Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics
7. In Search of Socratic Politics 167
Chapter 7 In Search of Socratic Politics Presented attractively in the voice of Socrates, Platonic teaching permeated Western political culture. Platonism supplied not only the intellectual roots of the contemporary Right but also those of the liberal core and its progressive Left-wing. Popper believed that a clear distinction could be drawn between Socratic and Platonic positions. He argued that Socratic doctrine—which he found to be fallibilistic, humble, humanitarian, and pro- democratic—must be embraced by progressives. In his intellectual autobiography, Popper credited his “encounter with Marxism” with making him a Socratic fallibilist, impressing upon him “the value of intellectual modesty.”1 His engagement with ‘scientific socialism’ led him to adopt a Socratic approach both to scientific method and to ethico-political questions. Indeed, Popper viewed his 1930-1934 writings in the philosophy of science—culminating in the Logic of Scientific Discovery—as a flourishing of his Socratic turn. In his most celebrated contribution to ethico-political philosophy, The Open Society and Its Enemies, the first volume, in which Popper distinguishes Socratic teaching from Platonic doctrine, serves as a necessary foundation for the second volume, in which Popper develops his critique of Marxism. However, Popper unnecessarily conflated the Socratic-Platonic distinction in classical philosophy with the liberal-anti-liberal antagonism in contemporary politics. He failed to demonstrate that Plato’s political writings—when taken as a whole, rather than carefully parsed and selected to fit a preconceived hostile interpretation—advance an authoritarian agenda. Similarly, Popper failed to explain how Socrates might be understood to endorse (other than...
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