Open Society

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The term open has a special salience in such phrases as "open markets," "open records," "open government," and "open-ended" discussion or project. In such contexts it denotes both freedom and transparency, two fundamental values of a democratic society. Indeed, the term open society has itself become almost synomous with democracy, and is sometimes used to name the ideal of both the scientific and the non-scientific social orders.

Although Henri Bergson (1859–1941) first employed the term open society in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1935) and Eric Voegelin (1901–1985) made Bergson's interpretation a key concept in his philosophy of history, it was The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) by Karl R. Popper (1902–1994) that gave the phrase wide currency. The concept of the open society has since sparked numerous scholarly debates as well as practical applications. Although based on core values such as equality in social relations, freedom of inquiry and speech, and transparancy in decision making and knowledge production, the precise meaning of an open society has never been settled. Furthermore, globalization and the increasing threat of terrorism are reshaping conventional understandings of closed and open societies.

Bergson and Popper

From the earliest articulations of the concept by Bergson and Popper, there have been important differences in the ways in which the open society has been interpreted and used. Bergson's concept was more a vertical openness to the ground of being or the transcendent. Popper's openness was primarily within the framework of secular liberalism; it was a horizontal openness to the experimental trial and error method. As one commentator remarks, Bergson's openess was centered on his "theocentric humanism," whereas Popper's was based on his "anthropocentric humanism" (Germino 1974, p. 14).

For Bergson, the primitive closed society attached strict obligations to custom and operated under the rules of "Authority, Hierarchy, and Immobility." It was war-like, dominated by a religious dogma, and controlled by an elite. Bergson envisioned the open society as an ideal yet to be wholly realized. Although the spread of Western values in the process of globalization may approximate his vision, it is important to note that Bergson's open society went beyond material and political conditions. Central to his conception was a spiritual openness to the rhythm of the cosmos and the interrelatedness of life. One way to sum up Bergson's account of closed and open societies is to see the former as emphasizing impersonal orders as the source of morality, whereas the latter emphasizes the source of morality found in "appeals made to the conscience of each of us by persons who represent the best there is in humanity" (1935, p. 84). The closed society is bound by static laws and conventions, whereas the open society is best represented by heroes and mystic saints who break with the strictures of their group in a dynamic fashion. Thus, the two sources of morality are dogma (which can include science and its static, mechanistic ideal) and inspired intuition (and its ideal of dynamic, free creativity).

Unlike Bergson's work, Popper's critique of closed societies came with the benefit of hindsight by which to characterize and judge the brutal totalitarianism of the Nazi regime. Although initially lenient and even approving with regard to the Soviet Union, Popper eventually categorized Stalinism as a closed society. For Popper, a closed society is marked by the rigidity of its customs and their irrational acceptance by the masses. An open society, by contrast, is one in which citizens face personal choices and moral responsibilities (both absent in closed societies). Open societies are marked by personal interaction, wherease closed societies present only abstract, impersonal, and anonymous human relations. Open societies replace saturating social conventions with personal freedom, rationality, and critical thought.

Finally, it should be noted that for Popper, the concept of the open society flowed naturally from his philosophy of science. Both rely on fallibalism: Scientific progress is made by subjecting theories to critical scrutiny, and progress in an open society can be sustained only if individuals are free to critically evaluate governmental decisions and engage in "piecemeal social engineering." Disputes in scientific communities and open societies should be resolved by critical discussion rather than force.

Despite their differences, both Bergson and Popper agreed that there was a general historical trend toward democracy and openness. However, both explicitly denied any inherent momentum or logic to history, insisting rather on its open-endedness based on the historical engine of human choice. Both also warned that a relapse to the condition of closed societies is always possible, because the natural will to power can never be completely erased by the virtuous conventions of open societies. In fact, their very openness and tolerance ensure that these societies will remain vulnerable to such a relapse. A rational (Popper) or enlightened (Bergson) citizenry can always be duped by a strong-willed leader or clan.

Open Society Debated

Popper did not associate his concept of open society with any particular political or economic philosophy. His refusal to define the concept in this manner has fueled critical and theoretical debates. Dante Germino and Klaus von Beyme collected a wide-ranging series of essays on The Open Society in Theory and Practice (1974) that touches on its implications for work, education, politics, religion, and other fields of human experience. The book exposes the plurality of viewpoints and contested meanings of the open society. Many papers raise doubts about the ability of modern industrial or post-industrial society, with its emphasis on technological rationality, to foster openness. Some in this camp call for radical departures from prevailing assumptions about humans and nature. Others argue that it is precisely and only within the modern, secular world of western liberalism that values of openness can prevail. This debate signals the durability of the original fissure underlying the Bergsonian and the Popperian uses of the term. The former critics call for a new consciousness focused on deep experiences, which have been marginalized by the scientific and secular world-view. The latter insist that reason and (properly demarcated) science are essential for the flourishing of open societies.

