Criticism of Karl Popper in Broad Strokes

I have unsucessfully tried to understand Karl Popper’s political thinking, so I will try to tell you why I keep failing. Basically, it is because Popper does not seem to realize that analyzing meanings is important because of ambiguity, vagueness, and conflation. So, instead of trying to distill from his writings some distinct position, I will simply juxtapose my position to his murky one.

He is against nationalism. But the word “nationalism” is itself not clear, and he does not clarify it, and uses it as synonymous with an anthropological description of primitive (indigenous) tribes. And he is correct to think of primitive tribes as closed societies, meaning that there is total conformity as to mores and beliefs. And this is well illustrated by the example of Socrates who was killed both for corrupting the youth and for impiety. But he is wrong about modern nation-states. Many tolerated both religious and political criticism.

My understanding of “nationalism” (and this may very well be idiosyncratic to me), is that people speaking a common language want to be autonomous. As far as I am concerned this does not require having an independent State — an anarchistic federation of communities will do; though historically people with a common language have formed States. And it is totally puzzling to me why Popper failed to acknowledge this.

His general objections to social and territorial groupings of people is that these matters are vague with borderline cases. This is true, and there is nothing “natural” about this (as he points out); it is conventional. His objection to a demarcation of people by language is that there are dialects. But with the writing of dictionaries there is a sort of crystallization of languages.

I think that Popper, despite acknowledging that States were formed through conquest, thought that they were necessary, and would have arisen nonetheless for other reasons. And I do not see any criticism in Popper of imperial States, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire into which he was born. He would, I think, accept a constitutional monarchy, as long as there existed a mechanism for removing a tyrant from office.

He believed that the function of a State and even of some international institution, like a League of Nations, was to protect individuals — even within States. His view of the role of government in States is made abundantly clear in his discussion and defense of the position of the ancient Sophist, Lycophron (Open Society 1: pp. 114-17).

I think he lamented the disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He simply thought that Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, did not do a good enough job of protecting minorities in his empire.

Karl Popper on the Origin of the State

I have always been attracted to the writings of Karl Popper, and I keep returning to him. And I agree with him that long range historical prediction is impossible, and I agree with him that Plato’s program was a conservative one of preserving a totalitarian State, and I agree with him that Marx’s prophecy of how capitalism would develop was a failure.

I have also greatly admired his scholarship. As an example, I reproduce his findings on the origin of the State through conquest — a position with which I agree. However, a fundamental disagreement that I have with Popper is whether the State can be dispensed with. He thinks the State is indispensable and can be justified. I disagree on both counts. But I leave this issue for another occasion.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Chapter 4: footnote 43:

Plato’s remarkable theory that the state, i.e. centralized and organized political power, originates through a conquest (the subjugation of a sedentary agricultural population by nomads or hunters) was, as far as I know, first re-discovered (if we discount some remarks by Machiavelli) by Hume in his criticism of the historical version of the contract theory (cp. his Political Discourses, 1752, the chapter Of the Original Contract): — ‘Almost all the governments’, Hume writes, ‘which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in history, have been founded originally on usurpation or conquest, or both . . .’ The theory was next revived by Renan, in What is a Nation? (1882), and by Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morals (1887); see the third German edition of 1894, p. 98. The latter writes of the origin of the ‘state’: ‘Some horde of blonde beasts, a conquering master race with a war-like organization . . lay their terrifying paws heavily upon a population which is perhaps immensely superior in — numbers. . . This is the way in which the “state” originates upon earth; I think that the sentimentality which lets it originate with a “contract”, is dead.’ This theory appeals to Nietzsche because he likes these blonde beasts. But it has been also more recently proffered by F. Oppenheimer (The State, transl. Gitterman, 1914, p. 68); by a Marxist, K. Kautsky (in his book on The Materialist Interpretation of History); and by W. G. Macleod (The Origin and History of Politics, 1931). I think it very likely that something of the kind described by Plato, Hume, and Nietzsche has happened in many, if not in all, cases. I am speaking only about ‘states’ in the sense of organized and even centralized political power.

