The title of this post comes from a book (paid link) I've tagged as to-read but haven't gotten around to yet, about the Vienna Circle — the post-WWI klatsch of minds that included folks like Kurt Gödel and Rudolf Carnap. Over the past couple of months — actually, over the past couple of years generally, but over the past couple of months specifically — I've been reading the works of a man who was never part of the group (although he was peripherally associated with it), whose work was guided by its thoughts and, in my 'umble opinion, became as important as it gets. I speak of Sir Karl Popper, and most recently it's his Conjectures And Refutations (paid link) that have caught my attention, but I gave The Open Society And Its Enemies (paid link) a re-read late last year too. All his work is revealing itself to be extra-timely.
The story behind The Open Society came to my attention long before I ever read it. By the end of the 1930s, Viennese society had become poisoned by the rise of Nazism to the degree that Popper (born into a Jewish family that converted to Lutheranism) feared for his safety. He and his wife took wing for New Zealand, where he spent the war years teaching and working on the book. It was, as he put it, his modest contribution to the war effort — an analysis of the philosophies that he saw as being instrumental to the legitimization of fascism in the minds of many thinkers.
Hard as it is to believe this, there was a time when many respectable and outwardly sober thinkers either went out of their way to not challenge fascism ("I am one of the greatest idle and contented by-sitters you ever saw," proclaimed Stuart Chase in 1937, as Spain was being invaded), or to outright support it, perhaps as a bid to not be picked off if it did in fact conquer the world. The same went for Lenin and Stalin's Russia, which Popper also saw as a bad thing born from the best of intentions. It wasn't Marx's analyses of capitalism and righteous need to bring its ills to light that Popper found fault with; he was sympathetic to all that. Rather it was the way Marx transformed all that into a prophecy, into unquestionable (and thus untestable) inevitability.
The notion of historical inevitability was Popper's biggest target. Popper disputed such things could even make sense, that anyone who claims they can tell you the future of mankind by studying the tea leaves and entrails of its past is deluded at best and lying at worst. The fact that the universe is open-ended, that life is unbounded, were for him magnificent opportunities to be seized, not cosmic horrors to withdraw from. (Maybe that's why I always found Lovecraft's work to be faintly silly; it just wasn't the product of a worldview I shared in any form, and so all my appreciation for it was merely aesthetic.)
Conjectures And Refutations, the book I'm absorbed in now, collects lectures and essays written by Popper over a period of years that further detail his central position on the philosophy of knowledge. We cannot, and can never, know anything for absolutely certain, but we don't need to as long as we have a framework — both intellectual and social — for making hypotheses and testing them rigorously. Certainty is antithetical to inquiry, but dogmatic skepticism that refuses to take into account the body of understanding already achieved ("it's just a theory", they sneered) is no better.
I read all this partly to expand my understanding of the subject, and partly as a spiritual balm. It's nice to hear the words of sane men arguing in good faith about the way to know things, when right now I'm forced to stay indoors because the country's being run by incompetent science-despising parasites with a bleach-swilling fanclub. I have to remind myself that when Popper was framing most of his key ideas, he was then taking refuge from a cult of power and greed that threatened to grind the whole planet under its boot-heel. He survived, but so did the ideas he fought against, which are now finding ways to flower without even needing the figleaf of intellectual respectability.
That to me is not a sign of how well they have fared, but how poorly we have responded — how we believed, wrongly, like Francis Fukuyama, that the principles of free inquiry and open societies would become self-sustaining and require no actual defense. I imagine there are plenty of people who would hotly dispute that there was no defense of such things, but my point is not that we didn't defend them in ivory towers, we didn't defend them in the messy, difficult real world, where such things are defended by way of politics and not mere appeals to morality. Something we need to get back into the habit of as soon as we can get out of our houses again.
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