catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

The condensed Open Society

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“Our corpses are expected to arrive, by the New Zealand Star, on January 8th or thereabouts. Please receive them kindly.” (Popper to Gombrich, November 1945)

This is the first of a series of posts which first appeared on the now-defunct blog Conjectures and Refutations in 2005 and the now-inactive blog Thoughts on Freedom in 2006. I hope this is not the kiss of death for Catallaxy.

Two very important books appeared at the end of the Second World War, pointing up lessons to be learned from the disastrous social and political tendencies which precipitated the war. Both books were written by Austrians in exile, F A Hayek in England and K R Popper in New Zealand. Both books, The Road to Serfdom and The Open Society and its Enemies (OSE) were widely read and discussed but Serfdom stole a march to achieve a wider popular readership when it appeared in the United States in a Readers Digest condensed version. This is now on line.

Serfdom was not a big book to start with (240 pages) but the OSE runs to almost 800 pages of which more than 200 are footnotes, in smaller print. In fact the size of the manuscript was a major impediment when Popper, Gombrich and Hayek offered it to a number of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Several asked for abbreviation but Popper would have none of that. He wrote to Gombrich.

I am definitely against cuts. I believe that the book is of sufficient value to be sometimes a trifle less brief than it might be possible to make it …[but]…I entirely reject the contention that there is the slightest intrinsic reason for cuts. The extrinsic reason that the book is a very long book, I admit. But since ordinary intelligent people have read through the text in one week-end, it cannot be too long …The ordinary intelligent man does not like to be regarded as illiterate or as an imbecile. He is ready, and even proud, to buy a thick book.

Mark Blaug was one of the people who read the book in a weekend, in Paris of all places! He went there for the weekend and he read the book right through, as I did in a few days in the spring of 1968. Once you start reading OSE you can apparently ignore the lights of Paree.

But for many students nowadays, reference material hardly exists unless it can be accessed on line. Because the book still speaks powerfully to our condition I think it is helpful to provide an on-line summary of the book.

Problems of production

Ernst Gombrich, Popper’s friend in England, had the major burden of seeing the book through the press at Routledge. Popper assisted in the process by sending some 95 aerograms with instructions on the finishing touches for the massive manuscript. On one occasion Karl sent off twelve aerograms on a single day. On another occasion he completely rewrote chapter 17. This is sample of the instructions.

In my typed airgraph of today, I mentioned that, as far as Chapter 12 is concerned, only the Section Number Corrections have first priority. I now wish to amend this: there is also a false quotation which is important to replace. It is the quotation on MS p.281, from ‘Hence’ in line 5 to the end of paragraph in line 7. – I suggest to correct these lines in accordance with my ‘Corr. to Ch. 12’, Airgraph 4. This however would imply that the passage on p. 281 is replaced by one that is about two lines longer. If this creates difficulties, then I suggest to replace the ‘Hence…’ passage by the following of about equal length: ++ States may enter into agreements, but they are superior to agreements (i.e., they may break them).++ In this case it would suffice to amend the corresponding note 72 simply by replacing, in line 3 of this note, ‘336’ by ++330++. If, however, there was room enough for my original correction to p.281, the ‘336’ should be replaced by ++330++ and ++333++.- Of course if the full corrections of Airgraphs 1 to 11 can be used, then note 72 should be corrected in accordance with Airgraph 9.

When Routledge decided to produce the book in two volumes Gombrich cabled Karl “Routledge want division after Chapter 10”. The local censor called Gombrich to the post office for an interview about the message and fortunately he accepted the explanation that they were not talking about troop movements! I wonder if the censor enjoyed scanning the contents of the 95 aerograms from Popper?

When Popper was applying for various university positions in New Zealand and Australia he wrote to Gombrich:

You kindly advise me to prefer Otago to Perth, in spite of the Cangeroos [sic]. But I think you don’t really know enough of Australia by far: the nicest animal there (and possibly the loveliest animal that exists) is the Koala bear. Cangeroos may be nice, but the opportunity of seeing a Koala bear is worth putting up with anything, and it is without reservation my strongest motive in wishing to go to Australia.

Finally, in a letter dated 16 November 1945.

Dear Ernst, This time we are really off, I think…The passage will be very rough since we sail via Cape Horn – perhaps the roughest spot in all the Seven Seas. Our corpses are expected to arrive, by the New Zealand Star, on January 8th or thereabouts. Please receive them kindly. If there is important news it can, I suppose, be wirelessed to the ship. I shall let you know more precisely when they arrive, and if you could find them a room in a Boarding house or Hotel (where they might perhaps be brought back to life again), it would be very nice indeed…If you don’t happen to hear of such a room: bury them. To be serious, I am really cheered up by the prospect of seeing you in less than two months.

