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Can history be predicted?

Dr. Golan Lahat, expert in political thought, from the Department of Political Science, Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, on Karl Popper's "Poverties of Historicism"

Carl Popper
Carl Popper

Let's start from the end - if you want to know why our desire to predict our personal, social and national future is an idle, misleading, dangerous and particularly delusional desire - soon start reading "The Poverty of Historicism", the book by the Jewish-Viennese-British philosopher Karl Popper, which has been successfully translated By Pnina Zeitz very recently published by Shalem (accompanied by a clear introduction by Zeev Levy).

Although it is complex, frenetic and even confused and full of contradictions - Popper's book, which was published just before the end of the Second World War (1944-45), remains fascinating, daring, brash and waiting even today.

Popper, who for most of his adult days served as a professor of logic and scientific method in London, became famous mainly for his claim regarding the "principle of refutation", according to which scientific theories are never verified by experiment (since no matter how many experiments we do and even if we get similar results under similar conditions - we have no guarantee of the same result in the future), Rather, at most, they are a starting point for conducting experiments whose purpose is to criticize, testify to the need to correct and even "sift" unsuccessful theses.

Popper's deductive philosophy of science was also the basis of his great political book (in terms of length and importance) - "The Open Society and its Enemies", which was also published at the end of World War II. Almost immediately upon its publication, the book was placed as a warning sign against political philosophical doctrines "closed" to criticism, embodied in the totalitarian regimes of its time (Italian Fascism, German Nazism and Soviet Communism). Doctrines whose theoretical foundation Popper found in the thought of three senior Western philosophers - Plato, Hegel and Marx.

In complete contrast to the monumentality of "The Open Society and its Enemies", "The Poverty of Historicism" is a short essay, almost a book, focused entirely on one idea - the proof of the poverty of historicism. But wait, what is historicism? Why is it scarce? And how is this supposed to tell us anything of value today?

Already in the introduction to the essay, Popper states that in his eyes historicism is a general name to label any approach in the social sciences that claims to be able to predict the future of the human race based on pre-determined regularities that it has found throughout history. According to Popper, historicism is an idea with little imagination, since those who support it do not have the ability to set conditions to refute their claim, that is, they do not set social/economic/political conditions that if they occur - their prophecy will be disproved.

For example, for Popper, there is no scientific value to the approach that it doesn't matter whether the class revolution he predicted took place or not, the historical model he proposed is not flawed, just as there is no scientific value to the Freudian claim that through the subconscious any mental state of the patient can be successfully interpreted.

Historicism as a science

The book contains two parts, each with two chapters. In the first part, Popper wears the "hat" of the historicist, who tries to present and defend a position that is obscene in his eyes. In the second part, Popper returns to his ideological quarry for a sharp critique of these ideas.
Popper's critical point of departure in chapter XNUMX is that the historicist idea cannot be considered scientific, so it is not surprising that historicism is also presented through its relation to science, or, at the very least, what is perceived by the public as "real science" - physics.

According to him, historicism is fundamentally a social-scientific approach, which he briefly calls "the anti-naturalistic doctrine of historicism" which claims that there is no need and possibility to "import" the methods of physics for the study of society and man. For, while nature is a unitary and seemingly simple object of investigation, fixed in its components at any time and place and unaffected by man's investigation of it, human society is a collection of people, constantly changing in its composition (since individuals die, are born, migrate) and in its value and political choices.
Hence, physics is apparently based on quantitative measurement methods and laboratory experiments that are accurate and limited in time, place and purpose, while social scientists cannot perform a similar experiment and are therefore prevented, in principle, from offering a prediction with a "physical" accuracy rate.
Even if it is possible and even necessary to agree with Popper that this concept of physics as a quantitative-exact and objective science is perhaps suitable for Hollywood movies, but not for contemporary reality (just think of the very abstract models that are the basis of physics today, such as quantum theory) - then he misses the point.

The whole essence of historicism, certainly in its political embodiment in the totalitarian regimes, was in the assertion that it was apparently able to find a universal, inclusive, fixed, and of course "scientific" legality for history. This was the case with the "scientific" self-image of Marxist socialism in the face of the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon, Owen and Fourier, and this was also the case with the apparently science-based Nazi racial theories of social Darwinism.

Even worse, according to Popper, historicism moved away from the physical image of the uniform and simple unit of analysis of the atom and claimed that the social element, man, is nothing but a complex and contradictory entity, with a changing and unpredictable nature, which prevents accurate future prediction and turns history into a field of real changes.

But what to do when in most historicist political theories things were exactly the opposite? Marx, for example, wrote about the importance of the developing social alienation of man only because he assumed that the socio-economic revolution stems from man's desire to return to himself as a creative and social being.

Social change in a deterministic world

In chapter XNUMX, Popper surprisingly claims that there are quite a few "pro-naturalist" historicists who actually seek to adopt the investigative methods of the natural sciences directly for the study of society. The source of their enthusiasm lies in the success of the science of astronomy in providing accurate long-term forecasts for the dynamic and complex set of forces between the celestial bodies.

Here Popper weakens his own argument, since if the historicists are both for and against the adoption of scientific research methods, what is the point of this division in the first place? Worse, the same approach that at the beginning of the essay appeared as one that logically precludes any possibility of formulating one, inclusive, universal law for the course of human history is now presented as one that lacks data precisely to find the law of the development of society "at all times".

