March 27, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
George Soros on the Open Society
I HAVE JUST FINISHED reading George Soros’ essay “The Capitalist Threat,” which, despite the ostensibly aggressive slant of its title, amounts rather to a defense of the open society than an attack on capitalism. At the heart of this essay, Mr. Soros considers what he identifies as the fundamental premise of the open society:
Could the recognition of our imperfect understanding serve to establish the open society as a desirable form of social organization? I believe it could, although there are formidable difficulties in the way. We must promote a belief in our own fallibility to the status that we normally confer on a belief in ultimate truth. But if ultimate truth is not attainable, how can we accept our fallibility as ultimate truth?
This is an apparent paradox, but it can be resolved. The first proposition, that our understanding is imperfect, is consistent with a second proposition: that we must accept the first proposition as an article of faith. The need for articles of faith arises exactly because our understanding is imperfect. If we enjoyed perfect knowledge, there would be no need for beliefs. But to accept this line of reasoning requires a profound change in the role that we accord our beliefs.
It is a most curious argument. It is difficult even to decide where to begin with it. Shall we start with the undefended conflation of the ideas “ultimate truth” with “article of faith,” which is perpetrated before our very eyes over the course of a mere two paragraphs? Or with the further conflation of the ideas of “articles of faith” with “beliefs,” perpetrated over the course of a mere two sentences? Or with the tacit claim that the (merely asserted) consistency of these two propositions, suffices to justify our acceptance of them both? Or with the explicit claim, totally unwarranted and totally unsupported by any justification, that “imperfect understanding” makes necessary “articles of faith”? Or the assumption that “imperfect understanding” now means “imperfect understanding” always? Or the way the proposition of human fallibility is, amazingly and without the slightest sign of shame or hesitation, taken to be its own justification?
Or perhaps we should go directly to the pith of it—directly to the evasion of the much deeper problem that, even if we are to accept the necessity of “articles of faith” in human life, it is utterly unclear why we should choose the article of faith proposed by Mr. Soros here, rather than any number of others which have governed and nourished human societies through all of our history, such as the customs of one’s tribe, the values of one’s nation, or the beliefs of one’s religion—all of which Mr. Soros acknowledges are necessarily uprooted by the open society.
There are critiques enough to be made of Mr. Soros’ position. That is nothing too surprising: it is, after all, an explicitly philosophical proposition that Mr. Soros presents us. But that same philosophical proposition is taken by Mr. Soros to be the founding belief of an entire social order, as well as the lone compensation for the loss of profound human ties to culture, tradition, and religion. It it therefore to be hoped that this proposition, of such overwhelming importance for the life of our societies, might be granted better grounding than Mr. Soros is evidently able to give it. And yet, if anything at all is clear from his defense, it is that this proposition is precisely indefensible—else it should never have to be taken on faith! One wonders, then, just what the open society will do, if ever large numbers of its constituents begin to question this premise upon which it is built. One wonders if it will behave any differently than any other orthodoxy which has ever been threatened by heretics. One wonders, in short, just how open it will prove to be.
Mr. Soros, in his very defense of his ideal, exposes its prime nerves to the light of day, and makes us aware of the paradoxes at the heart of it. Most serious of all is this: that the open society, the ultimate enemy of dogmatism, cannot do other than end in a most cleverly disguised dogmatism all its own.