on August 3, 2001
This is a paperback in two volumes: volume I subtitled "Plato", and volume II subtitled "Hegel and Marx". Each volume has a table of contents, text, addenda, truly awe-inspiring endnotes, an index of names, and of subjects. This is a review of BOTH volumes.
"If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not...to belittle them. ...we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes..." (from the intro to the 1943 edition)
Karl Popper was fighting the war in his own way. He saw what was essentially the same in Stalin and Hitler: a monstrous confidence. They may have drawn on different philosophies of the state, but it came to the same thing in the end: wholesale murder as a tool of social engineering.
But WWII is over, and we won. Moreover, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and we won again. So what is the fuss? Relax: Marxism is dead, Platonism sounds quaint, and who the hell is Hegel, anyway?
But don't rest easy just yet, free-market man! Every four years we seem to reaffirm our need for a philosopher-king. And while the historicist faith is now all tarted-up with computers, networking, and the Fable of the Bees and re-christened "emergent order", it still leaves us feeling smug and moral in doing nothing but tending our own gardens.
Popper is pithy throughout, but I only started noting things (this time around) at the penultimate chapter of the work, 24:
"... the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends."(vII, p237)
[on language, and the aim of rationalism] "... to use it plainly ... as an instrument of rational communication ... rather than as a means of 'self-expression', as the vicious romantic jargon of most of our educationists has it." (p239) See also II, pp276/7 on the aims of education.
[On bullshit] "... irrationalism will use reason too, but without any feeling of obligation."(II,240)
A brilliant look at Hegelian thinking in the sociology of knowledge (II,242/3), which must be read whole, but ends: " ... their thoughts are endowed ... with 'mystical and religious faculties' not possessed by others, and who thus claim that they 'think by God's grace'. This claim with its gentle allusion to those who do not possess God's grace, this attack upon the potential spiritual unity of mankind, is, in my opinion, as pretentious, blasphemous and anti-Christian, as it believes itself to be humble, pious, and Christian."
Popper is relentlessly brilliant in moral indignation. See his pointing out that moral futurism (e.g. 'the meek shall inherit the earth') condones the abdicating of individual moral responsibility, since one need do nothing toward this certain end. His answer: "...it is certainly possible to combine an attitude of the utmost reserve and even of contempt towards worldly success in the sense of power, glory, and wealth, with the attempt to do one's best in this world, and to further the ends one has decided to adopt...for their own sake."(II, 274)
This is one of the great works of practical philosophy of the century. Awesome in scholarship, relentless in moral vision, yet as fair-minded as his own high standards dictate, Popper has produced a book that is at once an explication of important philosophers who have had a malign impact and an attempt, largely successful, to demythologize them, and to give the average reader intellectual weapons to combat their legacy. His care is, at all times, to be clear and rational. He is concerned to communicate, not to obscure. The spirit of civilization shines through this work; it exemplifies what is best in our intellectual and spiritual heritage.
A hint: read a few of the notes to convince yourself that Popper has completely mastered his material (in several languages), that he has anticipated all the main counterarguments to his positions, and that he stands ready to defend in severe philosophical jargon anything he seems too-casually to advert to in the text. Then just read the books, and dig into the notes later, when you go back to a section for some serious research.
on September 7, 2000
I think the title of this review is a true description of this book, but I urge you to judge for yourself. My only regret is that I did not read it many years ago when my head was turned by the siren calls of what Popper calls 'tribalism'. Even then I heard about it and had it pooh-poohed as 'old hat' by 'advanced' thinkers (self-styled!). Often misinterpreted as an attack on Plato, Marx and Hegel, it is in reality a stirring defense of democracy and liberalism, written at democracy's darkest hour. Now that Marxism has collapsed, Popper in an interview given before his death called for us now to look for the 'roads not taken', admitting that embattled western liberalism became, to a certain extent, an unquestioned dogma like its opponents. A good place to start that search is with Popper's greatest book.
on August 21, 2006
When confronted with the rise of totalitarianism and the destruction of all that he held dear, Poper felt a single, overwhelming urge: to return to the Greeks, to the dawn of our civilization, so as to understand the root of the evil and to offer a practical way out of bestiality. His search was motivated by the insight that "this civilization has not yet fully recovered from the shock of its birth--the transition from the tribal or 'closed society', with its submission to magical forces, to the 'open society', which sets free the critical powers of man."
Heraclitus set the stage with his claim that "the cosmos, at best, is like a rubbish heap scattered at random." If "everything is in flux" and "you cannot step twice into the same river", then at least we can try to discover the historical or evolutionary laws which will enable us to prophesy the destiny of man.
Plato's claim to greatness is to have discovered such a law: that "all social change is corruption or decay or degeneration," and that the only way to break this cycle of decay is to arrest development and return to the Golden Age, where no change occurs. His belief in perfect and unchanging things, the Platonic Ideas from which all things originate, finds its expression in all fields of inquiry: be it social justice, nature and convention, wisdom and truth, or goodness and beauty.
