all. That is how I see things at the moment. There is, I think, another kind of issue, and this relates to Hayek.

I'd say first of all to Popper and then to Hayek. To Popper, I think that Popperian critical rationalism should itself be seen as a metaphysical research program and an agenda worked out which one could get, I think, into subjective agreement between people who are interested in Popper and people who are not, as to what the problem facing it is, what its strong points are, what its weak points are, what its approaches could be, and so on. Similarly, I think, to Hayek, there is a real danger that people who like Popper just tend to either do historical work on Popper or repeat things that Popper has said, a bit like the Reader's Digest used to, of sort of short excerpts rather than engaging with the problems. Whereas with Hayek, I think his work is really most interesting, but at the same time, I think that there's a whole lot of problems and issues about a Hayekian approach which really should inspire people to try and do a bit better. And I just don't find that kind of attitude there either, but I'm doing what I can on both fronts. To try to encourage people to think of things like this, but on the other hand, there is, I'm now 75, and, it won't be too long until I'm up there with Joe Biden where people say, he's a pleasant man with some slightly funny ideas, but actually he's passed it. Let's do something else.


Arjun: You've listed David Freedman's The Machinery of Freedom as one of the top books one must read before dying, so I have to ask you—

Jeremy: I don't remember having done that. I think it's an interesting book. And I guess what I would say is that, that and Jan Narveson's The Libertarian Idea are two very interesting books, which attempt to argue for a classical liberal slash libertarian perspective, on the basis of either a rigorous utilitarianism or on the basis, in Narveson's case, of a Gautier style self interest approach. I wouldn't agree with them, but I think that they are really interesting and challenging books. But sorry, I interrupted what you were going to ask me about. 

Arjun: Yes. So I wanted to ask you about your stance on anarcho-capitalism.

Jeremy: I am not a fan. It really depends what one is talking about. You could say that in broad terms, there are two variants of it. One of them is the Rothbard style, which attempts to make it a rights based approach, arguing axiomatically from non-aggression or something of this kind. I think it's entertaining and interesting and it's the sort of thing that leads nerdy libertarians to have interesting arguments late into the evening about whether people should be free to develop their own nuclear weapons in their backyard, regarding whether they haven't actually yet aggressed against anyone.

The other style is the purely utilitarian approach, and on that, I'd also say that David Ramsay Steele is someone who is a very interesting writer from that perspective. Now, if I can comment on the two of them in turn, the big problem about the first seems to me to be that while humans are important in themselves, I can't see that you can develop, as it were, a priori, a theory of human rights on the basis of what everyone reckons that they should be able to recognize as worthy of respect concerning other people. It's striking, for example, that even someone like John Locke who argued his own sort of religious based approach pretty quickly moved from very basic ideas about rights, to stuff which was going to have to be settled by way of effectively conventional agreement by the government in terms of what should be done.

And if you think about it in the following way, at the heyday of 17th and 18th century rights theory, there was typically the notion that we had certain kinds of duties to God, that in order to discharge these, we needed to recognize that people had certain rights. But the belief then was that God had fixed things in such a way that if we respected one another's rights, the macro consequences of actions which respected rights would be okay. Now, this might be the case, but it seems to me that one probably needs a kind of truck load of religion first before such an approach becomes at all convincing. What is actually needed in different kinds of circumstances on the face of it looks hopelessly underdetermined by the kind of basic rights that people might agree with. And where, for example, if you take, say, issues that come up with the development of industrialization or with the development of flight, you have the question, what does a right involve? What counts as a negative externality of the sort that it involves infringing someone's rights? And there seems to me to be no, people can have a go at this, but on the face of it, it looks as if it's something that is going to have to be continually renegotiated under different sorts of circumstances.

And the notions of doing this on the basis of deducing things just from non-aggression seem to me to be just hopeless, because what actually counts as aggression or interference with something else? I think that side of the stuff is interesting. People may come up with neat ideas, and I'd also say that we should be really very ready to learn how problems can be resolved without appealing to the government to try and do it, and be ready to borrow policies from one another and to imitate. On the other side of things, the utilitarian one, the difficulty there really seems to me to be twofold.

