The Open Society and Its Enemies by Popper


Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994) was born into a family of Jewish origin in Vienna. At seventeen he became a Marxist which familiarised him with a dialectical view of economics and history. He considered that Marxism was initially predictive and thus scientific, however he observed that when its predictions were not substantiated it turned to provisional hypotheses to adapt to the facts. This fall into pseudoscience, in his view, was brought about by adopting Hegelian dialectics to accommodate it to the cause, not to counter dogmatism. He later abandoned Marxist ideology through disillusion with its doctrinaire characteristics and also because of its effective welcoming of fascism as the dialectical step towards the implosion of capitalism, supposedly leading to the victory of communism. 

In Vienna he came into contact with the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Adler. However he came to think of their approach as presented in terms of autoconfirmation. Popper argued that their ideas were:

“simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behaviour which could contradict them."

He concluded that, despite their psychological insights, they were more like myths than real science since they could not be verified in one way or another. The strength of psychoanalysis, Popper decided, was its capacity to explain all human behaviour, but that was also its weakness since it meant that it could not be really predictive. He compared this to the theories of Einstein which were testable and could be judged as false if unconfirmed:

"... real support can be obtained only from observations undertaken as tests (by ‘attempted refutations’); and for this purpose criteria of refutation have to be laid down beforehand: it must be agreed which observable situations, if actually observed, mean that the theory is refuted."

In 1928 he obtained his Ph.D. in the methodological problems of cognitive psychology: Zur Methodenfrage der Denkpsychologie (On Questions of Method in the Psychology of Thinking). This focus on questions of method, objectivity and scientific status remained a major interest for the rest of his life.


The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) is composed of two volumes: The Spell of Plato, which analyses Plato's theoretic system and The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, which focuses on Aristotle and evaluates the philosophies of Hegel and Marx.

Popper's main social metaphor distinguishes between the openness and closedness of societies:

In open societies individuals are held responsible for their behaviours. They can choose what to do and believe while not hurting others' similar freedoms. However, the downside to individual responsibility is the stress of living in an open society which demands rationality and the renouncing of some personal emotional needs. 

In contrast closed societies are collective and function in a top-down way. They usually have One Truth, religious or propagandistic, and the government punishes dissent. Popper's example for a closed society is totalitarianism where citizens are required to conform to official truths, nonconformity is viewed as an attack on society and dissenters are jailed or 'disappeared'. Even thinking differently to the leadership (thoughtcrime) is treason, as in Orwell's novel 1984, written 3 years later.

Popper thinks that all closed societies have a common philosophy: historicism. In this worldview societies are thought to be under the influence of historical trends. A historicist has the ability to predict where these trends are going and so lead people to avoid danger. Popper's book criticises this way of thinking by focusing on influential historicists: Plato, Hegel and Marx. According to Popper their prestige motivated others to create closed societies which, while promising a heaven on earth, led to suffering for millions.

Plato's historicist construction is based on the theory of Forms which states that the physical world we interact with is not as true or real as Forms, which are timeless, absolute and unchangeable. This perfect Form is an abstraction that exists outside reality and time.

Applied to society, Plato theorised that a perfect State must exist, free from the problems experienced by the present imperfect States. He predicted that the present decaying, shadowy, States must finally collapse into anarchy. So he set out a plan for the perfect utopian State, inspired by early examples before decay had set in.

Utopia would have a caste system with philosophers as kings, then warriors to defend the State, below them merchants, craftsmen, farmers and at the bottom slaves. This system was rigid and did not allow changes. Plato compared it to metallurgy where mixing metals created weaknesses. State members would not be allowed to mix to avoid weak offspring.

As decay was part of the system Plato insisted on stopping all changes in order to retard disintegration. Philosopher kings were to be put in charge to realise this. The resulting society was essentially one of obedient citizens who would do as their rulers ordered.

According to Popper historicism was revived in the modern era by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the 18th. century. This philosopher retrieved Plato's concept of the State as an organism and combined it with Rousseau's idea of 'the general will'. This stated that citizens' opinions add up to a single will which leads towards common interest. Hegel considered that this will is personified in the State leader, who is placed above ordinary morality. However, Hegel disagreed with Plato on the natural decay of States proposing, in an aristotelian twist, that they actually evolve into more perfect versions through self-assertion. This meant that the way forward for a State was the domination of others through war. States were the extensions of individuals, representatives of the general will, so the noblest act of the citizen was to sacrifice their life for the State. 

Although they had some differences, the social vision of both Plato and Hegel is similar: people are a means to an end.

Almost a century after Hegel another German philosopher proposed a new historicism: Marxism. Marx moved the focus of historicist philosophy from nation to social class. He divided society into the bourgeoisie, the minority who owned the means of industrial production, and the proletariat, the majority who survived by selling their labour. The laissez-faire capitalist system was dehumanising for both classes, it drove down profits so the bourgeoisie were thus forced to overexploit to avoid failing and having to sell their own labour; the proletariat were engaged in dangerous work for decreasing wages. 

