The Open Society: Paradox and Challenge

by Stanley B. Ryerson

Openness in a person's nature is a quality; implying candor, it invites trust. Openness in our relationship with someone rules out any pretense of either of us being anything other than we are; there is no sham or bluffing in it. "A friend's only gift is himself"; and friendship calls for a certain openness. On the other hand, closed secretiveness goes with coldness, mistrust, hostility.

An open mind betokens fairness, a readiness to consider "both sides of a question." A closed mind proclaims that its owner's work is finished, he has "nothing to learn" from anyone.

An open society—were it to exist—would doubtless be marked by an openness of relationships among people, free of constraint or falseness, possessing too something of the spirit of openminded inquiry. Such relationships would be akin to (though not identical with) those of friendship. What we are imagining here, no doubt, is an ideal: genuine community.

Of late, the term "open society" has been used widely to designate the one we live in. A notable instance was Mr. Adlai Stevenson's use of it in his address to the United Nations Security Council in October 1962, during the crisis in the Caribbean. The claim that ours is an "open society" was employed in that instance to justify the imposition by the U.S. fleet of a blockade of the island of Cuba.

Just how "open" our present society is, may be worth querying. For the moment, my point is that the term is current and politically "loaded." The phrase seems to have originated with the philosophers and only later to have moved on to the market place (or the shooting range) of politics. The French philosopher Henri Bergson may have been the first to make use of it. Karl Popper, the Anglo‑Austrian philosopher‑scientist, gave it wider currency in his important work on Plato, Hegel and Marx: The Open Society and Its Enemies (1946).

For Professor Popper, the "open society" is one in which individualism flowers and "reason, justice, freedom and equality" reign: a condition that he considers to be incompatible with overall social planning, recognition of laws of social development, or any form of "collectivism." As between the individual and the community or collective, Popper sees not interdependence but a fixed, unchangeable opposition. He calls "the magical or tribal or collectivist society. . . . the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society" (p. 169). By proclaiming that individual and collective interests are in principle irreconcilable (the group, or collective conjures up for him a situation in which "the individual is nothing at all"), Popper side‑steps the issue of the kind of arrangement of the community that would best promote the unfolding of the individual's potentialities. Rejecting fundamental social change, he insists on limiting reform to what he calls "piecemeal engineering": the existing social system may be tinkered with, but never replaced.

My concern in these pages, however, is not so much with Popper's philosophical position (which I have suggested here in barest "shorthand") as with its transformation, by publicists and politicians, into an overworked cliché, which presents socialism as a "closed society" and capitalist "free enterprise" as the "open society."

What must be looked at first of all is the real setting, in the real world, in which the debate about society has its source.

Ryerson, Stanley B. The Open Society: Paradox and Challenge. New York: International Publishers, 1965. Opening section of chapter 1, "Tomorrow, Today, and Yesterday", pp. 9-11 only.

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy:
Selected Bibliography

American Philosophy Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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