On the one side, if you try to do these things without some notion of a basic respect for persons, then there may be all kinds of things where it would be on the face of it to everyone's advantage, to solve problems in ways that look problematic. For example, suppose that every time that you had a child born in hospital that, if it had significant genetic defects, the mother was simply told, I'm sorry, your child has died. From a utilitarian perspective, it would be rather sad for the mother, it would seem to resolve all kinds of problems in terms of her well-being, the family's being, that of neighbors, relatives, and so on.

Similarly, looking again at my picture here and seeing Joe Biden coming to haunt me, one might think, we've now got to a situation with regard to the elderly, where vast numbers of people are being kept alive in situations, where there is no prospect for them being able to return to life of any kind of quality. Is there any barrier just to saying, right, we simply institute a policy that rather than retirement homes, you have gas chambers. All I'm saying is that those are extreme levels, but running right through things, you've got all kinds of questions about where it looks as if there will be considerable trade offs between what is making, if you like, for the greatest happiness, the greatest number and notions of respect for individuals. And I'm not saying it's an easy matter. But, I'm not sure that pure utilitarianism will do the trick. 

Another kind of issue is this. If you look at many Western European countries, you have situations where rulers were in place and who really behaved a bit like Putin or just imagine Donald Trump without anyone to restrain him and when people actually took what he was saying seriously. I say it's a tricky matter, but I think you have to think of Trump as being, he had an association with what at the time was the World Wrestling Federation. And, basically there is this kind of discourse where you say all of these wild things. Things about your opponents and no one believes a word of it. But there is a sense in which Trump unrestrained by anyone much, might actually kind of institute things that at the time seemed a kind of good idea. And on the face of it, in a situation where there is no government, it's not clear that you get rid of significant concentrations of power. Just think of the sort of impulsiveness that you get with Musk at the moment, but he at least is only doing things which on the face of it only will do his wealth and those people who are idiotic enough to invest with him, a certain amount of harm.

When you're dealing with things to do with a privatized public policy or law and order or matters of this kind, it's really tricky. And you might say, aren't people just restrained by their own interests? I think the answer is, not necessarily, and I think the big advantage of some kinds of government is that you had institutions of cabinets where you have, people being appointed who actually don't necessarily agree with the person with the most power, but whose judgment is respected. You've got institutions in the law where there are various kinds of procedures that people are committed to, and I think a lot of these things, they're vulnerable and they clearly can be dissipated, but they're typically things that have to grow up over time, and historically, they've been things that have grown up, to restrain or foster certain kinds of actions in government. And I'd be worried otherwise that, what you might get is stuff which, in a way, gets responsive to public opinion in bad ways, a little bit like having public policy determined by the internet or, just to what people on the spur of the moment are willing to pay for.

I think you've had a big problem at the moment of the decline of a public sphere in which people are willing to talk seriously to people who disagree with them. The book, Hashtag Republic, I think, Cass Sunstein, is actually very much on the mark there, and drawing our attention to certain kind of problems, which I think are ones which one should pay attention to if one's interested in Popper's work as well, because he's stressed over and over the significance of respectful exchanges with people who disagree with us. Yet, these things aren't things that we typically like. 

Closing remarks

Arjun: Jeremy, I think that's a good place to end our conversation today. It's been a pleasure talking with you, and thank you so much for joining me.

Jeremy: Thank you very much, Arjun. Could I just mention, finally, that I put on twice a year Zoom based conferences on Popper's work, and if anyone would be interested in attending these or giving a paper, they should just contact me. Thanks very much.

Arjun:  Yes, and I'll leave your details in the episode description. 

Jeremy: Thank you very much. 

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Arjun Khemani Podcast
A podcast about progress, philosophy, science, education, and the unconstrained human condition.