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Karl Popper and the Really, Really Open Society

March 10, 2012


1) The Struggle for Truth is an Anti-Authoritarian Pursuit

Karl Popper is probably best known for his work on the philosophy of science and for his political work The Open Society and its Enemies. In it, Popper elegantly argues in favor of liberal democracy: the “Open Society.”

Slightly lesser-known is Popper’s work laying the foundation of a field called evolutionary epistemology.

Epistemology’ is the study of knowledge and its growth. To put it rather crudely, Popper and his cohorts make the argument that human knowledge, just like biological evolution, evolves through trial and error. Ideas are ‘varied’ by creative action, and ‘blind’ attempts based on new theories conceived by adventurous individuals. These variations are then winnowed away by criticism and experiment.

Popper set out this view of the onward march of knowledge as applied to science – he calls the process ‘conjecture’ and ‘refutation’.

The full argument behind this view is too much to get into here. Suffice to say that it seems logical that our social knowledge – things like governance, law, customs, and other social technologies – also evolve through a similar trial-and-error process.

W.W. Bartley, a student and later colleague of Karl Popper, argues that this evolutionary view completely changes the terms of debate for philosophers. We are no longer concerned with justifying our knowledge, since all things can be doubted. Instead, we must be concerned with criticism of ideas – we must allow as broad a scope as possible to critique the old, and allow innovation towards the new.

His conclusions for society are surprisingly subversive:

Instead of positing authorities in terms of which to guarantee and to criticize action and opinion, we aim to construct a philosophical program for fostering creativity and counteracting error.

Within such a program, the traditional “How do you know?” question does not legitimately arise. For we do not know.

A different question becomes paramount: ‘How can our lives and institutions be arranged so as to expose our positions, actions, opinions, beliefs, aims, conjectures, decisions, standards, frameworks, ways of life, policies, traditional practices, etc. – whether justifiable or not – to optimum examination, in order to counteract and eliminate as much error as possible.

Thus a general program is demanded: a program to develop methods and institutions that will contribute to the creation of such an environment. Such methods may be expected to be generally consistent with, but not restricted to or limited to, science.

2) An Environment to Evolve our Social Knowledge

Only hinted at in Bartley’s list of things that must be open to ‘optimum examination’ are political systems and social orders.

Popper’s own view is that liberal democracy allows for change and experimentation in political order without bloodshed and violence. He is certainly correct that democracies, especially on the model of decentralized federalism, allow for some policy experimenting, (usually) peaceful transference of power, and reform and change through collective action like voting.

But, as I have argued here before, do we believe that Western democracies are the absolute end of institutional evolution? We are called by Popper and Bartley to doubt all standards, all absolutes, as open to future revision after criticism has taken its salutary toll. Our knowledge continues to advance – does our social knowledge remain stagnant?

As Western democracies have matured it’s no longer as obvious that democracy conceived of as simply a majoritarian electoral system is the best framework to prevent violence and bring about better lives. To be perfectly clear: this does not mean that voting, individual rights, the protection of free-speech and dissent, social safety-nets or anything traditionally embodied under the heading “democracy” are bad, or must be changed.

But it means we must doubt.

Many modern democracies are violent, both internally and against foreigners. Consider the War on Drugs, which has such disastrous effects in both inner-cities and Latin America. Or consider the seemingly unending War on Terror which, whatever one may say in its defense, has been incredibly costly in money and innocent blood.

The beneficial aspects of federalism (decentralized experimenting in policies, competition and criticism from other polities), have been eroded as power is centralized in places like Washington DC. Civil liberties typically assumed under the banner of democracy (such as habeas corpus, or free expression on the internet) are constantly under attack by political forces within democracies, whether in a bill like the NDAA or SOPA.

Mechanisms of democratic change like regulatory bodies, voting, pamphleteering for your party, writing your Senator etc. have all been thoroughly critiqued on grounds ranging from the behavioral irrationality or ignorance of the voter, to the nefarious influence of special interests.

Again, this absolutely does not deny the beneficial effects these efforts have had in the past or future, or to claim that some sort of ‘dictatorial alternative’ is better.

But we have to doubt. Democracies have rigidities of their own.

To rise to Bartley’s challenge in politics is to say, “How do we expose our political beliefs, our institutions, our social orders and technologies to optimum examination? So that we may counteract our own mistakes and correct our errors.” If we want a better world, we must acknowledge and criticize our shortcomings.

For Popper, our prevailing nation-state system is the environment that subjects these things to open criticism. But we should, following his lead, be willing to challenge our own beliefs in any political order.

We have to imagine criticizing the system at one degree higher; we should be willing to subject the nation-state system itself to an environment of criticism. How else do we expect to fully evolve our social knowledge?

This environment, I believe, is one of competition and consent in social systems. It is one of a thousand nations blooming : or what one might semi–seriously call “The Really, Really Open Society.”

  1. Sean O permalink
    March 20, 2012 8:51 pm

    Never happen. Those in positions of power are not interested in changing anything except increasing their power. Discussions about improving government by elites are just window dressing.

    This is obviously true of dictatorships, but also true of a plutocracy like ours in the US.

    • Z. Caceres permalink
      April 18, 2012 5:26 pm

      Hi Sean,

      Thanks for your comment. Perhaps I was unclear, but nothing about my argument in this post suggests that we must use ‘elites’ to improve governance. It is about what structure subjects our political systems to optimal criticism.

      However, I don’t think it is as simple as people in power are mere automatons driven only to increase their power. I do believe this can serve as a useful shorthand for understanding political processes (such as public choice theory). But reality is far more complex. This paper sheds some light:

      There will, at certain times, be people with ideologies that override their self-interest. There will also be opportunities to leverage elites against one another, perhaps by dividing their self-interests with a project like a Free City in which some elites stand to gain more by allowing openness rather than restriction.


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