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The Viennese Socrates

Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics

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Philip Benesch

The Viennese Socrates: Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics examines Karl Popper’s attempt to develop a political theory that draws upon Socratic fallibilism and commitment to ethical autonomy while preserving progressive sociological insights and commitment to activism. Philip Benesch argues that Popper’s critique of Marxist theory is largely an endeavor to separate its progressive-activist core from its positivist and uncritical-rationalist entanglements. The author defends Popper against the charges of positivism and scientism leveled by the Frankfurt School, among others. Although he is in no sense an apologist for Popper’s commentary on the classical tradition of philosophy, Benesch contends that Popper’s philosophical contribution is of classical breadth and significance and that it continues and advances «the great conversation» that is the substance of the classical tradition.

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Preface ix

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Preface An unapologetic focus on Karl Popper’s contribution to progressive political thought is the principal feature distinguishing this book from others that examine Popper’s philosophy. Many other works consider Popper’s epistemology or ethics; a large number of commentaries are devoted to his philosophy of science, especially to his social scientific methodological prescriptions; some value Popper as an educational theorist. Among scholars who evaluate Popper’s political theory, several find a moderate-conservative orientation implicit in his writings, at least in his essays subsequent to the publication of The Open Society and Its Enemies. Meanwhile, critics on the Left have treated Popper as a dangerous opponent or responded only to a straw man of their own creation. Malachi Hacohen’s work is a remarkable exception to the general field; he places Popper’s early contribution within the traditions and discourse of the Left. However, Hacohen writes as an intellectual historian, not a political theorist. I examine Popper’s attempt to develop a political theory that draws upon Socratic fallibilism and commitment to ethical autonomy while preserving progressive sociological insight and commitment to activism. My primary concern is to show how Popper sought to utilize a ‘Socratic’ critique of Marxism to improve the political theory of the Left. I regard Popper’s contribution to be of enormous value and consider his capacity for theoretical innovation as elevating him to the first rank among philosophers. In his prime, Popper unambiguously identified with the “humanitarian camp” of liberals and the democratic Left. For Popper, progress is achieved not in a...

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