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The Viennese Socrates

Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics


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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Introduction: Karl Popper, the Viennese Socrates 1


Introduction Karl Popper, the Viennese Socrates In much of the United States and Western Europe what passes for political philosophy is but an anemic and filleted product of the history of political thought, a cadaver to be dissected delicately by armchair academicians but wholly incapable of independent animation, let alone possessed of the power to motivate the masses. The notion that ideas matter, matter politically here and now, and not just to the legacy and reputation of a long-dead thinker, is regarded as passé, a naive conflating of political philosophy with ideology. For more than fifty years Western academics, whether of the Left or the Right, have been in full retreat from the intimate and self-conscious union of political philosophy and contemporary efforts to change the world. Thus Leo Strauss could warmly praise Eric Voegelin’s critique of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer could hide their severance of theory from practice beneath skirts of the bleakest Hegelian hue, the later Wittgenstein and Thomas Kuhn could displace the dialectical quest for enlightenment and emancipation by a range of hermetically-sealed and incommensurable frameworks, and postmodernists could brag of their exposé of principles and worldviews as more or less reducible to interests, that is, as motivated and not motivating. The relationship of Karl Popper (1902-1994) to all of this has long required clarification. On the one hand, he did not fit in with late twentieth century intellectual fashion. He was the last philosopher of the Enlightenment, an admirer of...

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