I may mention that Toynbee has a very different theory. But before discussing it, I wish first to make it clear that from the anti-historicist point of view, the question is of no great importance. It is perhaps interesting in itself to consider how ‘states’ originated, but it has no bearing whatever upon the sociology of states, as I understand it, i.e. upon political technology (see chapters 3, 9, and 25).

Toynbee’s theory does not confine itself to ‘states’ in the sense of organized and centralized political power. He discusses, rather, the ‘origin of civilizations’. But here begins the difficulty ; for what he calls ‘civilizations’ are, in part, ‘states’ (as here described), in part societies like that of the Eskimos, which are not states; and if it is questionable whether ‘states’ originate according to one single scheme, then it must be even more doubtful when we consider a class of such diverse social phenomena as the early Egyptian and Mesopotamian states and their institutions and technique on the one side, and the Eskimo way of living on the other.

But we may concentrate on Toynbee’s description (A Study of History, vol. I, 305 ff.) of the origin of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian ‘civilizations’. His theory is that the challenge of a difficult jungle environment rouses a response from ingenious and enterprising leaders; they lead their followers into the valleys which they begin to cultivate, and found states. This (Hegelian and Bergsonian) theory of the creative genius as a cultural and political leader appears to me most romantic. If we take Egypt, then we must look, first of all, for the origin of the caste system. This, I believe, is most likely the result of conquests, just as in India where every new wave of conquerors imposed a new caste upon the old ones. But there are other arguments. Toynbee himself favours a theory which is probably correct, namely, that animal breeding and especially animal training is a later, a more advanced and a more difficult stage of development than mere agriculture, and that this advanced step is taken by the nomads of the steppe. But in Egypt we find both agriculture and animal breeding, and the same holds for most of the early ‘states’ (though not for all the American ones, I gather). This seems to be a sign that these states contain a nomadic element; and it seems only natural to venture the hypothesis that this element is due to nomad invaders imposing their rule, a caste rule, upon the original agricultural population. This theory disagrees with Toynbee’s contention (op. cit. III, 23 f.) that nomad-built states usually wither away very quickly. But the fact that many of the early caste states go in for the breeding of animals has to be explained somehow.

The idea that nomads or even hunters constituted the original upper class is corroborated by the age-old and still surviving upper-class traditions according to which war, hunting, and horses, are the symbols of the leisured classes; a tradition which formed the basis of Aristotle’s ethics and politics, and is still alive, as Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) and Toynbee himself have shown; and to these traditions we can perhaps add the animal breeder’s belief in racialism, and especially in the racial superiority of the upper class. The latter belief which is so pronounced in caste states and in Plato and in Aristotle is held by Toynbee to be ‘one of the . . sins of our . . modern age’ and ‘something alien from the Hellenic genius’ (op. cit., III, 93). But although many Greeks may have developed beyond racialism, it seems likely that Plato’s and Aristotle’s theories are based on old traditions; especially in view of the fact that racial ideas played such a role in Sparta.

The Tower of Babel and Nationalism

  1. And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
  2. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
  3. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
  4. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
  5. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
  6. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
  7. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
  8. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
  9. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
— Genesis 11:1–9

My view of the necessary condition for nationalism:

  • If you want to do anything cooperatively, you must have a common language.

