Tag Archive: power

The learning machine

My aim is to show how over ten years of fruitful work he remained engaged with the social aspects of the quest for knowledge, working out, supplementing, and generalising ideas about society that were embryonic in his philosophy of science. A fully fleshed-out vision of politics and society emerged which today would be termed the knowledge-using, knowledge-gathering, knowledge­-embodying society. It is, in many ways, a magnificent vision and an intellectual tour de force. Popper presents society as a learning machine, and the learning machine as a Socratic seminar writ large.

Wholehearted though my admiration is for this vision, I take seriously Poppers injunction that we learn from criticism. In criticism I argue that there are serious deficiencies in holding up the Socratic seminar as a model for life in society in general, and for scientific work in particular. The republic of science Popper envisions is susceptible to the corruptions of power just as is the broader body politic, and its citizens need the kind of checks on power that Popper demanded on governments. Even more troubling: the central Socratic and scientific value of truth conflicts at times with other values important for social life. [6]

Power’s corrosive powers

Sir Karl Popper’s originality as a philosopher of science is usually attributed to his stress on criticism and falsification as routes to knowledge. His originality as a philosopher of society and politics is usually presented as an extension of those epistemological and methodological ideas into what might be termed a defensive view of political life. It was prudent, he famously argued, to act as if tendencies to despotism and tyranny were endemic; to treat all government, indeed all power, with suspicion; and to create a political system in which the government could be changed by the governed without resort to violence. While providing no guarantee of freedom and openness, this was the best avail­able insurance against their erosion.[5]

Attn.: politicians of ‘liberal’ parties

What I argue for should not be misconstrued as a version of ‘libertarianism’, which is different from ‘liberalism’. By ‘libertarianism’ I understand an outlook that promotes the kind of absence of regulation cherished by right-wing, small government advocates who want not so much freedom as license to pursue their interests economically and politically without the inconvenience of too many obligations to think about others. I write as a ‘liberal’ in the European sense, that is, someone who places himself on the liberal left in political terms, meaning that I retain a commitment to ideals of social justice – a view with a number of definite public policy implications – my commitment to constitutionally en­trenched liberties and rights is very much one that has, at heart, the interests of those on whose heads ‘libertarians’ might trample on their way to getting an outsize slice of the pie. Libertarianism in this sense is close to theoretical anarchism, and is in fact not especially friendly to ideas of rights, because rights are obstructions to the libertarian’s desire that there should be as few restraints as possible on what he chooses to do. An advocate of civil liberties wishes to see everyone given a chance to choose and act, not just those with the advantage of strong wills or great wealth or power. [14]

Civil liberties vs. state power

Civil liberties exist to protect individuals against the arbitrary use of state power, and authorities in all countries and times have found themselves inconvenienced by civil liberties, one main reason being that they make the task of moni­toring, arresting and prosecuting bad people more difficult. But there is a good reason why civil liberties make the work of the authorities more difficult in these respects: namely, to protect the great majority of people who are not bad. Think of a typical police state – say, former communist East Germany – where there was no regime of civil liberties to stop men in long leather coats knocking on doors at 2 a.m., and the disappearance without trace of the individuals thus woken. The full implications of this example are too obvious to need spelling out. What it shows is that the incon­venience of the authorities equals the freedom of the people, and is a price richly worth paying for all that matters to individual lives and aspirations. [1-2]

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