Review: Malachi Haim Hacohen, Karl Popper. The Formative years 1902-1945. Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. [*]


A friend of mine once told about the Art History course she took in college:

Professor shows a slide. Moment of silence. "Beautiful," he murmurs, and on to the next slide: "Exquisite," he says, and then on to the next...

If this sound like every undergraduate Art History course ever taken it's because the teaching of Art History is a well-defined discipline with rigorous pedagogical standards and competencies upheld by the most widely used Art History textbook ever written, The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich; but I have to wonder, as I've wondered elsewhere, what the connection is between the kind of Art History taught today, and the kinds of people Gombrich considered his friends and intellectual allies: Karl Popper, author of The Open Society, an inspiration to the political speculator George Soros; and Friedrich Hayek, Maggie Thatcher's favorite economist.


What does Art History have to do with economics? It's a given fact among the followers and teachers of Friedrich Hayek, the members of the so-called Austrian School of Economics, that Art doesn't fit the economic model because it's got nothing to do with Scarcity, and scarcity drives the market. This is the lynchpin of the "Calculation Problem," the argument developed by Ludwig van Mises, the Austrian economist, and taken up by later by his epi-goon Hayek at the London School of Economics. Market intervention never works because the calculations can't prove it does; Marxists don't know how to redistribute resources, and that's a fact, in a highly abstract kind of way.

There's a problem with the Calculation Problem, though: if you accept that Culture has a real economic function apart from giving Business majors a chance to take a nap while classroom lights are dimmed, then Mises' argument falls apart, because Culture has little to do with Scarcity. So it is very, very important, children, to emphasize that Art is Just for Staring. It's purely passive. The second problem with the Calculation Problem is, that Mises developed it in the early 'twenties, in Vienna. A lesser man might have been humbled by the thought that he was writing a book demonstrating that Socialism was not economically viable at the time the Socialists of Vienna had managed to rebuild the economy, house hundreds of thousands of workers, and bring an end to tuberculosis. This didn't bother Mises since, as he later explained, his operating concepts were the equivalent of what Kant called "synthetic a-prioris:" being immediately, intuitively accessible to the intellect (like "space," or "up and down,") they had transcendental validity; they required no proof, and least of all from the likes of you. Like an empty doorway and a maple tree, or a required course, Free-Market Economics should not mean, but be. And the same could be said of Art, and has: "Beautiful. Any questions? Next."


Vienna, 1927: Karl Popper's just another graduate student, an over-educated and under-employed formerly-rich whiz-kid trying to get along in the Whiz-Grownup game against some very stiff competition, while teaching the children of the working class in the meantime. Call it Erziehung, Bildung, Kultur or whatever, the main arena for the development of the promised Socialist Culture in Vienna, the creation of the New Red Man, is Education, now. Popper's dissertation, in Psychology, proves that the little fu...—I mean, the striving children of the Proletariat—will never free themselves from their miserable condition because they're too "dogmatic," genetically brainwashed to be oblivious to Culture, much as your average Business Major is said to be oblivious to Art. Popper would later throw that word, "dogmatic," at the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; in Popper's breakthrough book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) "dogmatic" becomes a code-word for "brainwashed Commie dupe."

Popper and Mises turned out to be prophetic, after all: Socialism didn't work. Not only was Socialism unable to persuade the Proletariat to rise beyond its genetic inability to respond to an incompetent teacher; Socialism itself had an innate tendency to collapse under systematic mortar attacks on a civilian population, as happened in Vienna in 1934. Within weeks, Popper was meeting with various right-wing economists in support of "True Democracy," meaning an economic elite that ruled with the assent of the People, not their participation. "True Democracy" worked like a charm: the Austro-Fascists cut down unemployment compensation, cut wages, and built up huge cash reserves which the Germans confiscated in 1938 in order to finance World War II. Somehow, nobody stuck around to explain that the free market doesn't work because it just helps to accumulate more cash reserves for other capitalists to steal.

By then Popper had left for London, the Casablanca of East European intellectuals desperate for a way out of the gathering Heil-storm. Hayek, Popper and Gombrich connected at the London School of Economics, which had been set up to rehabilitate free-market thought—or maybe just to terminate Keynesian. Hayek had come from Austria to play the Terminator; he was "enthralled" by Popper, whose writings "seemed to him to dissolve the positivist myth of natural science threatening subjectivist economics:" Popper seemed to scientifically prove that certain sciences were scientific; he'd pulled the same Kantian stunt as Mises, with a lot more philosophical jargon; he was on track to become the Engels of Free-Market Diamat. Next slide, please.


Hayek, Popper, Gombrich: this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. In the meantime Popper settled for teaching ethics to sheep farmers in a glorified community college in New Zealand, a Rick's Cafe of the Mind from which, over the next nine years, he tried for a better position in a more congenial place by writing a series of popular potboiler articles and books, among them The Open Society and its Enemies; but when it came to finding a publisher the relationship between Popper and Hayek began to resemble that between Rick and the Peter Lorre character, or between a research assistant and her project director:

But when I first came to Casablanca I thought...
You thought what?
[Shrugs.] What right do I have to think?

