Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Review of The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Philosophy
Book Club Event = Book List (05/13/2023)

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“They assert that it is the task of science in general to make predictions, or rather, to improve upon our everyday predictions, and to put them upon a more secure basis; and that it is, in particular, the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies.  They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events.  The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism.” – Karl Popper, Author’s Introduction, Page 50

For this excerpt, he is a reference to Plato.  “However this may be, he certainly believed in both – in a general historical tendency towards corruption, and in the possibility that we may stop further corruption in the political field by arresting all political change.  This, accordingly, is the aim he strives for.  He tries to realize it by the establishment of a state which is free from the evils of all other states because it does not degenerate, because it does not change.  The state which is free from the evil and corruption is the best, the perfect state.  It is the state of the Golden Age which knew no change.  It is the arrested state.” – Karl Popper, Chapter 3: Plato’s Theory of Forms or Ideas, Page 73

“The most cherished ideas of the humanitarians were often loudly acclaimed by their deadliest enemies, who in this way penetrated into the humanitarian camp under the guise of allies, causing disunion and thorough confusion.” 



Closed societies reinforce officially claimed rules, often through repression and totalitarianism.  Closed societies resist change, and resist learning from experiences.  Within an open society, criticisms are welcome.  Open societies are inclusive to different people, interests, and ideas.  The open society learns from experiences.  Society cannot delegate all their thinking, even to those deemed the best of decision makers.  For everyone makes mistakes. 

Closed societies have people determine what to do, without allowing for criticism.  Totalitarian regimes consider any criticism as hostile, as they are a challenge to the authority.  This process leads to surprise and contradictions.  Wanting to be correct, and therefore ignore contradictory evidence is not limited to totalitarian decision makers.  Without criticism, the decision makers can get more influence, even when they are against freedom and reason.  Reluctance to criticize bad ideas leads to the destruction of good ideas.  Humanitarian claims can be made by their deadliest enemies, as totalitarian regimes often get favored for their humanitarian claims.  Under the guise of humanitarian allies, they generate disunion and confusion. 

Alternatively, the open society prevents people from hiding their contradictions.  Those who desire an open society want to reject absolute authority, and reject the values that are hurting human kind.  The open society wants rational criticism.  To find values, whether new or old, that raise the standards of freedom.  The open society declares an unwillingness to delegate all responsibility for thinking to others in authority. 


Social Engineering:

The open society is intimately tied to Popper’s views on science, which is defined by a need to put conjectures to experimental tests.  There is tension in the challenges that open society has for its claims, but there is far more tension in closed society.  For Popper, it was democratic inquiry that facilitated finding values that were wanted to be achieved, and the experts who explain how to achieve that. 

Popper supported piecemeal social engineering, and was opposed to large scale social engineering.  Plato thought large scale social engineering was needed.  Utopian engineering tends to try to be large scale, effecting the whole society.  Grand scale social engineering is too complicated to be managed practically.  Alternatively, piecemeal engineering is much simpler.  Small scale engineering can experiment with appropriate ways.  To make adjusts to policy designs.  To bring in science to politics, and to learn from mistakes.  Wrong ways, will not damage everyone.  The potential damage will be localized.  Small scale engineering is also politically viable for they are less risky, and therefore also more practical.  


What Is Historicism?

Historicism is the use of science founded upon laws of history to obtain predictions and prophecies.  Historicism is a misunderstanding of the method of science.  Under historicism, all historical events are interpreted as leading to an ultimate outcome.  Historicist theories depend on group formation, elements of collectivism.  A tribe, or larger groups, that the individual cannot exist without. 


What the historicist do, is find the origin and historic role of institutions to find their destiny.  They interpret history to discover laws of development to obtain historical forecasts.  Fascism and Marxian are different version of historical philosophies that see different prophecies, but both are totalitarian.  Fascism has a feature for racialism, in which history is interpreted as a struggle between different races for mastery.  With in Marx’s views, history is interpreted as a struggle between the different classes for economic supremacy. 


Natural vs Normative Laws:

The distinction between natural and normative laws become blurred.  Natural laws reflect physical realities. Laws of nature that either are or are not true.    No exceptions to natural laws.  Uncertainties about them are hypothesis.  Humans cannot control natural laws.  Humans can use natural laws for technical purposes. 

Normative laws are those that reflect human social structure.  Normative laws are legislature, and needs to be enforced by people.  Legislature that can be altered.  Legislature that provides direction for behavior.  Their enforcement subject to human actions and decisions, requiring human sanction.  Some decisions are impossible as they contradict natural laws. 


Does History Have Meaning:

History does not have meaning, but people can give it meaning.  As history becomes interpreted, it provides impetus for change in the present.  History is based on interpretations, which continually change. 

Popper did not believe in a separation been ideas and theories.  Every observation contains preconceptions.  Theories define which facts are selected.  History, is no different than science in the selection of facts.  There is always a point of view.  This does not legitimate purposely falsifying anything.  But, that it is difficult to decide on the truth or false value of ideas.



Earliest forms of historicism come from Heraclitus.  Heraclitus emphasized change, with an immutable law of destiny.  Setting up the contradiction of change, contemporaneously with unchangeable laws.  Resisting change, while also demanding it.  Change breaks the stability that society needs, while also the need to change to social circumstances.

