Pancritical rationalism

In my paper "On Critical and Pancritical Rationalism" I look at how critical and pancritical rationalism are related to each other. Karl Popper expounds and recommends critical rationalism is chapter 24 of the Open Society; it's a theory which acknowledges that no assumption is exempt from criticism and which treats other people as helpers in the search for truth. William Warren Bartley, III, propounds and endorses pancritical rationalism in chapter 5 of The Retreat to Commitment; it's a theory which allows any position to be criticised and denounces justificationist methods of criticism.

Far from being a refinement and development of critical rationalism, as some of its supporters have claimed, I argue that pancritical rationalism is inferior to critical rationalism as it leaves out at least one of critical rationalism's most important features and it incorporates some justificationist elements absent from critical rationalism. These are some of the theses I argue for in "On Critical and Pancritical Rationalism":

The critical rationalist takes critical arguments seriously

The critical rationalist adopts the attitude "I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth" (Open Society, vol. 2, fifth edition, p. 225). The decision to adopt this attitude is irrational because it is a moral decision. That this decision is moral is one of critical rationalism's most valuable assets, setting it apart from other conceptions of rationality and instilling it with a moral dimension that they lack. As I say in my paper: "Living in accordance with [the] ethical principle [to take critical arguments seriously] is not always an easy thing to do. It involves an almost daily struggle not to dismiss, in one way or another, inconvenient truths and irritating arguments that do more than merely suggest that our carefully worked-out opinions are not as perfect as we would wish."

Bartley misinterprets critical rationalism

Bartley interprets Popper incorrectly in that he takes critical rationalism to be summed up by the principle that any assumption, except this one, which cannot be supported either by argument or experience is to be discarded.

Bartley misinterprets how critical rationalism is accepted

Bartley thinks that Popper simply decides to accept the above principle for no reason. Thus, for Bartley, Popper is a fideist. Bartley sees the need to make such an irrational decision as being a serious liability of critical rationalism. No moral decision is needed to accept pancritical rationalism; Bartley sees nothing wrong in someone deciding to accept pancritical rationalism as a result of some arbitrary method such as "tossing yarrow stalks" (Retreat, second edition, p. 94, fn. 34).

Key elements of pancritical rationalism are already present in critical rationalism

In pancritical rationalism everything can be criticised, criticism is distinguished from justification and nothing is justified by means of an irrational decision. However, Popper explicitly states: "Any assumption can, in principle, be criticized" (Open Society, vol. 2, first edition, p. 209). For Popper, all "rational criticism takes the form of an attempt to show that unacceptable conclusions can be derived from the assertion we are trying to criticize" (In Search of a Better World, p. 75).

There are elements of justificationism in pancritical rationalism

Bartley thinks that a person should abandon a position if the argument which supports that position is shown to be invalid (Retreat, second edition, p. 71). However, only a justificationist should do that. An anti-justificationist should only abandon a truth-apt position if falsehoods can be derived from it. Furthermore, Bartley subscribes to the justificationist fallacy I call the strategy of attacking foundations which usually has four stages:

  1. Find a theory you do not like.
  2. Locate its foundations.
  3. Criticise those foundations and show that they are false
  4. Conclude that the entire theory is incorrect or false or radically flawed or intellectually bankrupt.

However, just because a theory follows from false premises does not mean that it itself is false. Anyone who's taken "Logic 101" has been taught that an argument is valid if and only if it is impossible for the conclusion to be false when all the premises are true.


William Warren Bartley's first book: The Retreat to Commitment
  • William Warren Bartley, III, The Retreat to Commitment, first edition, London, Chatto & Windus, 1964.
  • William Warren Bartley, III, The Retreat to Commitment, second edition, La Salle, Open Court, 1984.
  • William Warren Bartley, III, Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth, La Salle, Open Court, 1990.
  • Antoni Diller, "On Critical and Pancritical Rationalism", Philosophy of the Social Sciences, ISSN 0048-3931, vol. 43.2 (June 2013), pp. 127–156. DOI 10.1177/0048393111434831. Subscribers to Philosophy of the Social Sciences can read "On Critical and Pancritical Rationalism" online.
  • Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 2, first edition, London, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1945.
  • Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 2, fifth edition, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.
  • Karl Popper, In Search of a Better World, London, Routledge, 1992.

© Antoni Diller (5 February 2015)