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The Open Society and Its Enemies

The Open Society and Its Enemies

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The Open Society and Its Enemies is an influential two-volume work by Karl Popper
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

 written during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. Failing to find a publisher in the United States, it was first printed in London by Routledge
Routledge is a British publishing house which has operated under a succession of company names and latterly as an academic imprint. Its origins may be traced back to the 19th-century London bookseller George Routledge...

 in 1945. The work criticises theories of teleological
A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos; root: τελε-, "end, purpose...

Historicism is a mode of thinking that assigns a central and basic significance to a specific context, such as historical period, geographical place and local culture. As such it is in contrast to individualist theories of knowledges such as empiricism and rationalism, which neglect the role of...

 in which history unfolds inexorably according to universal laws, and indicts as totalitarian Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

, Hegel and Marx for relying on historicism to underpin their political philosophies. It was on the Modern Library Board's 100 Best Nonfiction books of the 20th century.


A veritable who's who of philosophy and the social sciences were involved in its path to publication, as Popper was writing in academic obscurity two oceans away in New Zealand
New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...

 for the duration of World War II. Among them were Ernst Gombrich
Ernst Gombrich
Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, OM, CBE was an Austrian-born art historian who became naturalized British citizen in 1947. He spent most of his working life in the United Kingdom...

 (entrusted with the main task of finding a publisher), Friedrich Hayek
Friedrich Hayek
Friedrich August Hayek CH , born in Austria-Hungary as Friedrich August von Hayek, was an economist and philosopher best known for his defense of classical liberalism and free-market capitalism against socialist and collectivist thought...

 (who wanted to get Popper to the London School of Economics
London School of Economics
The London School of Economics and Political Science is a public research university specialised in the social sciences located in London, United Kingdom, and a constituent college of the federal University of London...

 and thus was enthused by Popper's turn to social philosophy), Lionel Robbins
Lionel Robbins
Lionel Charles Robbins, Baron Robbins, FBA was a British economist and head of the economics department at the London School of Economics...

, Harold Laski
Harold Laski
Harold Joseph Laski was a British Marxist, political theorist, economist, author, and lecturer, who served as the chairman of the Labour Party during 1945-1946, and was a professor at the LSE from 1926 to 1950....

 (both of whom reviewed the manuscript), and J.N. Findlay
John Niemeyer Findlay
John Niemeyer Findlay, known as J. N. Findlay, was a South African philosopher.-Education and Career:...

. It was Findlay who suggested the title to the book, after three previous ones 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).


In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper developed a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society
Open society
The open society is a concept originally developed by philosopher Henri Bergson and then by Austrian and British philosopher Karl Popper. In open societies, government is purported to be responsive and tolerant, and political mechanisms are said to be transparent and flexible...

, liberal democracy
Liberal democracy
Liberal democracy, also known as constitutional democracy, is a common form of representative democracy. According to the principles of liberal democracy, elections should be free and fair, and the political process should be competitive...

. The book is in two volumes; volume one is subtitled "The Spell of Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

", and volume two, "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath".

The subtitle of the first volume is also its central premise — 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, rather than as it should be seen: a horrific totalitarian
Totalitarianism is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible...

 nightmare of deceit, violence, master-race rhetoric and eugenics.

Contrary to major Plato scholars of his day, Popper divorced Plato's ideas from those of Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

, 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
Republic (Plato)
The Republic is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC concerning the definition of justice and the order and character of the just city-state and the just man...

, wherein he portrays Socrates sympathizing with totalitarianism (see: Socratic problem
Socratic problem
Although Socrates—who was the main character in most of Plato's dialogues—was a genuine historical figure, it is commonly understood that in later dialogues Plato used the character of Socrates to give voice to his own philosophical views...


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
Athenian democracy
Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the central city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 508 BC. Athens is one of the first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, and even though most followed an Athenian model,...

 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——that he had designs to become the supreme Philosopher King
Philosopher king
Philosopher kings are the rulers, or Guardians, of Plato's Utopian Kallipolis. If his ideal city-state is to ever come into being, "philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize" .-In Book VI of The Republic:Plato defined a philosopher...

 of his vision.

The last chapter of the first volume bears the same title as the book, and is Popper's own philosophical explorations on the necessity of liberal democracy
Liberal democracy
Liberal democracy, also known as constitutional democracy, is a common form of representative democracy. According to the principles of liberal democracy, elections should be free and fair, and the political process should be competitive...

 as the only form of government allowing institutional improvements without violence
Violence is the use of physical force to apply a state to others contrary to their wishes. violence, while often a stand-alone issue, is often the culmination of other kinds of conflict, e.g...

 and bloodshed.

In volume two, Popper moves on to criticise Hegel and Marx, tracing back their ideas to Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, and arguing that the two were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism.


Philosopher Sidney Hook
Sidney Hook
Sidney Hook was an American pragmatic philosopher known for his contributions to public debates.A student of John Dewey, Hook continued to examine the philosophy of history, of education, politics, and of ethics. After embracing Marxism in his youth, Hook was known for his criticisms of...

 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." Moreover, Hook 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."

According to philosopher Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss was a political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born in Germany to Jewish parents and later emigrated to the United States...

, Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies had mistaken the city-in-speech described in Plato's Republic for a blueprint for regime reform. Strauss quotes Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

, "The Republic does not bring to light the best possible regime but rather the nature of political things – the nature of the city." Strauss argued that the city-in-speech was unnatural, precisely because "it is rendered possible by the abstraction from eros." The city-in-speech abstracted from eros, or bodily needs, and therefore could never guide politics in the manner Popper claimed.

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."

Walter Kaufmann's The Hegel Myth and Its Method argues that Popper's section on Hegel is a simplified and misleading representation of Hegel. He claims that Popper's views are based on an incomplete reading of Hegel, suggesting that "Popper has relied largely on Scribner’s Hegel Selections, a little anthology for students that contains not a single complete work." Kaufmann also views Popper as betraying the scientific method he proposes so passionately and instead is "intent on psychologizing the men he attacks." In fact, Kaufmann accuses Popper of using the same distorting methods of which totalitarians are also guilty.

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