The Radical, Revolutionary Strain in Popper's Social and Political Theory
Et Cetera, Journal of the International Society for General Semantics, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 283-298, 1984
16 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2011 Last revised: 30 Apr 2016
Date Written: 1984
Argues that Popper's social and political theory is congenial to the planning and carrying out of fundamental and thoroughgoing reform of society guided and informed by rationally plausible and morally defensible theory. Popper's arguments for moderation in political action do not rest on or support any kind of idealization of either tradition or status quo, or even upon his dislike of violence, but rather upon the inherent limitations of human knowledge. Popper's theory of method -- the same for theoretical social science as for theoretical natural science -- calls for bold, informative conjectures controlled by severe criticism. A bold conjecture which turns out to be false is even preferable to a true conjecture with less informative content. Social engineering, is different since, as with engineering generally, we are morally obliged to assess the status of our knowledge before applying it in ways that will affect the lives of human beings. And it is because of the impossibility of knowing in advance the effects of our interventions to change society that reform must be piecemeal and controlled by critical comparison between expected and achieved results. Thus, while there is no need to fear radical revolution in theoretical science (no one is harmed when theories are killed), the application of theories to political action involves risk. And risk presents moral problems and decisions which cannot be resolved by science. Popper's social and political ethics are humanitarian and egalitarian. If this should require broad, fundamental changes in political and social norms and institutions, then such changes must remain among the ultimate, if not the immediate goals of political action.
Keywords: Popper, political theory, social theory, social engineering, risk-taking, revolution, scientific revolution, muddling through
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