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‘The Open Society’ Revisited

Alan Haworth on Karl Popper, his vision of a pragmatic, liberal society, and his assessment of its philosophical enemies.

It is now one hundred years since the birth of Karl Popper, and almost sixty since the first appearance of The Open Society and its Enemies. It was the former anniversary which recently provided me with an occasion to re-read Popper’s great classic. A subsequent encounter with a text by which one was first impressed some years previously is usually an interesting experience, and I was curious to see what I would make of it this time round.

The Open Society is a book with several related objectives. On one level, you can treat it quite straightforwardly, as a critical work of philosophy which deals, in detail, with the main ideas of certain political philosophers. For the most part, Popper concentrates on Plato and Marx, although there is a short chapter on Heraclitus and several chapters on Hegel. But, to leave it there would be to miss the book’s main point, for on another, deeper, level it is, as its title states, a defence of the ‘open society’ against its ‘enemies’. It is because they (supposedly) fall into the latter category that Popper chooses to discuss the particular philosophers on whom he focuses.

So, what did Popper mean by ‘the open society’? A good way to answer the question is with reference to his work in the philosophy of science, for which he is just as well known as he is for his work in political philosophy. Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science is his doctrine of ‘falsificationism’, according to which science proceeds by formulating hypotheses and attempting to falsify them by experimental tests. On this view, it is impossible to demonstrate, with certainty, that any given hypothesis is true; that is, to ‘verify’ it conclusively. The best you can ever do is rule it out as false. (Falsificationism is Popper’s response to the ‘verificationism’ espoused by the Vienna Circle, which met in Popper’s home city in the years before World War Two.) It is a view which portrays the scientist as having to exercise certain virtues: creativity and imagination in the formulation of theories and hypotheses, as well as in devising experiments with which to test them; critical rationality in the assessment of theories and other claims; the toleration required to recognise that other peoples’ theories could be rivals to your own. (Popper is popular with many scientists I know. No wonder, when he makes science sound so exciting.)

An ‘open society’, then, is a society characterised by institutions which make it possible to exercise the same virtues in the pragmatic pursuit of solutions to social and political problems. For Popper, these are, pretty much, the institutions characteristic of a modern liberal democracy. And, what of its ‘enemies’? According to Popper, what makes Plato an enemy of the open society is his ‘holism’. The ideal state of Plato’s Republic is thus a ‘totalitarian’ vision of utopia. With the help of his Theory of Forms, Plato is able to portray it as the rational state, the state within which everything runs smoothly, like a well-oiled machine, thanks to the way everyone concentrates on the job he, or she, is best equipped to do. Against this, Popper argues that there can be no uniquely ‘rational state’. Even if there were such a thing, we would have as little chance of establishing it as we do of arriving at the uniquely true scientific description of the way things are, and any attempt to establish such a state would soon result in failure. (Popper explains the psychological pull of this type of view in terms of a fear of change. Of course, Plato’s state, being ‘ideal’, is a state of arrested development from which the only road can be down.) By contrast, the philosophical sin of which Hegel and Marx are held to be guilty is ‘historicism’, the doctrine that history must take a certain course. According to Popper, utopianism and historicism are both flawed because both are inimical to the only approach it is, in reality, possible to take to the solution of social and political problems. In the real world, you have to proceed pragmatically, by trial and error. Flaws will inevitably show up when you try out the first solution you think of, and you will be forced back to the drawing board. In short, you have to be what Popper calls a ‘piecemeal social engineer’. If you try the alternative approach – the approach of ‘holistic’ social engineering – you will just end up doing piecemeal social engineering badly. The trouble with utopianism is thus that it discourages piecemeal social engineering by ruling it out as irrational. The trouble with historicism is that it limits your choice of strategy. Either you can try to hasten the pace at which history pursues its inevitable course, or you can try to slow it down. (It depends on whether you want to be ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’.) Anything more innovatory is ruled out.

That is a brief – and, I hope, accurate – outline of the main elements of Popper’s position. But I have yet to explain what it is that makes the book so attractive. As I have said, it impressed me when I first read it. Why should this have been? Well, it certainly had something to do with the clarity of Popper’s writing and the conviction with which he developed his position, and the latter is explained, I am sure, by another of Popper’s objectives. The Open Society was (as he once described it) Popper’s ‘war work’. It was written during the Second World War when Popper was a refugee, working as a lecturer at Wellington University in New Zealand. By attacking totalitarian utopianism and historicism Popper was, or so he (rightly) thought, attacking the intellectual roots of the great tyrannies which had plagued European political life throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s. (The term ‘totalitarianism’ was coined around this time to characterise such regimes, principally those of Hitler and Stalin.) Here was a person with something serious and urgent to say – someone who was not prepared to mess about – or that’s how it seemed to me.

