Popper as a Conservative or Libertarian

Continuum Press is producing a series of books about Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers, edited by John Meadowcroft of Kings College, London. Twenty volumes are planned and the fourteenth is on Karl Popper, written by Phil Parvin.

The full list

The Salamanca School by Alves and Moreira,  Thomas Hobbes by R E R Bunce, John Locke by Eric Mack, David Hume by Christopher J Berry, Adam Smith by James Otteson, Edmund Burke by Dennis O’Keefe, Alexis de Tocqueville by Alan S Kahan, Herbert Spencer by Alberto Mingardi, Ludwig von Mises by Richard Ebeling, Joseph Schumpater by Adam Tebble, Michael Oakeshott by Edmund Neill, Karl Popper by Phil Parvin, Ayn Rand by Mimi Gladstein, Milton Friedman by William Ruger, Russell Kirk by John Paffard, James Buchanan by John Meadowcroft, The Modern Papacy by Samuel Gregg, Murray Rothbard by Gerard Casey and Robert Nozick by Ralf Bader.

The editor notes that Popper does not fit easily into the category of conservative or libertarian, partly due to the nuances in his thinking and partly due to shifts in his position since The Open Society and its Enemies appeared in 1945. Others in the series include Hayek and Buchanan who both rejected the “conservative” label and the aim of the project is to demonstrate that conservatism does not have to be merely reactive and libertarianism does not have to be a vehicle for self-interest or anarchism.

Parvin has packed a lot into a small book, with chapters on Popper’s intellectual biography; his leading ideas in epistemology, politics and the social sciences; the reception of his ideas on politics; and their contemporary relevance.

1.    Intellectual Biography

    Early beginnings
    The Pedagogic Institute
    Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle
    ‘A fighting book’
    The later years

2.    Popper’s Ideas

    Popper’s epistemology
    From science to social science
    From social science to politics
    The Open Society

3.    Reception and Influence of Popper’s Philosophy

    Popper, Burke, and the fallibility of reason
    Radical politics, radical philosophy
    Popper and the rise of the New Right
    A final word on ideologies

4.    The Contemporary Relevance of Popper’s Philosophy

He has adopted a critical stance to avoid any suggestion of hagiography. Some of his criticism is possibly easy on critics of Popper such as Habermas, however this approach has helped him to convey a sense of the complexity and also the loose ends in Popper’s contribution.

The main impression that comes through in Parvin’s account is the contrast between the breadth and depth of  Popper ideas and the way that they have been almost completely ignored in academia, after a brief flurry of interest when the The Open Society first appeared. In the US the book has been kept in print by a lay readership. It is next to impossible to find Popper or the OSE on course outlines and reading lists in US universities and a citation search for Popper in some leading politics journals turned up a handful of minor references over a period of several decades.

One of the reasons for neglect is the sheer size of the OSE, 800 pages including 200 pages of notes in smaller print. Check out the condensed version!

More to the point, Popper’s work does not fit neatly with any particular party position or ideology, nor does it conform to any of the standard methods of approach to the topic.

“His political prescriptions cannot be easily assimilated with any political ideology, although thinkers from all points on the political spectrum have tried to claim him for their own. And his epistemological views place him many of the dominant approaches to understanding society and politics. Popper’s was an original, controversial, flawed but important contribution which has stood the test of time, but which remains all but ignored by social and political theorists”.

Consequently readers who adopt positions like the supporters of a football team have to constantly wonder whether Popper is on their “side”, and this detracts from taking on board the ideas, some of which are bound to cause offence to partisans of all sides. Actually Popper was always a classical liberal at heart, alert to the danger of concentrations of power of all kinds. His early leaning to social democratic interventionism came from a mix of compassion and a dread of monopolies and mass unemployment. Like Orwell, he needed to realise that monopolies will not survive for long without state backing and that mass unemployment is a result of bad public policy (protectionism, minimum wage laws, failure to control trade union violence).

This is a very fine presentation, as good as any other book that is available and a stark contrast with the books that ignore or misrepresent Popper’s ideas. It is a great shame that it is so expensive at $130 so it will be hard to reach all the people who might like to own it.

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One Response to Popper as a Conservative or Libertarian

  1. Elliot says:

    OSE did not feel long to me compared to reading LScD or C&R. (I skipped the notes.)

    I suppose these other books are also neglected. 🙁

    But I’m a little skeptical that sheer length can be a major factor. For example, _Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid_ is longer than them (I think. My version has a larger page size so hard to compare. In any case it *felt* longer.) There’s certainly some more popular books that are very long. People will read long stuff if they want to enough.

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