virus: Popper on Hegel

T. Harms (
Fri, 20 Oct 1995 00:00:36 -0700

>> Hasn't anybody read "The Open Society and its Enemies" by Karl Popper?

> I haven't but I'd appreciate it if you clue me in.

OK, here's something. Below is a key passage from Karl R. Popper's _The
Open Society and Its Enemies_ (Volume 2: Hegel and Marx; The Rise of
Oracular Philosophy: Chapter 12. Hegel and The New Tribalism). In it
Popper first describes Hegel's famous dialectic triad, then he notes that
there could be conformity between this and critical rationalism, but he
explains why Hegel's formula actually represents an attempt to put an end
to rationality:

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[Hegel] taught that Kant was quite right in pointing out the antimonies,
but that he was wrong to worry about them. It just lies in the nature of
reason that it must contradict itself, Hegel asserted; and it is not a
weakness of our human faculties, but it is the very essence of all
rationality that it must work with contradictions and antimonies; for this
is just the way in which reason _develops_. Hegel asserted that Kant had
analysed reason as if it were something static; that he forgot that mankind
develops, and with it, our social heritage. But what we are pleased to
call our own reason is nothing but the product of this social heritage, of
the historical development of the social group in which we live, the
nation. This development proceeds _dialectically_, that is to say, in a
three-beat rhythm. First a _thesis_ is proffered; but it will produce
criticism, it will be contradicted by opponents who assert its opposite, an
_antithesis_; and in the conflict of these views, a _synthesis_ is
attained, that is to say, a kind of unity of opposites, a compromise or a
reconciliation on a higher level. The synthesis absorbs, as it were, the
two original opposite positions, by superseding them; it reduces them to
components of itself, thereby negating, elevating, and preserving them.
And once the synthesis has been established, the whole process can repeat
itself on a higher level tha has now been reached. That is, in brief, the
three-beat rhythm of progress which Hegel called the 'dialectic triad'.
I am quite prepared to admit that this is not a bad description of
the way in which a critical discussion, and therefore also scientific
thought, may sometimes progress. For all criticism consists in pointing
out some contradictions or discrepancies, and scientific progress consists
largely in the elimination of contradictions wherever we find them. This
means, however, that science proceeds on the assumption that
_contradictions are impermissible and avoidable_, so that the discovery of
a contradiction forces the scientist to make every attempt to eliminate it;
and indeed, once a contradiction is admitted, all science must collapse.
But Hegel derives a very different lesson from his dialectic triad. Since
contradictions are the means by which science progresses, he concludes that
contradictions are not only permissible and unavoidable but also highly
desirable. This is a Hegelian doctrine which must destroy all argument and
all progress. For if contradictions are unavoidable and desirable, there
is no need to eliminate them, and so all progress must come to an end.
But this doctrine is just one of the many tenets of Hegelianism.
Hegel's intention is to operate freely with all contradictions. 'All
things are contradictory in themselves', he insists, in order to defend a
position which means the end not only of all science, but of all rational
argument. And the reason why he wishes to admit contradictions is that he
wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual
progress. By making argument and criticism impossible, he intends to make
his own philosophy proof against all criticism, so that it may establish
itself as a _reinforced dogmatism_, secure from every attack, and the
unsurmountable summit of all philosophical development.