Possibly my impression of Popper was further enhanced by the fact that he had something serious to say about something serious, namely the relationship between certain core ideas, central to the Western tradition of political thought, and the contemporary world-situation. In the mid 1960s this was unusual, for political philosophy had by then become a deeply unfashionable subject. Ironically, this was largely due to the influence of Popper’s fellow Viennese emigré, Wittgenstein, whose hostility to ethics (including political philosophy) was notorious. Dutifully following his lead, philosophers in the English-speaking world were mostly devoting their time to the close analysis of problems in epistemology, metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, mainly with a view to demonstrating their roots in confusions over the workings of ordinary language. This was the situation on which Peter Laslett was soon to pronounce his memorable verdict that, “For the moment anyway, political philosophy is dead.” To a student accustomed to a diet of linguistic analysis, books like The Open Society and Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism made a refreshing change.

Of course, this was also a ‘cold war’ period during which it was still possible to think of the world as divided, politically, into nation states, and those states as divided, in turn, into those which were relatively totalitarian and those which were relatively liberal. The Berlin Wall was still in place, as was the ‘Iron Curtain’. More than that, even nearby Spain and Portugal – now fully paid-up members of the EU – were governed by repressive dictators, their totalitarian regimes reinforced by a powerful religious belief-system. Popper’s division of societies into ‘open’ and ‘closed’ still had a clear relevance. One person who grew up under a ‘closed’ regime was Vaclav Havel. In his Preface to the new edition of The Open Society (published by Routledge to celebrate Popper’s centenary), Havel describes Marxism as anti-life. “On the basis of my own experience”, he states, “I can [therefore] confirm that Sir Karl Popper was right”; and, “Anything that in any way opposed the vision of the world offered by Communism, thus calling that vision into question, was mercilessly crushed”; but, “Needless to say, life, with its unfathomable diversity and unpredictability, never allowed itself to be squeezed into the crude Marxist cage. All that the guardians of the cage could do was to suppress and destroy whatever they could not make fit into it.” I strongly disagree with Havel that Marxism, the philosophy, is anti-life, but I will take his word for it that life under the totalitarian regime he refers to, a regime which pressed Marxism into its service as a rationale, was just as he says. After all, he experienced it. I didn’t.

But if Popper’s world view made a lot of sense in 1945, as it did in 1966, what should we make of it now? One great difference between our own time and the past – even the very recent past – is that ‘closed’ societies are not so easy to sustain. At any rate, that is how it seems to me. I don’t mean only that the Iron Curtain has finally been taken down, so that the ‘West’ no longer has to contend with an Eastern Europe of a political hue very different from its own. I mean that it is no longer possible for this or that repressive regime to control its population by keeping it cocooned from the outside world. For one thing, technology precludes it. These days, no dictator could make sure that people only listen to state-controlled radio or, like Franco, keep out foreigners simply by altering the gauge of the railway tracks by a few centimetres. For another, states are far more economically interdependent. Even so, there remains every reason for keeping the elements of totalitarian thought well in mind. Old skeletons like fascism and racism have a nasty habit of disinterring themselves and returning to haunt us in new guises (and haven’t we recently witnessed the Taliban?) More than that, you would have to be ridiculously optimistic not to see that some fairly sinister power relationships remain – between large rich states, and small poor ones, for example, or between the latter and large multinational business corporations. In short, we have ‘globalisation’. It would be interesting to know what Popper would have made of this. (One thing you can be sure of is that he would have been deeply unimpressed by Fukuyama’s historicist ‘end of history’ story.)

And there is something else too. On re-reading The Open Society, I was struck by the way Popper treats the policy of ‘interventionism’ by governments in the economy as the norm. So far as he concerned it is, realistically speaking, the only game in town. Of laissez-faire, he writes that, “it has disappeared from the face of the Earth.” But, in line with his own philosophy, future events were soon to falsify this claim. Clearly, Popper had not anticipated the fashion for such policies as ‘Reaganomics’ and ‘Thatcherism’, supported as they were by a number of theorists, including yet another of his Viennese contemporaries, F.A.Hayek (also a friend and colleague at the London School of Economics). In fact, it easy to see what Popper would – or, at least, should – have made of this type of theory. It follows from his arguments that books like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom do no more than advocate yet another ‘holistic’ approach to planning, an approach which is doomed to fail the test of experience. In this respect, Popper was certainly no right-winger.

