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A Psychoanalytical Approach

The British Liberal Defence of the Open Society and Pluralism

Although both Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin were born outside of Great Britain, they were both leading theorists of anti-totalitarianism in British academia. The Israeli scholar, Jacob L. Talmon, was British trained, and is best seen as applying the British liberal tradition to the Enlightenment. There are clear affinities between their positions on this issue, which are best seen as continuations of the British liberal tradition well into the twentieth century, when it faced the challenge of the totalitarian state. The three representatives of British liberalism discussed here shared a commitment to individual liberty, wariness of state power, and an evident suspicion of what they took to be the collectivist and utopian excesses of various Continental thinkers.

i. Karl Popper’s Indictment of Historicism

In several works, Karl Popper articulated a vigorous defence of liberal democracy over dictatorship. In his early work there is a particular emphasis on the unscientific and ultimately illogical character of all forms of historical determinism and collectivism. In The Poverty of Historicism, he stressed the philosophical errors of utopianism, and what he termed “historicism”—assuming or attempting to argue for the existence of deterministic historical laws, and the possibility of deriving accurate predictions from themThese predictions are purportedly scientific or metaphysical, and for Popper, they betray an epistemic confusion between falsifiable and limited predictions based on evidence, and “oracular prophesies” masquerading as science or philosophical rationality.

In keeping with his philosophy of natural science, Popper urges us to shun certainty and dogmatism in social science and history, in favour of a piecemeal approach characterised by attention to particulars and the trial and error methods of fallibilism. Such an approach is not only conducive to precise and clear social explanations; Popper defends it as a philosophical shield against tyranny as well. For it is precisely the immodesty of overgeneralising to alleged rigid laws in history that has led even great philosophers and other thinkers to commit the error of historicism, which is a key component of totalitarian and fanatical patterns of thought.