"I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows."
Western thought has been described as a series of footnotes to Plato. This is a tribute to his achievement and to the way that his ideas have continued to exert influence to the present day. Many of our problems in politics and the social sciences are complicated by methods and doctrines that we have inherited from him.
Some of these are:
Essentialism – excessive concern with the “correct” definition of terms.
The idea that individualism and altruism are not compatible.
The idea that “who shall rule?” is the most important question in political philosophy.
The quest for a utopian society by means of violent and revolutionary reform.
Karl Popper subjected Plato’s social and political thought to searching scrutiny in the first volume of The Open Society and its Enemies. My aim here is to make this work more accessible by providing the bare bones of the arguments with some supporting text from the book.
The Origin of The Open Society and its Enemies
The OSE had a really strange origin, a truly unintended consequence of a project that Popper commenced after his first major book on the philosophy of science was launched in 1934/5 and his focus shifted to politics and the social sciences.
His major concern as a man of the moderate left was the failure of Marxism to provide a bastion against the rise of fascism. He attributed this more than anything to an intellectual error, especially the doctrine of historical inevitability. He labelled this "historicism" because he found that the doctrine of historical determinism was only the tip of a complex iceberg of defective ideas about the methods of the social sciences. The label was unfortunate because similar words (including some in German) have different meanings to that assigned by Popper. In any case, Popper turned his attention to a critique of a whole suite of defective theories and methods, some of which were noted above.
In 1936 Popper discussed some of the themes at a private gathering in Brussels as he made his way to London looking for a job to get himself and his wife out of Austria. Later in the year he gave a talk on "historical laws and the methodology of sociology" to Hayek's seminar at the London School of Economics. At that time he was friendly with Freddy Ayer who travelled to Vienna in the early 1930s to sit at the feet of the Vienna Circle. In 1935 Ayer published Language, Truth and Logic which became the major vehicle for positivism in English for some years after World War 2. In England Ayer was helpful and introduced Popper to various contacts in London and Cambridge but he could not get a position in Britain and had to settle for a lectureship in New Zealand.
Popper returned to his notes on "the poverty of historicism" in 1939 when he was settled at Canterbury College, Christchurch. By that time he was writing in English and his closest colleague was Colin Simkin, a young NZ economist (aged 26 when he met Popper). Simkin later wrote a charming memoire of the human side of the production of the OSE.
Section 10 of The Poverty of Historicism is devoted to a critique of "Essentialism", the obsession with the correct definition of terms, which Popper identified as a pervasive error of method in the social sciences that he traced back to Plato and Aristotle. In the course of writing that small section, Popper found that his notes were growing and growing until he stopped work on The Poverty and instead wrote a completely different book, which grew and grew into The Open Society and its Enemies.
The architecture of The Open Society and its Enemies
Popper covered a huge amount of ground in areas outside his previous concerns in science, mathematics and the philosophy of science so he needed a robust structure to keep the material in order. As an added problem, the work was done mostly in his own time because his professor became hostile and considered that time spent on the book during working hours was stolen from the university were he was employed to teach. Library facilities were primitive (he grew up in a house with as many books as the stock in the Canterbury College library at that time). The war news was mostly bad during the early period of writing and the news from Austria was worse, with 14 of his relatives engulfed in the Holocaust.
The first volume is concerned with the spell of Plato and the second, on Marx, is subtitled "the high tide of prophecy", a residue of his original concern with the myth of historical determinism.
In the first volume he first described the beginning of the myth of origin and destiny, then Plato's descriptive sociology (where he found a class analysis), then Plato's political program (with his theories of justice, leadership and social reform). Finally he examined the turbulent history of the time to explain why Plato was so desperately concerned to draft a blueprint for a stable state. The second volume starts with chapters on Aristotle and Hegel, then moves on to Marx's methods, and ends with chapters on the sociology of knowledge, rationality and the meaning of history (if any).
In some ways the reception of volume 1 has been distorted by the “historicist” label that Popper attached to Plato and there is a mass of literature that disputes Popper’s interpretation of Plato and other ancient scribes. Most people are not sufficiently interested in Plato's ideas to care whether Popper or Plato’s defenders are correct and I have left those arguments to others because the strength of Popper's ideas lies in the way they help in our daily task of devising and strengthening the traditions and institutions that make for peace, freedom and prosperity.
The gloss that I have put on Popper's work in this field (like that of Hayek) is that he is concerned with the critical review and reform of the rules of the game of social and political life. It is not all that hard to envisage better rules of the game that lead more directly to peace, freedom and prosperity, but massive amounts of energy have been devoted to installing and defending rules that lead in the opposite direction. This is where Popper's ideas have direct application at present.
In summary, The Open Society and its Enemies is a monumental defence of human freedom and dignity, and a demolition of many pervasive ideas that render our traditions of rationality and tolerance dangerously fragile under the pressure of social and political crises. Chief among these is the utopian impulse to recreate society in the image of someone's dreams. There is some debate as to whether Popper's dramatic view of science as a succession of revolutions is consistent with the relative conservatism of his political philosophy. In fact there is no conflict because both garments are cut from the same cloth of critical rationalism, the spirit of criticism, respect for arguments, for the truth and for the rights of individual people.
From the Preface to the first edition (1945)
"If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. The responsibility for this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage."
From the Preface to the revised edition (1950)
"Seen in the darkness of the present world situation, the criticism of Marxism which it attempts is liable to stand out as the main point of the book. This view of it is not wholly wrong and perhaps unavoidable, although the aims of the book are much wider. Marxism is only an episode—one of the many mistakes we have made in the perennial and dangerous struggle for building a better and freer world."
"Not unexpectedly, I have been blamed by some for being too severe in my treatment of Marx, while others contrasted my leniency towards him with the violence of my attack upon Plato. But I still feel the need for looking at Plato with highly critical eyes, just because the general adoration of the ‘divine philosopher’ has a real foundation in his overwhelming intellectual achievement. Marx, on the other hand, has too often been attacked on personal and moral grounds, so that here the need is, rather, for a severe rational criticism of his theories combined with a sympathetic understanding of their astonishing moral and intellectual appeal."
"I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous—from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. For these troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority of the merely established and the merely traditional while trying to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism. It is their unwillingness to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling the world to human or superhuman authority, and their readiness to share the burden of responsibility for avoidable suffering, and to work for its avoidance. This revolution has created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered."