Crisis Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy

[On Karl Popper]

András Gedö

Among the modifications of social technology, Popper’s social philosophy, his view of the “open society” had the greatest influence on the whole of bourgeois thinking. This conception took from Mannheim the concept of “social engineering,” the demand for “rationalization of society,” the slogan of “planning for freedom,” but it did not take over the thesis of overall societal planning. [215] It gave more room to competition and spontaneity of the capitalist market (and also justification for it), apart from providing an epistemological and sociophilosophical basis for state‑monopoly regulation. The theoretical conception of the “open society” arises out of the experiences gained during the beginning phase of the general crisis of capitalism, but Popper also took into account some foreseeable developments and problems of the next phase. [216] In the years of the Second World War, the social technology view in Popper’s ideas took on the form of an integrated epistemological and sociophilosophical

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theory. Popper’s theory sought to solve those problems that the various phases of the general crisis more or less have in common. He did not, however, link them so closely with any conception in economics or economic policy that would interfere with “critical rationalism” becoming the potential starting point of differing bourgeois economic (and political) currents. [217]

In the context of critical rationalism, positivism, is directly and unequivocally linked to the idea of social technology, although, Popper at no time declared himself to be a positivist and later claimed that be opposed positivism. Popper’s conception of social technology continues the neo-Kantian positivist fetishization of the problem of cognition. According to it, “our often unconscious views on the theory of knowledge and its central problems (‘What can we know?’, ‘How certain is our knowledge?’) are decisive for our attitude towards ourselves and towards politics.” [218] The largely positivist content of the epistemology of critical rationalism, hypostatized into social philosophy, determines—and limits—the possibilities of “social technology” in Popper’s ideas. Popper agrees with “piecemeal social engineering,” “the application of social engineering from case to case,” the “ad hoc social engineering,” and has doubts about “the Utopian engineering of reconstructing Society.” [219] This contrast arises from the axiom that Popper shares with life philosophy that, on the one hand, social totality has no objective historical laws, which implies that theoretical knowledge about the historical process of society is impossible, and that, on the other hand, the choice between aims lies outside the critical competence of scientific knowledge. This “technological social science” offered by Popper is rooted in the overwhelmingly positivist epistemology that is applied in social technology. Such “technological social science” “instead of trying to find laws of social development, . . . would look for the various laws which impose limitations upon the construction of social institutions, or for other uniformities.” [220]

Critical rationalism is willing to ensure the possibility of state-monopoly regulation and the (empirical) knowledge needed for the system-stabilizing reforms, but at the same time it wants to maintain the unbridgeable gap between scientific knowledge and activity. While in the final analysis the formula of theoretical knowledge (“trial and error”) appears in Popper’s ideas as a principle of all action, even life in its general biological sense, critical rationalism holds fast to the idea that theoretical knowledge cannot directly encourage activity, and that it can even discourage some activity. [221]

Positivist epistemology falls into unavoidable antinomies as a philosophy of history and society, and the concept of social

102          3. Philosophy and Apology

technology is given a certain ambiguity. The positivist epistemology in the shape of critical rationalism absolutizes theoretical knowledge; it both denies theoretical knowledge of history and at the same time constructs a theory of history. The first of the three principles of Popper’s philosophy of history is the thesis of the two phases of history, the “closed” and the “open” society. This principle does not result from his epistemology and cannot be made to coincide with the conception of the impossibility of theoretical history. The second principle, history depends on the growth of theoretical knowledge, may be the historical-philosophical equivalent of, the epistemological fetishization of theory, but in this it is asserting a universal historical principle that it should question as “historicism.” The third principle deals with the “decisionist” individualism, according to which there were no collectives but only individuals in history, and that every event comes from the indeterminate, and, in the last analysis, irrational, decision of the individual. This principle places in doubt the role of theoretical knowledge. The epistemological and historical-philosophical foundation of social technology and its status are thus caught up in ambiguity: as the realization of “critical reason,” social technology hovers between individual decision and theoretical knowledge, between the individual considered to be the only reality and society considered to be merely nominally real. Thus the conception social technology again and again violates those principles that it itself formulates and applies.

All of this does not dissolve the connections between positivism and the idea of social technology, but indicates the antinomies contained in what is essentially a positivist epistemology that extends to a philosophy of history. If critical rationalism takes note of its antinomies, it still pushes them aside by proclaiming the primacy of irrationality. And just as it accepts this primacy of irrationality in epistemology, it accepts in the same way the cardinal idea of life philosophy in the philosophy of history, too:

The universal, the typical, is not only the domain of reason, but it is largely the product of reason, insofar as it is the product of scientific abstraction. But the unique individual and his unique actions and experiences and relations to other individuals can never be fully rationalized. And it appears to be just this irrational realm of unique individuality which makes human relations important. [222]

Thus, the idea of social technology does not oppose the universal principle of crisis myth; in the end, it accepts its priority. According to Popper, the “open society” that replaces the “closed society” [223] can turn into a “completely abstract or

3. Philosophy and Apology                            103

depersonalized society,” and he claims that “our modern society resembles in many of its aspects such a completely abstract society.” [224] Popper’s diagnosis of the “abstract society,” whose “new uneasiness” he articulates, is the concise summary of the commonplaces of the crisis myth, the general conclusions of which Popper also expresses: one must bear this crisis as destiny. According to Popper:

It is the strain created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us—by the endeavor to be rational, to forego at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities. [225]

Here, rather than overcoming crisis and crisis consciousness, rationality is considered their source. Social engineering does not dissolve the fundamental situation of the “open society.” The “technique of a step-by-step reconstruction of the social system” is a method to “directly improve” the world, to plan the institutions; the destiny of these plans depends, however, on the forces facing one another, because “under no circumstances could the outcome of rational planning become a stable structure.” [226] In the last analysis, the effect of social technology is unpredictable, [227] and actually increases the irrationality of history. Conjuring up Voltaire’s Pangloss, Popper’s shallow optimism ends in a paradoxical banality; [228] he moves in a philosophical vacuum. Bourgeois freedom and “piecemeal social engineering” claim to guarantee the best of all possible worlds, but the universal crisis, even according to the theory of the “open society,” has taken control of this best of all possible worlds. Critical rationalism expresses, in its apologetic way, what it denies: state-monopoly regulation and its reformism do not dissolve the general crisis of capitalism, but prove to be a factor of this general crisis.


215.  Popper writes about Mannheim: “But since his idea of ‘planning’ is emphatically collectivistic and holistic, I am convinced that it must lead to tyranny, and not to freedom; and, indeed, Mannheim’s ‘freedom’ is the offspring of Hegel’s. (Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, p. 684.) But Mannheim is “collectivistic” and “holistic” only from the viewpoint of Popper’s extreme individualism and nominalism; Mannheim’s concept of freedom is indeed very far from Hegel’s dialectical concept of it.

216. “The Poverty and The Open Society were my war effort. I thought that freedom might become a central problem again, especially under the renewed influence of Marxism and the idea of large-scale ‘planning’ (or ‘dirigism’).” (Popper, Intellectual Autobiography, p. 91.)

217.  Popper obviously tends towards Hayek’s economic views, but shows more understanding for state-monopoly regulation, for “interventionalism” than Hayek. Therefore, the influence of critical rationalism can be brought into harmony with the effects of Keynesianism.

218.   Popper, Intellectual Autobiography, p. 91. Both of Popper’s

242                Notes

sociophilosophical works “grew out of the theory of knowledge of Logik der Forschung.” (Ibid.)

219.  Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, pp. 3ff., 154ff.

220.  Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p. 46.

221.  Ibid., pp. 49f.

222.  Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, p. 430.

223.  Bergson introduced the idea into bourgeois philosophical consciousness that the “open” and the “closed” society make up the main phases of history. (H. Bergson, “Les deux sources de ]a morale et de la religion,” in Oeuvres, pp. 1201f.)

224.  Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, p. 170.

225.  Ibid., p. 172.

226.  Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p. 47.

227.  Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, p. 332.

228.  Popper’s optimism in brief: “we are clever, perhaps too clever, but we are also wicked; and this mixture of cleverness and wickedness lies at the root of our troubles. . . . We are good, perhaps a little too good, but we are also a little stupid; and it is this mixture of goodness and stupidity which lies at the root of our troubles.” (Conjectures and Refutations, p. 365.)

SOURCE: Gedö, András. Crisis Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy. Translated by Salomea Genin; edited by Doris Grieser Marquit. Minneapolis: Marxist Educational Press, 1982. (Studies in Marxism; v. 11) [Original German edition: Philosophie der Krise. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1978.] Chapter Three: The Structure of Late-Bourgeois Philosophy and Types of Apology; extract from section 3: “Social technology” and positivism; end of chapter, pp. 100-103, endnotes pp. 241-242.

©1982 Marxist Educational Press.

András Gedö — Vita (Bibliography)

Crisis Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy by András Gedö:
Table of Contents
Chapter 2: "The Contemporary Crisis in Bourgeois Philosophy"
1. Neopositivism: Linguistic Philosophy and Critical Rationalism
2. Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie)
3. [On Max Weber]

"The Contemporary Attack on Science" by András Gedö

"Why Marx or Nietzsche?" by András Gedö

"The Historical Character of the Concept of Nature" by András Gedö

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Marxist Educational Press / Nature, Society, and Thought

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