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Monday, April 29, 2019

Eric Voegelin on Karl Popper: Rascally, Impertinent, Loutish

Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin were contemptuous of Karl Popper’s work on political theory, The Open Society and Its Enemies. They thought that Popper’s depiction of Plato as a philosopher of totalitarianism was scandalous and a complete fabrication. In the 1950s, Popper was auditioning for an appointment at the University of Chicago, this alarmed Strauss.

In his letter dated April 10, 1950, Strauss writes to Voegelin:
May I ask you [Voegelin] to let me know sometime what you think of Mr. Popper. He gave a lecture here [at the University of Chicago], on the task of social philosophy, that was beneath contempt: it was the most washed-out, lifeless positivism trying to whistle in the dark, linked to a complete inability to think "rationally," although it passed itself off as "rationalism" -- it was very bad. I cannot imagine that such a man ever wrote something worthwhile reading, and yet it appears to be a professional duty to become familiar with his productions. 
Voegelin replied in just 8 days. In his letter dated April 18, 1950, he writes:
The opportunity to speak a few deeply felt words about Karl Popper to a kindred soul is too golden to endure a long delay. This Popper has been for years, not exactly a stone against which one stumbles, but a troublesome pebble that I must continually nudge from the path, in that he is constantly pushed upon me by people who insist that his work on the “open society and its enemies” is one of the social science masterpieces of our times. This insistence persuaded me to read the work even though I would otherwise not have touched it. You are quite right that it is a vocational duty to make ourselves familiar with the ideas of such a work when they lie in our field; I would hold out against this duty the other vocational duty, not to write and publish such a work. In that Popper violated this elementary vocational duty and stole several hours of my lifetime, which I devoted in fulfilling my vocational duty, I feel completely justified in saying without reservation that this book is impudent, dilettantish crap. Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances. 
Voegelin lists four major flaws in Popper’s work. The complete letter can be read here. He sums up his argument against Popper with these lines:
Popper’s book is a scandal without extenuating circumstances; in its intellectual attitude it is the typical product of a failed intellectual; spiritually one would have to use expressions like rascally, impertinent, loutish; in terms of technical competence, as a piece in the history of thought, it is dilettantish, and as a result is worthless.  
It took Strauss a few months write a reply. He thanked Voegelin for the detailed letter on the problems in Popper’s thesis and also revealed that he had taken the liberty of showing Voegelin’s letter to an in influential colleague “who was thereby encouraged to throw his not inconsiderable influence into the balance against Popper’s probable appointment here [at the University of Chicago]. You thereby helped to prevent a scandal.”

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