Behind these lofty ideals, Popper uncovers a discomforting truth: Plato envisioned the ideal Greek polity as a totalitarian nightmare, where the 'race of the guardians' had to be kept pure from any miscegenation and where the role of the rulers was to breed the human cattle according to some esoteric formula (the 'Platonic Number', a number determining the True Period of the human race). Along his apology of Sparta came his endorsement of infanticide and his recommendation that children of both sexes be "brought within the sight of actual war and made to taste blood."
Popper demonstrates that these crazy ideas were not the vague mumblings of an otherwise sound philosopher: they were central tenets in Plato's philosophy, a system which has been characterized by another author as "the most savage and most profound attack upon liberal ideas which history can show."
Popper connects this extreme radicalism of the Platonic approach with its aestheticism, i.e. with "the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from all its ugliness." Plato, the Philosopher-King, can be best characterized as an artist: a man attracted to a world of pure beauty, a craftsman who tries to visualize an ideal model of his work and to copy it faithfully, and for whom "the part has to be executed for the sake of the whole, and not the whole for the sake of the part." His desire to "start from a clean canvas" or his claim to prefer "the original to the copy" find disturbing echoes in contemporary political debates. Contrary to Plato's belief, however, the canvas can never be made clean, and the copy often improves upon the original.
Let's give Popper the last word: "But there I must protest. I do not believe that human lives may be made the means for satisfying an artist's desire for self-expression. We must demand, rather, that every man should be given, if he wishes, the right to model his life himself, as far as this does not interfere too much with others. Much as I sympathize with the aesthetic impulse, I suggest that the artist might seek expression in another material."
on May 4, 2001
This work is by now a most considerable classic whatever one's conclusions, multiple perhaps, about its many theses, and by any standard a compelling study, must read. Becoming well-known after World War II almost as an apologia of liberalism, its roots are in the thirties when the young socialist Popper sees the consequences in action of misapplied theories. Among its many sides, apart from its great argument about historicism, as seen also in The Poverty of Historicism,the work is notable for its sketch of the curious evolution of democracy in world history, and the development of its argument in a discussion of the birth of Greek Democracy. Its discussion of the Great Generation highlights one of the most crucial moments in world history, when democratic freedom struggled to be born. One problem with the argument here is that the opposite of an open society is,indeed, a closed one, but a tribal society is wrongfully typified as such. Popper fails to see that it is more than the transition from tribalism that is involved. It is not the antithesis with tribalism, but the 'openness' of the still semi-tribal yet cosmopolitan Greeks compared with 'closed' societies like the Assyrian or Persian empires. From this period springs Popper's critique of Plato, for which Popper is notorious among some, hero to others. Plato in the philosophic tradition deserved this correction, though not always the rebukes Popper gives him. One of the curiosities of this work is the limitation of its own successful argument, in the sense that its implied rejection of universal history is belied in the very history of democracy that it portrays. Why did democracy appear when it did, and why did it fail to survive? A strange contradiction lurks in this classic portrayal as it unwittingly shows the grounds for a post-historicist universal history. For the appearance and definition of the open society and its evolution are two different questions. This book is so filled with invaluable this and that, from the text to the notes, that it should linger on one's desk as a source of innumerable study projects.
on March 24, 2008
This book, written as a sustained critique of the social philosophy of Plato, is one of the best statements of classical liberalism I have encountered. The basic message of Popper's book is that an open (free) society is characterized by the presence of criticism, discussion, and participatory reform. Popper finds occassion to contrast this view of society with the philosophy of Plato, one of the great minds of the western intellectual tradition. And it is interesting to note that in the preface Popper writes that he chose to attack Plato only because he is so revered.
Plato, it must be remembered, lived in Athens at a time when democracy was being introduced. Plato witnessed the displacement of many of his friends from political positions of power, and was shocked by the social turmoil that these changes engendered. Plato saw these changes as extremely bad, and concluded that all change is necessarily destructive and degenerating because he conceived the origin of society as consisting of pure forms of absolute objects such as good, beauty, perfection, etc.
The task before him was to find a way of preventing (or arresting) change, so that degeneration and social decline could be avoided. He believed it was necessary to divide society into three classes: the rulers, the warriors, and the workers. In order to arrest change, there must never be disunion in the ruler class. To accomplish this, it was proposed that property be abolished in this class, and the family destroyed, since famililal loyalties often lead to political conflict. No mixing between the classes should be tolerated, and Plato argued that special methods of breeding should be employed among the different classes to ensure "racial purity."
For Plato, then, the chief aim of the "philosopher king" was to arrest change by preserving harmonious union among the ruling class. This could be achieved only by dividing society into classes the purpose of which was to specify in advance the activities that could be performed by each.