  • If you do not have a common language, you cannot do anything cooperatively.
  • Political Realism of John Mearsheimer

    I have followed the activities of John Measheimer for several years. And although I criticized his views on liberal education, I think his views on international politics are on the mark. [But see my caveats: My criticism of John Mearsheimer and Timothy Snyder for focusing on ideologies rather than the interests of individual leaders]

    He is the author of the following six books:

  • Conventional Deterrence, 1983
  • Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, 1988
  • The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 2001
  • The Israel Lobby, 2007
  • Why Leaders Lie, 2011
  • The Great Delusion, 2018

    Because I am interested in escaping from bullshit, I found his discussion with Vishnu Som on why leaders lie enlightening:

    Also, the following discussion of his book, The Great Delusion, pretty much summarizes Mearsheimer’s views on international affairs:

  • The Odd Conservativism of Karl Popper

    Although Karl Popper was very critical of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, he was also a very strong defender of the imperialistic liberal democracies. Sometimes one’s views are revealed by one’s silence; rather than by one’s explicit statements. In Popper’s case, there are a few pointers as to where he stood.

    Although Popper is in agreement with Marx over the 19th century conditions suffered by workers under capitalism. But he is totally silent on the conditions suffered by people by the European colonization of the world. And he expressed the belief that it was British humanitarian attitudes that led to Britain granting independence to India. To show that I am not exaggerating, here is a quote from his article “The History of Our Time: An Optimist’s View” (1956) [reprinted in his Conjectures and Refutations (1963)]:

    “When Mr Krushchev on his Indian tour indicated British colonialism, he was no doubt convinced of the truth of all he said. I do not know whether he was aware that his accusation were derived, via Lenin, largely from British sources. Had he known it, he would probably have taken it as an additional reason for believing in what he was saying . But he would have been mistaken; for this kind of self-accusation is a peculiarly British virtue as well as a peculiarly British vice. The truth is that the idea of India’s freedom was born in great Britain; as was the general idea of political freedom in modern times. And those Britishers who provided Lenin and Mr Krushchev with their moral ammunition were closely connected, or even identical, with those Britishers who gave India the idea of freedom.”

    Since Popper wrote this in 1956, surely he must have known of the Jallianwals Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India in 1919. It was this and not abstract defense of freedom which caused Indians to rebel and Britain to concede.

    Popper was against nationalism and the Wilsonian declaration for the right of self-determination.

    “But the nationalist faith is equally absurd. I am not alluding here to Hitler’s racial myth. What I have in mind is, rather, an alleged natural right of man — the alleged right of a nation to self-determination. That even a great humanitarian and liberal like Masaryk could uphold this absurdity as one of the natural rights is a sobering thought. It suffices to shake one’s faith in the wisdom of philosopher kings, and it should be contemplated by all who think that we are clever but wicked rather than good but stupid. For the utter absurdity of the principle of national self-determination must be plain to anybody who devotes a moment’s effort to criticizing it. The principle amount to the demand that each state should be a nation-state: that it should be confined within a natural border, and that this border should coincide with the location of an ethnic group; so that it should be the ethnic group, the ‘nations’, which should determine and protect the natural limits of the state.” [same source]

    When someone resorts to calling something “absurd” without an argument, critical rationalism has gone by the wayside.

    See also: Centralization of power is not beneficial to ordinary people; it is bullshit.

    Recently I came across a Ph.D. dissertation which squarely faces this issue: Craig Willkie, Open Nationalism: Reconciling Popper’s Open Society and the Nation State, University of Edinburgh, 2009.

    See also: Andrew Vincent, “Popper and Nationalism,” in Karl Popper —A Centenary Assessment, Jarvie, Milford & Miller (eds), Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

    In Search of Salvation

    Yesterday I watched most of the five-part mini series on HBO, The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, 2021. It is the story of Gwen Shamblin Lara (1955-2021), who promoted a diet program within a Christian “Remnant Fellowship.” Here is the trailer:

    What do I think about this?

    Well, two things. The first is that there were and there still are a slew of preachers who exploit the gullibility of so many people. I can’t tell the mind sets of these evangelists. All I know is that many of them make great fortunes, so that they can afford such jets as a Cessna Citation 501 (in which Gwen Shamblin was killed).

    And my take on such preachers is pretty much as portrayed by the character played by Burt Lancaster in the film Elmer Gantry, 1960 (based on Sinclair Lewis’s novel of 1927). Here is a clip from the movie:

    My second point is that these gullible people form the great mass of the 84% of the world’s population: The Unenlightened.

