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Which "movement which began three centuries ago" is Popper talking about in his quote below? Would this be the English Civil War?

Our greatest troubles spring from something...These troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago...

Thanks for any reply.

  • I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. Do you have the source for the quote, such as title of work and page number? That may help someone with an answer. Welcome to this SE! – Frank Hubeny Oct 22 '18 at 22:05
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    It continues:"It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority to preserve". Think bigger, it is the cultural revolution of 17th century, including the onset of modern science capitalism and religious emancipation. – Conifold Oct 23 '18 at 0:43
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    IMO, it is a negligible allusion... In hundreds of pages of Open Soc Popper deal with Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx; Historicism, but he never says "Enlightenment". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 24 '18 at 6:50
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Here is a longer quote from the preface to Open Society and its Enemies:

I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous — from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. For these troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism. It is their unwillingness to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling the world to human or superhuman authority, and their readiness to share the burden of responsibility for avoidable suffering, and to work for its avoidance. This revolution has created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered.

Popper would be describing the enlightenment, and its project of humans defining what is morally good. He wrote the book at a time when two moralizing political ideologies were killing millions worldwide. He is tying them to the enlightenment severing of moral dictates, and admitting that this admirable objective can lead to moral catastrophes, unless some additional checks are introduced into our thinking. The rest of Open Society outlines a fallibilist approach to politicial morality, which he believes could provide this check.

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    "two of the movements spawned by enlightenment thinking were killing millions worldwide based on moral rationalizations" Do you really says that Nazism, Fascism and Bolscev-ism are "spawned" from Enlightenment ? If so, they are as well spawned from Christianity, and this in turn from Judaism, and so on... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 23 '18 at 12:54
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    I am a fan of Locke's enlightenment thinking, and am uncomfortable with including Naziism and Communism as byproducts, but Popper was a notably big thinker, and I am just tryng to follow his lead here. As I parse this quote, he is asserting that challenging recieved wisdom and defining our own morality can and has lead to catastrophe through these moralizing ideologies. As I read this, his objective with Open Society was to introduce self-doubt through fallibilism into morality politics, and so tame its excesses. I will edit to clarify. – Dcleve Oct 23 '18 at 14:16
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    @David Thornley. If we take Popper to be referring to the Enlightenment then note that he says : 'Our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous...These troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago...'. Couldn't Fascism, National Socialism, and Soviet Communism be among those 'greatest troubles' springing from that 'greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history' ? Isn't that Popper's very point ? – Geoffrey Thomas Oct 24 '18 at 7:13
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    I think the date of publication rather clearly indicates what Popper was referring to. We are, I'm pretty sure, at cross-purposes. What emerged with the 17th-century scientific revolution and the Enlightenment was an activist style of politics in which (it was supposed) society could be controlled, manipulated and predicted much as the natural world could. This is good-and-evil and it is what I think Popper had in mind : it can produce the welfare state, market capitalism, communism, national socialism .. I have incidentally no desire to downplay individual responsibility.My point clearer now? – Geoffrey Thomas Oct 25 '18 at 17:49
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    @GeoffreyThomas - I would agree with your analysis and suspect so would Popper. If his objective with Open Society was 'to introduce self-doubt through fallibilism into morality politics, and so tame its excesses', then he is making an argument for philosophy to be taught in schools. – PeterJ Apr 6 at 7:53
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Conifold is right - we need to look further back than the Enlightenment. No historical phenomenon can be given a fixed date of origin but the Enlightenment as Popper would have understood it was predominantly an 18th-century movement. Popper speaks of 'three hundred years', which takes us back (from 1945) to the 17th, not the 18th, century. Also if Popper was referring to the Enlightenment, why doesn't he call it that ? The label is and was familiar enough.

I think a better, more plausible candidate is the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century. We can and historians do argue about how far it was a revolution and when and where to locate its growth-point. But I nominate Newton (1642-1727) as an agent in a scientific revolution of a quite definite kind - mathematical and empirical.

