The Open Society and Its Enemies  

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"Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.β€Šβ€”β€ŠIn this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant." --Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Vol. 1 (in note 4 to Chapter 7).

"Plato's The Republic presents a critical view of democracy through the narration of Socrates: "Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike." In his work, Plato lists 5 forms of government from best to worst. Assuming that the Republic was intended to be a serious critique of the political thought in Athens, Plato argues that only Callipolis, an aristocracy led by the unwilling philosopher kings (the wisest men), is a just form of government. The contrast between Plato's theory of philosopher-kings, arresting change, and Aristotle's embrace of change, is the historical tension espoused by Karl Popper in his WWII treatise, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1943)." --Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Open Society and Its Enemies is a work on political philosophy by Karl Popper, in which Popper offers a critique of theories of teleological historicism, according to which history unfolds inexorably according to universal laws. Popper indicts as totalitarian Plato, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx, for relying on historicism to underpin their political philosophies, though his interpretations of all three philosophers have been criticized. Written during World War II, The Open Society and Its Enemies was first printed in London by Routledge in 1945 in two volumes: "The Spell of Plato" and "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath". A one volume edition with a new introduction by Alan Ryan and an essay by E. H. Gombrich was published by Princeton University Press in 2013. The work was on the Modern Library Board's 100 Best Nonfiction books of the 20th century.



As Popper was writing in academic obscurity in New Zealand for the duration of World War II, several other figures in philosophy and the social sciences were involved in its path to publication. Gombrich was entrusted with the main task of finding a publisher; Friedrich Hayek wanted to get Popper to the London School of Economics and thus was enthused by his turn to social philosophy; Lionel Robbins and Harold Laski reviewed the manuscript. Lastly, J.N. Findlay suggested the book's ultimate title after three others had been discarded. ('A Social Philosophy for Everyman' was the original title of the manuscript; 'Three False Prophets: Plato-Hegel-Marx' and 'A Critique of Political Philosophy' were also considered and rejected.)

The book was not published in Russia until 1992.


Popper develops a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society, liberal democracy. The subtitle of his first volume, "The Spell of Plato", makes clear Popper's central premise β€” namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by his greatness. In so doing, Popper argues, they have taken his political philosophy as a benign idyll, without taking into account its dangerous tendencies toward totalitarian ideology.

Contrary to major Plato scholars of his day, Popper divorced Plato's ideas from those of Socrates, claiming that the former in his later years expressed none of the humanitarian and democratic tendencies of his teacher. In particular, he accuses Plato of betraying Socrates in the Republic, wherein Plato portrays Socrates sympathizing with totalitarianism (see: Socratic problem).

Popper extols Plato's analysis of social change and discontent, naming him as a great sociologist, yet rejects his solutions. This is dependent on Popper's reading of the emerging humanitarian ideals of Athenian democracy as the birth pangs of his coveted "open society". In his view, Plato's historicist ideas are driven by a fear of the change that comes with such a liberal worldview. Popper also suggests that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, and had designs to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.

The last chapter of the first volume bears the same title as the book, and conveys Popper's own philosophical explorations on the necessity of liberal democracy as the only form of government allowing institutional improvements without violence and bloodshed.

In volume two, "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath", Popper criticises Hegel and Marx, tracing back their ideas to Aristotle, and arguing that the two were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism.

Scholarly reception

Philosopher Bertrand Russell called The Open Society and its Enemies "a vigorous and profound defence of democracy." Philosopher Sidney Hook praised The Open Society and its Enemies as a "subtly argued and passionately written" critique of the "historicist ideas that threaten the love of freedom [and] the existence of an open society". Hook calls Popper's critique of the cardinal beliefs of historicism "undoubtedly sound", noting that historicism "overlooks the presence of genuine alternatives in history, the operation of plural causal processes in the historical pattern, and the role of human ideals in redetermining the future". Nevertheless, Hook argues that Popper "reads Plato too literally when it serves his purposes and is too cocksure about what Plato's 'real' meaning is when the texts are ambiguous", and calls Popper's treatment of Hegel "downright abusive" and "demonstrably false", noting that "there is not a single reference to Hegel in Hitler's Mein Kampf".

Philosopher Walter Kaufmann believed that The Open Society and Its Enemies has many virtues, including its attack against totalitarianism, and many suggestive ideas. However, he also found the work to have serious flaws, writing that Popper's interpretations of Plato were flawed and that Popper had provided a "comprehensive statement" of older myths about Hegel. Kaufmann commented that despite Popper's hatred of totalitarianism, Popper's method was "unfortunately similar to that of totalitarian 'scholars'".

Marxist philosopher Maurice Cornforth defended Marxism against Popper's criticisms in his work The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper's Refutations of Marxism. Though disagreeing with Popper, Cornforth nevertheless called him "perhaps the most eminent" critic of Marxism. Marxist economist Ernest Mandel identifies The Open Society and Its Enemies as part of a literature, beginning with German social democrat Eduard Bernstein, that criticizes the dialectical method Marx borrowed from Hegel as "useless", "metaphysical", or "mystifying." He faults Popper and the other critics for what he regards as their "positivist narrowness".

Reviewing the book's legacy at the end the 20th century, Rajeev Bhargava claims that Popper "notoriously misreads Hegel and Marx", arguing also that the formulation Popper deployed to defend liberal political values is "motivated by partisan ideological considerations grounded curiously in the most abstract metaphysical premises".


The Open Society Foundations, created by investor George Soros, are inspired in name and purpose by Popper's book.

See also

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