In Popper's Open Society After Fifty Years: The Continuing Relevance of Karl Popper (1999), Ian Jarvie and Sandra Pralong collect fifteen essays that introduce Popper (including an interview with Popper on his ninety-second birthday), critique the central ideas of The Open Society, and apply those ideas to later social, political, and philosopohical concerns. Some contributors argue that Popper's arguments have lasting value but need restating away from the particular instances of Plato (427–347 b.c.e.), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), and Karl Marx (1818–1883) toward more general critiques of authority, community, and bureaucracy. Others criticize Popper for practicing the very historicism he attacked. Still other essays take up the relation between Popper's philosophy of science and his thoughts on the open society. The work concludes with several reflections on the implications of Popper's work, especially for Eastern European countries.

In The Governance of Science: Ideology and the Future of the Open Society (2000), Steve Fuller argues that the increasing scale of the scientific enterprise has eroded the ideal of science as an open society. He connects this claim with three political theories of science, and argues that "[t]he open society is possible only in a republican regime, where, unlike liberal or communitarian regimes, a clear distinction is drawn between staking an idea and staking a life. This distinction underwrites the fundamental principle of the open society: the right to be wrong" (p. 5). Fuller also traces the opposing pulls of liberalism (capitalism) and communitarianism (multiculturalism) in the governance of science by the university. He concludes with a look toward the future of the social contract with science, which he argues is best reformed by continuing the process of decoupling state power from the authorization of knowledge claims. In this, Fuller echoes one of Popper's central concerns, namely, that scientific claims and the direction of scientific research always remain open to public debate.

Related Concepts

Popper's open society was based on a critique of two practices in the philosophy of history. First, he criticized historicism, or the belief that history develops according to certain intrinsic principles toward a determinate end. Second, he challenged holism, or the belief that societies are greater than the sum of their members. Popper argued instead that history is open-ended and driven by individual choices.

Popper's analysis was anticipated by previous examinations of the social order within science (see the work of Robert Merton) and echoed by other post-World War II concerns for scientific freedom (see the work of Michael Polanyi). More generally, while never explicitly referencing the open society, holism, or historicism, Hannah Arendt develops a critique of totalitarianism and an analysis of the human condition (1958) that can be interpreted as supportive of Popper's basic argument against the "making" of history, although she would question any sanguine interpretation of individual autonomy.

A much more radical promotion of open society principles is found in the work of Popper's student, Paul Feyerabend, and his arguments for "epistemological anarchism." For Feyerabend, Popper is too limited in the application of his openness ideal, and in Science in a Free Society (1978) argues that the movement that once led to the separation of church and state should now bring about a separating of science and state. Science should be disestablished as the rational norm in advanced technological societies; society should not just be free for science but freed from science, that is, open to more than science.

In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan David Bloom distinguishes between two types of openness in modern Western societies. First, there is the openness of reason that refuses to equate the good with one's own way of life, but takes the further step of using reason to inquire into nature in order to discover truth, beauty, and goodness: "Nature should be the standard by which we judge or own lives and the lives of peoples" (p. 38). Second, however, is the openness of indifference. This openness denies reason's ability to find a standard for right living in nature or models of right conduct in history. Instead, it slips into moral nihilism and cultural relativism.

Bloom thus suggests that the open society at once presents the chance to discover an a-cultural, transhistorical, natural truth and the possibility that such a search will compel its members into another type of closed society, closed within the culture of relativism. People must escape their contingent cultural conventions to be fully human, but such an escape leads to a closed indifference if they cannot use reason to discover stable and more universal standards of conduct. His argument also hints at Stanley Rosen's (1989) distinction between the ancients and the moderns. In a sense, the ancients represent closed societies that offer security and order at the risk of tyranny. The moderns represent open societies that offer freedom and choice at the price of nihilism and licentiousness. Building off of this latter possibility, Bloom maintains that "Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness [equals] closedness" (pp. 38–39).

The notion that openness reveals mere contingency and meaninglessness is challenged by Richard Rorty (1989). Rorty would accuse Bloom of the metaphysical assumption that reason must provide "an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a heirarchy of responsibilities" (Rorty 1989, p. xv). Rorty's utopia is one of "liberal ironists"—liberal in that they aspire to personal excellence and social justice, ironical because they recognize such goods are not guaranteed by a stable ontological order. For Rorty openness is retained by means of nominalist cultural narratives that construct compassion rather than by the seeking of moral formulas for action based on theory.

