In the Introduction, Popper noted that the book raises issues which may not be apparent from the table of contents.
“It sketches some of the difficulties faced by our civilization—a civilization which might be perhaps described as aiming at humaneness and reasonableness, at equality and freedom; a civilization which is still in its infancy, as it were, and which continues to grow in spite of the fact that it has been so often betrayed by so many of the intellectual leaders of mankind. It attempts to show 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. It attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of those reactionary movements which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilization and to return to tribalism. And it suggests that what we call nowadays totalitarianism belongs to a tradition which is just as old or just as young as our civilization itself.”
This paragraph touches one of the key themes of the book namely the problem of unease and distress that many people experience during times of rapid social change and especially the change from the settled round of a stable, “closed” society (whether an ancient tribe, the small world of the family or the cloisters of a seminary or a university) to a more “open”, dynamic, pluralistic, multicultural society.
For Popper’s usage of the terms ‘open’ and ‘closed’ society, see the note at the bottom of the page. Popper used the terms in precisely the same sense as the poet W H Auden in an essay on cultural and literary criticism written quite independently of Popper at the same time and published in the US circa 1942.
The problem of tribalism and the interface between tribal societies and their neighbours has assumed fresh significance with the rise of radical Islam. It may be that some of Popper’s thoughts on the strain of the transition from a closed to an open society may have fresh relevance. The same applies to his discussion of the strategies that Governments often use to maintain the stability and power of the State in troubled times. It is suggested that the hand of Leo Strauss is driving neo-Platonic themes of empire, power and domination in some aspects of current United States policy. To the extent that this is indeed Platonic, Popper’s critique of Plato gains fresh relevance on that score also.
Returning to his concerns with the methods of the social sciences, he wrote:
“Although I am mainly interested in the methods of physics (and consequently in certain technical problems which are far removed from those treated in this book), I have also been interested for many years in the problem of the somewhat unsatisfactory state of some of the social sciences and especially of social philosophy. This, of course, raises the problem of their methods. My interest in this problem was greatly stimulated by the rise of totalitarianism, and by the failure of the various social sciences and social philosophies to make sense of it.”
He was especially concerned about some ideas that were widespread in intellectual circles regarding the fragile and fleeting nature of democracy, backed up by more or less plausible reasons. For example it seems that war, or even the threat of war, has been used by governments, even democracies, to curtail freedoms to a dangerous extent, especially when emergency provisions are kept in place longer than necessary. An example was the central planning of economic life during World War 2. Other examples are the so-called “war on drugs” in the US and the “homeland security” provisions that have been put in place in the US and Australia to counter terrorism.
“The systematic analysis of historicism aims at something like scientific status. This book does not. Many of the opinions expressed are personal. What it owes to scientific method is largely the awareness of its limitations: it does not offer proofs where nothing can be proved, nor does it pretend to be scientific where it cannot give more than a personal point of view. It does not try to replace the old systems of philosophy by a new system. It does not try to add to all these volumes filled with wisdom, to the metaphysics of history and destiny, such as are fashionable nowadays. It rather tries to show that this prophetic wisdom is harmful, that the metaphysics of history impede the application of the piecemeal methods of science to the problems of social reform. And it further tries to show that we may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets.”
He speculated on the reasons for the appeal of anti-rational and anti-humanistic ideas to significant sections of the intelligentsia. There is the temptation to feel privileged and superior by virtue of superior understanding and insights. There is also the longstanding tradition of the “adversary culture”, according to which the existing order is so rotten and corrupt that practically any means and any amount of suffering can be justified to destroy the existing order and make possible the new society that will rise from the ashes of the old.
Chapter 1: Historicism and the Myth of Destiny
Historians can be divided into those who think that history consists of one damn things after another, and the others who depict history as the revelation of a Great Plan. In this chapter Popper sketched the loosely connected body of ideas that he labelled historicism. The central idea is historical determinism, and various traditions such as the doctrine of the “chosen people” are closely related.
