The open society is a concept originally developed in 1932 by the French philosopher Henri Bergson and then, in 1945, by Austrian and British philosopher Karl Popper. In open societies, government is purported to be responsive and tolerant, and political mechanisms are said to be transparent and flexible. Advocates claim that it is opposed to closed society.
The state in an open society would keep no secrets from itself in the public sense; it would be a non-authoritarian society in which all are trusted with the knowledge of all. Political freedoms and human rights are claimed as the foundation of an open society.
In Karl Popper's definition, found in his two-volume book The Open Society and Its Enemies, he defines an "open society" as one which ensures that political leaders can be overthrown without the need for bloodshed, as opposed to a "closed society," in which a bloody revolution or coup d'état is needed to change the leaders. He further describes an open society as one "in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions" as opposed to a "magical or tribal or collectivist society."
In this context, tribalistic and collectivist societies do not distinguish between natural laws and social customs. Individuals are unlikely to challenge traditions they believe to have a sacred or magical basis. The beginnings of an open society are thus marked by a distinction between natural and man-made law, and an increase in personal responsibility and accountability for moral choices. (Note that Popper did not see this as incompatible with religious belief.) Popper argues that the ideas of individuality, criticism, and humanitarianism cannot be suppressed once people become aware of them, and therefore that it is impossible to return to the closed society.
Popper's concept of the open society is epistemological rather than political. When Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies he believed that the social sciences had failed to grasp the significance and the nature of fascism and communism because these sciences were based on what he saw to be faulty epistemologies. Totalitarianism forced knowledge to become political which made critical thinking impossible and led to the destruction of knowledge in totalitarian countries.
Popper's theory that knowledge is provisional and fallible implies that society must be open to alternative points of view. An open society is associated with cultural and religious pluralism; it is always open to improvement because knowledge is never completed but always ongoing.
Closed society claims to certain knowledge and ultimate truth lead to the attempted imposition of one version of reality. Such a society is closed to freedom of thought. In contrast, in an open society each citizen needs to engage in critical thinking, which requires freedom of thought and expression and the cultural and legal institutions that can facilitate this. Democracies are examples of the "open society," whereas totalitarian dictatorships, theocracy, and autocratic monarchies are examples of the "closed society."
Humanitarianism, equality and political freedom are fundamental characteristics of an open society. This was recognised by Pericles, a statesman of the Athenian democracy, in his funeral oration: "... advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life."
Billionaire investor and political activist George Soros, a disciple of Karl Popper, has argued that the sophisticated use of powerful techniques of deception borrowed from modern advertising and cognitive science by political operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove casts doubt on Popper's original conception of open society. Because the electorate's perception of reality can easily be manipulated, democratic political discourse does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality. Soros argues that besides the requirements for the separation of powers, free speech, and free elections, we also need to make explicit a strong commitment to the pursuit of truth. "Politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception."
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