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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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4. Ascent from the Cave 95


Chapter 4 Ascent from the Cave Popper found in Socrates an alternative to the verificationist conception of science. As he is depicted in the early dialogues of Plato, Socrates examined each hypothesis for logical or evidentiary error. The Socratic method was to refute or to attempt to refute claims to knowledge (including claims to knowledge implied in a policy or a course of action). By this process, Socrates revealed that much that had been presumed to be certain knowledge was no more than mistaken theory. In so doing, he discomforted those who prided themselves on the sufficiency and accuracy of their knowledge; by sowing seeds of self-doubt (aporia, perplexity or bafflement), he opened the way for each person to explore new theories, new avenues to possible knowledge. Thus, exploration of new theoretical avenues should be pursued with an awareness of human fallibility and the recognition that a truly wise person is conscious of his own ignorance. Doxa and Episteme Popper believed that his own philosophy of ‘critical rationalism’ linked the tradition of Socratic rationalism and the modern scientific attitude. He identified himself as “a disciple of Socrates, that is, of the speaker of the Apology, and I love the man.”1 Popper asserted that, “The spirit of science is that of Socrates.”2 Rejecting the “pre-Socratic magical attitude towards science,” which regarded the scientist “as a somewhat glorified shaman,” Popper embraced Socratic fallibilism as “the true scientific spirit,” an approach that took an intellectual’s “awareness of what he does not...

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