Finally, how accurate and scholarly is Popper’s account of the philosophers on whom he concentrates? The question is worth asking, because most of The Open Society takes its impetus from an analysis of their work. Well, just as you would expect, opinions vary. To take Plato first, Gilbert Ryle – no mean expert on Plato himself – wrote that Popper’s “studies in Greek history and Greek thought have obviously been profound and original” and that, “Platonic exegesis will never be the same again.” Others have been less complimentary. All I shall add here is this: History tells us that Plato was an Athenian aristocrat whose sympathies lay with Sparta, the city-state by which Athens had recently been defeated in a long and bloody war. In 375BC or thereabouts, when Plato first inscribed his Republic on rolls of papyrus, the Athenian readers for whom it was intended must have immediately recognised the similarities between the ideal state he describes in that work and the constitution of Sparta. Inevitably, we approach Plato’s text from the standpoint of our own concerns. However, while it is true that Sparta was a repressive centralised state, run from the top by a military caste, it was not Nazi Germany – or not exactly. Likewise, it is true that Athens was ‘open’, democratic, and cosmopolitan, but there are many ways in which it was very different from the ‘liberal’ UK and USA of the mid-twentieth century. Still, if it is arguable that Popper invites such equivalences rather too easily, then given his intentions – the urgency of his ‘war work’ – you can hardly blame him for that, any more than you can blame him for his polemical tone.

By contrast, Popper’s account of Hegel seems to me to be about right. However, I suppose I should add that – maybe – Popper and I share a blind spot here, as nothing has ever been able to persuade me that Hegel’s ‘philosophy’ is much more than a preposterously impressionistic fantasy. Popper approvingly quotes Schopenhauer’s description of Hegel’s work as a “colossal mystification” and a “stupefying influence”, so much so that “to combat this influence forcefully and on every occasion is the duty of everybody who is able to judge independently”. This strikes me as only too apt a judgement on the gaseous neo-Hegelian obscurantism which, even now, passes for serious intellectual work in certain quarters.

But what really surprised me on re-reading Popper was his attitude to Marx, which turned out to be far more respectful than I remembered, and more respectful, too, than it is generally credited as being. For an example of the generally held view, take a comment of Bryan Magee’s. In his eulogistic commentary, Popper, Magee writes that he does not “see how any rational man can have read Popper’s critique of Marx and still be a Marxist”. With this reputation, it is unsurprising that leftists have tended to be suspicious of Popper. (One thing I was soon to gather from socialist friends with more orthodox leanings than my own was that Popper is someone you are not supposed to like.) But the suspicion is misplaced and Magee is quite wrong. In fact, what Popper does is concentrate his fire on certain ‘historicist’ elements of Marx’s theory, elements which are intellectually suspect for just the reasons Popper gives. Now, if Popper had presented these elements as being the whole of Marxism, then he would have been open to criticism for distorting that theory and for ignoring what many (including me) take to be the core of Marx’s doctrine, namely its moral critique of the ‘capitalist’ or ‘free market’ economic system at work. But – as it turns out – he does not present Marx that way. On the contrary, he describes the emphasis placed by Marx’s followers on “the prophetic elements of Marx’s creed” as a distortion, and emphasises Das Kapital’s character as a set of “moral evaluations of social institutions.”

What of The Open Society’s future reputation? Well, if I had been writing a critique, and not an appreciation, I would have started by examining Popper’s analogy between problem solving in science and problem solving in politics. This could turn out to be less close than Popper would like. For example, competing scientific theories must eventually stand trial in the same court. They must stand or fall when tested empirically, by observation or experiment. By contrast, in politics there is nothing analogous, no single decisive standard against which competing viewpoints can be measured. The pursuit of this line of thought would, I am sure, highlight weaknesses in Popper’s position. Still, this is not the place to pursue it, so all I will add is that, so far as I can see, the future’s verdict on Popper is likely to resemble his own on Marx. “ ‘Scientific’ Marxism is dead”, he wrote, but, “its feeling of social responsibility and its love for freedom will survive”. Delete ‘Marxism’ from this sentence, and substitute ‘Popperism’, and there you have it. At any rate, that is my conjecture – though, of course, I could be wrong.

© Dr Alan Haworth 2002

Alan Haworth teaches philosophy at London Metropolitan University. His next book, Understanding the Political Philosophers, will be published by Routledge in 2003.


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