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Book Title: The Open Society and Its Enemies|
The author of the book: Karl R. Popper
Date of issue: May 24th 2002
ISBN 13: 9780415282369
Format files: PDF
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This is a deeply contradictory book, which is at times wise, measured, and methodological, and yet at other times deeply flawed and irritating.
This was a book incubated during the Second World War, an epistemological look at the origins of totalitarianism. He claims that the enemies of the 'open society', or an egalitarian liberal democracy, have in common a historical philosophy he defines as 'historicism', an attempt to codify historical laws or phenomenon, but not an a basis consistent with the scientific method. This historicism leads to a grand universal reform of society, and often the end of individual freedoms along with individual responsibility, and an attempt to return to the early 'tribalist' societies which characterized humanity at the very beginning of its existence, with the demands of the group over the individual, and perhaps one leader who makes unilateral decisions. This idea is at least plausible.
He reaches back to the very beginnings of Western philosophical history, by placing it on Plato. He combines Plato's theory of ideal forms with The Republic, noting that Plato says that change is generally bad, and applies that to his theories of philosopher-kings who control and manipulate society.
Sir Popper is not gentle. If Plato agrees with a bit of political philosophy, it is Ur-totalitarian and a predecessor to Hitler. If Plato disagrees with something, he secretly agrees with it, and Popper investigates his motives - a spurious thing to do with historical analysis, especially from texts over two thousand years old.
Popper offers Socrates up as a 'democratic' contrast to Plato, but this brings up the old question of whether Plato has accurately represented Socrates in his writings.
Then Popper devotes barely a chapter in the second volume to his successor, Aristotle, treating him with unfettered contempt. Aristotle to him is a second-rate logician and a pedant.
And then he skips over the Middle Ages. No Montaigne here, of course, nor Vico, whose cyclic worlds would be a fine target for his theory of 'historicism', but not even any Hobbes or Machiavelli. Nothing on Absolutism.
After that, we see the direction where Popper takes after Plato - his next barrage is against Hegel. This section is equally vicious, especially against his philosophy of history and the Organic Theory of the State, which he sees as a justification for Prussian nationalism. (He also takes a more justified spray of poison at Fichte). He liberally cites Schopenhauer's criticism of the Idealists, who calls Hegel a 'clumsy and stupid charlatan', and Fichte a 'windbag'.
And after this endless torrent of bile, Popper turns to Marx, and is more sympathetic and forgiving of him. He grants that Marx had a keen gift for observational and institutional analysis, as well as a necessary balancing his intellectual activities with moral activism. He respects Marx for inventing a new means of historical analysis, and he also respects the Labor Theory of Value and the Theory of Capitalist Accumulation and Competition but disagrees with the results of his concepts.
For example, Popper sincerely questions whether violent revolution is inevitable, nor will it take place on a worldwide scale, and whether it could be instituted democratically. He notes that some of Marx's Ten Points for the early communist party have been reestablished in some Western democracies Not the expulsion of all emigrants, or the confiscation of all property by the state, of course, but free education, and government control or maintenance of transportation.
Marxism has evolved since the 19th century, of course, and in some sectors attempts to address the criticisms with are leveraged against it. Our interpretations of Plato and Hegel have changed, and these old men are not yet dead.
In his closing chapter, 'Has History Meaning?', Popper attempts to set out his own historical beliefs, which are a sort of existentialism. History has no meaning, so we must find one for ourselves. When Popper is not attacking others, he is more intellectually honest, and this part is a bit more valid and useful than the rest.
So what does Popper think about the future of liberal democracy? Yes, but bear in mind he is more in favor as a social democracy as created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt than the sheer greed of 'unrestrained capitalism' of the nineteenth century. He respects and tolerates almost all principles of religious faith, but hates when they are apologetic for the crimes of those in power.
In one lightning passage, he cites a priest who calls himself a Christian who says that it is acceptable to be poor and starving, to waste away of disease, to slave to death in a factory for twelve hours a day and paid pennies, all for the unknown promise of a greater reward. This is pure exploitation and lies manipulated by the rich and powerful, and Popper is right in saying so.
Popper's aims for discovering the most efficient and most beneficial uses of government. Not 'who should rule', but 'how does government cause the least harm'? This, of course, after the atrocities of the early 20th century. He advocates a more 'piecemeal reform', in contrast to the 'universal reform' of the totalitarians, and advocacy of the scientific method, in attempts to find those programs which are most efficient and beneficial to the population. This, too, is valid, especially with the multiplicity of democratic states in the modern era. These democracies can learn from each other and implement peaceful reforms, while taking in mind the differences between their social and institutional structures, as well as the specific needs of their population.