Open Society Applied

In the construction of such narratives, perhaps the Open Society Institute (OSI) is the largest concrete application of Popper's notion. The philanthropic activist George Soros founded OSI in 1993 as a way to synthesize initiatives that began in Central and Eastern Europe as early as 1984 to encourage the transition to democracy. Since then, the Soros network has expanded to include initiatives throughout the world, including the United States, to promote open societies through legal, governmental, and economic reform. It also supports education, media, public health, and human rights initiatives. The OSI seeks to diminish and prevent the negative consequences of globalization. In this sense, it recognizes the threats posed to open socieities by global capitalism in addition to those posed by more traditional forms of authoritarian rule.

Other concrete (if perhaps unconscious) manifestions of Popper's notion are found in the open source and free software movements, and in the promotion of open access in scientific publishing. The claim that the source code for programs should be open to all users, thus enabling them to identify weaknesses in the code and correct them—as is the case with the software that makes possible the World Wide Web on the Internet (a program that Tim Berners-Lee, its designer, explicitly declined to patent)—exemplifies Popperian principles. The argument that basic software utilities should be freely available rather than controlled by a quasi-monoply such as Microsoft is a natural extension of these principles. Finally, the promotion of open access scientific publication—that is, publication that allows all users a free, worldwide right of access to read, copy, and distribute the results of scientific research—constitutes a further effort to institutionalizes practices in harmony with open society ideals.

Globalization and Terrorism

The globalizing reach of modern science, technology, and production forces as well as Western values and political associations can be interpreted as the intrusion of the open society on "traditional" or more "closed" cultures. Ethics is not as easily globalized as science and technology. Although a simplification, something similar is true with regard to the economic globalization of markets versus the political globalization of democracy. Modernizing forces do not produce any uniform transition from closed to open societies, which is a mixed blessing for all involved. Diverse movements from wars of independence to environmental and human rights activism have tried to respond to the dislocations that can result from this selective globalization. But perhaps the most serious backlash against modernization and globalization, and the one that best illustrates the contemporary relationship between closed and open societies, is terrorism.

Although an ancient tactic, terrorism (especially those attacks carried out by extremists who justify their actions by appeal to Islamic ideologies) has taken on heightened global importance since the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. The potential to utilize the machines and weaponry of modern technoscience has increased the threat posed by terrorists to the citizens of open societies. Just as important, however, is the vulnerability to terrorist attacks created by the very ideals of an open society. Personal and civil liberties, tolerance, and multiculturalism all inhibit the leadership of open societies in their efforts to thwart terrorist plots. Terrorists are also able to capitalize on the freedom of information presented by the Internet. Thus, relatively loose networks of people bounded by a set of beliefs can organize and commit complex, integrated attacks due in large measure to modern telecommunication technologies. This form of "closed society" retains the dogmatic, hierarchical, and ideological characteristics criticized by Bergson and Popper, even though it now lacks the geographical and political organizing structures and avails itself of "open" streams of information.

The controversy over the Patriot Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2001 "to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world" demonstrates the tension that terrorism presents between closed and open societies. It is an open question whether an effective war against terrorism requires the curtailment of certain civil liberties in order to more effectively control and monitor suspects. If so, however, at a certain point, such tactics may jeopardize the very ideals of the open society that they aim to defend.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Atef Ebeid, the Egyptian Prime Minister, criticized human rights groups for defending the human rights of potential terrorists. "You can give them all the human rights they deserve until they kill you," he said. "After these horrible crimes committed in New York and Virginia, maybe Western countries should begin to think of Egypt's own fight against terror as their new model" (Remnick 2004, pp. 75–76). In the war against terror, the leadership of Egypt maintains that all pretenses to an open society must be discarded, thus suggesting that democratic states run the danger of winning one war by losing another.


SEE ALSO Governance of Science;Political Economy;Science Policy.


Arendt, Hannah. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bergson, Henri. (1935). The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. The original French edition appeared in 1932.

Bloom, Allan. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Feyerabend, Paul. (1978). Science in a Free Society. London: NLB.

Fuller, Steve. (2000). The Governance of Science: Ideology and the Future of the Open Society. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Germino, Dante, and Klaus von Beyme, eds. (1974). The Open Society in Theory and Practice. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Jarvie, Ian, and Sandra Pralong, eds. (1999). Popper's Open Society after Fifty Years: The Continuing Relevance of Karl Popper. London: Routledge.

Merton, Robert. (1938). "Science and the Social Order." Philosophy of Science 5: 321–337.

Polanyi, Michael. (1946). Science, Faith, and Society. London: Oxford University Press.

Popper, Karl. (1945). The Open Society and Its Enemies. 2 vols. London: Routledge.

Popper, Karl. (1961). The Poverty of Historicism, 2nd edition. London: Routledge. Revised book version of original articles of 1944.

Remnick, David. (2004). "Letter from Cairo: Going Nowhere." New Yorker July 12 and 19: 74–83.

Rorty, Richard. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rosen, Stanley. (1989). The Ancients and the Moderns. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.