After the Open Society

Jeremy Shearmur at the ANU is one of the senior critical rationalists, having done some time as Popper’s research assistant during the 1970s. The Big Cheese is probably Joe Agassi (my man in Tel Aviv) who spent much of the 1950s in that capacity, others include Ian Jarvie, Arne Petersen and David Miller. Many years ago Shearmur wrote a particularly interesting book on Popper’s politics which showed how he can be interpreted as a classical liberal rather than a full-blooded social democrat.

Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner at Chapel Hill, North Carolina have trawled the Popper archives to produce a collection of mostly unpublished material to provide insights into Popper’s progress and his interaction with some of the leading lights of the 20th century like Isiah Berlin and Friedrich Hayek. After the Open Society runs over 500 pages in four parts, including a lengthy introduction by the editors.

"We would expect that the colllection should engage anyone interested in Popper, his political thought or political thought in general…We must mention however that the Popper Archive in the Hoover Institution is both vast and full of interesting items. It would be impossible in one volume to reproduce more than a faction of the letters that are relevant to the understanding of Popper’s political thought."

Among the letters are the original aerograms that I sent to Popper in the 1970s, one of which has a blank page that the Poppers used for a shopping list.

The extracts are grouped in four parts, starting with a brief Introduction consisting of a single essay on “Optimist, pessimist and pragmatist views of scientific knowledge”.

Part II is “Memories of Austria” with essays on Julius Kraft (1898-1960) who Popper regarded as an important supporter of the enlightenment project, Otto Neurath (1882-1945) who supported a very different kind of enlightenment (Marxism and scientism),  and a letter to Hayek on anti-semiticism in Austria.

Part III is devoted to ”Lectures from New Zealand” discussing the relationship between science and religion, idealism versus pragmatism in social reform, “moral man and immoral society” and the obsession with “the meaning of history”.

Part IV “On the Open Society” contains a mix of preliminary thoughts for the book, and subsequent reflections and discussion. Part V is “The Cold War and After”.

Two recurring themes in this collection are (1) the tension between optimism and pessimism regarding the growth of knowledge and the future of civilization, and (2) Popper’s desire to formulate principles of social reform that will unite rather than divide people of good will. On both enlightenment and the future of civilization Popper took a highly nuanced position, combining elements of scepticism and optimism.

Popper’s lectures in New Zealand

Popper was a very busy lecturer at the Canterbury College in Christchurch between 1937 when he fled from Austria to save his life and 1945 when he rejected an invitation from John Anderson to move to the University of Sydney and went to London instead. He was the philosophy lecturer in the psychology/philosophy department and so he had to do all the philosophy courses. He was not trained for the task because his formal qualifications were in school teaching (with a PhD thesis on habit formation) and carpentry (actually cabinet making). His qualification for the job was the Logik der Forschung (Logic of Scientific Investigation), a book that he wrote almost by accident as a self-educated autodidact in science, logic and epistemology.

And so he found himself giving courses of lectures in the history of philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, logic, theory of knowledge and moral philosophy, etc. He also gave lectures to the WEA (Workers Education Association) and at the invitation of the Austalian John Eccles in Medicine at Otago he went south and filled the largest hall at Otago Uni with five lectures on modern physics and the philosophy of science.

In addition there was his contribution to the war effort, writing The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies in his spare time. He fell out with the head of the school, a psychologist/anthropologist who resented his abilities and insisted that he was hired to teach and so any time on the job that he spent researching and writing was theft. The Professor also resented the amount of paper that Popper took from the store and he had to buy his own paper, no small quantity because the 800 page Open Society went through many drafts, all typed up by “Hennie” Popper.

In addition to the WEA lectures, or perhaps as a part of them, Popper became a kind of tutor to a group of scientists and also a young economist, Colin Simkin, who became a lifelong friend (he later moved to the Uni of Sydney). Popper wrote to Rudolf Carnap:

"I have a course for research workers on Scientific Methods, with discussion of their practical research problems, which have led to considerable practical results, a kind of poly-clinical advisory agency for agricultural chemists etc. The course was very interesting and successful. It is comforting to find that philosophy can be of some practical use! My hatred against the empty verbalism and scholasticism of the vast majority of philosophical writings is increasing proportionally to the time I have to devote to teaching such matters."

