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Hayek and Popper: smothered giants of the Twentieth Century

By Rafe Champion - posted Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Can we generate an adult debate on social issues instead of the simultaneously toxic and infantilized exchanges which pass for political commentary at present?

A vital function of education, especially higher education, is to put students in touch with the best that has been thought and written in the field of study. Something has gone wrong with the transmission of the thoughts of  Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper because a great many  educated  people have  either  not heard about  them at all or have taken on board fragments of misinformation put about by their enemies and opponents. That does not mean that their ideas have been discredited  and it is a very poor reflection on the performance of the universities that this has happened. It is no accident that we have a toxic climate of political debate at present, largely due to the success of the dominant tribe of leftwing/progressive intellectuals in  marginalizing thinkers who challenge their views.

In 1989 when there were only 21 universities I surveyed the undergraduate courses and reading lists in the schools of philosophy, sociology and politics (strangely neglecting economics).  The courses in philosophy and sociology were innocent of Hayek. In a few places he made an appearance in politics. Popper was general  absent in sociology  and occasionally present in politics. In philosophy he was taught as a transitional figure in the history and philosophy of science, between the positivists and more up to date thinkers like Lakatos, Kuhn and Feyerabend.


An attempt to repeat the survey in recent times was frustrated by the proliferation of campuses and courses.  Instead I conducted a survey of the philosophy books in three public libraries in the part of Sydney where I live.  Hardly any of these books mentioned Hayek and so the research at this stage focussed on the treatment of Popper. Practically every book contained major misrepresentations of his ideas and the Top Ten Errors are listed at the end of this article.

The same errors turned up in a sample of books in the library at the University of Sydney. These are errors in explaining what Popper actually wrote, not to mention invalid criticisms of his ideas. Of course some authors did better than others but in recent years there has been a tendency for authors to leave Popper  out completely, which would be understandable  if all the misrepresentations were correct and the criticisms were valid.

Kevin Rudd demonstrated the state of play regarding Hayek’s ideas in a very impressive manner. First as the leader of the Opposition and then as Prime Minister, with access to the best brains in the nation, he misread Hayek’s political economy in such an absurd manner that he should have been a laughing stock among the educated public.  His lengthy papers in The Monthly had as much intellectual content as the photo of himself in Norman Gunston mode. But the public was mute, apart from some laughter in the vicinity of The Centre for Independent Studies and IPA.

Clearly Hayek’s classical liberalism, the economics of the Austrian school and the “critical rationalist" philosophy of Karl Popper have been marginalised and  students can easily pass through the universities  without getting a straight feed  on  those ideas.  As a partial corrective to this state of affairs and I have written a series of guides to Popper’s major works, and some of Hayek’s contribution, designed for  busy people who want short books which they can to read them in electronic form.  These are are available as ebooks from Amazon. More on Popper, Hayek and the classical liberal agenda can be found here.

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Popper’s first book, Logik der Forschung (1935) took a quarter of a century to appear as The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959.  In the meantime the Continental diaspora carried the philosophy of positivism and logical empiricism into the major universities of  Britain and North America where it is still taught as the orthodox or Received View  in many faculties.  Popper  was in New Zealand from  1937 to 1945 and  when he returned to London his influence at the London School of Economics was limited because most students of philosophy passed through other universities where very different schools of thought were dominant.


Even in English The Logic of Scientific Discovery is not a suitable introduction to Popper's ideas for a general readership and it was no match for Thomas Kuhn's  book on revolutions and paradigms that appeared soon after. 

The Popperian "turns"

Popper's basic ideas are clear enough when they are stripped of the supporting arguments that were required to deal with the obsessions of the positivists. It helps to see them in the light of a number of shifts in focus that Popper introduced. I have called these the six Popperian "turns" and they are explained in an appendix to the guides.

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About the Author

Rafe Champion brings the grafting qualities of the opening batsman and the cunning of the offspin bowler to the task of routing dogmatists, protectionists and other riff-raff who stand in the way of peace, freedom and plenty. He has a website and he blogs at Catallaxy and also at The History of Australian and New Zealand Thought. For more about Rafe visit here. All of his posts on Catallaxy for 2007 can be found at this link. Not all the links work and some need to be cut and pasted into the browser.

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