Friday, November 21, 2008

The Open Society and It's Enemies - Karl Popper

I had time to finish Karl Popper's book The Open Society and Its Enemies (Volume 1) and (Volume 2) this week.

I highly recommend these books. Popper writes clearly and is easy to read - the ideas and scope of the books make them very challenging, but his writing is not at all like many philosophy books that make you wonder what the heck the author is trying to get across.

The books are an overview of Plato, Hegel and Marx, as well as Karl Popper's views on ethics, socialism, totalitarianism, nazism, capitalism, democracy and a free and open society. I think to get the full effect a person would need to take a class on Karl Popper, or be in a book club where his ideas were discussed.

I can't really do justice to the books in a summary, they would require weeks/months/years of discussion to cover the ideas he presents - but I'll try to provide a glimpse.

Karl Popper proposes that Plato and Hegel are to blame in part for the rise of Nazi Germany...and that their philosophical ideas, regardless of if we realize it or not, are responsible for degradation of human freedom even today. Plato proposed a state ruled by the "philosopher kings" which allowed for slavery and the exploitation of fellow humans - Hegel proposed that ethics were a function of current society and an all powerful state; therefore whatever the state deemed ethical, in fact was - no matter how horrible it might be.

Karl Popper is also critical of Marx, even though he proposes Marx had some ideas that were important, Marxism had nothing to offer after "workers of the world unite". The idea that a classless society would result after the workers overthrew the ruling class has proved to be false - after the revolution the people in charge of the revolution replaced the old ruling class - often with disastrous results for humanity.

He attacks the historicist point of view that the current state of the world plays out according to some historical grand plan, that cannot be changed by human intervention. Particularly Marx's idea that it was inevitable that unfettered capitalism would lead to greater exploitation of the working class, a worker's revolution, and eventually a classless utopian society. He points out similar fallacies in the beliefs of Hegel and some Christians that believe humankind is forced to play out some predestined plan created by man or God and recognized by only a select few initiated - who can then predict the future.

Popper makes the surprising statement that their is no history of mankind, which isn't so surprising once he explains that there is no complete history of individuals but what we call world history is the history of political power, and goes on to say that the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder.

It may sound strange considering the quote above but the book is very hopeful - proposing that rational thought combined with careful government intervention in free market capitalism offers the best hope for society.

Popper says of rationalism that it is the position that, "I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth."

By admitting that we may be wrong and learning from our mistakes we have a chance become better individuals and improve our organizations.

Talking about learning from our mistakes, Popper quotes Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan Act iii:

Dumby; Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.
Cecil Graham; One shouldn't commit any.
Dumby; Life would be very dull without them.


I was curious to know more about Karl Popper after seeing a video of George Soros talking at the New York Public Library symposium called Propaganda Then and Now - What Orwell Did and Didn't Know. The whole video is worth watching but if you don't have a free couple of hours, fast forward to 1:18:00 and watch what Fox News and others have to say about George Soros....and then ask yourself - who are the enemies of an open society today?

I'm very hopeful that with the advent of the Obama presidency, the power and attraction of propaganda and irrational pre-packaged thought from Fox News and some talk radio programs will be greatly reduced and people will discuss ideas on their own merit.