“It is widely believed that a truly scientific or philosophical attitude towards politics, and a deeper understanding of social life in general, must be based upon a contemplation and interpretation of human history. While the ordinary man takes the setting of his life and the importance of his personal experiences and petty struggles for granted, it is said that the social scientist or philosopher has to survey things from a higher plane. He sees the individual as a pawn, as a somewhat insignificant instrument in the general development of mankind. And he finds that the really important actors on the Stage of History are either the Great Nations and their Great Leaders, or perhaps the Great Classes, or the Great Ideas. However this may be, he will try to understand the meaning of the play which is performed on the Historical Stage; he will try to understand the laws of historical development. If he succeeds in this, he will, of course, be able to predict future developments. He might then put politics upon a solid basis, and give us practical advice by telling us which political actions are likely to succeed or likely to fail.”
Popper noted some of the ancient “chosen people” myths and the characteristics that they share with the two major modern (and secular) versions of the idea – racialism or fascism on one side and Marxist historical philosophy on the other.
“For the chosen people racialism substitutes the chosen race (of Gobineau’s choice), selected as the instrument of destiny, ultimately to inherit the earth. Marx’s historical philosophy substitutes for it the chosen class, the instrument for the creation of the classless society, and at the same time, the class destined to inherit the earth. Both theories base their historical forecasts on an interpretation of history which leads to the discovery of a law of its development. In the case of racialism, this is thought of as a kind of natural law; the biological superiority of the blood of the chosen race explains the course of history, past, present, and future; it is nothing but the struggle of races for mastery. In the case of Marx’s philosophy of history, the law is economic; all history has to be interpreted as a struggle of classes for economic supremacy. The historicist character of these two movements makes our investigation topical.”
That was written in the 1940s. The collapse of fascism and communism means that Popper’s investigation is not as topical as it used to be, also the notion of historical determinism is not as influential as it was, in part due to Popper’s contribution in The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society. Still, the demolition of that particular error has hardly resulted in the proliferation of more helpful methods in history and the social sciences. It would be interesting to scan the rhetoric of radical Islam to find whether this is another example of a myth of destiny.
Note to the Introduction.
"The terms ‘open society’ and ‘closed society’ were first used, to my knowledge, by Henri Bergson, in Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Engl. ed., 1935). In spite of a considerable difference (due to a fundamentally different approach to nearly every problem of philosophy) between Bergson’s way of using these terms and mine, there is a certain similarity also, which I wish to acknowledge. (Cp. Bergson’s characterization of the closed society, op. cit., p. 229, as ‘human society fresh from the hands of nature’.) The main difference, however, is this. My terms indicate, as it were, a rationalist distinction; the closed society is characterized by the belief in magical taboos, while the open society is one in which men have learned to be to some extent critical of taboos, and to base decisions on the authority of their own intelligence (after discussion). Bergson, on the other hand, has a kind of religious distinction in mind."
In fact W H Auden used the terms open and closed to mean precisely the same as Popper, in an essay published in the US in 1941. The whole essay is most interesting and this exract indicates the overlap between his use and that of Popper.
"1. There are two types of society: closed societies and open."
"2. All human societies begin by being of the closed type, but, except when they have stagnated or died, they have always evolved toward an ever more and more open type. Up until the industrial revolution this evolution was so gradual as hardly to be perceptible within the life-span of an individual, but since then the rate of development has ever increasingly accelerated."
"3. The evolutionary process is complicated by the fact that different sections of the community progress toward the open society at different speeds. At any given point in history there are classes for whom economic, political, and cultural advantages make society relatively open, and, vice versa, those for whom similar disadvantages make it relatively closed, but in comparing one historical epoch with its preceding one, all classes are seen to have made some evolution in the same direction."
"4. When we use the word democracy we do not or should not mean any particular form of political structure; such matters are secondary. What we mean or ought to mean is the completely open society."