Strauss and Voegelin on Popper

In popper, strauss on 15/07/2011 at 1:58 pm

In Faith And Poltical Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964 comes the following dialogue between Strauss and Voegelin:

May I ask you to let me know sometime what you think of Mr. Popper. He gave a lecture here, on the task of social philosophy, that was beneath contempt: it was the most washed-out, lifeless positivism trying to whistle in the dark, linked to a complete inability to think “rationally,” although it passed itself off as “rationalism”–it was very bad. I cannot imagine that such a man ever wrote something that was worthwhile reading, and yet it appears to be a professional duty to become familiar with his productions. Could you say something to me about that–if you wish, I will keep it to myself.

Warmest greetings,
Leo Strauss

April 18, 1950

Dear Mr. Strauss,

The opportunity to speak a few deeply felt words about Karl Popper to a kindred soul is too golden to endure a long delay. This Popper has been for years, not exactly a stone against which one stumbles, but a troublesome pebble that I must continually nudge from the path, in that he is constantly pushed upon me by people who insist that his work on the “open society and its enemies” is one of the social science masterpieces of our times. This insistence persuaded me to read the work even though I would otherwise not have touched it. You are quite right to say that it is a vocational duty to make ourselves familiar with the ideas of such a work when they lie in our field; I would hold out against this duty the other vocational duty, not to write and to publish such a work. In that Popper violated this elementary vocational duty and stole several hours of my lifetime, which I devoted in fulfilling my vocational duty, I feel completely justified in saying without reservation that this book is impudent, dilettantish crap. Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances.

1.  The expression “closed [society]” and “open society” are taken from Bergson’s Deux Sources. Without explaining the difficulties that induced Bergson to create these concepts, Popper takes the terms because they sound good to him; [he] comments in passing that in Bergson they had a “religious” meaning, but that he will use the concept of the open society closer to Graham Wallas’s “great society” or to that of Walter Lippmann. Perhaps I am oversensitive about such things, but I do not believe that respectable philosophers such as Bergson develop their concepts for the sole purpose that the coffeehouse scum might have something to botch. There also arises the relevant problem: if Bergson’s theory of open society is philosophically and historically tenable (which I in fact believe), then Popper’s idea of the open society is ideological rubbish. For this reason alone, he should have discussed the problem with all possible care.

2.  The impertinent disregard for the achievements in his particular problem area, which makes itself evident with respect to Bergson, runs through the whole work. When one reads the deliberations on Plato or on Hegel, one has the impression that Popper is quite unfamiliar with the literature on the subject–even though he occasionally cites an author. In some cases, as for example Hegel, I would believe that he has never seen a work like Rosenzweig’s Hegel and the State. In other cases, where he cites works without appearing to have perceived their contents, another factor is added:

3.  Popper is philosophically so uncultured, so fully a primitive ideological brawler, that he is not able even approximately to reproduce correctly the contents of one page of Plato. Reading is of no use to him; he is too lacking in knowledge to understand what the author says. Through this emerge terrible things, as when he translates Hegel’s “Germanic world” as “German world” and draws conclusions from this mistranslation regarding Hegel’s German nationalist propaganda.

4.  Popper engages in no textual analysis from which can be seen the author’s intention; instead he carries the modern ideological clichés directly to the text, assuming that the text will deliver results in the sense of the clichés. It will be a special pleasure for you to hear that, for example, Plato experienced an evolution–from an early “humanitarian” period still recognizable in the Gorgias, to something else (I can’t recall any more if “reactionary” or “authoritarian”) in the Republic.

Briefly and in sum: Popper’s book is a scandal without extenuating circumstances; in its intellectual attitude it is the typical product of a failed intellectual; spiritually one would have to use expressions like rascally, impertinent, loutish; in terms of technical competence, as a piece in the history of thought, it is dilettantish, and as a result is worthless.

It would not be suitable to show this letter to the unqualified. Where it concerns its factual contents, I would see it as a violation of the vocational duty you identified, to support this scandal through silence.

Eric Voegelin

My dear Mr. Voegelin,

I have never thanked you for your interesting letter dated 18.4. In confidence I would like to tell you that I showed your letter to my friend Kurt Riezler, who was thereby encouraged to throw his not inconsiderable influence into the balance against Popper’s probable appointment here. You thereby helped to prevent a scandal.

Make of their comments what you wish.


  1. It is great to have this on line, I read it in the introduction to “The OSE After 50 Years” (I think) but never got around to typing it all up to put on line.

    On Popper’s definition of the open and closed society, it is just fine, whether it relates to Bergson or not. BTW Auden wrote an essay using the terms in precisely the same manner.

    Popper’s take on Plato was endorsed by some very good scholars such as Gilbert Ryle and Bertrand Russell (and Ludwig von Mises, though he did not refer to Popper, he just took the same line independently) and at least one other major Plato specialist who didn’t want to do so but found Popper’s arguments could not be dismissed.

    • Popper’s involvement is important–in that this was no response to a crank, and his views were accepted by other scholars (although Popper’s work on Hegel is embarrassing in comparison to his work on Marx and Plato), but not as important as Strauss and Voegelin’s foul response–it comes down, on Strauss and Voegelin’s part, to a sort of emotive bleating of dislike, and then an underhanded move by Strauss to prevent an individual from advancing.

      In other words, its says more about their character than the quality of any book.

  2. Yes I left the Hegel chapter out of my condensed OSE, I don’t want to be a mouthpiece for Popper’s criticism unless I can check it but i find Hegel unreadable.


  3. […] ao amigo Bruno Rodrigues da Cunha por ter indicado. Link original: http://thephilosophyofscience.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/strauss-and-voegelin-on-popper/ . Presente no livro Faith And Poltical Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric […]

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