Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Open Society and Its Enemies

In 1938 when Hitler was about to plunge the world into war and German facism and Soviet communism were at the pinnacles of power the Austrian philospher of Science, Karl Popper wrote a book called “The Open Society and its Enemies”. In his book, Popper attacked the ancient Greek philosopher Plato for being an apologist for totalitarianism. He went on to criticize other great philosophers such as Hegel and Marx but the real brunt of his attack was on Plato, considered by many to have been the greatest philosopher of all time.

Besides his hatred of totalitarianism one of Popper's main motivations for writing “Enemies” was his belief that the social sciences had failed to grasp the significance and the nature of facism and communism. Popper argued that the reason why the social sciences had not led to a better understanding of totalitarianism was because these sciences were based on faulty epistemologies. He called marxism and other philosophies of history pseudo-sciences for purporting to predict the course of history. The communists and facists not only asserted that theirs' was the only legitimate view of history they demanded absolute loyalty to their view. This made critical thinking impossible and led to the destruction of knowledge in totalitarian countries.

Popper's philosophy of science is based on the idea that there is no way to prove the truth of any knowledge. All we can do is use the process of critical thought to examine our assumptions and theories and through democratic means, choose the best of them. On the other hand it is possible to disprove theories, if we gather the right evidence. Thus scientific knowledge can keep approaching the truth through a process of conjectures and refutations, but it can never achieve certainty.

This critical process is reflected in open society in which no one group is allowed to impose it's views on the rest because it is recognized that there is no ultimate truth. Instead the institutions of an open society: schools, courts, the market, etc., are all designed to enable citizens to freely reach their own conclusions about the truth. In an open society ideas,values, and theories compete with each other and there is free rein to accept or reject ideas according to agreed upon standards of evidence and reason. But significant and sudden changes can put open society at risk because these can threaten our sense of security.

Modern society in the last hundred years has appeared more and more vulnerable to attacks on it's openness. The hyperinflation in pre-second world war Weimar Germany was so traumatic that Germans lost faith in the liberal political institutions and allowed themselves to be seduced by the totalitarianism of Hitler's Nazis.

The attacks on 9/11 traumatized the American people leading them to be less critical of the Bush administration's deconstruction of their beloved constitution. The “War on Terror” is an example of an uncritical approach to knowledge about war and politics. George Soros calls it a “false metaphor”, and a good demonstration of his idea of “reflexivity”. The more the Americans wage war against terrorists in places like Iraq, the more it becomes a focal point for the recruitment of new Jihadists. Thus it's a war without end that ends up creating more terrorists then it destroys. Like the witch craze in the sixteenth century, people in power, believe that their policies are seeking out and destroying evil when in fact they are creating the evils that they set out to prevent.

The question is, as Soros puts it in his book “The Age of Fallibility”: “How can participants make the best decisions when they cannot base their decisions on knowledge?” It is only through the critical thinking allowed in open society that the best decisions can be made. The ongoing suppression and censoring of scientific evidence about global warming is a case in point. Since the United States is the most powerful nation around what happens to scientific inquiry there has repercussions for the future of the world. And that's a scary thought.

In a closed society, there is only one version of reality, and all competing claims to truth are prohibited. Therefore pursuit of power replaces the pursuit of truth as lies are used to justify official policy, and vital information is witheld from the people. Unfortunately that other Austrian interpreter of Plato, Leo Strauss, agreed with Plato's idea of “the noble lie”. And unlike Karl Popper, Strauss' influence on the neo-conservatives is still felt in the Bush Whitehouse.


  1. Hi Earth Justice,

    Of course, 911 (or Weimar inflation) were just catalysts for reactions that were fuelled by far more basic stuff: fear, ignorance, and pride. Popper is right in scientific terms, but probably is more platonic than he realised, in that he was proposing an ideal republic based on his own ideals... People are not generally scientists, and so they do the most unscientific things!

    I lament that history so easily repeats itself in unimaginative variations on a very prosaic theme. For all our scientific and humanitarian advances in the past few thousand years (and there have been a number of them), we still seem happy to follow our prejudices and fears into battle.


  2. Thanks for your comment. You're right that open society is an ideal but it's more like an ideal type. In reality humans are fallible and no society is perfect. We are bound to make mistakes so we need institutions that allow us to correct our mistakes by offering up alternative points of view. Popper thought that the social sciences should have the same methodology as the natural sciences but as George Soros points out events in human society are not independent of our beliefs about them. We can influence events with our beliefs even if our beliefs are false. And the question of truth is problematic when what we think can influence what we do. So in reality, open society reflects the imperfection of human knowledge. It is always imperfect and thus always open to improvement.