    Nitpicking on Karl Popper

    Although I am in agreement with Popper on his description of the scientific method and with his striving for an open society, I do have a few disagreements with some of his claims and proposals.

    The first one is his general claim that he does not wish to argue over meanings of words. On the other hand, he also does not want to argue at cross purposes. Well, how in the world are you to avoid arguing at cross purposes, unless you clarify what each of you mean by your words. This does not mean arguing which meaning or definition is to be preferred, but it does requires making a clarification of how words are being used.

    The second disagreement I have with Popper is over the search for essences. Historically, Popper may be right about the misguided search for “essences” of natural things. A possible explanation for this is a conflation of artifacts with natural things. An artifact — at least in typical cases, such as in the case of tools — is made for a purpose. And the essences of tools are the purposes they serve. Now, thinking by a misconceived analogy, one can ask what purpose does a stone or a bird serve. And by further analogical thinking, since artifacts serve the purposes of man; it can be mythically reasoned that natural things serve the purposes of gods or a God, or that things themselves are animate beings with purposes. So, I agree with Popper that natural things have no essences, but he forgets that artifacts do.

    This distinction between natural kinds and artifacts is relevant to the “infamous” Eddington’s two tables problem. Eddington had written “There are duplicates of every object about me — two tables, two chairs, two pens …” (A. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 1958, p. xi). This is a mistake. The word “table” refers to an artifact, and physics does not study artifacts; it studies the materials out of which tables, and artifacts, are made of. A table as a piece of furniture is defined by the purposes it serves. And physics does not study human purposes.

    The third disagreement I have with Popper is with his use of the word “rational.” He seems to use the word “rational” as contrasted with the word “irrational.” But there is a broad sense of rational such as when humans are characterized as “rational animals.” This means that humans are capable of acting in rational ways. Being rational, in this sense, includes acting irrationally. To make this clear, consider a cat. A cat cannot act rationally or irrationally, because it can act only a-rationally (or non-rationally). It is Popper’s failure to make a distinction between irrational and a-rational (non-rational) behavior, which causes him to call someone who acts by intuitions as acting irrationally; whereas I would say the person in such situations is acting a-rationally (non-rationally)– like a cat. For example, people who want to experience mystic states or to experience drug highs or who want to “escape from reality,” are not — in my sense — necessarily acting irrationally, but — given their circumstances — may actually –by seeking non-rational states — be acting quite rationally.

    The fourth area of disagreement I have with Popper is over his treatment of democracy. His criterion of democracy seems to be concerned with whether there exists in the institution of government a mechanism for removing a leader from office by a popular vote. This to me is a necessary but not a sufficient demand. The result is that he seems to be indifferent to types of democracies.

    In contrast, I want to make three points.

    1. Swiss style democracy is superior to all other existing state democracies.

    2. There is a distinction between Macro and Micro democracy. Micro democracy is favored by anarchists, and exists currently in Rojava, in the Mexican area controlled by Zapatistas, and in the Mexican town, Cheran.

    3. As a social democrat, Popper is for piecemeal engineering rather than for revolution. My position is that if a piecemeal law is passed granting everyone a free access to subsistence land — that will constitute a revolution!

    The Paradox of Choice

    A paradox is a seeming contradiction. But a contradiction is necessarily false. So, the task is to explain the appearance of a contradiction. In a previous blog, I made references to an article by Quine which dealt with paradoxes: “Paradox” — a type of bullshit

    While glancing at the index of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol.2, under the heading “paradoxes,” there are a few that have become famous. There are the paradox of freedom, the paradox of tolerance, the paradox of democracy, and others.

    In this blog, I want to alert you to a paradox which I previously have not heard of. When listening to its description, it resonated with me as absolutely true. This is the paradox of choice, presented by Barry Schwartz. Here is the video which enlightened me.