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January 14th, 2005 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

When perusing comments over at Pandas Thumb, I came across a link to this list of the top 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century from National Review. Check out entries six and seven:

6. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper
Herman: "The best work on political philosophy in the 20th century. Exposes totalitarianism's roots in Plato, Hegel, and Marx."

7. The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis
Brookhiser: "How modern philosophies drain meaning and the sacred from our lives."

Now, I am not (so far as I know!) a conspiracy theorist, but this strikes me as rather odd. Christians have long had an antipathy toward all things 6-ish, for reasons clearly elucidated here. It's quite obvious that six is the number of man and destruction, whereas seven (thank heavens!) is the number of purification (since, after all, the greek word for "purify" is used seven times--need you more proof?). Clearly, then, Popper's work is to be treated with the greatest suspicion, as, after all, it is number six on a list which uses "a methodology that approaches the scientific." Never mind that it is number 64 here--their method clearly won't stand up to examination.

This prima facie reason to be suspicious of Popper's work aside, this interesting and expansive work is both as engaging as it is frustrating. Not surprisingly, there is good reason to read it alongside Lewis's work listed above. Popper's first edition was published in 1944, while Lewis delivered the lectures that would become Abolition of Man in 1943. Lewis argues that attempts to ground morality outside the "Tao," or natural law, are viciously circular and necessarily culminate in the destruction of human nature. Though not a direct response to Popper, Lewis's seems to be aimed at the scientism of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers influential in Popper's own thinking.

Not surprisingly, then, Popper and Lewis's works are diametrically opposed. Popper advocates an "open society," of which the chief characteristic is what he calls a "critical dualism," which asserts that "norms and normative laws can be made and changed by man, more especially by a decision or convention to alter them" (62). This decision can never be derived from facts (or from statements of facts), although they pertain to facts." Hence, the "critical dualism" is properly a "dualism of facts and decisions" (64). Popper writes this in response to the "naive monism" of the "closed society," the starting point of which is "the stage at which the distinction between natural and normative laws is not yet made." Moral norms are promulgated as "tab0os." As we progress, we realize that there are other societies with different norms and that our norms have been handed down from our rulers. "These experiences may lead to a conscious differentiation between the man-enforced normative laws, based on decisions and conventions, and the natural regularities which are beyond his power" (61). This differentiation is the "critical dualsim" that Popper builds his open society upon.

Clearly, then, Popper's big move consists in the rejection of "natural law" (and a straw-man version at that) and the existence of fixed moral and social ideals, on which we base decisions. He returns to this division at the end of his work: "This dualism of facts and decisions is, I believe, fundamental. Facts as such have no meaning; they can gain it only through our decisions" (462). Hence, in the open society we must be "makers of our own fate." We bear full responsibility for both our creation of and obedience to imperatives (as opposed to indicatives). This rejection of fixed ideals would (one would think!) lead to an eschewal of progress, for as Popper admits, "to progress is to move towards some kind of end, towards an end which exists for us as human beings." Regardless of the fact that Popper has rejected any such end, he still claims that "progress rests with us, with our watchfullness, with our efforts of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice." The "realism" of our choices is a short-term, piece-meal decision about our social engineering, rather than a long-term "Utopian" perception of society.

Popper's claim that we create ethical norms is clearly subject to the charge of arbitrariness. He writes, "It must, of course, be admitted that the view that norms are conventional or artifical indicates that there will be a certain element of arbitrariness involved, i.e. that there may be different systems of norms between which there is not much to choose...But artificiality by no means implies full arbitrariness. Mathematical calculi, for instance, or symphonies, or plays, are highly artificial, yet it does not follow that one calculus or symphony or play is just as good as any other. Man has created new worlds--of language, of music, of poetry, of science, and the most important of these is the world of the moral demands for equality, for freedom, and for helping the weak....Our comparision is only intended to show that the view that moral decisions rest with us does nto imply that they are entirely arbitrary" (65-66). Furthermore, Popper admits that it is an attack on certain forms of religion, "namely, on the religion of blind authority, on magic and tabooism" (66). Thankfully, Popper understands Jesus as destroying this approach to religion--"Ye have heard it said by them of old time...But I say unto you..." Unfortunately, he neglects overwhelming evidence that Christ comes to allow us to fulfill the law, not to destroy it.

Popper's argument against moral norms that are grounded in something outside of our own decisions (be it nature or God!), if there is one, is about as compelling as his interpretation of Plato--not very. His attempt to escape the charge of arbitrariness by appeal to the world of art simply suggests that there is an aesthetic criterion for each artfield that helps us delineate good music from bad. The criterion may be difficult to identify, but epistemological challenges don't translate in to its non-existence. Similarly, casuistry can be a difficult field, but that alone does not represent an argument against the ethical norms it applies. Furthermore, even with respect to the "piecemeal" social engineering Popper advocates, it is difficult to see how he would be able to argue for "this" against "not this"? Why an "open society" over a "closed society," particularly if the ruler is benevolent, wise, and good (as in a benevolent monarchy)? Certainly a "closed society" does not deny any individual from bearing the full responsibility of their decisions in the fabric of daily life (most of us do not make geo-political decisions, at any rate!) It is hard to see how Popper's argument doesn't reduce to prejudice. By naming a society that accepts the existence of moral norms "naive" and "closed," Popper bewitches (which he is clearly opposed to!) his reader in to accepting his conclusion. Furthermore, Popper seems mired in contradictions such as the existence of non-arbitrary norms and of "progress" which doesn't depend upon an end. Though Popper's entire social/political theory rests upon this division between fact and decision, Popper's defense is lacking.

This does not address, however, Popper's criticisms of historicism and Marxism, many of which might be persuasive (I have not yet read enough Hegel or Marx to judge). However, at the core of Popper's approach to society is the above rejection of "person or societal independant" values. Lewis defends these person independant values in a much more persuasive way than Popper criticizes them. "If nothing is assumed," writes Lewis, "nothing can be proved." Lewis's "prophecy" in the third essay (which Popper would have have hated) predicts the rise of a set of men named "conditioners" who determine what human nature will be. The parallels to Popper's final paragraph ("Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate") are nothing short of eery. If argumentation, though, is a criterion, Lewis's view on the existence of certain "First Principles of Practical Reason" is rigorously argued and ably defended (and all of that in 400 fewer pages!), such that I would commend it to any reader of Popper's work. Be advised, though--if committed to a "scientific empiricism" of the sort the Vienna Circle and Popper espouses, you may be sorely disappointed in the lack of "scientific" evidence for Lewis's view (though he does include a handy appendix highlighting the basic moral similarities of various cultures).

Next on the "political reading project" is an updated account of Lewis's view, In Defense of Natural Law by Robert P. George. I am not sure if I accept the validity of the "naturalistic fallacy" that Popper advocates. Rather, Thomistic (or even Platonist) conceptions of "nature" seem to dodge the problem. However, for those who do, George's book represents the best defense of the new natural law theory espoused by Finnis, Grisez and Boyle. When I finish in May, I will write up a review as well.

Long books merit long blog entries, I suppose.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.