Towards an opened society

To my father.

After the PhD dissertation of my older brother, my father noted that there were a number of similarities between Karl Poppers work and my brother’s thesis, from theoretical perspective. Sadly, I won´t be able to discuss these similarities as until present day I can´t explain what my brother has done. No, I am not particularly proud of this but I am sure eventually I ll study this subject!

To be honest until that day I had never heard of Karl Popper.  As I had the opportunity to read, Karl Popper was one of the most important philosophers of the 20 century. This really astonished me, my father and I are both fans of Philosophy, specially the philosophy of the last century. Among our “heroes” are John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas and Hayek.  But, how come I had never heard of Popper?? As I found out, his work is essential philosophical reading. This is a good opportunity to get to know this author.

I would like to briefly discuss some of the ideas present in “open society and its enemies volume 1” by Karl Popper. In this work, Karl Popper critizices Historicism and its followers. As I understood the idea of Historicism is related to three important variables: 1. Change 2. Destiny 3. Prediction.

Heraclitus is the founder  of the idea of constant change. For sure you already know what this idea implies. I just would like to point out that the idea of change is present in Historicism as a continous flow of historical events and of forms of Government. According to Popper, Plato´s ideas are enmarked in historicism. Plato considered that there is a perpetual change always resulted in a degrated or worse state. Nonetheless, Plato also believed there is a “perfect or original state”. This original state is composed by “figure and forms” and other states are degraded fases by virtue of the law of social decay. It is possible to find the original state using a proper method.

According to Popper, historicism is also related to the idea of prediction, “which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history” Finally, it is also related with destiny. Prediction is possible because there is an end or a final destiny.

My intention is not to summarize further the wonderful ideas present in Popper´s work.  What I would really like to do is to discuss the notion of Historicism. The idea of change is not very difficult to conceive. It is a phenomenon tangible in nature. Yet I am having a hard time affirming this from a historical or social perspective. Of course, time is a fundamental element in history and time is always changing. Nonetheless I can think of a vast number of social and historical facts that go in favor of a static or permanent perspective. Do you think  our institutions really change? Is there a constant change in social behavior? Are paradigms permutable?

More difficulties appear in trying to make compatible the idea of change with “destiny or prediction” If you affirm the idea of change, how can there be a destiny or a final stage? A priori, the idea of prediction in the social sciences seems implausible. How can you predict social events or individual behaviors? If you just think in Historical events from the past one can truly understand why some authors ( Hegel, Marx) have strongly defended historicism as a mode of thinking. The idea of History being cyclical is in good terms with the variable of prediction. In a global context it is not hard to see social or economic events repeating  constantly. It is even useless to site many of the examples (economic cycles, changes of government, outcomes of war…) that support this. What really intrigues me is the affirmation of this and the maintenance of the notion of free will and individual liberty.

I believe that under Popper´s strong reaction against historicism there is the urge to protect individual liberty and, as can be read in the book, the need to criticize radical forms of government. Where comes that allege predictability? If the final outcome of the sum of individual actions leads to events that repeat over and over again then it would be possible to refute the notion of individual liberty.

How can this problem be resolved? One solution of course, is to deny entirely  Historicism. Such is the solution adopted by Karl Popper and by me. One can definitely observe patterns in history but these events have been categorized or name by ourselves. In the search for the comprehension of our world we have discovered these identical or even  patterns. Another solution is to embrace historicism, making it compatible to individual liberty. This will be a difficult task but, just as Plato made an exception to the constant degradation of forms of government creating a perfect state, it would be possible to assert the existence of human liberty, which, although limited or constrained would surface in certain occasions,thus changing the normal course of events.

Finally I wanted to briefly talk about the concept of “the open society”.  According to Karl Popper, civilization has moved from a closed to an open society. The closed society is characterized by tribalism, ritualism, magic and taboos. On the contrary our “open society” is characterized by individual freedom, rational behavior and, most important of all personal responsibility. Popper argues that this change, which started in Athens, was a unique revolution. I believe that this might have been a revolution but just a partial one. In present days, our society is still full of rituals, taboos and even bestiality. Karl Popper recognizes the presence of these elements in the present yet he argues that individual liberty and personal responsibility prevail. From my point of view, the decisions that politicians take and above all, the behavior, the selfishness, greed and bestiality from many of the corporate world protagonist (behavior that, for instance, propelled the present economic crash) proves that even in present day this revolution has not been completed. Responsibility in the private sector is still a mean to increase benefits and demagogic governors and radical forms of government are abundant.  Moreover and taking account the dose of self criticism demanded by Socrates, I must confess that until present day I still have some steps ahead to become part of the “open society ideal”. Rituals and taboos (thank god not magic) are still part of my life, although and that is what I think differentiates me from the aforementioned groups, at least I am in a self awareness state.

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