Popper and Plato: A Response to David J. Riesbeck

Soon after my article on Karl Popper and Plato appeared in the Journal of New Zealand Studies last year, David J. Riesbeck posted a gracious and thoughtful response to it here. I replied in two long comments, which I’m re-posting as one below. The rest of the exchange, which I found very worthwhile, is linked at the end of this post.

Thank you so much, David, for this very generous engagement with my piece. I think this is an excellent summary of what I’ve written, and also offers some useful criticisms and suggestions for further thought. I’m also very impressed that you managed to produce something so high-quality by only a few days after I’d posted my article! Anyway, I agree with the great bulk of what you’ve written — and sometimes even where there seems to be disagreement I think that disagreement is less real than apparent. But I will address a few of the issues you’ve raised (especially where disagreement is most substantial), starting with issues relating to my reading of Popper and his place in intellectual history (I’ll do this today), and then going on to larger issues to do with democracy and liberalism (I’ll get to this sometime soon!)

Let me start with a point near the beginning of your piece where I think that we’re actually less in agreement than you might think. You say, ‘it seems as though Kierstead agrees with Popper’s critics that he got Plato wrong on just about every major point and that his interpretations were not even plausible.’ I think this is a bit strong; what I conceived of myself as doing was actually accepting a lot of Popper’s critique, but then agreeing with his critics when it came to some particularly egregious over-reachings on Popper’s part. (The idea that the Republic was a sort of manifesto for Plato as Philosopher-King as Athens is probably the best example of this sort of over-reaching). Granted, some of the things Popper got wrong are ones that he himself emphasized pretty strongly — both the idea that Plato wanted to go back to a tribal society and that he was a historicist are quite central to Popper’s argumentative strategy in Vol. 1 of The Open Society. But that volume also contains a good deal of what I see as pretty sensible Platonic exegesis, both in the text and in the notes — something even some of his critics ceded to Popper. Maybe that didn’t come across very clearly in my essay, but, then (as here), it makes more sense in a discussion to focus on points of controversy!

When you say, near the end, that I claim that ‘in the light of Popper’s critique, it became untenable to defend a central place for Plato in our educational curriculum on the grounds that his ideas had positive value rather than mere pedagogical usefulness,’ I’m not sure that’s quite what I had in mind, either. It’s very close, but I should make clear that I definitely don’t think that we should only teach Plato as a kind of guide to how not to think about things. Nor do I think that his ideas were always taken in the past as an absolutely infallible blueprint to utopia. What I do think, though, is that the kind of uncritical veneration that men like Richard Livingstone had for Plato became much more difficult after Popper than it had been before. That does’t mean that Plato is now seen, or should be seen, as just a teaching tool. I think we see him as having some quite interesting things to say — some of them perhaps true, and some of them very thought-provoking; but we don’t read him anymore with quite the same reverence as he was once read. This is one of the places where I suspect we disagree less than it might seem.

That may also be the case with the final point about intellectual history that I’ll address here. You say that J.S. Mill (as well as George Grote) interpreted Plato ‘in a generally non-doctrinal way,’ a fact which complicates my ‘narrative of non-dogmatic readings emerging primarily in light of Popper’s critique,’ as does ‘the occurrence already in antiquity of similar readings of Plato as a kind of skeptic.’ I think this is a good point to raise, though I think what I’d want to claim isn’t so much that non-dogmatic readings of Plato emerge primarily after Popper, but that Popper’s book made non-dogmatic modes of interpretation seem increasingly attractive. The way I put it in my piece is that the post-war shift in Plato studies ‘was motivated and driven forward partly by the need to find new and better reasons for the continued study of Plato’ — emphasis added. It’s not that Popper brought the reading of Plato in non-dogmatic terms into being, just that he might be seen as a major contributing factor in the post-war boom in non-dogmatic readings in the Anglophone world.

