For English-speaking people Popper first signaled what Jarvie called his “social turn” in Chapter 23 of The Open Society and Its Enemies and in Sections 31 and 32 of the Poverty of Historicism. Popper confronted Karl Mannheim’s exposition of the Marxist doctrine that our beliefs are determined by class interest and by the social and historical situation of our time. In defence of scientific objectivity Popper turned the sociology of knowledge on its head by arguing that its focus on the origin of subjective beliefs did not engage with its proper object of inquiry, namely knowledge as a public or social product. He claimed that the objectivity of science comes from the process of more or less free criticism in the scientific community.
Getting back to the domestic function of direct support for the arts, Cowen points out that agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts can either act as venture capitalists to simulate new artistic ideas (hopefully picking artistic winners) or they can focus on works of high culture that have stood the test of time. Their efforts tend to be split between these roles, trying to be all things to all people to ensure their political survival. The sums of money distributed in direct support of the arts at home are negligible compared with the volume of indirect support and so the fuss about NEA funding is a storm in a teacup and it is most unhelpful that the debate on public funding for the arts is mostly about the use and abuse of these funds.
Hulsmann writes clearly and has done well to keep the story moving on several fronts. It is a remarkable work of scholarship, ten years in the making. Someone counted over a thousand footnotes and the bibliography runs to 30 pages. He has been well served by the Mises Institute which published the book after one academic press rejected the manuscript for its size and another wanted to price the book well over $100US. It is available at a reasonable price and at a kilo in weight it is excellent value, pound for pound as we used to say. It is also a monument to the crafts of the printer and book binder with clear typeface, good sized font, wide margins, excellent paper and superb presentation all round.
Popper died in 1994 at the age of 92 and this is the first comprehensive book to appear on his life and work, although he detailed account stopped halfway through Popper’s life. Hacohen is a historian based at Duke University and he has charted the evolution of Popper’s thinking with close attention to his intellectual influences and the explosive social and political tensions in Vienna which informed his thoughts on politics and ultimately prompted his flight to New Zealand. Over twenty years in the making, this is likely to be the standard reference for some time because the author had access to some recently opened archives and he also interviewed some longstanding colleagues of Popper such as Colin Simkin (from New Zealand) and John Watkins (of the London School of Economics) who are no longer with us.
The book is outstanding as an intellectual biography and also as the story of a flesh and blood human being making his way through desperately troubled times. There are some nice human touches, like his professional rivalry with his younger brother and his extended courtship of an ex-actress Margit Sereny which only ended in marriage after his mother died. There is an exciting section on their escape to the US through France as the Germans moved in. Mises learned to drive in middle age and he demonstrated more enthusiasm than skill. At least twice he almost drove off the road in the Alps and there were two other moderately serious accidents. There are some stories about his argumentative social encounters with Ayn Rand.
And suppose that now within this same civilisation a movement grew up hostile to these fundamental principles…an epidemic disease: a kind of epidemic withering of belief in the importance of truth and in the obligation to think and act in a systematic and methodical way. Such an irrationalist epidemic infecting religion would turn it from a worship of truth to a worship of emotion and a cultivation of certain emotional states…Infecting politics it would substitute for the ideal of orderly thinking in that field the ideal of tangled, immediate, emotional thinking; for the idea of a political thinker as a political leader the idea of a leader focussing and personifying the mass emotions of his community. This movement of thought would need to proceed by stealth because the healthy tissues of thought would strongly resist any open attack on the springs of rationality and scientific thinking.
Religion would be predominantly a worship of truth…Philosophy would be predominantly an exposition not merely of the nature of thought, action & etc. but of scientific thought and orderly (principled, thought-out) action, with special attention to method and to the problem of establishing standards by which on reflection truth can be distinguished from falsehood. Politics would be predominantly the attempt to build up a common life by the methods of reason (free discussion, public criticism). Education would be predominantly a method for inducing habits of orderly and systematic thinking. And so on.
This is reminiscent of Dr Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s arguments to prove the non-existence of matter, consisting of kicking a stone ‘I refute it thus’.
He was concerned with the process that he saw (some decades ago) in courses where the critical faculties of students are systematically destroyed. He first asks us to picture a civilisation where respect for truth is a powerful belief and systematic thinking is prized in intellectual and practical pursuits. Each feature of this civilisation would have characteristics derived from that prevailing habit of mind.
Hacohen describes Popper’s correspondence from Hayek which commenced in 1943 while The Open Society was still in manuscript. Hayek’s reaction was gratifying but he took fright at Popper’s language of social technology and social engineering because he (Hayek) had identified the enemy, even more than the historicist, as the constructivist rationalist (the coercive utopian) who thought he could impose a pattern upon the organisation of a whole economy, like an engineer working from a blueprint.
Turning to the material available for research by the growing army of thesis writers he suggested that there were well under a thousand English writers of even moderate literary importance between the Venerable Bede and Robert Browning to provide material for the 1710 English doctorates accepted in the US between 1940 and 1950 (not counting the ones that were written and not accepted). Looking ahead 50 years with the current growth rate he could see that some 10,000 topics for research would be required per decade and he could see that the pace was quickening so by the end of the century as many as 300,000 topics might be required.
Despite all the pressures of the times, the loneliness and isolation of New Zealand, the dreadful news from home, the threat of the Japanese advance, his teaching load and problems with his Professor (described in Roger Sandall’s book The Culture Cult), The Open Society and its Enemies was eventually written and dispatched. This book can be seen as a kind of “Battle of Britain” in the world of ideas, a desperate counterpart to the struggle where young men daily took to the air in the skies over the South of England with the future of civilisation virtually in their hands. On the other side of the world a relatively young Karl Popper patrolled the stratosphere of the world of ideas, confronting those from Heraclitus and Plato to the present day whose ideas he thought were undermining the cause of freedom and the open society. Like the young men in their Hurricanes and Spitfires, he did not fly in vain. The Open Society joined Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to provide twin pillars of resistance to totalitarian thinking post WWII.
Against them were arrayed the conservative bourgeoisie and much worse elements of the kind that flocked to Hitler’s banner. Eventually Hitler annexed Austria and all bets for civilisation were off. Those who could see the writing on the wall, like Popper and Ludwig Mises (Hayek’s teacher), escaped if they could. Mises fled to Switzerland, just before his apartment was raided. Popper’s teacher Karl Buhler was less fortunate, he was arrested and interned for some weeks until he had the chance to escape by walking over the border to attempt a new life in the United States. Later on Popper counted sixteen relatives who perished in the holocaust.