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Popper's magnum opus

THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES: Karl Popper; Routledge, London. TR. Publications Pvt. Ltd., PMG Complex, II Floor, 8, South Usman Road, T.Nagar, Chennai-600017. Rs. 1350.

THE BOOK under review was first published in 1945, in two volumes, the first volume with the title The Spell of Plato and the second The High Tide of Prophecy. Popper was one of the important philosophers of the 20th century and initially a member of the Logical Positivism school of the Vienna Circle.

This special volume marks the centenary of Popper's birth. The significance of this edition is that it contains a new preface by Vaclav Havel and a personal recollection by Popper's friend, F. H. Combrich. The book attacks Plato, Marx and Hegel whom Popper considers as greatest enemies of democracy. It supports the democratic form of government as the only one in which reason is celebrated. It contains 25 articles arranged in two volumes.

The book, Popper says, presupposes open-mindedness from the reader. It attempts for a transition from the closed society to the open society, which sets free the critical powers of man. It examines the application of the critical and rational methods of science to the problems of the open society. In the preface, he says that if our civilisation is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men for the reason that they may make great mistakes.

The book explains the principles of democratic social reconstruction otherwise known as "piecemeal social engineering" in opposition to "Utopian social engineering". Popper examines the views of Heraclitus and Plato. He explains how Plato's sociological and economic historicism has emphasised on the economic background of the political life and historical development. He also examines how the notion of justice is the central theme in The Republic. According to Plato, says Popper, for the benefit of the city, the business of the rulers of the city is to tell lies but not the ruled. Plato's approach, according to him is the Utopian engineering as opposed to social engineering, which is a rational one, i.e. piecemeal engineering. One of the chapters, which has the title of the book, deals with the distinction between open society and closed society. A closed society is the magician society or tribal or collectivist society and the open society is the one in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions. In open society, many members strive to rise socially, and to take the places of other members. If we consider closed society as organised, then the open society is like a class struggle.

The second volume, which has the title, The high tide of prophecy is a study on Hegel and Marx. Popper traces the Aristotelian roots of Hegelanism. Hegel, the source of all contemporary historicism, has followed thinkers like Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle. A detailed study of Hegelian historicism is attempted here.

Popper evaluates the Marxian method, prophecy and ethics extensively in this volume. He says that Marx's historical prophecy is invalid. He also discusses Marx's attack on psychologism. He examines Marx's argument, which is in favour of autonomous social sciences. But he believes that Marx was a false prophet and his prophecies did not come true. Besides this heavy charge against Marx, he says that Marx was responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society.

The concluding chapter, "Has history any meaning?" explains how we wrongly think that history is analogous to that of the natural sciences. Popper argues that there are many differences between these two disciplines. He concludes by saying that history has no meaning for the main reason that history in the sense in which most people speak of it simply does not exist.

The book is an excellent piece of work. When it was published, it provoked a lot of discussion among the academics. He was vehemently attacked for his views on Plato and Marx. Popper will be remembered forever for this magnum opus.


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