Lasting Conservative Lessons from Liberal Reasoners

Lasting Conservative Lessons from Liberal Reasoners

Every year, new books appear about philosophical ideas and politics. Truth be told, even those getting rapturous reviews seldom have any impact at all on thought or action in public affairs. The interesting exceptions are often new editions, or sequels or reprints, of the few that did. Two examples have appeared this year, both offering flashbacks to two great debates in which their authors had a central part. One is a followup to a bombshell book of 1945 and the outset of the Cold War; the other is a reprint of an even more sensational work of 1986, only a little before the collapse of Communism, and in the midst of a very different intellectual and political era, which it helped redefine. The first is a posthumously published and edited collection of late essays by Karl Popper, After ‘The Open Society’ (Routledge), and the other is a 25th anniversary edition of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster), with a new introductory essay by Andrew Ferguson.

Popper, an Austrian Jew by origin who fled from the Nazis to New Zealand in 1937, has had plenty of critics, but has remained influential for over half a century as both a philosophical theorist and as a polemicist. He had introduced, starting in the 1930s with a work in German on ‘the logic of scientific discovery’, a novel criterion for assessing the value of theories in both the natural sciences and the fuzzier social ones. The criterion was not one of empirical verification, but of refutation; he pointed out that no number, no matter how large, of observed white swans could definitively ‘verify’ the universal claim that ‘all swans are white’, but the discovery of only a single black swan would refute the claim. He developed and expanded this ‘fallibilist’ epistemology in a long series of later books, using it to analyze the persuasiveness of accomplishments in natural science and the feebleness of social and psychological theories. His first two English-language works, The Poverty of Historicism (1942) and The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) were also ferociously polemical, attacking Marx and Marxism, Freud and Freudianism, and what he regarded as ‘unfalsifiable’ and ‘prophetic’ theories in general. In his earlier years, Popper had still remained, nonetheless, essentially a ‘reformist liberal’ or non-Marxist social democrat, advocating a cautious kind of ‘piecemeal social engineering’.

The Open Society was both a sensation on its appearance and one of the most celebrated and enduring works of the intellectual Cold War, remaining in print for many years. The essays in After the Open Society show how Popper gradually became less and less persuaded that even moderate and evolutionary state-directed economic changes were either morally desirable or practically efficacious. Once sharply distinguishing his own views from those of Friedrich Hayek, he eventually came to the latter’s entirely free-market ideas. He drew far less attention in making this change than he had with his earlier books; he was not that distinctive in the wider neoconservative political current that arrived in the 1980s.

The new bombshell of that decade was Allan Bloom’s book, which became a bestseller beyond the level of all of Popper’s books put together. Bloom did not so much propose a single new organizing Grand Idea, like Popper’s ‘refutationism’, although all his essays showed the effects of the close interpretive readings of classical and modern authors that he had learned from his mentor, Leo Strauss. The philosophical reasoning was of a great deal more polished and subtle kind than that provided by Popper, who, like the Vienna Circle of logical positivists thinkers with whom he had once associated, was far more affected by the apparent special authority of natural science in the modern world, especially as displayed in the evolutionary biology of Darwin and the relativity and quantum physics of Einstein and Planck.

However, Bloom the Plato scholar and Strauss disciple was just as much a no-quarter polemicist as Popper, his main target not the Marxist-Leninists and their mirror-image fascist opponents, that Popper had regarded it as necessary to stretch on his rack. Bloom, an odd mixture of American academic liberal Democrat voter and elitist Europhile cultural conservative, offered a keening lament about the entire development of modern Western university education, which he charged with a complete failure in providing a moral and intellectual foundation for rising generations. The original title he had intended for his book is in some ways a better condensation of his indictment than the eventual famous one; he had intended it to be called Souls Without Longing.

Both Andrew Ferguson, the conservative journalist who provided an excellent historiographic introduction to Bloom and his book for the new commemorative edition, and the two editors of the late Popper essays, have been bound to realize that the world has changed so much over the last three decades that many of the disputes that concerned these authors already have a somewhat archaic quality. For younger readers interested in philosophy and politics today, at least on first approach, reading might at first seem like reading, say, a couple of brilliant Victorian authors discussing church-state relations, or the debates between Marxist and pacifist poets and novelists that were a feature of the Great Depression. But Popper and Bloom are both very much still worth reading, not only for the many things they say that continue to have substantial importance, but even more to appreciate and understand the sheer intensity and force with which they analyzed the nature of modern – non-‘post-modern’ – Western culture and political thought.

The impact of both writers was not entirely because of what they said. Popper provided a striking individual technique in showing the fallacies of Marxist and Freudian reasoning, but with conclusions not so different from many rival books of the Cold War by liberal and social democratic writers still on the left, but bitterly disillusioned by Marxism and by the Soviert Union. Bloom gave a highly condensed, and very entertaining, summary of almost all the underlying discontents that historically-informed and even moderately literate adults have been bound to have about mass democracy, and the mass expansion of ‘higher’ education that has gone with it.

But what both writers also understood and exemplify is the remarkable power, almost ‘poetic’, that it is possible to pack into single real books. The Open Society, and a couple of Popper’s other best books, like Conjectures and Refutations (1964), Bloom’s Closing and a less-known but equally fine essay collection, Giants and Dwarfs, are not just components of respectable bibliographies and personal bookshelves; they were, and for some purposes still are, books that change minds. For countless young people, reading them was a watershed point in their lives, the end of their intellectual childhood. For many others, not even an entire undergraduate program in liberal arts or social sciences, or graduate studies and degrees, for that matter, ever accomplish the same thing. It is only necessary to observe, for example, the recent mass behaviour of college students in Montreal, to realize how infrequent this transformation to intellectual adulthood can be. Reading Popper and Bloom, even in 2012, still offers splendid lessons in the use of genuine reasoned argument and individual moral conviction in politics, and it is greatly to be hoped that some young people will still learn the same lesson from these brave and brilliant men.


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