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Discovering Karl Popper

Popper’s chapter on Hegel in The Open Society is the most vituperative of the entire polemical work. Popper brands Hegel an outright fraud who deliberately adopted a bombastic and obscure style in order to conceal the real emptiness of his thought; his one aim was to serve his employer, the reactionary Prussian monarchy, to whom he, in turn, owed his prestige and influence. All this is supported by long quotations from Hegel, but the passages are not quoted whole; instead single sentences and phrases are plucked out of their context and strung together. By this technique one could make most writers look foolish; Hegel is a particularly easy victim because he discusses each aspect of a topic separately. When writing of, say, the state, he stresses the collective side of politics; when writing of civil society he gives more emphasis to individualism, and the true picture is obtained only when both sides are brought together. But Popper, in this chapter, was not trying to understand Hegel: he was trying to destroy him.2

In the light of this, Hegelians may now allow themselves a smile at Popper’s admission, in Objective Knowledge, that Hegel is one of his forerunners, both in the theory of objective knowledge itself and in Popper’s schema of the evolutionary growth of knowledge from one problem, via a tentative solution of that problem, through criticism of this solution, to a further problem. Although Popper tries to emphasize the differences, students of Hegel will have no difficulty in recognizing the Hegelian concept of knowledge in the former, and Hegelian dialectics in the latter. Popper’s (and Magee’s) account of the difference between Hegelian dialectics and Popper’s schema is based on the mistaken idea that standing contradictions are tolerated in the Hegelian system, but not in Popper’s; actually Hegel does not accept contradiction any more than Popper does. According to Hegel it is the impossibility of tolerating a contradiction at any given stage that forces us to move on to another position that can reconcile the previously contradictory points of view. Further contradictions then become apparent and the process repeats itself. The parallel with Popper’s idea is very close.

It is surprising that Popper’s treatment of Hegel is totally neglected in the long Schilpp volumes; even more disappointing, however, is the absence of any critical assessment of Popper’s writings about Marx. There is a contribution by H.B. Acton on Marxist Ethics, but Acton’s attitude to Marx is so similar to Popper’s that he is hardly a suitable choice for a critic, and all Acton sets out to do, in his own words, is “add to” the account of Marx that Popper has given. Maybe, though, something should also be subtracted. In any case, Magee’s striking assertion that The Open Society contains a definitive refutation of Marx requires a closer look.

According to Magee, Popper’s method is “to seek out and attack an opponent’s case at its strongest.” In order to do so Popper “sees if any of its weaknesses can be removed and any of its formulations improved on.” Quite apart from the humorous side of this statement taken as a description of Popper’s treatment of Hegel, it need hardly be pointed out that such a procedure has its pitfalls. Marx might have preferred being understood correctly to having his ideas reformulated by a professed opponent, even one sincerely attempting to make improvements.

Popper’s Marx is a rigid determinist who thought he had discovered the inexorable laws that control our destiny, laws in the face of which we are “mere puppets, irresistibly pulled by economic wires.”3 Using this discovery, Marx, like a good historicist, is supposed to have considered himself in a position to prophesy the allegedly inevitable outcome of all human history.

Popper is not the first to have misinterpreted Marx in this way. Indeed, this is one of those fortunate instances in which the author lived long enough to rebut the misinterpretation. In a letter written in reply to Mikhailovsky, a contemporary critic, Marx denies that he has given “a historico-philosophic theory of the general path that every people is fated to tread.” Mikhailovsky, he protests, “is both honouring and shaming me too much.”4 It was in reply to this sort of dogmatic, rigidly deterministic interpretation of his ideas that Marx, late in life, used to say that he was not a Marxist.5

Admittedly, Marx was being a little disingenuous. As Engels wrote in a letter to Bloch, he and Marx were partly to blame for the misunderstanding, having felt the need to stress the economic side in opposition to those who denied it any role at all in history. Still, as Engels goes on to say, one has only to look at Marx’s own historical writings, especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, to find that Marx is well aware that, as the first page of that work says, “men make their own history,” though under circumstances handed down from the past. The same point is also to be found in quite theoretical, non-historical texts—the “Theses on Feuerbach” is the classic example.

This is not to say that Popper’s attack on Marx misses its mark entirely. Marx sometimes, and Engels more frequently, wrote as if Marxism were a body of scientific knowledge that included general laws governing all historical development. Because this conception of Marxism is relatively easy to grasp, and attractive to a period impressed with the achievements of science in other areas, it has proved popular with later Marxists. Since most of the predictions that can be culled from the original general laws have turned out to be false, one would have to be extraordinarily biased to hold this view today. This is the only possible interpretation of Marxism that Popper could be said to have refuted.

It is not, in any case, a tenable interpretation. We have seen that late in life Marx and Engels rejected the idea of general laws determining all history. In his early years too, when Marx transformed what he thought sound in Hegel’s philosophy into the ideas that we now associate with his name, he made no claims to scientific certainty. Moreover, Marx continued to think in the categories and terminology of Hegelian philosophy even while planning his most “scientific” works, as the recently translated rough draft of Capital shows.6 In the light of these texts—which Popper admits he had not read when he wrote The Open Society—Marx appears less the Newton of the social sciences, more the philosopher struggling to apply to the real world the insights gained from his Hegelian education.

