The Open Society

The idea of the Open Society was introduced by Henri Bergson in Two Sources of Religion and Morality. The idea is developed most thouroughly by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies. (Volume one treats of the general problem of relativism from the beginnings of Western philosophy, and may not be of interest to you unless you are already familiar with Plato, Aristotle, and classical political philosophy. Volume two analyzes the recent historical experiences of fascism and communism.) The idea has been expounded more recently by George Soros in Open Society, Reforming Global Capitalism.

Bergson is a French philosopher who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927. Popper is best known for his work on the philosophy of science. Soros is known for his success as an investor and philanthropist.

If you are familiar with Popper's work on the philosophy of science then the ideas that inform the Open Society will seem familiar.

In Popper's definition the central idea behind the Open Society is that it is open because of (1) its commitment to self-criticism and (2) its facility for self-correction. This idea can be very closely identified with liberal democracy, although Popper himself would undoubtedly advise against linking the Open Society too closely with any one historical political instance. The Open Society is a template for a self-correcting, self-governing community. Additionally, Popper offers that "one of the characteristics of an open society is that it cherishes, apart from a democratic form of government, the freedom of association, and that it protects and even encourages the formulation of free sub-societies, each holding different opinions and beliefs." (Popper, OK 209). The Open Society is a framework for liberty against fascism. It is not a specific implementation of a particular form of government and there is no list of necessary and sufficient conditions for the Open Society. However, Soros credits Aryeh Neier with outlining seven conditions necessary for the open society:

  • regular, free, and fair elections;
  • free and pluralistic media;
  • the rule of law upheld by an independent judiciary;
  • constitutional protection for minority rights;
  • a market economy that respects property rights and provides opportunities and a safety net for the disadvantaged;
  • a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts;
  • laws that are enforced to curb corruption.
(Soros, 133)

Popper views the open society as a moral imperative, "the only rational attitude...towards the history of freedom is that we are ourselves responsible for it, in the same sense in which we are responsible for our lives, and that only our conscience can judge us and not our worldly lives." (Popper, OSIE, 271)

The Open Society and Its Enemies presents the Open Society as an ideological framework for use against all types of totalitarianism. "Modern totalitarianism communism and fascism is only an episode within the perennial revolt against freedom and reason. From older episodes it is distinguished not so much by its ideology, as by the fact that its leaders succeeded in realizing one of the boldest dreams of their predecessors; they made the revolt against freedom a popular movement."

In this sense it is an algorithm against tyranny. "The open society is threatened by universal ideologies that claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth...ideologies that lay claim to the ultimate truth constitute a threat to open society because their claim can be imposed only by compulsion." (Soros, xx-xxi)

The ideas that inform the Open Society are now more relevant than ever. The war against freedom is a popular war, driven by a consensus which is too easily hijacked by unscrupulous individuals and used to further their own agenda.

Biblio

  • The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 2, The High Tide of Prophesy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath, Karl Popper. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey (1962).

  • Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Karl Popper. Clrendon Press, Oxford (1972).

  • Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism, George Soros. Public Affairs, New York, New York (2000).

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