Karl Popper – The Open Society and Its Enemies | Philosophize This! with Stephen West

Key Takeaways

  • Karl Popper is an advocate for what he called an open society
    • He defined an open society as one “in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions.”Karl Popper
    • Human civilization is in a period of extreme political transformation- from closed societies of the past (tribal and collectivists societies) to the open societies
  • Why is an open society more complicated than a closed one?
    • There is a price you have to pay for being an individual; nobody is going to tell you what you have to do to benefit society, there is no class you are born into
    • A certain instability looms over societies that are willing to change their mind about things (unlike a fascist or a totalitarian society)
  • The “strain of civilization” – the state of anxiety and the burden of being a free individual in an open society
  • For Plato, the stability of the state transcends any regard of the individual
    • In Popper’s view, this is Plato’s big mistake that would reinforce totalitarian thought in the West
    • A holistic approach to design a government almost certainly guarantees a fascist or a totalitarian outcome
  • Historicism is crippling because it ignores the complexity of individual decision-making
    • There are trends in human behavior, but there can never be laws of human behavior because individuals are too unpredictable and complex
  • Popper’s “negative utilitarian” principle – focus on the things we can control, minimize the suffering instead of maximizing pleasure
    • In the political realm, the goal should not be to enact policy that makes citizens happier but the policy that reduces suffering
    • Happiness is elusive, but suffering is evident

Key Books Mentioned

  • The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper
    • One of the most important books of the 20th century, “The Open Society and Its Enemies” is about deciphering the intellectual justification of totalitarianism or fascism
  • The Republic by Plato
    • Popper believes Plato is advocating totalitarianism and is one of the enemies of the open society

Intro

  • Karl Popper was an Austrian-British philosopher, and one of the most influential philosophers of science. In his landmark work The Open Society and Its Enemies, he wanted to look back at the history of Western thought and trace the roots of the tendency towards totalitarian ideas
  • Host: Stephen West (@iamstephenwest)

Future of Western Democracy and the End of the World

  • For Popper, human civilization is in a period of extreme political transformation- from closed societies of the past (tribal and collectivists societies) to the open societies
    • “Where did Western philosophy go so wrong that it facilitated a world where fascism and totalitarianism are legitimate threats to democracies?” – Stephen West
    • Popper looks for answers in one of the first open societies – Athens, Greece. This was around the time of Socrates and Plato
  • Athens was a truly unique democratic society, a center for the arts and philosophy, always looking for better ways of governing
    • However, their “openness” also led to their downfall
    • Intellectuals like Socrates questioned the values of the society and the credibility of its institutions
    • As instability increased, he was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth
    • Sparta occupied Athens after defeating them in the Peloponnesian war
    • The highly restrictive city-state of Sparta influenced Plato when writing “The Republic”
  • An open society is more complicated than a closed society for various reasons:
    • There is a price you have to pay for being an individual; nobody is going to tell you what you have to do to benefit society, there is no class you are born into
    • A certain instability looms over societies that are willing to change their mind about things (unlike a fascist or a totalitarian society)
    • It’s easier to feel confident when you are closed off from the reality of seeing the true number of available options
    • If you are closed off, you are more tribal, more dogmatic in the way you see the world
    • When you are constantly open to being wrong and improving your understanding of things the instability of that attitude generates a certain type of anxiety
    • This is what Karl Popper calls the “strain of civilization” – the state of anxiety and the burden of being a free individual in an open society
    • This state is harder because it demands more thought and work, but it’s worth it because it gives people the chance to control what happens

Plato’s Republic as Advocating Totalitarianism

  • Plato wanted to solve the political problems of his day via the lens of holism
    • Holism is the idea that various systems should be viewed as a whole; it’s not enough to break things down into parts to understand them
    • Plato is trying to stop one of the biggest issues facing the political philosophy of his time; the inevitable process of earthly historical decay
  • For Plato, the stability of the state transcends any regard of the individual
    • If society is moving along stably, any individual sacrifice and suffering is justified
    • The collective is more important than any individual and what naturally follows is that some people are going to suffer because of the structure of society
  • In Popper’s view, this is Plato’s big mistake that would reinforce totalitarian thought in the West
    • A holistic approach to design a government almost certainly guarantees a fascist or a totalitarian outcome
    • This is because individuals have to sacrifice their needs for some collective social entity

Marxist Interpretation of Human History

  • Thinkers like Marx and Hegel believed that history can be studied like a science; to experiment and discover laws of historical development and predict its final destination (historicism)
    • What they are talking about, according to Popper, is the history of political power
    • There are no fixed laws that lead to certain outcomes
    • There is no history of mankind, only an indefinite number of histories, one of which is the history of political power
    • This is not the history of the world, only the history of international crime and mass murder
  • Historicism limits the number of potential solutions you have at your disposal as a governing body because it predisposes a historical destiny that needs to be fulfilled
    • When there is already a narrative that is decided upon, there is no flexibility
    • It’s like a scientist only running experiments that prove the validity of the story they’ve already come up with
    • Historicism is crippling because it ignores the complexity of individual decision-making
    • People make a decision based on the knowledge that humanity has available at the time
    • Accumulation of knowledge is a progressive endeavor, and there is no way to predict people’s reactions to things that nobody knows about yet
  • For Popper, historicists become utopian social engineers lost in predictions of the future unable to see the human factor
    • There are trends in human behavior, but there can never be laws of human behavior because individuals are too unpredictable and complex
    • In most totalitarian regimes, people are molded to fit the system via social coercion and propaganda because then it’s easier to control them.

Changing Our Minds About Totalitarianism

  • What is a better alternative to totalitarianism?
    • Popper is an advocate for what he called an open society
    • He defined an open society as one “in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions.”Karl Popper
    • The first step is to model our political strategy with the scientific method
    • Like in science, the goal of political theory should not be to come up with some sort of utopian society or an ideal state that will never decay
  • Millions of people are trying to co-exist, leaders will always fail one way or another
    • When they do fail, the important question is: “how is the state to be constituted so that bad rulers can be rid of without bloodshed, without violence.”Karl Popper
  • Problem-solving in Popper’s open society
    • Don’t aim for utopian perfection
    • There is always going to be conflict, but we should strive for small deliberate actions that can repair real problems in the real world (poverty, national oppression, disease, unemployment, violence, etc.)
  • Where do we focus our efforts?
    • Popper’s “negative utilitarian” principle – focus on the things we can control, minimize the suffering instead of maximizing pleasure
    • In the political realm, the goal should not be to enact policy that makes citizens happier but the policy that reduces suffering
    • Happiness is elusive, but suffering is evident
  • “Policies that aim to reduce suffering are just far easier to get past than ones that talk about theoretical forms of happiness.” Stephen West
    • No democracy or open society can exist without making mistakes, but the reason democracy is important to protect is that it avoids tyranny

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Notes By Dario

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