Moving on now to democracy and liberalism, let me start with the first point you make in the second part of your piece, that the claim that Plato is ‘highly authoritarian’ is ‘just to say that Plato was not a liberal.’ I think it’s stronger than that, since it strikes me that there are lots of non-liberals who can’t be described as ‘highly authoritarian’; not least because (as the pre- and post-Popper debate about Plato’s politics makes clear) there are degrees even of authoritarianism. But non-authoritarians can be illiberal too — even strong forms of democracy can co-exist with illiberalism, in what Fareed Zakaria has called ‘illiberal democracy.’ Plato’s authoritarianism strikes me as anti-democratic as well as illiberal.

So I’m a bit hesitant about your very interesting suggestion that Plato can be used ‘as a resource for liberal political thinking.’ You say that Plato’s emphasis on the wisdom of rulers can provide a corrective to technocratic elitism, which puts undue faith in technical know-how as the be-all and end-all of good politics. I like this point, but I’m not sure if it’s a specifically liberal one.

You also present the idea that a society can have moral aims (‘perfectionism’) as something that can be consistent with mainstream liberalism. I agree that the two things can be found in combination, but I see perfectionism of any very substantive sort as a departure from liberalism, not a part of it. (I say ‘of any very substantive sort’ because liberal norms obviously have some content to them; I just think that content is very minimal, and that this distinguishes liberalism from other, more substantive ideologies like Christianity or Marxism). So to me a liberal society with some perfectionist aims may still be a liberal society, but it will be a less liberal one than it might have been without them.

At this point, you may not be surprised to hear that I also think that a liberal society with too many illiberal laws of the sort that you mention — against prostitution, say — is a less liberal society as a result. You’re right that restrictions of that sort are often found in liberal democracies, but I’m not sure that makes them liberal in themselves. I do accept that some form of hierarchy or authority often emerges in any large-scale attempt at collective action — someone will have to take the lead in doing the accounts, or leading the army, or whatever. I guess I think that the liberal-democratic ideal is to try to accommodate whatever forms of authority can’t be done away with within institutions that reflect the ideal of political equality: that is, elections, sortition, rotation, and other mechanisms that have citizens (to paraphrase Aristotle) ruling and being ruled in turn. But that suggests to me that liberal democracies see hierarchy as something that needs to be kept within certain bounds, not something that is part and parcel of the liberal-democratic project.

This brings me to the place of expertise or competence in democracies. I should probably say at the outset that I have a lesser opinion of Brennan’s ‘epistocracy’ than you seem to, though I think his Against Democracy is a great example of a usefully and intelligently provocative book. Now, it’s of course true that not everyone is equally smart, and that some people know a lot more than others, especially about particular topics. Experts exist. But it’s at this point that I would send you back to an earlier part of your piece, when you provide a very good description of my Protagorean approach to democracy and expertise. Just to recap it here briefly, the theory is that though experts can tell us a lot about particular fields of expertise, ultimately political questions aren’t technical but ethical ones, and when it comes to decisions about what a community ought to do, people are pretty much equal. I think that the situation that Socrates is puzzled about in the Protagoras — that the Athenian Assembly consults experts when there’s a technical matter that needs to be resolved, but is open to anyone speaking on political matters — is actually the optimal way of having your democracy and being able to nibble on expertise too.

Moreover, I think that example reminds us that expertise can be accommodated by more participatory forms of democracy as well as more representative ones. The way that the expertise and democracy issue is often framed — as a choice between decision-making by experts, and decision-making by non-experts — sets up a false dichotomy, since democracy doesn’t exclude experts from decisions, it only makes sure expert opinion is out there and available when the community makes a decision about what path it ought to take. But I’m not sure that representative democracies are necessarily more open to expert decisions — they’re simply less responsive to the popular will. After all, the politicians who make decisions in representative democracies aren’t experts themselves; and they don’t even necessarily go along with expert advice all the time. Not that they should; but if we’re happy with them not doing so on democratic grounds, why shouldn’t we make those democratic grounds even more solid by giving the people the choice about whether to go along with what the experts are saying?

Riesbeck responded to this here and here; I made a closing comment here.

Senior Lecturer in Classics, Victoria University of Wellington. Ancient democracy, classical liberalism, Old Comedy.