open society

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open society
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{{For|the non-profit foundation|Open Society Foundations}}{{Liberalism sidebar |Ideas}}The term open society was coined in 1932 by French philosopher Henri Bergson.• Henri Bergson ([1932] 1937). Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion, (wikisource:fr:Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion/Chapitre I|ch. I, pp. 1-103,) & (wikisource:fr:Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion/Chapitre IV|ch. IV, pp. 287–343). Félix Alcan.• Translated as ([1935] 1977), The Two Sources of Morality and Religion Internet Archive (left or right arrow buttons select succeeding pages), pp. 18-27, 45-65, 229-34., trs., R. A. Audra and C. Brereton, with assistance of W. H. Carter. Macmillan press, Notre Dame.Leszek Kołakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (1997), p. 162 The idea was further developed during WWII by Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper.K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 2 vols. ([1945] 1966), 5th ed.A. N. Wilson, Our Times (2008), pp. 17–18
Bergson describes a closed society as a closed system of law or religion. It is static, like a closed mind.Thomas Mautner (2005), 2nd ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy ["open society" entry], p. 443. Bergson suggests that if all traces of civilization were to disappear, the instincts of the closed society for including or excluding others would remain.Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, pp. 20-21. 1935, Macmillan. In contrast, an open society is dynamic and inclined to moral universalism.Popper saw the open society as part of a historical continuum reaching from the organic, tribal, or closed society, through the open society marked by a critical attitude to tradition, to the abstract or depersonalized society lacking all face-to-face interaction transactions.K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), v 1:1 and 174–75.In open societies, the government is expected to be responsive and tolerant, and its political mechanisms transparent and flexible. It can be characterized as opposed to authoritarianism.


Popper saw the classical Greeks as initiating the long slow transition from tribalism towards the open society, and as facing for the first time the strain imposed by the less personal group relations entailed thereby.K. R. Popper, 1945:175–6Whereas tribalistic and collectivist societies do not distinguish between natural laws and social customs, so that individuals are unlikely to challenge traditions they believe to have a sacred or magical basis, the beginnings of an open society are marked by a distinction between natural and man-made law, and an increase in personal responsibility and accountability for moral choices (not incompatible with religious belief).Popper, K., The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume One (Routledge, 1945, reprint 2006), chapter 5, part III.Popper argued that the ideas of individuality, criticism, and humanitarianism cannot be suppressed once people have become aware of them, and therefore that it is impossible to return to the closed society,Popper, K., The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume One (Routledge, 1945, reprint 2006), chapter 10, part VIII. but at the same time recognized the continuing emotional pull of what he called “the lost group spirit of tribalism”, as manifested for example in the totalitarianisms of the 20th century.K. R. Popper, 1945:199–200While the period since Popper's study has undoubtedly been marked by the spread of the open society, this may be attributed less to Popper's advocacy and more to the role of the economic advances of late modernity.Wilson, p. 403 Growth-based industrial societies require literacy, anonymity and social mobility from their membersErnest Gellner, Nationalism (1997), pp. 25–9 — elements incompatible with much traditional-based behavior but demanding the ever-wider spread of the abstract social relations Georg Simmel saw as characterizing the metropolitan mental stance.M. Hardt/K. Weeks, The Jameson Reader (2000), pp. 260–6


Karl Popper defined the open society as one "in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions" as opposed to a "magical or tribal or collectivist society."Popper, K., The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume One (Routledge, 1945, reprint 2006), chapter 10, part I.He considered that only democracy provides an institutional mechanism for reform and leadership change without the need for bloodshed, revolution or coup d'état.K. R. Popper, 1945:4Modern advocates of the open society suggest that society would keep no secrets from itself in the public sense, as all are trusted with the knowledge of all. Political freedoms and human rights are claimed to be the foundation of an open society.{{by whom|date=December 2011}}

Critical knowledge

Popper's concept of the open society is epistemological rather than political.Soros, George, "The Age of Fallibility," Public Affairs (2006). When Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies, he believed that the social sciences had failed to grasp the significance and the nature of fascism and communism because these sciences were based on what he saw to be faulty epistemology.Popper, K., The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume Two (Routledge, 1945, reprint 2006), chapters 23 and 24. Totalitarianism forced knowledge to become political which made critical thinking impossible and led to the destruction of knowledge in totalitarian countries.Popper's theory that knowledge is provisional and fallible implies that society must be open to alternative points of view. An open society is associated with cultural and religious pluralism; it is always open to improvement because knowledge is never completed but always ongoing: “if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society... into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure”.K. R. Popper, 1945:201In the closed society, claims to certain knowledge and ultimate truth lead to the attempted imposition of one version of reality. Such a society is closed to freedom of thought. In contrast, in an open society each citizen needs to engage in critical thinking, which requires freedom of thought and expression and the cultural and legal institutions that can facilitate this.

Further characteristics

Humanitarianism, equality and political freedom are ideally fundamental characteristics of an open society. This was recognized by Pericles, a statesman of the Athenian democracy, in his laudatory funeral oration: "advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life."Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II: Pericles' Funeral Oration.Arguably however it was the tension between a traditional society and the new, more open space of the emerging polis which most fully marked classical Athens,J. Boardman et al., The Oxford History of the Classical World (1991), p. 232 and Popper was very aware of the continuing emotional appeal of what he called "holism...longing for the lost unity of tribal life"K. R. Popper, 1945:80 into the modern world.


Investor and philanthropist George Soros, a self-described follower of Karl Popper,Soros, George, Soros on Soros (John Wiley and Sons, 1995), page 33. argued that sophisticated use of powerful techniques of subtle deception borrowed from modern advertising and cognitive science by conservative political operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove casts doubt on Popper's view of open society.Soros, George, "From Karl Popper to Karl Rove - and Back", Project Syndicate (November 8, 2007). Because the electorate's perception of reality can easily be manipulated, democratic political discourse does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality. Soros argues that in addition to the need for separation of powers, free speech, and free elections, an explicit commitment to the pursuit of truth is imperative. "Politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception."Popper however, did not identify the open society either with democracy or with capitalism or a laissez-faire economy, but rather with a critical frame of mind on the part of the individual, in the face of communal group think of whatever kind.I. C. Jarvie et al. eds., Popper's Open Society after fifty years (1999), pp. 43–6 An important aspect in Popper's thinking is the notion that the truth can be lost. Critical attitude does not mean that the truth is found.

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