The Critical Ethos of the Open Society: A Reply to Esfeld [1]

By Christof Royer

This is a reply to Michael Esfeld’s article The Open Society and its New Enemies, which was published in  European Scientist in April this year. See https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/features/the-open-society-and-its-new-enemies/.

Covid-19 has brought philosophical discourses out of the ivory tower and into the public sphere. Nowadays, non-philosophers deploy terms like ‘dignity’, ‘autonomy’, ‘humanity’, ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’, or ‘totalitarianism’. The pandemic, it seems, has turned many of us into (political) philosophers. To be clear, I do not say this disparagingly. While philosophers have quarrelled over the ‘proper’ meaning of concepts at least since Socrates, they have no monopoly on doing so. Even more importantly, it is a positive development that some discussions have transcended the isolating walls of the academy and found their way into the agora. However, what has become increasingly clear – even to those with an optimistic view of human nature – is that at least parts of this newly discovered philosophical discourse have their roots in human selfishness. Wearing a mask on public transport? A violation of MY freedom! Getting regularly tested for Covid-19 when having close contact with vulnerable groups? An assault on MY dignity! Keeping a minimum distance to others? The epitome of totalitarianism! Quite tellingly, the one philosophical concept that has been curiously absent from these discourses is ‘responsibility’.

Yet, it is perfectly possible that there is more to these discourses than mere selfishness. Critical theorists of various shades, after all, have long sought to unearth the deeper structures of unfreedom and domination that are at play in modern societies.[2] In some respects, Michael Esfeld’s article The Open Society and Its New Enemies is leaning towards such a ‘critical’ analysis. The interesting thing, however, is that he draws on the work of Karl Popper and his concept of ‘open society’ to do so.[3] This is an intuitively appealing framework for thinking through our present situation: It is, after all, an obvious paradox that many of us live in purportedly ‘open societies’ that have, quite literally, been locked down during the pandemic.[4] But such a framing also poses the immediate question of what we mean when we speak of an open society. This problem is all the more difficult as Popper himself had a notorious aversion to the ‘Aristotelian essentialism’ that undergirds definitions – an open society, his (implicit) argument goes, cannot be strictly defined because it has no ‘essence’.[5] Yet, this does not prevent us from teasing out the concept’s central characteristics, from interpreting it in a particular way, and from applying it to contemporary problems. Nothing, to be sure, is innocent about these acts of interpretation and application – it is inevitable that they are used for specific purposes that go hand in hand with ideological convictions. However, there are certainly more and less convincing interpretations of particular concepts; and in this response essay, I suggest that Esfeld’s belongs to the latter category.

So, how does Esfeld interpret the concept of open society? For him, it is characterised first and foremost by ‘freedom’ and ‘inalienable dignity’: ‘The person has an inalienable dignity. Persons have the freedom to shape their lives as they see fit, as well as the responsibility to account for their actions on demand. Freedom is the human condition’. Moreover, this human freedom also gives rise to fundamental ‘rights of defence against external interference in one’s own judgement about how one wants to conduct one’s life’. Since these are the fundamental characteristics of an open society, Esfeld asserts, we are today at a crossroads because ‘new enemies’ have emerged:

We stand once again at a crossroads between the open society and totalitarianism. The new enemies of the open society come again from within our society with knowledge claims that are both cognitive and moral in nature and which again result in a technocratic shaping of society that overrides human dignity and fundamental rights. The difference is that the new enemies of the open society do not operate with the mirage of an absolute good, but with deliberately stoked fear of threats that allegedly endanger our existence. These threats are based on facts, such as the spread of the coronavirus or climate change’.

These fear-mongering elites have a lot in common with Popper’s ‘enemies of the open society’ because they ‘claim to possess knowledge of a common good’. Ultimately, the main point of Esfeld’s essay is that ‘the totalitarianism of all-encompassing control, into which even liberally conceived states and societies can slide if one allows negative externalities to be defined so arbitrarily that in the end everyone with all their actions comes under general suspicion of harming others’.

