Little Guides to Big Ideas is an SFL educational series introducing important libertarian thinkers. Each post is written to give liberty-minded students a starting point to learn from the great minds that have contributed to the ideas of liberty.
Who: Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) was an Austrian professor at the London School of Economics and is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century. He founded the Mont Pelerin Society alongside Hayek, Mises, Stigler, and Friedman to advocate freedom of expression, free market policies, and the political values of an open society. He died on September 17, 1994 at the age of 92. A fervent anti-authoritarian, he fought for greater freedom against dangerous trends in political and scientific philosophy.
Why he matters: Although he was not a dogmatic libertarian (he supported social safety nets and piecemeal social engineering), in the words of Brian Doherty, “The spirit of free inquiry and an open society that Popper championed will go a long way toward ensuring that his often-expressed optimism about the future of freedom and civilization will be borne out.” His epistemology counsels caution, as he believed there was no final authority for determining truth. His principle of falsification argues the true test of a theory’s scientific status is that it can be refuted with empirical evidence, thus championing the spirit of free criticism which is so integral to an open society.
If you only read one thing: In The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), Popper passionately and cogently condemns the authoritarian views of government and society found in the works of major thinkers including Plato, Hegel, and Marx and defends liberal democracy and open society in general. In it, he critiques historicism, which he defines as the theory that history follows an inevitable projection towards a determinate end. Popper argued that historicism underpins most forms of totalitarianism and fails to consider the limits on society’s ability to predict its own future states of knowledge.
- The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934)
- The Poverty of Historicism (1936)
- The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945)
- Conjectures and Refutations (1963)
- “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.”
- “A theory that explains everything, explains nothing”
- “We do not choose political freedom because it promises us this or that. We choose it because it makes possible the only dignified form of human coexistence, the only form in which we can be fully responsible for ourselves. Whether we realize its possibilities depends on all kinds of things — and above all on ourselves.”