In response to:
Est Is Est from the April 5, 1979 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of my Werner Erhard (NYR, April 5), Jonathan Lieberson patronizingly alleges that William James was “naïve” in his sympathetic discussion of the “mind-cure” movements of the nineteenth century; and that I have now “fallen” for Werner Erhard. For neither of these claims does he give a fragment of evidence. He also makes serious mistakes:
1) As evidence that I treat Werner with unsupported reverence, Lieberson quotes from pages xvii-xx my reports of some of my first impressions of Erhard: as a “Johnny Apple-seed of consciousness,” “Merlin-like,” etc. But Lieberson omits to mention that on those same pages I pose the questions: “Was I the victim of mass hypnosis? Did this man’s power lie in my own naïveté?… Is this fraud?… Was he a charlatan?… What a combination! Can any of it be taken seriously?”
2) Lieberson says that I “uncritically promote shallow solutions to serious philosophical problems,” and do not “bother to examine certain important metaphysical questions” that arise from examination of est theory. He mentions two: the est theory of “recreation” and the est account of the determinism of “Mind.” I criticize the theory of recreation on pp. 263-267, stating that it “needs to be examined,” is an “unfalsifiable” metaphysical research program in its present formulation, and is “intrinsically unscientific.” On page 263 I also describe est theory, in its current state of development, as a “rampant restless sea of metaphor.” As to determinism, I discuss it on pp. 99-105 and page 263, and in the latter place indicate my disagreement with Erhard and my agreement on this point with Sir Karl Popper, Sir John Eccles, and Carl Rogers.
3) To explain how a “highly competent professional philosopher” (Lieberson’s words for me) could have fallen for est, Lieberson speculates that it must be due to the pernicious influence of my teacher Sir Karl Popper, with his “malicious pragmatism” and subjective relativism in which “most of life and nearly all choices of any consequence…escape critical control.”
This is outrageous and irresponsible. Popper has emphatically dissociated himself from pragmatism from his earliest published works. Although there are a few relativistic passages in his early work, he corrected these in the early Sixties and in the “Addendum on Facts, Standards, and Truth: A Further Criticism of Relativism” that appears in the fourth (1962) and subsequent editions of The Open Society and Its Enemies. I have devoted my entire career, from my earliest work, to the critique and refutation of pragmatism and subjective relativism. My doctoral thesis (1962) is devoted to an attack on pragmatism; and my first book, The Retreat to Commitment (Knopf, 1962), attacks relativism, solves the problems of rationality that lead to it, and develops what I call there a comprehensively critical rationalism directed to bringing all choices under critical control.
4) Lieberson also berates me with the est account of “perfection.” I left an account of this out of my book because I find the usual formulations of it needlessly confusing. But Lieberson obviously doesn’t understand the notion, which is rooted in Buddhism and has nothing to do with the suggestion that “no more evidence needs to be accumulated, no intellectual vigilance over our acts, no agonizing choices are required.” The est teaching is exactly the opposite of this.
My account of Werner Erhard is favorable. And I think that est theory, even at its weakest, is provocative, useful, wise, even deep. There have been many grossly inaccurate accounts of est in newspapers, but I have always supposed that this was not in the main due to lack of objectivity, good will, or intellectual curiosity, but to lack of training in philosophical and psychological theory on the part of the journalists in question. Mr. Lieberson does not have this excuse, which leads me to wonder whether it is not he who has fallen for a line: the line that I must be a dupe, or that even William James must be naïve to take a sympathetic approach to these matters.
W.W. Bartley, III
Professor of Philosophy
California State University
Jonathan Lieberson replies:
Professor Bartley is mistaken that I suppose he or William James must be dupes; to the contrary, I expressly applauded their efforts to cast light on the difficult problems of self-help. Lest I mislead, however, my reference to James was but a quaint reminder that earlier philosophers have done this—I could have mentioned Spinoza; the intended comparison between Bartley and James ended there.
I hope I shall not offend Bartley if I say that my criticism of him for not “examining” certain problems for est was meant literally. In the passages he cites, he has indeed discovered some of these problems, but if there is “criticism” there, it is hard to discriminate it from the sugary environment. Despite his disclaimers, it seems that Bartley leaves behind his philosophical equipment when addressing problems that challenge the very coherence or worth of est. I found this uncritical and disturbing.
Est theory is indeed, to use Bartley’s metaphor, a “sea of metaphor” that is “rampant,” i.e., spreading unchecked in numerous directions, although I wonder how Bartley can go on to say that it could have a clear “opposite,” let alone be “wise” or “useful.” If I say that my friend is a dead duck, that might be wise or useful, but if I go on to say the duck is a bowl of cherries, the initial impression is put to a serious test.
As for Sir Karl Popper, I was not innocent of his official rejection of pragmatism—how could one forget such a claim in a philosopher so unafraid to repeat himself? My point was different, though simple: Popper’s “critical philosophy” is an abstract catechism devoid of practical guidance for those trying to promote the aims of science or morality; to fill the gap, he invokes catchwords words associated with pragmatism, stressing the “logic of the situation” and the claims of context. I called this “malicious” because apart from suggesting the aroma of praise, these words and phrases carry no clear content in his work. Popper thus occupies an uncomfortable position: in word he is an arch-objectivist, but subjectivists and relativists, rigorists and anarchists can all find support for their views in his pages. In short, what Bartley finds “outrageous and irresponsible” misreading on my part turns out to be a difference of interpretation between us concerning radically obscure doctrine.
I do not wish to impugn what is no doubt an honorable retreat from commitment on Bartley’s part, although I had hoped he would respond to some of my central points. The issue which continues to divide us is this: I regard the central moral issue for all those who wish to help themselves as the discovery of means of marshalling their capacities, enlarging their sensitivity, and introducing intelligent control, direction, and significance into their lives. Est, on the other hand, substitutes for this issue an abusive and upsetting training together with a handful of sterile generalities about Perfection and the Self which, I beg to differ, have a great deal to do with these crucial life-choices. As against Professor Bartley, Werner Erhard, Valerie Harper, John Denver, and others, I would suggest that if blowing our minds is not to be a worthless spasm, it seems advisable to have a good and specific reason for doing it and at least a thumbnail sketch of how intelligent reconstruction is to proceed.
May 31, 1979