Heraclitus also elevated certain people who had reason that came from a mystical intuitive understanding.  That mystical intuition gives those people power, to be able to understand the more appropriate way of behavior. 



Plato exhibited Greek culture at the time.  A culture situated in a cosmic setting.  Plato through that Plato’s era was depraved, due to a historical tendency towards decay.  Plato also thought that it was possible to end the process of decay through human effort.  Not just human effort, but superhuman effort.  A law of decay broken by wise humans, with powerful human reason.  A contradiction, for breaking the law of decay is part of the law of historical destiny.  Degeneration was part of moral degeneration, which had the consequent of political degeneration.  Intertwined with racial degeneration.

For Plato, everything that preserves is good, while anything that corrupts is evil.  Change leads away from the perfect originator.  Copies are rarely perfect replicas.  Copies have errors, which are a corruption of the perfect.  This is part of the law of increasing decay and corruption, for copies of copies will have even more errors.  Although, Plato thinks that change and decay can be defied by someone of a good soul.

The historical tendency towards corruption could be prevented by preventing change.  By arresting all political change.  Without change, there is no degeneration.  Without change, there would be no evil.  Central to Plato’s philosophy is are the Forms (or Idea).  Perfect and unchanging things.  The Platonic Form is the origin of things.  Sustainable virtues. 

Plato was looking for knowledge that would not change.  Knowledge used to understand the changing world and society.  To understand the political changes, and the historical laws.  To understand how to rule humans.  Without some knowledge that would not change, it would make comparisons between the same ideas.  Essences that can be discovered with intellectual intuition.  Essences are the proper name to related things, a definition. 

Plato provided a philosophic defense for those who claim to have an unchallengeable insight into the operations of reality.  Plato created a hierarchy of people, with the few enlightened and the rest thoughtless. 

Plato favored communally shared resources, and people.  Communism directed by a ruling class.  For the ruling class to be effective, the family structure must be disassembled.  The family must cover the whole warrior class.  Communism that is meant to prevent disunion.  There are more conditions for the stability of the ruling class.  Conditions such as division of the classes, identity of state with the ruling class.  The ruling class is meant to be educated and make decisions based on collective interests of the members.  Popper identifies additional conditions based on the same logic.  Conditions such as a monopoly of military training, while exclusion from economic activity.  The aim of the state is autarky.  The ideas that the ruling class views have to be the same.  Alternatives to economics or ideas would undermine stability.  Popper considers this program totalitarian.

Plato recognized that even the best people, still depend on others and cannot be self-sufficient.  Society and the individual depend on each other for their existence.  Individual lack of self-sufficiency gives rise to the society.  Gives rise to the state.  Perfection depends on the state.  It is the state that protects the perfection of the people.  The state provides the social conditions for the perfection of the people.  The state takes priority over people, for it is the state that can be self-sufficient.

Contemporary views on what humanitarian means is equal rights for citizens, an impartial justice system, and equal opportunities.  Traditional Greek ideas about justice appear close to contemporary usage, but Plato was opposed to this usage.  For Plato justice would be what is best for the state.  Which would involve arresting change, and maintaining class division and class rule.  Plato seems to have wanted those within a class to be treated as equals, but not those across classes.  Different classes would get different treatment.  Also, Plato disapproved of democracy because it provided equality to everyone. 

Those who agree with Plato, still claim that rulers are not always good or wise.  Popper would advise to prepare for bad governance and leaders, rather than expect the best.  Which does raise the concern of whom should rule, and how can bad leaders be preventing from damaging decisions.  Plato wanted rulers to be educated, to be philosophers, to be wise.  For succession, a wise ruler would know who the successor should be.  This would mean dependency on uncertain situations that risks threatening the state due to personal decisions.  



Aristotle thought it impossible to demonstrate all knowledge, because each proof needed a preceding premise.  Creating an infinite regression continuously going to the preceding premise.  To avoid the infinite regression, Aristotle used Plato’s essences.  Essences that are basic premises, that need no proof.  What that means, is that the basic premise are definitions. 



Plato favored the ideas in the mind, as they were the abstract unchangeable things.  Plato considered them real, while perishable things as unreal.  Kant made a similar reference to ideas of pure reason.  Hegel takes both claims of idea=real and ideas=reason, to yield real=reason.  That equation gave support to maintaining the status quo.  For what is real, must have come about due it being necessary and reasonable. 


Karl Marx:

There are those who defend Marx’s views as unassailable no matter if parts of the doctrines were wrong.  Popper sees Marxism as a method, and therefore wrong to deflect all attacks.  Popper advises to judge Marxism method through scientific methodological standards.  Marx would have wanted criticism of Marx’s method.  Marx wanted practical politicians, and for science to yield practical results. 

Marx either forbidden or denounced social technology.  Marx denounced rational planning as Utopian and illegitimate.  This made the successors even less unprepared than the bourgeois economists.  Russian successors were unprepared for social engineering.  Even Lenin acknowledged not to know how to deal with the various problems, as the economics problems were not practically described in their texts.  Lenin’s failure with war-communism, caused Lenin to reintroduced limited and temporary private enterprise.  The New Economic Policy was not part of Marx and Engels policy took kit. 