Towards the end of the chapter, Popper even adds and claims, rightly, that the historicist is in a constant dilemma - should we work for a process that will happen in any case? Should the worker rebel against the factory owner if the long-awaited proletarian revolution is the product of historical forces greater than him?

The answer is: yes, but to act but only within the deterministic course of history, which has been decisively determined in advance. These words stand in stark contrast to his claim from the first chapter according to which historical unity is not possible in the eyes of the historicist except for the change.

In the second part of the essay, Popper turns not only to a more extensive critique of the historicist idea, but also proposes an alternative social research method, which he calls "Piecemeal Technology" - whose goal is to expose the impossible to carry out (total revolutionary social correction) without renouncing local correction , partial, gradual, prolonged and uncertain in its success.

While the historicist strives for world correction, "holistic" in his language, Popper states that a realistic and scientific social correction is always limited to a certain time and place and above all open to mistakes, unexpected and the necessity of learning from them. Unforgettable lines that it's a shame not enough of our country's politicians know, Popper claimed:

" order to introduce scientific methods into the study of society and politics, one must, above all, adopt a critical approach and recognize that not only the experiment is necessary, but also deception. He must learn not only to expect errors, but also to look for them knowingly... However, the only way to apply something like a scientific method to politics is to act on the assumption that there can be no flawless political course, one that cannot have unwanted consequences...

The significance of a scientific method in politics is to replace the great art of convincing ourselves that we have not made mistakes, of ignoring mistakes, of hiding them and of trying to blame others for them, with the even greater art of accepting responsibility for them, of trying to learn from them, and of applying knowledge so that we can avoid them in the future" (page 69).

In light of these impressive lines, one can only wonder why exactly holism was used by Popper as the point of connection between historicism and utopian thought. According to him, holistic change is a term for any change aimed at society that is perceived as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. However, this perception of society as an organism, we are as a kind of living creature that comes into being, grows and decays - was indeed relevant to historicism but only to one, right side, of it.

This has nothing to do with the famous mechanistic discussion (according to which a society = the sum of its citizens exactly and nothing else) of Mill, Comte and even Marx. The stipulation of historicism in holism is therefore neither sufficient nor necessary - a non-holistic historicism clearly existed.

If anything, one can agree with Popper, that regardless of his conception of society, historicism establishes a purpose of human existence superior to the choice of the common man ("the spirit of history" for Hegel, "dialectic materialism" for Marx, "the way of the nation" for fascism-Nazism). A purpose that the "reasonable" person cannot, apparently, not choose, and that any debate with its supporters is unnecessary from the beginning and marks those who oppose it as speakers whose positions and sometimes, as history has well demonstrated to us, even their existence is illegitimate.

Overcoming desire

In the final chapter, Popper suggests that we abandon the desire to find super laws for the development of the human race in history that allow us to be swept away by prophecies of destruction or reconciliation (did anyone mention "a new Middle East"?) - and replace them with the desire to notice social trends and especially the conditions that may change or even disappear .

What could be more relevant for us than the present recognition that the passage of years and the digits in the calendar do not carry with it any promise of improvement in our lifestyles and the management of our systems? The Israeli education system will not progress because we are already in the development of the year 2010, unless we take care of helpful, "institutional" conditions in Popper's language, such as: avoiding unnecessary censorship, maintaining a critical and pluralistic social discourse field and protecting intellectual competitiveness, yes, also If this means financial support for "non-profitable" institutions such as the Israeli "feudal" academy.

The conclusion of the essay carries with it an almost sensational surprise, the deductive philosopher of science who stands at the forefront of Western scientific practice, reveals a pluralistic, not to say postmodern, face. Suddenly the criticism of the one correct and scientific conception of history is extreme to the point of supporting a plurality of historical interpretations that each represent a legitimate "point of view" with the same degree of conviction, which is embodied in a very contemporary statement for researchers of all kinds, according to which they must: " clear about the need to adopt a point of view, to declare On her openly and always remain aware that she is one of many" (page 106).

In the spirit of Popper, I must openly state that despite the many failures in his composition, I think that his basic argument is sound and valid - the human will, which encounters an alienated, changing and uncertain reality on a daily basis, constantly yearns to create permanent "superstructures" for itself with its own powers - these will be the path of the nation in history , the development of the class struggle or the sanctity of technological progress - which are supposed to provide security, stability and identity and often end in social and political disaster.

Paradoxically, precisely those who have established rules for predicting the future, find themselves broken by everyday events, while those who are "satisfied" with local and partial correction will manage well with the existing reality. Already more than a hundred years ago, following the Sixth Zionist Congress in which the proposal to establish the Jewish Home in East Africa was made, Ahad Ha'am argued exactly in this spirit:

"...He who conquers his path in his work, he weighs his strength against the obstacles in front of him and knows in advance how diligently he needs to work until he reaches his goal and therefore he is patient and works tirelessly. But whoever bets his fate on successful cases and expects a sudden salvation that will come to him from the outside - he inevitably comes to hope, that possible salvation is also ``today or tomorrow'', and this hope exhausts his patience and brings him to bitterness of heart when salvation is delayed, when today and tomorrow pass and it does not come" (Ahad Ha'am, "the weepers", all of Acha'a's writings, a signboard page).

Do we have enough of these things in order not to be tempted by the historicist passion?

3 תגובות

  1. I agree with the things, just a few days ago I bought the book from Shalem Publishing and now I long to read it when I have all the critical basis presented here, thank you.

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