The concluding chapters are more positive, and attempt to introduce alterntative political arrangements that would do a great deal in promoting an "open society." This would include the existence of democracy, critical discussion, change, "piecemeal" reform, and so on. Popper sees utopian programs like Plato's as exemplary of tyranny. They preserve taboos, dogmas, rigid social inequities, power, etc. Only until alternative views are permitted can we hope to bring into existence a free and open society.
A wonderfully insightful book, and especially useful against those who see Plato as the founder of humanitarianism based on the principle of The Philosopher King.
on September 1, 2005
Just bought this book (August 2005) to reread in response to current clash of ideologies over Iraq. This densely argued philsophical treatise offers exceptional insights into the history of philosophy, and into totalitarianism, fascism, communism, and religion. Those insights put a unique perspective upon the current clash between Western (nominally open) society and Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. This book places the "you are either with us or against us," "three strikes and you're out," and "zero tolerance" mindsets into perspective. I was first exposed to Karl Popper's ideas when he came to the University of Denver in 1964 to teach a course with this title to the Centennial Scholars Program. It is a great pleasure to reread this book and savor Popper's careful dissections: scientific method and scientific truths, and their relation to philosphical, religious, and societal norms. This book sheds much light on what is going on in the world today.
on December 23, 2000
Popper is famous for attempting to shift philosophy from various idealist systems to one of empiricism. He is famous for suggesting that the basis of the scientific method is the falsification of false theories by empirical analysis. He describes earlier systems such as those of Plato as "essentialist" or such that cannot be disproved by experimentation and thus rejects them.
Popper's importance is more than just a philosopher. He is a person who was of the twentieth century and was revolted by the development of totalitarian systems. In his view these systems were the product of "essentialist" philosophical systems or ideologies. He favored pragmatic systems in which ideology could be challenged by his method. This work is a work that is one of the most learned and systematic attacks on ideological systems which has been written in the last hundred years.
Despite the difficulty of its content the book is readable and simple. Over half of the book is devoted to footnotes. Its exposition of the Platonic and Marxist systems is learned and erudite.
In its time the book has been heavily critiqued by Platonists. Ignore such criticism, this book is one of the most important books to be written in the last hundred years.
on October 5, 2005
Popper wrote this book for me and for people like me, i.e. for people who stand in awe of Plato simply because he is Plato.
I read Plato's Republic in 1985 or thereabouts. I had learned of the allegory of the cave in class and wanted to know more. Also, in one M*A*S*H episode, the Republic was among the books Frank Burns was burning, so of course I had to read it. I did, and apart from Book One's denunciation of the maxim "Might Makes Right", I felt uneasy about the rest of the work. At the time, I felt that there must have been something wrong with me, that I wasn't reading it right, that after all having stood the test of time for over two thousand years Plato simply couldn't be wrong. If only I had known of Popper in 1985!
Popper is in many ways pointing out the obvious: that Emperor Plato is wearing no clothes. His Republic is nothing more than a totalitarian state and his value system represses the individual in favour of the State.
Popper begins by describing what he calls "Historicism" or the belief that history develops according to laws from which the future could be predicted, with Heraclitus being the first "historicist". Popper then continues with an overview Plato's thought, especially his Theory of Forms and his brilliant sociological insights. He then exposes over three chapters Plato's political programme to bring about a perfect City-State, and here is where Popper points out the obvious: Plato's Republic is a totalitarian state that controls every facet of the lives of all its citizens and represses any every invidual path to happiness.
In the last chapter, Popper sketches out how an Open Society would work and gives the example of Athens just before Plato. Unlike others who have savaged Plato (e.g. Ayn Rand) Popper doesn't lay out a master plan to replace Plato's. He doesn't believe in utopias, Platonic or otherwise. Popper believes in what he calls "Piecemeal Social Engineering" i.e. fixing problems as they come up, or improving institutions when the opportunity arises.
This is Popper's Open Society. One where we accept that things are as they are, that they can be improved, that individuals are the only judges of their own happiness and that they should have complete freedom to pursue it as they see fit, insofar as they don't harm others too much. His test for an Open Society is very simple: a society is open if its government can change without bloodshed.
In 1948, Scott Buchanan wrote, in the introduction to Penguin's Portable Plato, that "the reading of Plato's dialogues by a large number of people could make the difference between a century of folly and a century of wisdom for the world". Perhaps, but only if the reader approches Plato without awe and with a critical mind. As did Popper.
Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
on July 4, 2004
I will not comment on volume 2 of this work as I have read little Hegel and less Marx. Plato, however, I have read, and therefore will address volume 1, "The Spell of Plato".