One of  the scientists in New Zealand who knew about Popper went to Melbourne in 1946 and stayed with a  soil science lecturer, Geoff Leeper. He told Leeper about the Open Society and during the 1950s one of Leeper’s students was a fellow member of the Rationalist Society on campus. He told the student, Keith Barley, about Popper’s books. In the 1960s I went to Adelaide for postgrad work with Keith Barley and when I decided to move on to Sociology he lent me The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society. It is possible that students of soil science had a better chance of a favourable introduction to Popper than the students of philosophy, certainly at Melbourne where the senior staff were followers of Wittgenstein and Marx (work that out)!

Religion, science and toleration

"I have insisted that we must be tolerant. But I also believe that this tolerance has its limits. We must not trust those anti-humanitarian religions which not only preach destruction but act accordingly. For if we tolerate them, then we become ourselves responsible for for their deeds."

That comes from a lecture by Popper on science and religion, delivered in 1940 in New Zealand as a contribution  to a series of ten university extension lectures on ‘Religion: Some Modern Problems and Developments’.  Popper gave four lectures and the others were delivered by religious ministers. Much of the text in the other three lectures turned up with minor modifications in The Open Society, notably the false dichtomy between individualism and altruism that Popper criticised in chapter 6, the critique of utopian & revolutionary social reform in chapter 9 and the misguided quest for a hidden meaning in history in chapter 25. So in this post I will leave those lectures aside and concentrate on one that has relevance at the present time, with the efflorescence of a genre of books dedicated to militant atheism and the criticism of religion.

I mentioned that one of the themes in his collection is Popper’s desire to bring together rather than divide people of good will. This does not mean glossing over differences or holding back from criticism of mistakes but it does mean taking a stand on common ground when it exists. I think that Popper would be surprised and disappointed by the militant atheists. There is no doubt that he was a secular humanist, his parents gave up the Jewish faith to be non-practicing Lutherans; he was a patron of the Rationalist Press Association in Britain and contributed to the literature of secular humanism on occasion.

He argued in this essay that the dispute between religion and science in the 19th century was a thing of the past because it was based on each side trespassing on the territory of the other. Science is concerned with the way the world works and it does not presume to answer questions about morality or the purpose of life. Religion is a rival for science when it tries to trespass on the territory of science to describe  how the world works. The antagonism is intensified when each side thinks that they have hold of the criteria to decide the issue with certainty – to provide justified true beliefs. For Popper, science is not about justified true beliefs, it is about for ever improving conjectural theories. Still, because science evolved out of the religious mythology that men first invented to explain the world, and because most religions are “true belief” religions, there is a strong and unhelpful tradition of “true belief” science. I will come  back to this another time to explain Popper’s challenge to “true belief” in science and the theory of knowledge.

Turning to his views on religion

It is necessary to make it quite clear that I am speaking here about religion in a very general way. Although I always have Christianity in mind, I want to speak in sufficiently general terms to include all other religions and especially religions like Buddhism, Islam or Judaism. Everybody agrees that these are religions. I shall…extend the term even further.

He suggests that a person can be considered religious if he or she has some faith that provides a basis for practical living, in the manner of people who appeal to an orthodox religious faith to guide their moral principles, their actions and their proposals for social improvement. He insists that science has no answers in the search for these principles, though of course science and technology become all-important once we have decided on our aims.

By invoking the idea that we are all motivated by some kind of faith (which he chose to call our religion) he hoped to get over the dispute between the militant atheists (who he regarded as proponents of the religion of atheism) and people of orthodox religious beliefs. He wanted to get past the issue “Have you a religion or not” to address the question “What are the principles of your religion?” – “Is it a good religion or a bad religion?”

He was in favour of “good” religions, including the faiths of secular humanists, which promote the core values of the great religions - honesty, compassion, service, peace and especially the non-coercive unity of mankind. Against these good religions he identified the evil religions of totalitarianism (communism and fascism), and the persecution of heretics. He pointed out that even as science can be misused, so can religions, including Christianity.

This lecture was delivered when the greatest evil in the world was the National Socialism of Germany. Militant Islam was not in the picture, but his thoughts on the limits of tolerance should exercise our minds as we contemplate the world today (see the extract at the start of the post).

