Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Getting A Message from Karl

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So, Robert says:

>>With due respect for Locke, he is NOT where rights begin. Try Runnymede, only they weren’t new then.<<<

But  I didn’t say rights started with  Locke–in fact, I’ve said several times on th is blog that rights are not invented by human beings, but inhere in the person whether human beings choose to recognize them or not.  Rights are true statements about a human nature that is fixed, not a social construct in any way.

What I did say was that the formulation of rights as found in the Declaration and elsewhere at the American founding derived from  Locke–and it did.   The formulation “life, liberty and property” was an invention of seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy–it didn’t invent the fact of rights, but it did invent that particular way of talking about them.

And it’s impossible to spend ten seconds looking into the things Jefferson,  Madison, Adams, Franklin and the rest of them wrote without seeing that they were well acquainted with that philosophy and determined to use it in their design of the new government. 

If I was going to pull for my particular little patch of intellectual ground, I’d be pulling for literature, not philosophy–but literature is secondary to philosophy, as is history.  Neither literature nor history can be written at all without their writers assuming a philosophical position.

I think it makes more sense–Jefferson and Madison thought it made more sense–to assume that philosophical position consciously, rather than by default.

But it occurs to me that the time has come for me to recommend a book.  Usually, I just sort of mention books and talk about them and take the attitude that you can take them or leave them, but I want to take this one and jump up and down on the heads of everybody and say “read this!  read this!”

The book is The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl Popper.  I bought my copy of it almost ten years ago, or maybe longer, and at that time it was sold in two volumes.  The first covered Plato to Hegel.  The second started, I think, with Marx and came on down to Popper’s present, which was around the time of World  War  II.

It’s a famous book, so I’m sure it’s still in print somewhere and in some form, but the point here is this:  Popper was a philosopher of considerable influence in his time (and since, in at least some quarters) and his book takes on that part of the philosophical tradition that seem to advocate for an authoritarian, centrally-controlled society under the direction of one form of ruling elite or another. 

Popper saw, before anybody else was willing to, the connections between Fascism and Communism.  He became famous for isolating “falsifiability” as the distinctive attritube of scientific inquiry–note, he didn’t invent falsifiability, he just noticed and codified it. 

But The Open Society and Its Enemies is largely about political philosophy, and specifically that history of political philosophy that begins with Plato and lands us with Marx.  It’s one of the most impressive documents of anti-Communist liberalism, with “liberalism” here used in the American sense, although Popper was a Brit and eventually knighted.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to remember that people like Popper existed, never mind that it was once the norm among liberals to be almost more vigorously anti-Communist than conservatives were.   There’s an entire stretch of the political history of the Anglophone sphere that we’ve just lost, as if it never existed, and yet it explains a good deal about why the FDR consensus lasted as long as it did.

Popper, Sidney  Hook, Arthur  Schlesinger, Jr.  Almost any one of them comes closer to what modern day conservatives say they think they’re doing than the anti-democratic Edmund Burke.  And yet it’s Burke I keep getting hit with whenever I look through conservative web sites. 

It’s a good thing that most Americans aren’t going to be bothered to read through Burke’s dense prose to figure out that what he actually thought not only of the French revolution but of the American one was that not only were revolutions bad things, but so were societies where “the people” were presumed to be able to rule.  They couldn’t really do it, and the result would always be undesirable.

What The Open  Society and Its Enemies at least tries to do is to explain why an authoritarian tradition in Western philosophy ever developed at all, and how that philsophy was composed and how it functions in history–and will continue to function, if it is not faced directly.

It can be very effective, in the short term, to counter the depredations of authoritarianism by pointing to the dire effects it has had when it’s been tried in history.

In the long term, though, by doing that you’re treating the symptom and not the disease, and the disease will be back and in a more virulent form before you have a chance to take a good deep breath. 

Written by janeh

July 20th, 2009 at 7:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Getting A Message from Karl'

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  1. The founders. Yes, they used the words of their time and class, but the rights they finally enshrined were the traditional “rights of Englishmen” and the government they devised was superimposed on existing state governments–and resembled the government of Great Britain more than anything else on the planet. Nor, in contrast to events on the other side of the pond, did the founders work from abstract principles. The constitutional convention was serious horse-trading: big states vs small, slave states against free, states with western lands against states without.

    Certainly they had read much–including a number of philosophers whose counsel they did not accept. But the government of the United States in 1800 looks far more like the traditional English mix of custom and compromise than it resembles the philosophically pure constitutions France is trying on one after another.

    Popper will go on the list. And yes, I remember anti-authoritarian liberals, but they went away before I was old enough to vote–and it’s worth remembering that they never were American liberalism’s dominant voice.

    And yes, I knew that Burke got cranky in his old age and in the midst of war with French “democracy.” But no one honors him for declaring 500 families to be the people of England. He is respected for articulating the limits of our understanding of so vast and complex a thing as human society, and for counseling caution in alterations. Schlesinger always behaved as though the Law of Unintended Consequences didn’t exist, and every growth of governmental power was “progress.” I’ll back Burke over that sort of “anti-authoritarianism” any day of the week. Government only has to grow a little every year to swallow everything. To be a real anti-authoritarian, you have to say “No, even though I would like this to be done, the government ought not to have enough power to do it.” Those words never came from his mouth.

    Which may be why anti-authoritarian liberalism went extinct.


    20 Jul 09 at 5:34 pm

  2. Its been a very long time since I read the Open Society. The local library doesn’t have it – Amazon time again.

    Here is a Philosophical reference than Robert and Jane might enjoy

    Robert Nozick Anarchy, State and Utopia.

    Nozick argues that only a minimal state can be justified where minimal means police, fire and defense.


    20 Jul 09 at 7:53 pm

  3. message for Cheryl.

    I’ve lost your email address. Please email me so I can reset it.




    20 Jul 09 at 10:51 pm

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