This is a fascinating book. In a review of another book on Plato, I wrote that one important test of any work of secondary literature is whether the time spent reading it would be better spent re-reading the primary literature instead. Popper's book easily passes that test. I would by no means recommend reading it as a substitute for reading Plato ???- it contains too many interpretations that I think seriously wrong, and its narrow focus on political philosophy leaves many aspects of Plato's philosophy untouched, but as a text that helps the reader read Plato critically it is excellent, provided only that the reader doesn't forget to read Popper critically as well.
The principal focus of the book is of course Plato's political philosophy. Popper reads it as part of an Athenian debate between democrats and anti-democratic reactionaries, and that Plato writes on behalf of the reactionaries. Popper presents Plato as a man who began under the tutelage of Socrates, whose positive influence is responsible for the best aspects of Plato's thought, but that Plato over time became increasingly corrupted. Popper summarizes his view in a really fine piece of writing that I cannot resist quoting:
"Socrates had refused to compromise his personal integrity. Plato, with all his uncompromising canvas-cleaning, was led along a path on which he compromised his integrity with every step he took. He was forced to combat free thought and the pursuit of truth. He was led to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence. In spite of Socrates' warning against misanthropy and misology, he was led to distrust man and to fear argument. In spite of his own hatred of tyranny, he was led to look to a tyrant for help, and to defend the most tyrannical measures. ??? he succeeded in blinding himself, by his own spell, to powers which once he had hated."
As a general rule, I judge an interpretation of Plato by its ability to explain difficult passages and in particular passages that appear to be contradictory. I think that Popper's main thesis, as quoted above, is a very strong interpretation. Many passages that other interpretations struggle with (such as the numerous passages in which seeking the truth is praised vs. the famous passage in Republic in which lying is conditionally endorsed) can be explained by Popper's theory that Plato's thought corrupted over time.
Although Popper's book is absolutely one I recommend, I mentioned that I thought that some of Popper's interpretations were simply wrong and believe that elaboration on a comment like that must be made. One of these is Popper's thesis that Plato was a historicist. Popper's historicist classification of Plato depends on Popper's reading that Plato held that all historical social change to be corruption. I think that this reading creates numerous interpretive difficulties and is therefore very likely false. The primary support Popper cites for this view is the developmentally ordered series of states in Republic VIII. A difficult text for this theory is Statesman 302b-303b: in that text, Plato ranks democracy as superior to oligarchy, and so (according to Popper's theory) oligarchy out to be developmentally later than democracy, yet in Republic VIII it is democracy that is later than oligarchy. Another difficult passage is Laws 694b to 696a, in which Plato describes Persia not undergoing a continuous decline but as going from good (under Cyrus) to bad (under Cyrus's children) to good again (under Darius) and back to bad (under Xerxes). Still another difficult passage would be the brief text in Laws 676a-c, in which Plato proposes an examination into how, over time, states have made moral progress or declined, and how superior states have deteriorated and bad ones improved (the example of Persia mentioned earlier is brought up in this context) with no hint that he viewed the idea of progress or improvement as a problem for his philosophy. On this topic I would conclude with the general observation that unlike Hegel and Marx, both of whom wrote book-length world histories, Plato seldom referred to historical events, and his longest historical text (Laws III from which two of my examples are taken) is unproblematic if read without reference to Popper's theory but becomes a confusing series of puzzles if read with reference to Popper's theory.
In closing, I would like to quote (in a slightly abbreviated form) from Jonathan Barnes' introduction to "The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle": "Suppose you read a chapter in which it is suggested that Aristotle believed such-and-such. If you turn over the page and say to yourself, 'Oh, Aristotle believed such-and-such', then the book will have failed. For you are meant, as you put the book down, to converse with yourself in the following sort of way: "Oh, so Aristotle is supposed to have believed such-and-such. What an interesting - or perplexing, or perverse - thing to have thought. Might it be true? Come to that, did Aristotle really mean exactly that? Let me look now at Aristotle's own words and see what he actually says." I do not know if Popper intended such a response from his book on Plato, but I think it an admirable goal for any work in philosophy's secondary literature and it is certainly the response Popper got from me.
Highly recommended, faults and all.
on March 11, 2001
A timely critique of the vast umbrella of ideology which invisibly governs our society.
There are many teachers who we barely refute, such as Plato, who have had many great ideas, but also some bad ones; bad ideas which are rarely questioned due to the originator's prestige. However, "The Open Society And Its Enemies", does just that, and much more.
Humankind's tendency toward a more primitive society (totalitarianism) than that demanded by our awakening powers of criticism is, as Popper lucidly suggests, the result of historicist prejudice, which envisions a degenerative future. Popper sees such historicism as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and labors to convince the reader that we are actually in control of our destiny, that our course is as yet undetermined, and, more to the point, that it is not the proper place of science to predict the course of social change (Marx).
This book is refreshing, insightful, and brilliantly argued; a MUST HAVE addition to your personal library.