What is the Open Society?


“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) Vol. 1, Notes to the Chapters: Ch. 7, Note 4

In the Beginning…

The open society was conceived in 1932 by French philosopher Henri Bergson:

2-sourcesBergson describes a closed society as a closed system of law or religion. It is static, like a closed mind. If all traces of civilization were to disappear, the instincts of a closed society for including or excluding others would remain.

In contrast, an open society is dynamic and inclined to moral universalism.

ONE of the results of our analysis has been to draw a sharp distinction, in the sphere of society, between the closed and the open:

The closed society is that whose members hold together, caring nothing for the rest of humanity, on the alert for attack or defense, bound, in fact, to a perpetual readiness for battle. Such is human society fresh from the hands of nature. 

The open society is the society which is deemed in principle to embrace all humanity.”

Henri Bergson Two Sources of Morality and Religion(1935) p.229-30., trs., R. A. Audra,C. Brereton, W. H. Carter. Macmillan press, Notre Dame.


The idea was further developed during the Second World War by Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper:

A closed society is one in which exists a magical or tribal or collectivist society.

In the 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.

The open society is one in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions.”

Karl Popper The Open Society and Its Enemies 1945), v 1:1 and 174–75.


Popper saw the open society as part of a historical continuum reaching from the organic, tribal, or closed society, through the open society marked by a critical attitude to tradition, to the abstract or depersonalized society lacking all face-to-face interaction transactions.

In open societies, the government is expected to be responsive and tolerant, and its political mechanisms transparent and flexible. It can be characterized as opposed to authoritarianism.

“Popper was a firm believer in the virtues of liberal democracy and the open society on which he felt it depended. In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, he criticized Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx as having been forerunners of totalitarianism, largely through a shared historicist approach to human events.

He believed historicism – a set of theories claiming to have uncovered laws of historical development – were unscientific and were especially harmful because they substituted alleged historical prophecy for rational decision-making and conscious political value judgments. He argued the reason scholars in his time were so reluctant to criticize Plato (in particular) was due to his status in the canon of great philosophers of ancient Greece.”

Karl PopperRational Wiki


In Our Times…

“Popper showed that totalitarian ideologies like communism and Nazism have a common element: they claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth. Since the ultimate truth is beyond the reach of humankind, these ideologies have to resort to oppression in order to impose their vision on society. Popper juxtaposed with these totalitarian ideologies another view of society, which recognizes that nobody has a monopoly on the truth; different people have different views and different interests, and there is a need for institutions that allow them to live together in peace. These institutions protect the rights of citizens and ensure freedom of choice and freedom of speech. Popper called this form of social organization the ‘open society.’ Totalitarian ideologies were its enemies.

I was driven to delve deeper into Karl Popper’s philosophy, and to ask, Why does nobody have access to the ultimate truth? The answer became clear: We live in the same universe that we are trying to understand, and our perceptions can influence the events in which we participate. If our thoughts belonged to one universe and their subject matter to another, the truth might be within our grasp: we could formulate statements corresponding to the facts, and the facts would serve as reliable criteria for deciding whether the statements were true.

There is a realm where these conditions prevail: natural science. But in other areas of human endeavor the relationship between statements and facts is less clear-cut. In social and political affairs the participants’ perceptions help to determine reality. In these situations facts do not necessarily constitute reliable criteria for judging the truth of statements. There is a two-way connection — a feedback mechanism — between thinking and events, which I have called “reflexivity.” I have used it to develop a theory of history.”

George Soros The Capitalist Threat The Atlantic (1997)


Capitalism ~ Banksy

“Let me group the deficiencies of the global capitalist system under five main headings:

1. The benefits of global capitalism are unevenly distributed. Generally speaking, capital is in a much better position than labor, because capital is more mobile.

2. Financial markets are inherently unstable, and international financial markets are especially so. International capital movements are notorious for their boom-bust pattern.

3. Instability is not confined to the financial system, however. The goal of competitors is to prevail, not to preserve competition in the market. The natural tendency for monopolies and oligopolies to arise needs to be constrained by regulations.

4. But whose job is it to prevent undue concentration of power and to preserve stability in financial markets? This brings me to the role of the state.

5. This brings me to the most nebulous problem area, the question of values and social cohesion. Every society needs some shared values to hold it together. Market values on their own cannot serve that purpose, because they reflect only what one market participant is willing to pay another in a free exchange. Markets reduce everything, including human beings (labor) and nature (land), to commodities. We can have a market economy but we cannot have a market society.”

George Soros: Toward a Global Open Society The Atlantic (1998)

Further Reading…

Henri Bergson Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Karl Popper Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Karl Popper: Political Philosophy Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

(header image: UnderCats ~ Andrius Burba)

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