How do we take a stand and where do we draw a line against the intolerance of the various bad religions such as militant Islam and the degenerate form of left liberalism that has become prominent among the Western elites and political classes?

Uniting humanitarians. Popper on public and private values

Moving on to Part IV of After the Open Society we find some correspondence and draft papers on the theme of uniting the people of good will who find themselves on different sides of various debates. Berlin identified one of the points of division as the difference between positive and negative liberty. Some of the points that Popper was  making in 1946 connect with the themes of review essays by Daryl McCann and Greg Melleuish, looking at Mark Steyn’s book After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. Popper would not claim originality in this, others were before him like the author of The Servile State, which is the point that the US is approaching as described by Steyn.

Still, Popper addressed the situation as it stood immediately after WW2, with the Cold War creating almost unbearable tensions, the communist movement showing the full extent of its evil, and the friends of freedom (who Popper could still at that stage describe as largely people of the  left) desperately divided.

The danger that Popper saw, is the danger of governments trying to do more than relieve clear-cut suffering and put in place the minimal conditions of civil order, rule of law etc where people can make their way independently. I will work through his unpublished paper ‘Public and Private Values’, first drafted in 1946 and revised a few times but never released, though many of the ideas are scattered through published work.

"The thesis which I intend to elaborate and discuss in this paper is so simple that to some it may appear to be trivial. My thesis is that while misery is a matter for public policy, happiness is not."

The implication of this position in the current Australian context is that symbolic things like “Sorry” saying, the Republic, gay marriage and changing the Constitution to recognise this or  that group are off the public agenda, or at the bottom of the “to do” list. Changing these things will make some people happy (and other people unhappy) but so far as the relief of misery is concerned they do not rate. By this criterion they are not issues for the public/political agenda. You could probably put anti-global warming strategies in the same category of symbolic gestures that make no difference, apart from diverting resources that might he used to alleviate suffering in public health for example.

Popper briefly addressed the ethics of the situation. He repeated his view that most moral/ethical philosophy adds no value to public debates, and simple imperatives like ‘help people in distress’ or simply the Golden Rule  would cover about nine tenths of what is required in the way of moral or ethical principles. He also sounded a warning about  movements that demand heroic sacrifices of the current generation in order to achieve some distant heaven on earth. He drew a distinction between concrete evils (which are the agenda of politics) and positive goods (which are properly regarded as the private agenda). The positive good of happiness is very much on the private agenda.

"If a  man falls in the street and breaks his leg, it is the duty of everybody who happens to be on the spot to help. But it is not my duty to ensure that my neighbour should enjoy his glass of beer, nor to convince him that there are better things than beer [unless the neigbour is a friend or family member, where it is ok to try to improve people, on the understanding that adults can go away and children will eventually be able to do so if they are sufficiently irritated by your efforts at improvement]."

He then moved on to the differences between liberals and socialists. They share many aims, especially at high levels (peace, freedom, prosperity) and some middle-level aims (political freedom, democracy, civil order, equality of opportunity, some state welfare services). Bear in mind that he was writing before the postwar nationalization that occurred in Britain, at a time when practically every intellectual was a socialist, differing only in degrees of radicalism. He was alert to the non-socialist view through communication with Hayek and his awareness of the minimal state liberalism that can be traced back through John Stuart Mill to von Humboldt. He advocated a protective state, to protect freedoms, maintain the rule of law and only directly address the most obvious forms of suffering and disadvantage with mimum concessions to demands for state provision of ”positive goods”. Culture and education are problematic, he would not be surprised by the strange things that happen when the state supports culture, still he saw a role for the state to ensure that everyone is literate while he abominated any state monopoly in education as a sure road to serfdom.

The socialists assert that the state should provide much more than the minimum. Popper, like the liberals, saw this as an ever-present danger that the state will grow, and corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies with it. He had a foot in each camp, not a comfortable position and one that made him owned and disowned by both sides (mostly disowned). His aim was to find some way to reconcile the differences between the two camps.

He thought this could be done by addressing simultaneously the evils that each side identified, that is, by addressing the downsides of too much liberalism (unlimited economic freedom and no public welfare) and too much state power (loss of freedom in the servile state, bureaucratic or worse). He thought that this resolution was blocked by the degree of attachment on each side to their pet loves and hates – on one side the love of economic freedom, on the other side the utopian vision of socialism.