It should already be clear that I regard Esfeld’s attempt to apply the concept of open society to the pandemic as a thought-provoking jumping-off point for further discussion. While for this attempt alone he already deserves credit, the purpose of this all too short reply is to engage critically with his argument. More precisely, I want to take issue with several of Esfeld’s interpretations of Popper and, subsequently, sketch out some ideas that are, I believe, more in line with the critical ethos of The Open Society and its Enemies. My first point is on Esfeld’s contrast between an open society and totalitarianism. Popper, although the book was a polemic against totalitarian regimes, hardly used the term totalitarianism. For him, the major opposition was between an ‘open’ and a ‘closed’ society, and it is a frequent mistake – even in the scholarly literature – to equate a closed society with a totalitarian system. There is, to be sure, an acute danger that closed societies are on a slippery slope towards totalitarianism; but to assume that a closed society is a totalitarian system is based on a superficial reading of Popper.

My second objection concerns the role of freedom in Esfeld’s narrative. It is true, of course, that Popper emphasises freedom as a major value. Nowhere in The Open Society and its Enemies, however, can we find the argument that freedom is an absolute value. Popper, in fact, outlines three (what he calls) paradoxes: the paradox of democracy, the paradox of toleration, and the paradox of freedom.[6] And the gist of the three paradoxes is that human freedom can never be absolute.

Finally, I take issue with Esfeld’s overreliance on the notion of dignity. In The Open Society ‘dignity’ appears only three times, and only one time does it have a significant meaning. This is when Popper writes: ‘Our Western civilization is an essentially pluralistic one, and [this is] why monolithic social ends would mean the death of freedom; of the freedom of thought, of the free search for truth, and with it, of the rationality and dignity of man’.[7] My point, again, is not that human dignity does not play a role in an open society. But it is difficult to see what justifies Esfeld’s framing of dignity as a superior value that trumps everything else – ‘a transcendental argument that applies a priori’, in his parlance.

It is true that through the engagement with philosophical and political concepts, we create narratives about particular events and phenomena; these narratives shape the way we understand these events and phenomena retrospectively and have a major influence on how we will respond to them in the future. There is nothing reprehensible about that – it is a way to make sense of the world. As I see it, however, Esfeld draws on a highly selective reading of Popper because he wants to use it for the creation of his own – ultimately unconvincing – narrative. This narrative goes as follows: An open society is one in which human beings have the freedom to do whatever they want, and in which they are endowed with the ‘transcendental’ value of dignity. Any exercise of power to limit their liberty is an unacceptable assault on human freedom; but more than that, any exercise of restraining power is a violation of the transcendental human dignity that humans have been granted variously through natural law, a Kantian categorical imperative, justice, or human rights (take your pick, Esfeld tells us). And as if this were not enough, we have, with the pandemic, arrived at the quintessential dystopia: since we either have an open society with absolute freedom and human dignity or a totalitarian closed society, Covid-19 has plunged us into a form of totalitarianism whose only ambition is to satisfy ‘the will to power and the profit interests’ of elites.

This narrative, I submit, glosses over the nuances, ambiguities, and hard questions that we face today; and it also turns a blind eye to the critical ethos that lies at the heart of Popper’s conception of open society. Esfeld’s narrative is based on an all-or-nothing mentality – either absolute freedom or totalitarianism – that leaves us with little choice: for who on earth would side with totalitarianism and against freedom and dignity?  Presumably, only those misanthropes who want to satisfy their will to power and profit interests. If only the world were so Manichean as ‘critical scholars’ and Esfeld paint it! In fact, what Covid-19 has brought to the fore is not the demand for total freedom, but the difficulty of balancing freedom and security. What the pandemic has unveiled is not the simplistic dichotomy between the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’, but the complexity, frailty, and multi-faceted character of moral, social, and political relations in our contemporary world. What it has demonstrated, moreover, is the ambiguous character of our political and philosophical discourse, which expresses itself quite concretely in the fact that even different instantiations of the same values – such as freedom or dignity – can and do frequently clash. Alas, the tendency to reduce these complexities and ambiguities to a mere war of the ‘oppressors’ against the ‘oppressed’ has become a hallmark of much contemporary ‘critical’ scholarship; but this is not the critical ethos that we find in Popper’s work.

