Review of Austrian Economics, 12: 95–100 (1999)
1999 Kluwer Academic Publishers
The Political Thought of Karl Popper by Jeremy
Shearmur. London: Routledge, 1996, 217 pages.
DAVID A. HARPER
nyone who reads Jeremy Shearmur’s book will be struck by the degree to which
Popper’s vast output is an integrated work. In particular, Popper’s political
thought is closely connected with his explanation of science. One of Popper’s
more impressive achievements was to expose the authoritarian element in the
Western intellectual tradition.
For instance, traditional theories of knowledge address the question: what is the source
of true belief? They assert that a theory cannot be accepted as genuine unless it can be posi-
tively justiﬁed, that is, proven true. They only identify knowledge with certain knowledge,
thereby demanding very high epistemological standards. Traditional theories of knowledge
recognise different foundations of knowledge but they all share the feature that some un-
questionable authority must be appealed to in order to legitimise our beliefs—whether that
authority is the power of the intellect (in the case of Descartes and Spinoza), the evidence
of the senses (logical positivism) or some other source.
A similar authoritarian bias permeates the traditional conception of politics. The fun-
damental problem that has engaged political thinkers, from Plato to Marx, has been the
question: who should rule the state? Plato’s answer was simply ‘the best’ should rule, and
possibly ‘the best few—the aristocrats’, but certainly not the many, the people. For Marx it
was ‘the workers’ who should rule rather than ‘the capitalists’ (Popper, 1988, pp. 23–24).
Popper developed an approach to knowledge and to politics which was free of authori-
tarian assumptions. As for his theory of knowledge, Popper argues that we learn from our
mistakes, by trial and the elimination of error. He applied this simple idea to science and to
politics. According to Popper, all our beliefs are guesses about the world, mere conjectures.
What is distinctive about science is that we seek systematically to make our theories open
to interpersonal criticism and empirical testing, with a view to discovering our mistakes as
soon as possible:
The scientiﬁccommunity, when livingup to its ownbestideals was, moreover, aparadigm
of an ‘open society’. The search for scientiﬁc truth was a disciplined, and, in a manner of
speaking, aconstitutionallycontrolled search for aninformedand intelligent consensuson
the mechanisms underlying and explaining the way the world works (Ryan, 1994, p. 19).
His beef with Marxists and Freudians was that they seemed unwilling to face the question
of what would falsify their expectations and they explained away any apparent contrary
Department of Economics, New York University, 269 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10003.