The fact remains that these insights do prove illuminating. A proper appreciation of Marxism would grant its philosophical orientation and would see it as suggestive of ways of looking at man and society that are scientifically fruitful, although it is not itself a full-blown science. We may disregard Marx’s sometimes excessive claims to certainty and his mistaken predictions, and yet agree that he has pointed out a path along which the social sciences may progress. Before Marx it was common to treat man and his ideas as if their history and development were independent of the fulfilling of more mundane needs; since Marx the idea that man’s ideological, political, social, and economic activities are bound up together and cannot be understood fully in isolation has become generally accepted. For this reason Marx could justly claim that his insights have made a science of society possible.

I cannot see why Popper should want to deny any of this. It fits well with his view of the role metaphysics can play in science, as a source of hypotheses for the scientist to test; and it fits too with his own admission that his treatment of Plato and Hegel in The Open Society was influenced by Marx, and that a return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. To say that, today, no rational man can fail to be a Marxist would be an exaggeration—but no worse an exaggeration than Magee’s remark that after reading Popper no rational man can remain a Marxist.

Finally, what of Popper’s political suggestions? Magee notes that these have tended to get lost among the torrents of criticism of other writers that comprise the bulk of Popper’s writings on social and political theory. On the other hand, Edward Boyle’s essay in The Philosophy of Karl Popper reminds us that the positive doctrines of The Open Society did have a considerable influence on bright young politicians, of both major parties, in Britain after the war. Although it is absurd to rate Popper’s defense of democracy higher than that of, say, John Stuart Mill—as Magee apparently does—Popper’s views on democracy are worthy of serious consideration.

The special feature of Popper’s defense of democracy—and indeed the unifying element in his approach to fields as diverse as philosophy of science and political philosophy—is his application of the critical method to social and political questions. In contrast to the common belief that dictatorship is a more efficient form of government than democracy, Popper argues plausibly that an open society, with free institutions and ample opportunity for criticism, is likely to find better ways of doing things in the long run. Free institutions allow us to change our minds about how the nation should be run, and to put this change into effect without bloodshed. Given a political system that functions in this manner, anyone who uses force to promote his own policies is, like it or not, abandoning a peaceful method of making decisions in favor of one that must ultimately rely on force to resolve conflicts.

On similar grounds, Popper advocates “piecemeal social engineering” rather than utopian planning. Piecemeal improvements can be corrected when they look as if they are going wrong, whereas the attempt to bring about utopia is likely to involve great upheavals which may well result in a situation far worse than that with which we began. As in science, Popper prefers to eliminate error rather than to strive for perfection.

Behind all this lies Popper’s “negative utilitarianism”—the idea, sound as a maxim of practical politics if not as an ultimate ethical principle, that the relief of suffering should take priority over the promotion of happiness.

All this is highly persuasive. The difficult question, though, is whether we really can improve matters piecemeal. Popper’s political philosophy suited a period that was more optimistic, although at the same time more fearful, than ours. The Western form of democracy appeared to be coping with its problems reasonably well. People were not perfectly happy, but they did not seem miserable either, except for isolated “problem areas” that were in the process of being cleared up. There was a general consensus that we had found a good form of society, based on a healthy spirit of tolerance and compromise, and the path ahead was definitely upward. Moreover, the alternative to this moderately progressive compromise seemed to involve the risk of plunging us back into the totalitarian nightmare against which Western civilization had just fought a long and bloody struggle. Given this outlook, any form of political radicalism seemed folly.

Now we have had the experience of this same form of Western democracy apparently unable to provide peace abroad and security at home for its citizens; the drive toward equality has either stopped or gone into reverse, and the leading democratic nation has exported a new nightmare to Indochina. The issue is no longer whether we should risk our solid achievements in an attempt to bring about utopia: the issue is how to end the appalling misery for which our society has been and still is responsible.

Anyone seeking to revive Popper’s political ideas needs to show that they still apply in the grimmer post-Vietnam atmosphere. Short of this, the best that can be said on Popper’s behalf is that it is valuable to have an intelligent and humane defense of moderation to place against a fashionable radicalism that is in danger of becoming intellectually lazy for want of well-argued opposition.

Popper is undoubtedly an important thinker. If, in this review, I have been largely critical, this must be set against the background of excessive claims that are made for his ideas by his disciples, and by Popper himself. Popper must be admired by anyone who values a commitment to the method of critical discussion, and a serious approach to the progress of knowledge and the improvement of the human condition. In Magee he has found a lucid, sympathetic expositor. Popper has its faults, but—like the faults of its subject—they are part of a thoroughly worthwhile whole. Magee is to be numbered among Popper’s devotees, and this gives the book its fervor and its sense of intellectual excitement. Provided the reader approaches it in a skeptical frame of mind, it is a fine layman’s guide to the work of a prolific thinker. The same cannot be said for the more solid The Philosophy of Karl Popper, but these two volumes will no doubt furnish professional philosophers with plenty of material for new scholarly debates about Popper.


Prove It September 19, 1974

Power of Positive Popperism August 8, 1974

  1. 2

    Popper’s distortion of Hegel has been ably exposed by, among others, Walter Kaufmann in “The Hegel Myth and Its Method,” in From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Beacon Press, 1959.)

  2. 3

    The Open Society and Its Enemies, (5th Edition, vol. 2, p. 101.)

  3. 4

    Letter to the Editorial Board of “Fatherland Notes” (1877.) This and the other letters referred to below are included in Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy edited by L. Feuer (Doubleday Anchor, 1959.)

  4. 5

    Engels to Schmidt, 1890. Magee mentions this remark (p. 81) but quite misunderstands its import.

  5. 6

    Grundrisse, translated by Martin Nicolaus, (Random House, $15.00; Vintage, $3.95, paper).

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