About Bartley and the Institute


The Bartley Institute is dedicated to untying the World Knot(s). The metaphor is Schopenhauer’s but the experience is familiar to everyone. The knots are what we encounter when we attempt to account for one phenomenon – our minds, for example – by the behavior of another – in this case, our brains; or the existence of organisms by the activity of genes, or the distribution of atoms by the vibrations of strings. (Every cat knows that strings lead to knotty problems.)

Building upon the legacy of W.W. Bartley, III, we began with the immodest conjecture that the prevalence of reductionist descriptions of reality (reducing one set of phenomena to another presumably more general set of phenomena) are rooted in the demand for the justification of the validity of our explanations. It was Bartley’s invaluable insight that we may separate the justification of explanations (theories) from the criticism of those theories. Criticism in this context means experiment and imagination, reason and revelation. We cannot know beforehand which critical combination will untie the knot that precludes understanding. One can only begin.


Philosopher (The Retreat to Commitment; 1962, 1984), biographer (Wittgenstein; 1973, 1985), critic (an early contributor to The New York Review of Books), William Warren Bartley, III (called “William Three” by Joseph Needham, renowned Chinese scholar and at the time Master of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge; “Beel” by Sir Karl Popper; and “that dreadful man” by some of the Wittgenstein faithful) was incapable of obscurity. Raised a Christian, he emerged from a prolonged interrogation of Protestant theology with a theory of rationality that separated the demand for the justification of a proposition or dogma from criticism of that dogma, leaving the investigator to follow the pursuit of truth wherever it might lead.

Bartley was a Harvard graduate (1956); more than that, he was an editor of the Harvard Crimson. His journalistic training and instincts never left him. (He set loose a minor furor over the place of religion at Harvard in an article in the Crimson in 1958. The incident is reported in The American Establishment, by Leonard Silk and Mark Silk, 1980: “. . .Bartley’s research was extensive, his prose pungent, and his polemical instinct acute.”)

He abandoned both Protestantism and Harvard in 1958 to study with Karl Popper in London. Popper was not then recognized as one of the great philosophers of the century; in America, he is still not widely known. In 1958, Bartley’s choice of Popper as mentor and advisor was thought to be not a little eccentric, if not, indeed, foolish. Yet their intellectual relationship turned out to be unusually productive. Popper introduced Bartley to a way of thinking and a tradition of thought that began with the Pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece. Bartley brought to Popper’s work a critical view that sprang from the fallibilism of American pragmatism. Together they produced a rationalist approach to theories of knowledge that resolved, most, if not all, the difficulties inherent in the prevailing approaches of positivism, empiricism and idealism.

Bartley received a Ph.D. in Logic and Scientific Method from the University of London (the LSE) in 1962. He held overlapping appointments as Lecturer in Logic at the London School of Economics and as Lecturer in the History of the Philosophy of Science at the Warburg Institute. By 1963 Bartley felt a need to expand his horizons. There is no more expansive horizon than the view of the Pacific from the west coast of America. He accepted a visiting teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley. From there he went to a new campus of the U.C. system at La Jolla. He began to explore the need for what he later termed a metacontext for rationality. Theories, positions, statements, contexts, beliefs do not stand in solitary splendor; they are rooted in and emerge from the interconnections of biological, psychological and social motivations (an ecology if you will) that require an understanding of a common world and an uncommon variety of explanations of this world.

So began Bartley’s time of troubles. He became involved with Erica Sherover (later to be Mrs. Herbert Marcuse) who came to study with Marcuse at La Jolla. This connection brought the unwanted attention of government security agencies. Also to arrive as a visiting professor at UCSD was Imre Lakatos, whose mischief-making caused a rift between Bartley and Popper. Walter Kaufmann dropped by to ask Bartley to write a “Portrait” of Ludwig Wittgenstein for a series he was putting together. Bartley set off for Austria to find out who Wittgenstein had been before he became the idol of British linguistic philosophers. He discovered a more human and sympathetic figure than the ascetic, poker-wielding oracle of the later days in Cambridge. Being human also includes sex and when Bartley made public what he thought was already known by many (he ‘outed’ Wittgenstein) he was cursed and ostracized.

Every hero must spend a sojourn in the wilderness, conquering demons. The wilderness turned out to be his home town, Pittsburgh, where Bartley accepted a professorship in the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh, (1967-73). The Wittgenstein biography was a product of the wilderness days, but it put him in touch with F.A. Hayek (a cousin of Wittgenstein) and the contact with Hayek would lead him further into the history of the Viennese culture that formed much of the 20th century.

Bartley returned to California to stay (to the California State University at Hayward) in 1973 to explore still more aspects of consciousness and rationality. He healed the breach with Popper and set to work on a biography of Popper and to edit Popper’s Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery. He made an abortive attempt to establish a society (the Open Society and Its Friends) to explore the dimensions of the ecology of rationality. An enduring product of this attempt is the collection of essays Bartley edited (with Gerard Radnitzky) Evolutionary Epistemology, Theory of Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge (1987).

Bartley was asked by F.A. Hayek to write his biography. This led to a fellowship at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a decision to edit a collected works of Hayek. Hayek was a man of even more interests than Bartley. The scope of the work suited him, but the size of the task, combined with the effort devoted to Popper, overwhelmed him. He traveled the world, interviewing any and all who had known either man. Exhaustion overcame him. He was not to live to complete his great tasks.

W.W. Bartley, III died of cancer at his home in Oakland, California, February 5th 1990. His last book, Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth (1990) was published posthumously.

Writings by Bartley

This is the first part and only finished part of a biography of Karl Popper which Bartley was writing at the time of his death. Rehearsing a Revolution.

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