Sunday, December 6, 2009

Karl R. Popper on Socrates

I wonder how many "progressives", economists and social scientists fit Popper's depiction of Socrates' measure of scientific knowledge and intellectual integrity:

"Socrates was a moralist and an enthusiast. He was the type of man who would criticize any form of government for its shortcomings(and indeed, such criticism would be necessary and useful for any government, although it is possible only under a democracy) but he recognized the importance of being loyal to the laws of the state. As it happened, he spent his life largely under a democratic form of government, and as a good democrat he found it his duty to expose the incompetence and windbaggery of some of the democratic leaders of his time. At the same time, he opposed any form of tyranny; and if we consider his courageous behaviour under the Thirty Tyrants then we have no reason to assume that his criticism of the democratic leaders was inspired by anything like anti-democratic leanings. It is not unlikely that he demanded (like Plato) that the best should rule, which would have meant, in his view, the wisest or those who knew something about justice. But we must remember that by justice he meant equalitarian* justice...and that he was not only an equalitarian but also an individualist--perhaps the greatest apostle of an individualist ethics of all time. And we should realize that, if he demanded that the wisest men should rule, he clearly stressed that he did not mean the learned men; in fact, he was sceptical of all professional learnedness, whether it was that of the philosophers of the past or of the learned men of his own generation, the Sophists. The wisdom he meant was of a different kind. It was simply the realization: how little do I know! Those who did not know this, he taught, knew nothing at all. (This is the true scientific spirit. Some people still think, as Plato did when he had established himself as a learned Pythagorean sage, that Socrates' agnostic attitude must be explained by the lack of success of the science of his day But this only shows that they do not understand this spirit, and that they are still possessed by the pre-Socratic magical attitude towards science, and towards the scientist, whom they consider as a glorified shaman, as wise, learned, initiated. They judge him by the amount of knowledge in his possession instead of taking, with Socrates, his awareness of what he does not know as a measure of his scientific level as well as of his intellectual honesty.)"

----Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, pp. 128-9.

*Popper uses the term "equalitarian" to refer to equality before the law, isonomy, as opposed to Plato's "totalitarian" justice, whereby Plato identified the just with the good of the state.

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