In the event, Popper and his wife walked off the boat to meet the Gombrichs, and Ernst had a “hot off the press” copy of OSE in his hand.

Popper’s Party Politics

Many people who read tracts in political philosophy like to have a sense of where the author is located in relation to their own political leanings. If the author is alive, the reader might like to know whether the writer votes Labor or Conservative, Republican or Democrat. Popper became hard to place in later life, although there is no doubt that he was left-leaning in youth and he did not become favourably disposed towards Hayekian market liberalism in later life, even though he was disenchanted with the social democrats. In my view the only thing that held him back from something very close to market liberalism was a lack of understanding of the factors that cause unemployment (essentially, ill-advised interference with the labour market by means of minimum wages for example).

Still, the point is that the mature Popper could not be a partisan for any political faction. When we met in 1972 he asked whether I wanted to be actively involved in politics, to which I replied, ‘Yes, but I can’t decide which party’. He said ‘Yes, I understand, but it is no longer an issue for me’.

The Readings to Follow

The main ideas in volume 1 (on Plato) are in the following instalments

The origins of the work, the main themes and the architecture of the two volumes.

Introduction, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2: The myth of destiny and the contribution of Heraclitus.

Chapter 3: Plato’s theory of forms or ideas and the problem of essentialism.

Chapter 4: Change and rest. Plato’s design for the perfect state.

Chapter 5: Nature and convention. Coming to grips with manmade rules and conventions without lapsing into relativism.

Chapter 6: Totalitarian justice versus the protective state and the language of political proposals.

Chapter 7 and 8: Leadership and the philosopher king. The paradoxes of sovereignty, a defensible theory of democracy.

Chapter 9: The utopian impulse for revolutionary reform. When the resort to violence is legitimate.

Chapter 10: The open society, the strain of civilisation and the fear of freedom.

People who get that far will be relieved to find that my commentary on the Marx material in the second volume is much more critical than the commentary on Plato.


Written by Admin

December 6, 2006 at 11:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Ummm, Rafe, Thoughts on Freedom is now the ALS blog and Sukrit moved all of this stuff over to our new home when we had our blog merger.

    You’ll find it’s all on the new WordPress site.


    December 6, 2006 at 11:39 am

  2. Yes but I have been ticked off on other sites for giving out links, on the grounds that people will tend to read stuff that is put in front of them but balk at going someplace to see the same stuff.

    I can’t personally understand that kind of unwillingness to follow up links but there seems to be a strange lack of curiosity or adventurousness among the general run of readers, even in cyberspace. This is reflected in the number of people who lob into the Rathouse and only look at one page. I know that many of these are people who googled, say “Kant” and find that he is just mentioned in passing in a list of names, so there is not necessarily anything else on the site that is relevant. But in many cases it seems to indicate either a desperate pressure of time or blinkers firmly in place.

    Rafe Champion

    December 6, 2006 at 11:59 am

  3. I lobbed into Rathouse the other day and could not figure out the forum. The site just seemed awkward to use. However at least I now know what you look like.


    December 6, 2006 at 12:12 pm

  4. The forum has become a liability. Initially it was formatted like a blog and was very user friendy, then it changed and it has become very difficult to access and post so it is now attended mostly by cranks and trolls. When the webmistress is less harassed we will close it down.

    for people who are not stuck on Popper and the Austrians the Revivalist series is likely to have something of interest, being the arts and letters section.
    McAuley and Barzun
    Liam Hudson, Barry Humphries
    The Buhlers, Rene Wellek, Len Hume demolishes the “colonial cringe” theory.
    Peter Bauer, Bill Hutt, Ian Suttie, origins of international cricket, Australian protectionism

    Rafe Champion

    December 6, 2006 at 1:38 pm

  5. All

    Only peripheral to this discussion, but for some light relief, head over to (via AL Daily) and read Dave Barry’s views on libertarianism.


    December 6, 2006 at 2:21 pm

  6. ….didn’t realise the article was 2 yrs old !


    December 6, 2006 at 2:25 pm

  7. Not quite Paris, but I read the first volume of the OSE in a transfixed state in a beach cottage in Mimiwhangata in the far North. Would have got to Vol 2, but hey, a guy’s gotta surf sometime…

    Daniel Barnes

    December 6, 2006 at 5:50 pm

  8. Read bits of OSE when I was about 18/19. January I’ll have another go at it, as methinks it bears revisiting now that Marxism-Leninism has waned and that Sayyid Qutb has become a philosopher to be reckoned with.

    Andrew Elder

    December 8, 2006 at 8:54 am

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