Friday, November 14, 2014

Karl Popper? No Thank You

"Der Überlieferung zufolge soll Platon am Eingang zu seiner Akademie die Inschrift angebracht haben, es möge sich fernhalten von diesem Ort, wer nicht Geometer sei" ("It is said that Plato had an inscription made at the entrance to his academy which asked everyone who wasn't a geometer to stay away.") -- That's the first sentence of Peter Sloterdijk's preface to the 1st volume of his work Sphären (Spheres). Sloterdijk not only approves of this elitist motto, he says that the 3 volumes of Sphären to follow are best understood as an even more radical demand for such knowledge. Sloterdijk also mentions the etymologie of "geometer" and "geometry," always a good thing to keep in mind with words which have been in use continually for thousands of years. By γεωμετρία, geometry, the ancient Greeks meant "measurement of the world." Yes, Euclid certainly practiced something which we today readily understand as the branch of mathematics we call geometry, but it's good to keep in mind the origins of words like "geometry," and "tragedy" -- and "philosophy" -- and remind ourselves that they can mean very different things in different eras.

Sloterdijk is full of this sort of helpful insights into the philosophy, the philosophies, of different eras and cultures, brimming with aids to grasping more of the immense complexity of bookish human thought.

All that by way of contrast, refreshing contrast, to Karl Popper. Someone finally persuaded me to read Popper, I've read vol 1 of his offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde, and that's that. No thank you. Not for me. Popper is full of platitudes. It seems he can't let a page go by without earnestly reminding the reader that he stands for freedom. Well, goody. He reminds me of the fictional Jerry Seinfeld's characterization of his pal Elaine Benes as a "hater of evil," a line which is so funny because, who's not? Just as we all hate evil, so are we all for freedom. The difficult part, the part where we encounter the complexity which seems to escape Popper, is when we attempt to define things like evil and freedom. Evil to whom? Freedom for whom? Gather 3 people together and you can likely find some small or great disagreement about the concrete application of these generalized good things.

That's right: I'm inclined to think that you'll get more subtle and profound messages about this sweet mystery we call life by watching "Seinfeld" than by reading Popper. I'm afraid Popper just might make things more mysterious -- and not in a good way. Near the beginning of his preface to the 1992 50th anniversary edition of the offene Gesellschaft, Popper remarks, "Seine Tendenz war: gegen Nazismus und Kommunismus; gegen Hitler und Stalin." ("It [the book] was directed against Nazism and Communism, against Hitler and Stalin.") However: "Ich verabscheute die Namen beider so sehr, daß ich sie in meinem Buch nicht erwähnen wollte." ("I hated the names of both of them [Hitler and Stalin] so much that I didn't want to name them in my book.") It might also be that, living in England in 1942, he didn't have the balls to call Stalin as bad as Hitler while Soviets were in the midst of dying by the tens of millions as England's ally.

It seems that Popper meant a lot of things in the book which he didn't say in the book. The 2003 edition is over 500 pages long, and well less than half of that is the main text of the book, the rest being numerous prefaces and afterwords and footnotes in which he explains and explains what he meant and corrects various people who misunderstood what he said. That 50th anniversary edition preface describes Hitler and Stalin as the signers of the 1939 non-aggression pact. Did Popper mean that Stalin signed that pact with Germany only after he had tried to sign similar pacts with his soon-to-be allies and been turned down, but not say it? To be fair to Popper, I think it's possible in this case that he didn't mention something because he didn't know it.

Regardless of whom this volume was really directed against, it's subtitle is Der Zauber Platons (The Magic of Plato). "Magic" is meant here in a bad way. It's magic by which Plato mesmerized people and got him to follow him as the originator and head of the war against the open society...

Popper is so bad, so inept, empty and yet simultaneously so full -- yes, of crap! Just as many changes have occurred in a term originating in ancient Greek between their γεωμετρία and our geometry, so too have societies evolved and changed tremendously. There was no open society in Athens 2400 years ago of the kind Popper envisions. Plato didn't want to plunge the world into a totalitarian Hell, as Hitler most certainly tried his very best to do. Plato was merely a conservative: he lacked the imagination to radically criticize the existing totalitarian society. Before Plato, as Popper correctly observed, Heraclitus envisaged a much more open society than the one Plato championed. Heraclitus' egalitarian vision doesn't make Plato a monster, it makes him an ordinary creature of his time and place regarding certain existing political realities, as, to judge from some of those introductions and afterwords and footnotes, countless people unsuccessfully attempted to point out to Popper.

It takes a lot to get me to defend Plato. Popper pulls it off with ease.

And ironically, reading Popper, who constantly reminds us of how he's fighting for everyone's freedom, makes me feel anything but free. Sloterdijk is rarely, if ever, called an apostle of freedom or some such, and he's often (usually ridiculously) called something like the opposite, but reading him makes me feel free. My mind soars, as the saying goes, when I read Sloterdijk. When I read Popper I feel chained to the plodding footsteps of his pedestrian mind. If ever elitism is called for, I think, it's when one is choosing an author to read. I'm done with Popper. So done. For the moment I'm returning to the 2 volumes of Sloterdijk's Sphären. Sloterdijk calls Nietzsche "the master of dangerous thinking," and Sloterdijk is sometimes described in similar terms.

Maybe Nietzsche and Sloterdijk -- and for that matter, Plato -- are dangerous to many or even to most readers. I thrive on the first 2, and I dislike Plato but there's no danger of my ever being bored by him as badly as I am with Popper. And with Plato there are flashes of brilliance not even I can deny. How does anyone know what a perfect circle is? No drawing or ball made by humans is perfectly round, neither is any planet or moon in the sky. And yet we all know exactly what a perfect circle is. Plato has an explanation for that. I don't buy Plato's explanation, but there's no denying that on this point Plato leads me by 1 explanation to none. That kind of blows my mind. Popper's not on the same level.

No comments:

Post a Comment