Thursday, 17 August 2017

Veatch’s Survey of Popper’s Flawed Model of an Open Society

Karl Popper
In his essay, “Plato, Popper and the open society: Reflections on who might have the last laugh,” which was delivered at the Sixth Annual Libertarian Scholars Conference held in October 1978 at Princeton University, Henry Veatch has done a superb analysis of Karl Popper’s work on political philosophy, The Open Society and its Enemies.

Veatch agrees with Popper that the political program laid out by Plato in the Republic will lead to a closed society. But, according to Veatch, the particular line of attack on Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies is neither well-mounted nor well-executed. Popper claims that Plato was a historicist, but Veatch rejects the idea. He says, “I just don't believe that Plato was a historicist. Marx, to be sure, may well have been one. Yet Plato was no Marx, nor Marx Plato.”

Another mistake that Popper makes in his analysis of Plato’s ideas is that he does not consider Platonic theory of Forms worthy of any consideration. Veatch says that if Popper had paid attention to the theory of Forms he would have had the opportunity to analyze the Form, or the nature, of man.

Veatch writes, “In other words, what I am suggesting is that the philosophical legacy of Plato, that Popper chose to renounce, is just this notion that, by his very nature as a person or as a human being, a man has a job to do, a natural end or goal, a kind of natural fulfilment or perfecting of himself that he needs to aim at and strive for, that no one else-no, not any power under heaven or even in heaven-can achieve for him, and that he's simply got to do himself.”

The Book I of Plato’s the Republic begins with the question: “What is justice?” Veatch points out that in this question Plato is raising the question of justice, and more specifically he is raising “the question as to justice in the life of the individual.” Plato answers this question just after the beginning of Book II of the Republic.

Veatch suggests that we should reverse Plato's order and consider the ethical before the political. ”We first consider what it is that our nature demands of us as individual human beings, and only subsequently consider what may be required of us, or what it might be right for us to do, or how we need to live our lives considered as members of the political community and of society.”

Once Plato’s order of priorities is reversed, it becomes obvious that certain responsibilities are incumbent upon individuals, and at the same time “certain constraints are naturally imposed upon our fellow human beings and upon society to respect the natural obligations and needs and requirements that are incumbent upon us by our very nature as individual human beings.”

Thus we reach the conclusion that man’s nature demands an openness in and of society. Now the question is why didn’t Popper take cognizance of Plato’s inverted priorities? Veatch offers persuasive arguments to show that Popper’s flawed theory of science is to a large extent behind his decision to ignore such obvious problems in Plato’s theory.

Popper believed that scientific theories do not rest on observation and experiment—instead, the great scientific geniuses dream up or invent the scientific theories which miraculously correspond to reality. Science, strictly speaking, cannot tell us the way things are, and therefore it is not possible to discover the natural values of human life by scientifically examining human beings.

So what kind of values the people living in Popper’s “open society” must have? Instead offering people the freedom of choice, Popper resorts to preaching his own list of values which, he maintains, every member of his open society ought to follow. But if values have to be imposed on man, then why shouldn't people accept Plato’s values instead of Popper’s?

Here’s an excerpt from Veatch’s essay:

“It is a freedom, Popper thinks, that each of us has, simply to choose his own image or ideal of what a human being should be or of the good life for man and of what it ought to be. Not only that, but Popper immediately follows this up with his own recommendation as to what he thinks that image of man is that all of us ought to choose and thus freely embrace. It is the image of man as free, as rational, as altruistic, as a happy denizen of the Open Society, etc. All well and good! Yet still, do we not need to ask just why this particular image of man should be the preferred one?”

Veatch goes on to say that if people have to accept the values of any philosopher or leader, then they have countless choices. They can as well reject the values preached by both, Plato and Popper, and accept the values of Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, or anyone else. “In other words, Popper's particular libertarian vision of man is not one whit better, and has nothing more going for it than let us say Plato's totalitarian vision.”

“Popper's faith in the Open Society—at least to judge by the logic of Popper's over-all philosophical position and even implicitly by his own admission—amounts to no more than a sort of child's game of "Let's pretend'-let's pretend that man should be free and fraternal and rational, let's pretend that man should be allowed to bask in the pure air of an Open Society; let's pretend that such is the way man is and ought to be-and let's pretend it, even as we admit that it is all only a fiction and not a reality at all, only a pretend game, and one that is not and cannot be anything for real.”

On the whole, in his essay Veatch conclusively proves that Popper believed that a free society can only be achieved when there is some kind of social engineering by the intellectual elite. While seeming to reject Plato, Popper accepts Plato’s worst political ideas. In essence, Popper is as much an enemy of freedom and open society as Plato is.  

1 comment:

  1. First, I have not yet read the Veatch paper, but intend to. Second, I have problems with Popper's political views (see http://radicalliberal.blogspot.com/2012/04/in-defense-of-karl-popper-and-piecemeal.html). Given that, I consider myself a Popperian, and must take issue with your characterization (apparently, not Veatch's) of Popper's philosophy of science.

    Popper believe that theories came into being as ideas about how to solve problems--guesses without the need to be justified by any particular observations as in inductivism. But then these guesses must be put to the test, in an effort to falsify them. At that point experiment and directed observation, which Popper referred to as the searchlight vs. the bucket, come into play. Out of this crucible come the successful theories, and even theories that may not survive every test, but seem to be more explanatory than their competitors. Popper linked this process to Darwinian evolution early on, in _The Logic of Scientific Discovery_.

    Jeremy Shearmur wrote in _The Political Thought of Karl Popper_ (p 1), "I wish to argue that Popper's work has consequences in the political realm which are suggestive of views which are different from those which Popper himself espoused, especially as a young man." I endorse that argument and believe that Popper could have produced a great value if he had questioned the assumption of the state in the same way that he questioned the assumption of inductivism.

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