Popper notes that Marx lived in London where he saw at first hand the disastrous effects of industrialisation on the proletariat. He adds that what encouraged the German philosopher was not so much hate of capitalism, but rather empathy for his fellow human beings:

"...his [Marx's] burning protest against these crimes, which were then tolerated, and sometimes even defended, not only by professional economists but also by churchmen, will secure him forever a place among the liberators of mankind."

Marx's historicism was built up following this schema: humans have always had to fight Nature to ensure survival and they arranged societies so that the few enjoyed the work of many. The industrial revolution enabled people to produce more than necessary for basic survival so that more leisure time was available. However, some businessmen were able to concentrate the new wealth in their own hands and employ others in alienating mechanical work.

Marx predicted that historical forces would drive capitalism into ever diminishing profits and lessening of wages, so increasing suffering in the proletariat. This would lead to war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Out of the conflict the classless society would be created in a communist State. In this utopian society work would be distributed fairly and everyone would have leisure time to pursue their interests.

Popper views this marxist analysis as more humane than that of Plato and Hegel, but, as a historicist, Marx treats people like particles swept around by history. He encourages them to allow history to take over and lead them to utopia. Reform is also denied since the new society will only come about through destruction.

However in actual history, contrary to the marxist prediction, it is through social and political reforms that the proletariat has improved its standards: health insurance, public education and a shorter work day and week. 

The Open Society and Its Enemies is also Popper's instrument for setting out ideas that will enable the existence of open societies. One of these concepts is related to his definition of democracy:

"... we can now describe as the principle of a democratic policy, the proposal to create, develop, and protect, political institutions for the avoidance of tyranny."

The core of Popper's philosophy was the central importance of the individual, since personal responsibility and agency is his highest value. Thus his insistence on democracy as a bulwark against tyrannical rulers. Nonetheless, he encourages a prudent intervention of the government when people harm each other. This implies, among other things, that there must exist a justice system and police force. He also considers that government protection extends to access to food, shelter, education, and medical care. However, he adds:

"But I wish to add here that economic intervention, even the piecemeal methods advocated here, will tend to increase the power of the state. Interventionism is therefore extremely dangerous. This is not a decisive argument against it; state power must always remain a dangerous though necessary evil. But it should be a warning that if we relax our watchfulness, and if we do not strengthen our democratic institutions while giving more power to the state by interventionist planning, then we may lose our freedom. And if freedom is lost, every thing is lost, including 'planning."

The unacceptability of non-democratic governments is, according to Popper, that they rob citizens of responsibility. In a democracy harmful policy cannot only be blamed on the government, but also the citizenship who voted it into power.


Philosophy of science

Hume demonstrated that traditional empiricism harboured a contradiction: if experience is accepted as open-ended then universal scientific laws cannot by predicted through experience. Popper removes the contradiction by eliminating the need for verification in favour of The Falsification Principle. This was his way of demarcating science from non-science. He suggests that to be scientific a theory must be able to be tested and proved false. For Popper science should seek to disprove rather than support hypotheses. For example: 

"Europeans, for thousands of years had observed millions of white swans. Using inductive evidence, we could come up with the theory that all swans are white."

However, Australasian exploration demonstrated that black swans existed. For Popper all knowledge is provisional and hypothetical so that universal scientific theories cannot be finally established. 

This led the author to emphasise a critical spirit in science as essential to rational thinking. It is the way to eliminate false theories and decide the best available, the ones that which can most accurately predict. His argument is that inductive reasoning which comes to conclusions based on specific observations, cannot predict accurately. He proposed a deductive approach whereby reasoning verifies hypotheses by concluding specifics which can be tested through more experimentation.

His political argument for a democratic society is rooted in his epistemology of science. All knowledge is conjectural and social progress depends on the scientific procedure of trial and error. Liberal democracies apply this understanding to science and society.


Popper put forward a new criterion for democracy to replace the question of who should rule. His new question was:

"How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?”

He views democracy as the best institutional design because it enables this problem of bad leadership to be solved in a non-violent, institutionalised manner, through voting. He is not concerned with the sovereignty of the people, but their role in providing an orderly way of getting rid of corrupt, abusive or incompetent leaders.

He emphasised the need for checks and balances in the democratic system (Locke's separation of powers). He insisted that democracies seek:

“... institutional control of the rulers by balancing their power against other powers.” 

Popper also considered that two-party systems were superior to proportional representation ones, since in the former structures voters can more easily credit or blame one political party which forces it to rectify. This means that politics will follow the trial and error process of science. 

