The Essential Popper

Phil Parvin, The Essential Popper (Volume 14 in the series Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers),  Continuum, 2010, 184 pages, £65

Continuum Press is printing a series of twenty books on major conservative and libertarian thinkers. The list includes some of the old suspects, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Burke and an interesting mix of moderns including Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and The Modern Papacy. The last title is likely to raise some eyebrows and it helps to know that the author, Dr Samuel Greg, did some time at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, working on the compatibility of Roman Catholic social policy with some of the insights of the Austrian school of economics and social thought.

The general editor, John Meadowcroft of King’s College, London, notes that Popper does not fit easily into the category of conservative or libertarian, partly due to the nuances in his thinking and partly due to shifts in his position since The Open Society and its Enemies appeared in 1945. Others in the series are Hayek and Buchanan, who both explicitly rejected the “conservative” label. It seems that one of the aims of the project is to demonstrate that conservatism does not have to be merely reactive and libertarianism does not have to be a vehicle for anarchism.

Phil Parvin has packed a lot into a small book, covering Popper’s intellectual biography; his leading ideas in epistemology, politics and the social sciences; the reception of his ideas on politics; their contemporary relevance. He has adopted a critical stance to avoid hagiography and he may be too receptive to criticism of Popper by the likes of Habermas and the romantic, would-be revolutionary radicals of the 1960s and 1970s. However this approach has helped him to convey a sense of the complexity and also the loose ends in Popper’s contribution.

The main impression that comes through in Parvin’s account is the contrast between the breadth and depth of Popper’s ideas and the way they have been almost completely ignored in academia, after a brief flurry of interest when The Open Society first appeared. In the USA the book has been kept in print by a lay readership. It is next to impossible to find Popper or The Open Society on course outlines and reading lists in US universities, and a citation search for Popper in some leading politics journals turned up a handful of minor references over a period of several decades.

One of the reasons for neglect is the sheer size of The Open Society, 800 pages including 200 pages of notes in smaller print. Fortunately there is now a condensed version online. Another reason is that Popper turned to political philosophy as his “war effort” during the late 1930s and early 1940s. He then returned to his main interests in logic, physics and the philosophy of science and he did not maintain a presence in the politics and social science literature. Another factor which created problems in the reception of the work is that it does not fit neatly with any particular party position or ideology. Parvin notes:

His political prescriptions cannot be easily assimilated with any political ideology, although thinkers from all points on the political spectrum have tried to claim him for their own … Popper’s was an original, controversial, flawed but important contribution which has stood the test of time, but which remains all but ignored by social and political theorists.

Consequently readers who adopt positions like the supporters of a football team have to constantly wonder whether Popper is on their “side”, and this detracts from taking on board the ideas, some of which are bound to cause offence to partisans of all sides. Actually Popper was always a classical liberal at heart, alert to the danger of concentrations of power of all kinds. His early leaning to social democratic interventionism came from a mix of compassion and a dread of monopolies and mass unemployment. Like Orwell, he needed to realise that monopolies will not survive for long without state backing and that mass unemployment is a result of bad public policy (protectionism, minimum wage laws, failure to control trade union violence).

Parvin also noted that Popper did not conform to any of the standard methods of approach to the topic, especially refusing to be drawn into protracted clarification or explication of terms. His approach is unfamiliar but very practical. It calls for the identification and critical appraisal of the principles which function as the “rules of the game” in social life. Ian Jarvie has argued that the same approach lies at the heart of Popper’s philosophy of science because he took a “social turn” to focus on the conventions in science, especially the rules of evidence.

The “rules of the game” range from the innate rules of grammar, through the tacit knowledge of local traditions and folkways, the conventions of grooming, deportment and manners of all kind, to the rules of clubs and societies and the laws of the land embodied in common law, statutes and constitutions. The Popperian approach would supplement the methods of conceptual analysis and crude “positivist” empirical description of social and political systems. It would have the theoretical advantage of linking disciplines and the practical merit of being continually in touch with problems and their possible solutions.

One of the subtexts in The Open Society, the concept of the strains and tensions involved in moving from tribal or “closed” societies to more open and pluralistic societies, has assumed fresh relevance with the rise of radical Islam. This is presumably why some of the dissidents in Iran have drawn on Popper’s work.

Parvin has written a very good book, as good as any other introductory book that is available. It stands in sharp contrast with the books that ignore or misrepresent Popper’s ideas. Unfortunately its price is likely to prevent it from reaching most of the people who would gain from reading it.

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