By 1943 Gombrich, who was in England, was acting as Popper's point-man and correspondent from England, while Hayek and Popper "discussed" various ways of improving The Open Society (the book, not the society): when Lionel Robbins, the head of the London School of Economics, objected to the section on Marx, Popper suggested that Hayek should rewrite it, which is pretty much how liberals have dealt with the Open Society ever since (the society, not the book). Of course when you're stuck in Auckland with a college library of 15,000 books and you decide to take on Marx, Hegel and Plato, it helps to get some expert advice; Popper knew practically no Greek, his Marx was the Diamat nonsense you pick up on a Marxist-Leninist chat-list; he'd never read Hegel and confessed that he didn't intend to; and his background in sociology was even weaker than Hayek's. What emerges from this mess is Popper’s “mature” philosophy, a late-capitalist anal-depressive form of Kantian positivism known as “critical rationalism”—no doubt for the same reason the Holy Roman Empire was called Roman, Empire, and Holy. Like the Holy Roman Empire, Popper's rationalism is politically expedient, a makeshift compromise with two heads and a bird's brain.


Hayek's intellectual thumbprints are all over The Open Society, just as Popper's thumbrints are all over everything Gombrich wrote after 1950, except that trying to explain Gombrich's art theories in terms of Popperian rationalism is a waste of time: What Gombrich picked up was not so much Popper's methodology as his methodological incoherence. (It's no use pointing out the methodological incoherence of a positivist because that's usually why the positivist is a positivist to begin with.) Reading Gombrich is like watching that late-night horror movie in which the ghoul character, who has lost his right hand, is periodically seen rummaging through his diabolical toolkit of screw-on hands. This is equally true of Gombrich's master narrative of "Making and Matching," which is presented as a "Psychology of Art." It's a crude restatement of Popper's model of scientific research through hypothesis and verification; in the process it upends the whole of Popper's project.

In brief: Gombrich thinks that the "History of Art" is the history of a rational attempt to reproduce reality, proceeding through trial and error. This means that the history of style consists of "dogmatic" periods (a Popperism, there) in which dogmatic artists simply follow the same irrelevant, meaningless and repetitive pattern-making until some rare, new, daring "creative" actually bothers looking at unproblematic reality, and finding new, better ways of getting closer to it.

So who cares? Gombrich's Truth is like the Truth of Popper and Hayek and Mises, which is the Truth of Kantian Enlightenment. Of course the markets are "rational," and some day they'll eventually somehow I swear distribute everything more equitably so why why rush things? Some day we'll have a True Democracy, an Open Society, so why rush things? and in the meantime the Open Society's enemies, commonly known as "Cultural Marxists," must be destroyed by all means necessary.



Induction joke: A Marxist, a scientist and an economist are stranded on a desert island. A can of beans washes up on shore. "We have to share this," says the Marxist. "First we have to figure out how to open the can," says the scientist. The economist says, "Let's assume the existence of a can opener..."

Already Kant had warned against psychologism; he was aware that any categorization of data according to its causal, non-syllogistic, non-dialectical functions will stumble against the contingent; most likely it's the same reason Popper picked on Dialectical Materialism as the model of "Marxism" he would confront in The Open Society: Diamat is the Marxist model that most fully rejects the contingent. Gombrich's "Psychology," like all liberal Psychology today, is little more than the assumption of the rational actor dear to free-marketers and liberals: the Rational Actor is the synthetic a-priori of neo-liberalism. But what kind of actor would waste his or her time on "the psychological problem [...] of conjuring up a convincing image"? Probably the same kind of idiot who wastes his time trying to get more goodies than everybody else before he dies. As Alexander the Great pointed out twenty-three centuries before Rick, that kind of skill isn't worth a hill of beans.

So the MBA dozing in the back row has a point after all. Gombrich's History of Art is problem-solving without a problem, it's a Kantian purposeless activity all right, but closer to Thomas Kuhn and Wittgenstein than to Popper: a Spielregel (rule of the game) whose main purpose is upholding the institution of art-collecting, just as the main purpose of science in Kuhn is to breed more graduate students and lab rats. For Kuhn, "'Normal Science' did not test theories, rather it solved problems within established paradigms." No doubt; but why the Gombrichian paradigm of Getting Reality Right? Wittgenstein himself raises the problematic of "decorative" arts as a meaningless game, and Gombrich, who wrote a book about decorative art, doesn't so much ignore Wittgenstein as he marches into the trap. Art History is a tale told by an idiot; blame the idiot, not the tale.


In the final analysis, what Gombrich's History of Art and Popper's Open Society have in common is the passivity of their audiences. Popper used to wow his undergraduates in Auckland by discussing the theory of the Mind as a Bucket, vs. that of the Mind as a Searchlight. But as Popper himself argued in his 1928 dissertation, children (meaning proletarian children) were innately "dogmatic," they were unable to participate in decision-making, all they were capable of, was assent to the "real" decision-makers: their bucket had a hole in it. Those progressive theories that called for an evolutionary psychology based on problem-solving were not incorrect; in fact, Gombrich used them consistently and Popper eventually returned to them. They were simply wasted on the wrong people according to Gombrich and Popper, and implicitly should be reserved for the institutional elites: the scientists, the politicians and those few artists who met the criterion of "creative." Gombrich and Popper return the educational, cultural and political process to the level of Bildung, the process of the formation of proper consumers: “implanting proper representations on the mind and transforming basic experience into knowledge”, as opposed to building experience (political, affective, societal, cultural) out of the process of the acquisition of knowledge. Social intercourse in their view (and this was the official view of nineteenth-century Austrian educators), exists merely to “generate sympathy," for instance when Professor entertains a classroom discussion; or when we all meet at the polling place:


8/6/2011; last revised 3/23/2013.