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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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5. Ethics and Emancipation 115


Chapter 5 Ethics and Emancipation This chapter explores the rich vein of Popper’s ethics, noting his rejection of positivistic, naturalistic, or historicist foundations for ethical reasoning, his identification of moral priorities, and his appreciation of the potential moral disintegrity of an increasingly ‘abstract’ society. Although often neglected by commentators, the concept of ‘plastic control’—which Popper developed as a component of his indeterminist and objective epistemology—may help reconcile several strands in Popperian ethics, facilitating ethical self-transcendence in an open society. After evaluating Popper’s ‘Humanitarian Theory of Justice,’ the chapter concludes with a confrontation between the Nozickian and the Popperian idea of justice. Science and Ethics The quest for truth, for enlightenment, was closely connected with the aspiration for freedom, for emancipation. As described by Socrates, those who endeavored to ascend from the cave did so in order to leave behind their shackles. Popper was inspired by the Enlightenment belief “that knowledge may make us free—that we may free ourselves through knowledge from economic and spiritual bondage.”1 He declared that it was “the duty of every intellectual to help others to free their minds and to understand the critical approach…grown men ought to know that they do not need leaders.2 Unsurprisingly, this led Popper to argue that every intellectual had “the obligation never to pose as a prophet.”3 Intellectuals, who mostly have the best of intentions, must first be persuaded to be a little more modest and not to try to play a leading role....

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