Popper also stresses the importance of exactness in terms and clarity in definition. Of course this is admirable stuff, but Popper, in his immense ambition, does not always adhere to this standard. He at least offers a disclaimer early on that this is largely a personal opinion, and not at all like the later scientific analysis he later extols.
Furthermore, the tempting appeal of such 'tribalism', as Popper describes it, does not always come from a prominent intellectual's advocacy of it, but when there is a crisis of government and social stability, such totalitarian followers lie and promise to bring stability and prosperity by disemboweling liberty. Plato was raised during the bloody Peloponnesian War and the reign of the Thirty Tyrants. Hegel witnessed Napoleon's attempt to build a transnational empire in Europe. And Marx, of course, witnessed the untold suffering of the lower classes during the Industrial Revolution, and was an avid chronicler of it.
Perhaps not Plato but in human nature itself. Supposing that I held fast with Popper's premises, I'd ask to see what he'd think of the history of Eastern Philosophy, especially with the Legalist school of Han Fei, Shen Buhai and Shang Yang, whose philosophy and works openly advocated a strong charismatic leader, and supported the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
So what remains of this vast analysis? First, it is difficult to predict the future, and even very brilliant thinkers get it wrong. Second, if you dare to do so, it is all right to make extrapolations based on past trends, but do not always assume that these trends, nor the causal factors which contributed to them are constant. Third, it is necessary to be critical, even brutal of the 'Great Men' of history, but you must be consistent and honest in order to do so.
This is a book which can be eloquent and forceful, even if at times it is deeply wrong. For that, it is worth a read if you care about political philosophy,
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Read information about the authorSir Karl Raimund Popper was born in Vienna on 28 July 1902. His rise from a modest background as an assistant cabinet maker and school teacher to one of the most influential theorists and leading philosophers was characteristically Austrian. Popper commanded international audiences and conversation with him was an intellectual adventure - even if a little rough -, animated by a myriad of philosophical problems. His intense desire to tear away at the veneer of falsity in pursuit of the truth lead him to contribute to a field of thought encompassing (among others) political theory, quantum mechanics, logic, scientific method and evolutionary theory.
Popper challenged some of the ruling orthodoxies of philosophy: logical positivism, Marxism, determinism and linguistic philosophy. He argued that there are no subject matters but only problems and our desire to solve them. He said that scientific theories cannot be verified but only tentatively refuted, and that the best philosophy is about profound problems, not word meanings. Isaiah Berlin rightly said that Popper produced one of the most devastating refutations of Marxism. Through his ideas Popper promoted a critical ethos, a world in which the give and take of debate is highly esteemed in the precept that we are all infinitely ignorant, that we differ only in the little bits of knowledge that we do have, and that with some co-operative effort we may get nearer to the truth.
Nearly every first-year philosophy student knows that Popper regarded his solutions to the problems of induction and the demarcation of science from pseudo-science as his greatest contributions. So I would like to mention some other aspects of Popper's work that are sometimes neglected. Popper's work is important not just to those who agree with his new bold solutions, but to everyone who recognizes the importance of the problems that Popper discovered, analysed and reformulated in a way that allows a solution. (Anyone who doubts the importance of"getting the question right", of revealing the web of sub-problems of a problem and their disparate connections to apparently unrelated domains, should consult the history of Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's last theorem.) To take just three examples, the problems of verisimilitude, of probability (a life-long love of his), and of the relationship between the mind and body will never look the same now that Popper has made important progress in charting the intricate structure of these problems and in offering at least partial solutions. Yet there are books on the mind/body problem, for instance, that simply do not mention Popper's work (for more on this attempted "refutation by neglect", see the introductory reading list).
Popper was a Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the British Academy, and Membre de I'Institute de France. He was an Honorary member of the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics, King's College London, and of Darwin College Cambridge. He was awarded prizes and honours throughout the world, including the Austrian Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold, the Lippincott Award of the American Political Science Association, and the Sonning Prize for merit in work which had furthered European civilization.
Karl Popper was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965 and invested by her with the Insignia of a Companion of Honour in 1982.
Sir Karl Popper, who died on 17th September 1994, will continue to stimulate the best minds through his work, which now has a life of its own.
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