Some favourite quotes from Karl Popper

Karl Popper is without doubt my favourite character in political philosophy. He was rational, believing knowledge and truth to be objective, but aware of the boundaries of reason. A scientist but concerned with the mechanisms of society. By humanitarian inclination a social democrat — when that meant “Marxist” — but by reason a liberal: a believer in freedom.

In the course of things, I rediscovered these quotations by Popper, which seem apt today, as we hastily seek solutions to our present difficulties:

I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.

Perhaps one from his time, when the foolish utopian experiment communism was still alive in the world:

It seems to me certain that more people are killed out of righteous stupidity than out of wickedness.

And defining ‘tyranny’:

You can choose whatever name you like for the two types of government. I personally call the type of government which can be removed without violence “democracy”, and the other “tyranny”.

On the role of intellectuals:

Why do I think that we, the intellectuals, are able to help? Simply because we, the intellectuals, have done the most terrible harm for thousands of years. Mass murder in the name of an idea, a doctrine, a theory, a religion — that is all our doing, our invention: the invention of the intellectuals. If only we would stop setting man against man — often with the best intentions — much would be gained. Nobody can say that it is impossible for us to stop doing this.

On historicism, but more generally applicable to positivism in economics: trying to produce specific outcomes when ultimately you can only do so by manipulating the actions of individual men and women:

We may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets.

On freedom and tolerance:

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any constraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. The idea is, in a slightly different form, and with very different tendency, clearly expressed in Plato.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

So let us be tolerant then, but only up to the point our open society is threatened, and let us also be reasonable:

There are many difficulties impeding the rapid spread of reasonableness. One of the main difficulties is that it always takes two to make a discussion reasonable. Each of the parties must be ready to learn from the other. You cannot have a rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting you to being convinced by you.

And also, thinking of the sacrifices we are invited to make today for the future — I think particularly of the world’s desperately poor, who need inexpensive energy1:

Do not allow your dreams of a beautiful world to lure you away from the claims of men who suffer here and now. Our fellow men have a claim to our help; no generation must be sacrificed for the sake of future generations, for the sake of an ideal of happiness that may never be realised.

We might reflect on whether we are still permitted to apply our intelligence in every area:

The open society is one in which men have learned to be to some extent critical of taboos, and to base decisions on the authority of their own intelligence.

And whether we are succumbing to the temptation to rely on the government for our security at the expense of our freedom:

We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than only freedom can make security more secure.

Most schemes of social organisation have been explored and lived through, but one thing is certain: those who follow us will have different ideas and preferences which we cannot know in advance. We must allow room for our successors to develop these ideas and preferences, that is:

We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom.

  1. And we are not far behind. []

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