Against the socialists he insisted that state control was not a panacea, every extension of state power and influence is dangerous, outcomes must be constantly checked for downsides (to learn from mistakes) . The maximum domain of freedom must be protected, especially in thought and opinion (memo to Bob Brown) with minimum intrusion on freedom of markets (one conservative critic mistakenly thought his “protective state” means trade protection!).

Against the liberals he insisted that the protective state should stand ready to protect people from “economic power” which he saw expressed in the form of monopolies and from the suffering of mass unemployment. Possibly due to the influence of the young Colin Simkin in NZ who was enamoured of Scandanavian social democracy and possibly Keynes as well, Popper wanted the state to guarrantee full employment. With some justification Popper saw mass unemployment as the second major evil, after war, but he tragically misread the play regarding the causes of unemployment and of monopolies.

Like the socialists he did not understand the way that able bodied people could work their way upward under laisssez faire. The needs of the sick and disabled could be served by a combination of private charity and self-help through workers associations and cooperatives. But the trade unions took the route of the strike threat system which debilitated the private sector (by reducing productivity) and contributed to unemployment while limiting the upward mobility of other categories of workers who were not in the “bloody aristocracy” of labour.

The liberals had the worse of the arguments and the policy developments since the late 19th century. Bismark pioneered the welfare/warfare state, Lloyd George was probably a watershed in Britain, Hoover in the US, Whitlam and Fraser in Australia (building on the foundations of the Australian Settlement after Federation which underwrote Australia’s steady decline from first place in per capita income in the 19th century).

Big Government interventionism achieved bipartisan support, while the socialists took no notice of Popper’s warnings (silly fellows!) and classical liberalism managed a partial recover in recent times, to be greeted with abuse from both sides of politics. Interventionism, vote-buying and Keynesianism have brought the EU and the US to the brink of ruin, and the jury is out as to whether people of good will in different parties can do better than Popper managed a generation ago. We can try!

Postscript. An exchange between Henry Hazlitt and Karl Popper

Hazlitt was a brilliant and prolific economic commentator, and a founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society. He was especially critical of Keynes and the New Deal. He named von Mises as his major influence and he wrote the classic Economics in One Lesson. Chapter 19 of After the Open Society contains a critical comment from Hazlitt on Popper’s economic analysis, and Popper’s explanation that he had modified the text in the US and subsequent editions to eliminate some errors that he acknowledged.

In 1956 Hazlitt sent Popper a copy of The Free Man’s Library which included The Open Society in the recommended reading, noting that “the encomiums with which this book was greeted on its British publication in 1945 were for the most part fully deserved”. However he gave a warning that the book was weak in economic analysis because Popper had fallen into the same trap as Marx, presenting a caricature of laissez faire capitalism. “In spite of this weakness there are so many merits in the book that we must set it down as powerful and important”.

In my commentary on the Marx chapters in OSE I have attempted to identify Popper’s errors so that the reader can get the benefits of his analysis without being misled.

Popper replied that he had corrected some of the offending analysis in the edition prepared for the US in 1950, and indeed it is greatly improved but still not enough to eliminate a deal of confusion. It seems that Popper thought that Marx’s dire predictions of increasing misery under capitalism did not take account of the expansion of state welfare and and trade unions and their strike action which Marx had not anticipated (actually they were doing it while Marx was alive but  he relied so much on old news and hearsay that his analysis can’t be taken seriously). Popper thought that the trade unions and “protective” legislation to help their disruptive activities had done good for the workers, he did not appreciate that the reverse was the case.

Popper made a major concession on the Keynesian push for full employment (writing in 1956).

"My book, especially in the first edition, expressed too uncritically a demand for state intervention to prevent unemployment. But, after all, we had no experience of the consequences of such a policy at the time: and some of the best liberal economists (not only Keynes) felt that without an anti-cycle policy the free market is doomed. [Robbins?]."

"My main fault (as far as I can see) was that I did not warn my readers especially against the dangers of a full employment policy. (I was not clear myself on this point). On the other hand, I did emphatically warn them that all state intervention contains grave dangers."