No reader of Newton's Principia (1687) can fail to see the central picture that emerges from it. Combining both reason in the form of mathematical equations and a newtwork of definitions, axioms and theorems, and statements of empirical relationships, Newton presented a view of the world as a vast mathematical system, yielding accurately verifiable observations, and in principle enabling us to control, manipulate and predict physical phenomena. A sense of power over nature was generated.

The link between Newtonian physics and what Popper is talking about - the 'attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism' - was mediated not least by John Locke (1632-1704), a friend of 'the incomparable Mr Newton'.

Locke also is taken with the power of reason even if in his hands reason acquires a different reading :

... reason, in Locke, was capable of yet further interpretations when located in man's perception of his political state on earth. For here, according to Locke, man, as an individual, had attached to himself certain "natural rights", inalienable and neither capable nor needful of further explanation and defence, such as in earlier centuries had been expressed in terms of the divine right of kings. Man possessed these rights when "in a state of Nature"; and "the state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it". And what is this "State of Nature"? Locke is quite clear : "Men living together according to reason ... is properly the state of Nature." (Gerd Buchdahl, The Image of Newton and Locke in the Age of Reason, London & NY : Sheed & Ward, 1961 : 23; Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, II.2 & 3.)

Here were forged powerful intellectual weapons, to be used on later occasions, by the American revolutionaries, or the universal emancipationist movements of the French Revolution. (Buchdahl : 23.)

Of course, despite Locke's immense influence in Europe and especially France in the 18th century - the Age of Enlightenment - other figures such Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire transformed - reoriented - 'the movement' of which Locke was a pioneer.

Note

I have two reservations about Buchdal. (a) It can hardly be the case for Locke that natural rights are 'neither capable nor needful of further explanation and defence'. They are according to Locke objective moral attributes possessed by human beings and their existence is deducible from the Law of Nature. Secondly, (b) a rational politics independent of tradition or divine right is to my mind, or at least arguably, present in Hobbes' Leviathan (1651). But Hobbes himself, of course, was powerfully influenced by the 'new science'. Neither point affects the substance of my argument, however. Locke's significance is unaltered.

Reply

The following objection has been put :

Wikipedia lists 1650 and 1700 as alternate start dates for the enlightenment, and History.com lists 1685. The time period is right. I am a fan of Locke's enlightenment thinking, and am uncomfortable with including Naziism and Communism as byproducts, but Popper was a notably big thinker, and I am just tryng to follow his lead here. The science revolution did not have the moral component that moralizing ideologies offer, so tying Comunism and Naziism to science seems even more of a stretch.

I make two points :

  1. Dating the Enlightenment to the 18th century was still maintained by one of its principal modern scholars, Peter Gay: '... the narrow Enlightenment of the philosophes was embedded in a wider, more comprehensive atmosphere, the atmosphere of the eighteenth century, which may be called, without distortion, the Age of the Enlightenment' (P. Gay, The Enlightenment : An Interpretation - The Science of Freedom, NY & London : W.W. Norton, 1977 : Preface, x.)

    There are decisive reasons to revise Gay's chronology. I endorse Jonathan Israel's back-dating of the Enlightenment :

**[Israel] ... offered an ambitious revision of the chronologic and geographic boundaries of Gay's Enlightenment - a revision which was indispensable, Israel argued, to grasp the modernizing role of the Enlightenment. In his first volume, Radical Enlightenment: philosophy and the making of modernity, Israel turned his attention away from the eighteenth-century French heartland mapped by Gay. Instead, he focused on developments in the Dutch Republic of the mid-seventeenth century. There, the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was cooking up a heady mixture of atheism and democratic republicanism. Spinoza's writings in turn inspired a radical movement that rapidly fanned out from the Dutch Republic to other European countries such as England, Italy, Germany, and France. This movement, Israel argued, constituted a 'radical Enlightenment', whose core ideas were far more modern and forward-looking than anything imagined by Gay's philosophes. Indeed, major philosophes such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, being deists rather than atheists and defenders of the status quo rather than revolutionaries, were proponents of a very different, 'moderate', or conservative Enlightenment, which postdated the radical, Spinozist Enlightenment and had mainly emerged in reaction against it. (ANNELIEN de DIJN, 'THE POLITICS OF ENLIGHTENMENT: FROM PETER GAY TO JONATHAN ISRAEL, The Historical Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 2012), pp. 785-805 : 797-8.)

