Sunday, April 4, 2010

Society of Fools

Karl R. Popper.  The Open Society and Its Enemies.  2 vols.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962.  ISBN 0691019681.

My first encounter with Karl Popper occurred in a college class dedicated to Greek political thought, where the teacher noted that "Popper's approach to Plato is just wrong."  I was intrigued (in addition to being a little contrarian), and so when Nassim Taleb mentioned Popper with approval, I was ready to dig into The Open Society.  I was not disappointed.

Popper and Taleb have the same problem with "experts" who pretend to possess absolute truth when in fact they have no idea what they are talking about.  But where Taleb (in the two books I already discussed briefly) focuses on this phenomenon as it appears in modern economics and philosophy, Popper spends a good deal of time stuck in antiquity, arguing against Plato (particularly the arguments presented in the Republic and the Laws).  Against Plato's arguments (1) that there are eternal forms of goodness (and other abstract virtues) whose perfection can be channeled by adept philosophers, and (2) that said philosophers should make decisions binding on the rest of society, Popper shows that theorizing the existence of such forms and trying to implement them forcibly leads to totalitarianism (creating what he calls "the closed society," a social group defined by the absolute submission of subordinates to leaders).  The ideal blueprints of this society appear in Plato as Kallipolis (Republic) and Magnesia (Laws), each of which is controlled by a select group of absolute rulers (philosopher-kings in Kallipolis; the nocturnal council in Magnesia).  Historical attempts to realize this ideal begin with a bunch of failed Greek tyrannies, and include the fascist and communist regimes of the last century (whose tactics and philosophies, particularly that of Hegel, Popper treats with disdain).

A major problem with the closed society arises from the fact that it is built on a lie ("the lordly lie" in Popper's translation of Plato's Greek on page 414b/c in the Republic), a mythology whose purpose is not to make the citizens more aware or more capable of dealing with their own problems, but to make them obedient slaves.  This lie perpetuates a viewpoint from which the absolute rulers of the closed society appear all-knowing and beneficent.  It emphasizes the weakness of the lower castes (who lack the "knowledge" necessary to make wise decisions about futurity) and the strength of the upper castes (who through their access to eternal forms are supposed to have an answer for everything).  Those who accept this lie live happily under the absolute rulers' administration, convinced that they have surrendered their ability to solve social problems to rulers more qualified than they are.  In Plato's dream world, this situation continues on unruffled ad infinitum.  In real life, it collapses when the society is hit by an unexpected catastrophe (Taleb's black swan), something the "experts" do not see (until after the fact) because they are only human after all, subject to the same biases and stupidities as the rest of us.

Where does that leave us?  Instead of Plato's closed society, Popper proposes another model, which he bases on the portrait of classical Athens that the Greek historian Thucydides puts in the mouth of the Athenian statesman Pericles (see History of the Peloponnesian War 2.35-46).  The society described by Pericles and Popper is "open" to new ideas: visions of truth that debunk or reconstruct what others have seen or see in the phenomena around them.  It is also "open" to new leadership: people do not have to suffer the same dumb leadership year after year.  They can pick a new (stupid) leader!  Instead of coming up with myths to justify sticking with the status quo until the black swan hits and we all go "boom!" the open society looks for propositions that can be falsified ("all swans are white;" "modern economic theory works"), and organizes itself to make use of these until they prove false.  Rather than explore knowledge, this society aims to expose ignorance (which it assumes to be endemic everywhere).

Personally, I prefer the open society to the closed.  As an idiot among idiots, I want the right to protest loudly when others are stupid and the right to be corrected when I am the dumb one.  No specious "mantle of leadership" should come between my stupid brain and cold hard facts out there in the real world.  No illusion of "absolute truth" (guaranteed to be non-falsifiable) should lull me into fake security while the outside world is preparing another black swan.  If at any moment any one of us is liable to torpedo the ship and destroy society, at least give all of us the choice of recognizing and publicizing other options!


  1. The "open society" seems just as idealistic as the "closed," IMO. It seems to me that the good ol' US of A are supposed to function as open, but our leaders (presidents, senators, local leaders, etc.) are too caught up in constituencies, parties, and condescending superiority to be truly "open" to the protests of the citizens they "represent."

    On the other hand, the "closed" society of the Church (or any such community) is also prone to the promote the failings of its leaders. members can toe the party line, or get out!

    The irony lies in the fact that the leaders in the "open" community reflect the attitudes of the "closed" that you list above, while the leaders of the "closed" tout ideals of governing "by common consent." In other words, I find myself rather skeptical of the idealistic, unrealistic societies discussed by either Plato or Popper. But maybe that's just the skeptic in me talking.

  2. I largely agree with your assessment. From my point of view, the problem is one of argument: I can make my case against the closed society of America articulate without getting my rights as an American revoked. I cannot make my argument against the closed society of the LDS church articulate without losing my place in the community. The church has no place "inside" for faithful dissent: all dissenters are defined as apostates and either silenced or kicked out. Every society wants (and tends) to close, but not every society makes it impossible to point out this problem and/or try to counteract it.

  3. As a member of one or the other community, I admit it would make a difference, though even in an "open" community -- or, at least, in the American one -- my voice doesn't make any difference. At least I can still be a member of the community whose leaders make decisions that I feel harm more than hurt me, though! That's something, right?

    I really just wanted to say that both Plato and Popper are discussing the idealized versions of these communities. In its most ideal state, one might argue that Plato's "closed" community would be an improvement over America's so-called "open" one. But then, I've studied neither Plato (to any great extent) nor Popper (at all, unless your blog entry counts as "study.")

  4. Sorry; make that "harm more than help me."

  5. I guess "encouraging thoughtful dissent" is an ideal I find really pragmatic and practical: we can do it!