To be sure, The Open Society and its Enemies is, in many respects, an unsatisfying book. And, no doubt, there is an irony in the fact that Popper leaves two concepts curiously underdeveloped: open society and enmity. Moreover, Popper’s three paradoxes (of democracy, toleration, and freedom) do not give us blueprints, let alone foolproof recipes for thought and action. Yet, since Popper’s critical rationalism, the beating heart of his open society idea, is driven by an aversion to dogmatism, the concept of open society cannot lend itself to the one-dimensional view that Esfeld advocates. Popper knew well that the notion of absolute freedom is not only practically impossible but also theoretically flawed since it relies on an idealised account of human nature. By contrast, the critical ethos we find at the very heart of the concept of open society recognises the ambiguous character of human beings as well as the complex nature of the global problems we face today. It is skeptical of the stock phrases and clichés that we even find in much academic scholarship today; it recognises that more often than not arguments of scientists are motivated by ideological convictions and prejudices, rather than by a genuine quest for the truth. It is certainly critical of the blind adherence of large parts of the population to the Covid-19 measures that were imposed upon them. However, it is equally critical of the knee-jerk reaction to condemn every countermeasure as the expression of a totalitarian mindset or economic greed. Such a critical ethos is cognisant of the dangers that intrusive surveillance techniques, the erosion of privacy, and the limitation of personal freedom pose to both individuals and open societies. But it also accepts the idea that in times of true emergencies – and 5 million casualties surely qualify as such – the temporary curtailment of personal freedoms can be a necessary response. To put it in more abstract terms, the most puzzling consequence of a critical ethos is that it, indeed, opposes dogmatic conceptions of openness. Paradoxically as it may seem, open societies cannot be based on a categorical insistence on ‘openness whatever the cost’, but they must realise that their well-being depends on a complex dialectic of openness and closure, inclusion and exclusion, and freedom and security.

We need, Esfeld admonishes, a ‘sober attitude that does not allow itself to be clouded by the fears stirred up by the new enemies of the open society’. He is right about that – but only partly. In fact, we need more than that: We need a mindset driven in equal measure by skepticism and trust, by optimism and realism, by radical ambition and conservative restraint. What we need, above all, is a critical ethos that rejects every form of dogmatism and one-dimensionality. This is no small task. But the concept of open society might well be the best guide we have today – and, no doubt, in a radically insecure and open future.


[1] This is a reply to Michael Esfeld’s article The Open Society and its New Enemies, which was published in  European Scientist in April this year. See https://www.europeanscientist.com/en/features/the-open-society-and-its-new-enemies/.

[2] I use the label ‘critical theorists’ to describe thinkers (e.g. post-Marxists, poststructuralists, feminists) who seek to lay bare the hidden power relations and practices of domination at play in social, moral, and political relations. It is clear that there are important differences between this critical tradition and the critical ethos that underlies Popper’s work. But I want to be clear: My argument here is not that Esfeld is an advocate of the critical tradition (he is not, I presume). My argument (and criticism), rather, is that despite the fact that he draws on Popper, he arrives at conclusions that are more in line with those of critical theorists.

[3] Karl Popper (2020), The Open Society and its Enemies; Princeton University Press.

[4] See, for instance, Ivan Krastev (2020), Is it Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic; Allen Lane. 

[5] See chapter 11 of Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.

[6] Popper‘s clearest expression of the paradox of freedom is to be found in note 4 to chapter 7 of The Open Society and ist Enemies.

[7] See page 510 of The Open Society and its Enemies.

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