Marx’s economic research is subservient to historical prophecy.  To Marx, each system contains its own self-destructive forces that will produce the next economic system. 

For Marx, history is class struggle.  Although there have been historical conflicts between the classes, there have been many conflicts within classes.  Conflicts arising from ruling and ruled class is a dangerous simplification.  Issues between rich and poor are important, but not all conflicts are between exploiter and exploited.  Marxism is usually interpreted as all conflicts are between the exploiter and exploited.  Any aggression can be legitimated through the framework of conflicts between those who have and those who do not have. 

Marx saw democracy as a kind of class dictatorship.  Under capitalism, the state is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.  Under socialism, the state is a dictatorship of the proletariat.  As the proletariat state loses function, and becomes a classless society, there will be no class-dictatorship, in which case the state disappears. 

Unlimited freedom defeats itself, for that would accept violence as a legitimate way to distribute resources.  The state limits freedom to some extent, to protect everyone’s freedom.  None to be at the mercy of others, but also to be protected by the state.  But physical intimidation is not the only means to coerce others, as there are economic means as well.  Unlimited economic freedom would mean freely accepted servitude to those who have surplus food.  The state can create social institutions to prevent inequitable arrangements under duress of economic ruin.  For freedom to be guarded, non-intervention cannot be a policy.  Which replaced economic freedom with planned economic intervention by the state.   This is what happens under Marx, for the economic system ceases to exist.  

Marxist organizations have been persuasive on humanitarian grounds, but in their efforts, have been very anti-democratic, and anti-humanitarian.  They claim to stand for freedom and against oppression.  Marxist appear harmless, and democratic in trying to obtain a majority.  The problem is that once in power, they intent to entrench themselves.  That they will use the majority vote, to prevent any other from gaining power by regular democratic means.  This created a contradiction, for that means that they legitimate the use of majority power to suppress a minority, which includes them when they are a minority.  These are ambiguities of violence and power-conquest. 

Under capitalism, competitors are forced to accumulate to survive, which leads to higher concentrations of power.  In practice, this means investing in higher productivity of the workers.  And also, wealth becomes concentrated. 

Theory of value is the view that prices are determined by the labor hours needed for production.  Which is a problem, because consumers do not know the labor hours used for production.  Consumers only see the relative prices of products. 



The book is generally difficult to read, and is polarizing.  The book was written during World War 2, to explain the totalitarian philosophical background.  The core of the book is an attack on the various philosophers who were historicists.  Historicism is the use of history to make predictions, which includes raising the status of a few to be above everyone else.  The two main philosophers presented are Plato and Karl Marx.  Their perceived errors are well established, but not their potentially appropriate values.  Logic behind the errors is well established, but often, the resolutions are lacking.  Sometimes, the errors themselves come from misunderstanding concepts.   

Popper acknowledges various limitations of Popper’s criticism.  A recognized limitation is that Popper is a later philosopher with far more historical examples.  Popper has more error corrections and historical experiences to lean on than the earlier philosophers.

Popper also recognized that Popper no doubt misjudged those who were described as they are long past.  This was recognized because Popper’s contemporaries had misjudged Popper. 

Making comparisons between the past and present is difficult.  The earlier philosophers had different social contexts, and relied on different sources.  But Popper shows how there were philosopher’s during Plato’s time who raised alternative views.  Views such as justice, as Popper shows how the general Greek version was similar to contemporary times, but Plato used it to mean something else.  This creates a problem with separating what Plato (and others) have changed in the philosophy that was contrary to their culture, and how much of their philosophy was reflecting the values of the time. 


Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What are closed societies?
•What are open societies?
•How much thinking should be delegated to others?
•What is the role of experts?
•How to handle contradictions?
•How should social engineering be handled?
•What is historicism?
•Who makes humanitarian claims? 
•What is the different between natural and normative laws?
•Does history have meaning?
•How did Heraclitus influence historicism? 
•What was Plato’s philosophy?
    •What is the Law of Decay?
    •How can the Law of Decay be broken?
    •How to handle change?
    •What are the Forms (or Idea)?
    •What is Plato’s hierarchy of people?
    •What are the features of the ruling class?
    •Who should rule?
    •Why is the state needed?
    •What is justice?
•What was Aristotle’s philosophy?
•What was Hegel’s philosophy?
•What was Karl Marx philosophy?
    •What practical economic guidance did Marx have?
    •How is historicism tied with Marx’s ideas about society?
    •Do all conflicts occur between classes?
    •What was democracy for Marx?
    •What can happen under unlimited freedom?  Under unlimited economic freedom?
    •What are the ambiguities of violence and power-conquest?

Book Details
Foreword:            George Soros
Introduction:        Alan Ryan
Ancillary:             E.H. Gombrich
Edition:                 One-Volume Edition
Publisher:             Princeton University Press
Edition ISBN:      9780691212067
Pages to read:       601
Publication:          2020
1st Edition:           1945
Format:                 eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    2
Content          3
Overall          3