Popper did not view democracy as based on a well-informed and judicious public and he rejected the classical myth of vox populi, vox dei (the people's voice is God's voice). His concept of democracy was much more down-to-earth: 

“We are democrats, not because the majority is always right, but because democratic traditions are the least evil ones of which we know.” 

Nevertheless he hoped that the institutions that influenced public opinion: universities, political parties and the media, would become more rational and engage in critical discussion, similar to the tradition in science of submitting ideas to others' criticism and listening to different points of view.

Holism, Essentialism and Historicism

Popper argued that three philosophical concepts framed Plato's defense of a closed society: holism, essentialism, and historicism.

Holism can de described as the belief that some types of entities need to be understood as a whole, for example biological and social systems, an organism, an ecosystem, an economy, or a culture. The corollary is that these entities cannot be reduced to their constituent parts. One example is consciousness which some hold cannot be analysed through the physical elements that make up the brain, such as nerves and neurotransmitters. This is extended to social analysis which cannot be reduced to individuals' properties. As a method Platonists reject individualism and hold to holism.

Platonic holism is apparent in the concept of the polis which is more real than the individuals who inhabit it. This implied that the city had necessities which are of more importance than individual needs and this formed the basis for Plato's ethical collectivism. Popper affirms that in Plato's just society individuals were expected to sacrifice their needs to those of the State. He believed this to be socially dangerous as a central tenant of totalitarian regimes. The Nazis used the collective idea of the Ayran race needs to justify their fascist policies; Soviet Union communism used class interests above individual needs as its dynamics of power. In contrast Popper held that members of an open society view the State as a human design always serving individual interests. Justice means equal treatment for individuals, not the well-oiled functioning of the State. 

A second platonic doctrine that Popper considers as supporting a closed society is essentialism. This epistemology claims that knowledge is the discovery of the true nature of things, their essence. This is exemplified by Plato's Forms which are eternal, unchanging examples of the physical things we experience daily. Understanding Forms arises more from intuition than empirical research. The essential nature of triangles, their Form, is understood by mathematical intuition, rather than by measuring physical triangles.

The copies of Forms we find in the physical world are subject to decay. For Plato this is also true for societies, which also tend to degrade and this affects the polis. Popper argued that this concept influenced Plato's politics since platonism thought that to stop the natural decay research should discover the reasons for this degeneration. This led platonic thought to study historical changes and so to historicism.

Historicism is the idea that history is controlled by historical laws and that it has a direction: decay and renewal. Popper adds that this cyclic law of a golden age followed by collapse predates 5th. century BC Athens. Plato's law of decay predicted the degeneration of the ideal city from military rule (timarchy) to oligarchy to democracy and then to dictatorship. However the Greek philosopher went further by describing how this happened, through his theory of Forms, and sought to find a way to stop the tendency to decay. Popper affirms that the platonic solution to the utopian society of arresting natural political and social decay was the creation of a closed society. This required a hierarchical class system controlled by philosopher kings whose knowledge of Forms enabled them to avoid decay and ensure incorruptibility. Popper viewed this top-down structure as totalitarian as it would include a rigid hierarchy, censorship, collectivism and central planning. This organisation would by reinforced by Plato's "noble lies", in short government propaganda and fake news.

Popper also drew attention to Aristotle's teleological essentialism. In contrast to Plato's pessimistic conception of gradual degradation, Aristotle optimistically interpreted entities' essences as potentialities, gradually manifested during their development, an idea later followed up by Hegel. The oak tree, for example, is the final cause of the acorn. Popper argued that Aristotle's essentialism, along with his teleology, implied that a State's nature could only be known through time, after the process of historical development. He added that aristotelian historicism lay silent for twenty centuries until Hegel resurrected it.

Historicism: Hegel and Marx

Hegel's historicism is seen in his concept that the dialectical interaction of ideas: thesis-antithesis-synthesis-thesis-antithesis-synthesis, was the motor of history. It was this gradual improvement in philosophical, ethical, political and religious ideas in the unravelling of history through reason that drove it forward. The final step will come when all contradictions in ideas are resolved.

Marx inverted Hegel's philosophy, since for him history was a series of economic and political systems ('modes of production'). Through technology production modes would improve to meet society's needs and they would reflect the interests of those controlling the new system. It was Marx's belief that capitalism would fail due to its inefficiency and injustice and be replaced by new technologies. The final blow would be a communist revolution leading to abundance and equality for all. 

The methodological flaw in historicism, according to Popper, is that Plato, Hegel and Marx considered historical prediction as their goal. He believes that foreseeing the future is impossible. His first argument is logical: humans cannot predict what they will know, otherwise they would know it, so the future is not predictable. Popper's argument is also based on his personal belief that the universe is non-deterministic so that the past does not causally determine the future. 

