by Mahdieh Tavakol*
An interesting aspect of Karl Popper’s thought was the interconnection between his political philosophy and his philosophy of science. This aspect was presented by Malachi H. Hacohen, an intellectual historian of Duke University, in his talk entitled “Karl Popper and the Liberal Imagination in Science and Politics”, part of this year’s series Horning Lecture series, An Adventure of the Mind. Although Hacohen’s talk was a broader intellectual biography of Popper, what intrigued me most was Popper’s move from scientific community to an ideal Open Society.
Karl Popper (1902-1994), an Austrian philosopher who lived most of his life as a ‘permanent exile’, spent his youth in the progressive fin-de-siècle Vienna, where he was surrounded by progressive intellectuals. This progressivism with its secular orientation and its emphasis on social reform, popular education, and technological advancement became Popper’s point of departure and his philosophy was formed in a life-long critical engagement with this worldview.
Having witnessed how progressive Viennese culture was shattered by ethnonationalism and its bitter fruits – Fascism and Nazism – Popper became a devout anti-nationalist defending, instead, cultural pluralism in the strongest terms. To him, the best foundation for nationalism was not ethnicity, religion, or culture but only a state with conventional boundaries, whose citizens were all equal regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity.
The cosmopolitan society Popper advocated in his influential book The Open Society and Its Enemies, written during WWII and published in 1945, was modeled after the scientific community he had seen at work in Vienna and Central Europe. To Popper, scientific community was a public sphere that provided a space for ‘intersubjective criticism’ among its members. To him, scientific knowledge was not based upon any kind of basic beliefs rooted in faith or authority. Science was always conjectural and scientific theories were neither a priori valid nor could be confirmed beyond doubt by experience. These theories could, however, be falsified by experience and shown to be untrue. And it was the ‘intersubjective criticism’ that guaranteed the rationality and objectivity of scientific theories.
Modeled after the scientific community, Popper’s Open Society portrayed an ideal democratic public sphere whose rationality was based on a culture of critical debate among its members. The Open Society emulated the Republic of Science and, in turn, guaranteed the freedom essential to scientific progress.
Popper’s Open Society was, however, an ideal society which did not actually exist. And he left us no instructions how to get to this ideal.
*Mahdieh Tavakol is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University.