Re-dating is not the point

Popper wrote in 1945. The question is not, how do we now date the Enlightenment but rather, how would Popper have been likely to date the Enlightenment in 1945 ? He didn't have the advantages of modern revisionism and was no historian. It is almost certain that he held the then prevailing view of the Enlightenment as a predominantly 18th-century phenomenon :

For centuries, Europeans lived under the combined tyranny of priest and king. The Renaissance and Reformation dented the power of this hybrid monster over men's minds. But around the turn of the eighteenth century, a much more fundamental challenge to the status quo emerged. A new generation of men (for this is a story without women) stood up and cast off the shackles of superstition and authority in the name of reason. Taking their cue from Holland and especially England, the most liberal European nations, they waged a war for religious and political freedom. The generals of this war, a little flock of self-styled 'philosophes', resided in France, but troops were enlisted throughout the whole of Europe. Displaying great courage, wit, and perseverance, they managed to gain the upper hand against the forces of darkness. By the end of the eighteenth century, a mental revolution had been achieved. The events of 1776 and 1789 were the outcome of this intellectual sea-change. The modern, liberal democracies they created put the philosophes' programme into practice.

We all know this story. It is, of course, the textbook version of Enlightenment history. (ANNELIEN de DIJN, 'THE POLITICS OF ENLIGHTENMENT: FROM PETER GAY TO JONATHAN ISRAEL, The Historical Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 2012), pp. 785-805: 785-6.)

There is no reason to suppose that Popper did not subscribe to this orthodoxy in 1945. If so, then 300 years back would have landed him, not in the Enlightenment, according to the then regnant orthodoxy, but in the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century. This was and remains my claim.

  1. My answer does not tie 'Communism and Nazism to science'. My suggestion was only that the Enlightenment was informed by the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century, which cleared the way for or reinforced the idea that human society is open to the same control, manipulation and prediction as physical phenomena. This idea, whatever its cogency or otherwise, is morally neutral : it produced the relative beneficence of the American Revolution and the horrors (the 'appalling destructiveness') of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. Popper believed that he had witnessed its 'appalling destructiveness' in the Second World War. Its powers for such destructiveness may yet be conquered, he surmised and hoped, just as they were deflected - to offer him an example - in the American Revolution.
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    Wikipedia lists 1650 and 1700 as alternate start dates for the enlightenment, and History.com lists 1685. The time period is right. I am a fan of Locke's enlightenment thinking, and am uncomfortable with including Naziism and Communism as byproducts, but Popper was a notably big thinker, and I am just tryng to follow his lead here. The science revolution did not have the moral component that moralizing ideologies offer, so tying Comunism and Naziism to science seems even more of a stretch. – Dcleve Oct 23 '18 at 14:09
  • Dcleve. Hi ! I agree about the earlier dating of the Enlightenment and have revised my answer accordingly but see my Reply for a defence of my claim that in 1945 Popper was thinking, not of the Enlightenment but of the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century. You've argued well but, as is so often the case in philosophy, I still disagree. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Oct 23 '18 at 18:19
  • I rather doubt Popper was concerned about the exact date or what the revolution was called. He saw that things changed around 300 years ago and this was all he needed to make his point. . . – PeterJ Apr 6 at 7:59
  • @PeterJ. On reflection I entirely agree. Best - GLT – Geoffrey Thomas Apr 6 at 10:21
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"It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority to preserve". To place this quote into some frame of reference on Spinoza see his (TTP) or Tractatus Theologico Politicus. In it he maintains that a capable and properly structured 'State' or 'Government' would allow for all citizens to think freely without state interference and to live as they pleased. As long as, that is, nothing they did would undermine the authority of the State. (Emphasis here on 'Did', as opposed to 'Think'.) Doing comes under the State's purview; Thinking under the individual's. CS

( See Page 3 of his Preface to the TTP. Paragraph beginning; "Now since we have the rare good fortune...")

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