Popper puts forward a second argument: historicism is based on the belief that social science is a theoretical history aimed at discovering laws which will predict historical development. He asserts that this is a misunderstanding of the laws of science. He counters that trans-historical scientific laws to predict transformations do not exist. He agrees that sociological laws governing human behaviour in certain social systems are possible, for example supply and demand. But laws governing the general trajectory of history are non-existent. Popper also admits the existence of trends, greater freedoms, more equality and wealth or improved technology, but they depend on conditions, unlike laws. If conditions alter then the trends may disappear. Popper also acknowledges that natural sciences, such as astronomy, can forecast the future, but these predictions happen within physical systems which are stationary and recurrent like the solar system. However, social systems are not isolated and stationary.

Social Engineering

Popper saw historicism as a defective social science and also as politically dangerous. This was due to its tendency for social planning whose goal is to remodel society according to a plan, instead of gradual adaptation. However, Popper considered that historicists were in contradiction when they planned social engineering because historicism believed that laws, not human plans, determined history's course. For this reason Marx himself rejected designs of a socialist system calling them "utopian". 

Nevertheless there remains a link between utopian social engineering and historicism. The utopian ideal is a State in which all human conflicts are resolved and freedom, equality and happiness are reconciled, as predicted by both Marx and Hegel. Despite that to achieve this goal implies radical changes in the existing social structures which means social engineering. Another connection is that historicism and social planning embrace holism, the idea that the whole of society is the object of social science. This involves political engagement in order to facilitate the predicted laws of change.

Popper contends that utopian engineering is flawed, leading to inforeseen results. The reactions to these consequences will be haphazard:

“[T]he greater the holistic changes attempted, the greater are their unintended and largely unexpected repercussions, forcing on the holistic engineer the expedient of piecemeal improvisation." 

One of the blind sides of social engineers is the human factor, the unpredictable consequences of human choices. In hstoricist holism planners believe that humans are pawns in the system, controlled by social forces. Social plans become blueprints to fit individuals into the social experiment. This requires power, which is where utopian engineering links up with authoritarian tyranny. It also involves centralised power, shared among very few. Autocratic regimes are also very hostile to open criticism and so planners get little feedback about their policies, further undermining their effectiveness. The suffering caused is normally disregarded as part of the process towards the promised nirvana.

Soviet Union policies may be what inspired Popper's criticism of social engineering. It had five year plans, rapid industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation based on Marxist historicism and utopian ideals, with central planning and propaganda to create the 'new soviet man'. Popper's predicted results for utopian social engineering also proved true in the instauraration of the stalinist dictatorship, including suppression of any criticism and the unintended disastrous consequences for agricultural collectivism through mass starvation. He dedicated his 1957 publication The Poverty of Historicism, to the victims of historicism under both communism and fascism:

“[in] memory of the countless men, women and children of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny."

The Open Society 

Popper defended western democracies as:

“the best of all political worlds of whose existence we have any historical knowledge." 

He thought that individual freedoms and peaceful self-correction ability were the main values of open societies. Creation of wealth was secondary. His philosophical basis for a democratic society is epistemological: all knowledge is conjectural and progress depends on the scientific method of trial and error. For the author liberal democracies epitomise and promote this knowledge and methodology.

The Strain 

The tension experienced by those living in an open society is described by Popper as the requirement to:

"forgo at least some of our emotional social needs", 

leading to 

"anonymity and isolation."

This rejection of the open society has a long history, according to Popper. The 18th. century Romantic movement can be seen as a revolt against the growth of open societies. Nietzsche referred to leaving the safety of a closed society to become an individual facing up to their own existence. Marx also noted the alienating effect of industrial labour produced by fragmentation and abstraction. Popper also criticises his contemporaries of the existentialist movement:

"We can see here that the problem of the true and the false rationalisms [Utopianism] is part of a larger problem. Ultimately it is the problem of a sane attitude towards our own existence and its limitations–that very problem of which so much is made now by those who call themselves ‘Existentialists’, the expounders of a new theology without God. There is, I believe, a neurotic and even an hysterical element in this exaggerated emphasis upon the fundamental loneliness of man in a godless world, and upon the resulting tension between the self and the world. I have little doubt that this hysteria is closely akin to Utopian romanticism, and also to the ethic of hero-worship, to an ethic that can comprehend life only in terms of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’. And I do not doubt that this hysteria is the secret of its strong appeal."

Popper was of the opinion that this tension drove people to welcome historicist ideologies against the open society, which he terms civilisation:

"Why do all these social philosophies support the revolt against civilization? And what is the secret of their popularity? Why do they attract and seduce so many intellectuals? I am inclined to think that the reason is that they give expression to a deepfelt dissatisfaction with a world which does not, and cannot, live up to our moral ideals and to our dreams of perfection. The tendency of historicism (and of related views) to support the revolt against civilization may be due to the fact that historicism itself is, largely, a reaction against the strain of our civilization and its demand for personal responsibility."

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