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 October 2008




Alas, I’ve Missed the Chance to have Coffee with Popper


An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush

By Reza Khojasteh-Rahimi
September 2008






Q. Let us begin our interview with your initial acquaintance with Popper. After you married, you went to Britain and then to the University of London and Chelsea College. There, you studied chemistry and the philosophy of science. Is this when you first became acquainted with Popper - during your university days in Britain - or was it earlier?

A. The fact of the matter is, when I went to Britain and when I was studying the philosophy of science, I was looking for a book to read in order to improve my English whilst also becoming acquainted with Western philosophy. Fortunately, I found a very good book by the name of A Hundred Years of Philosophy by John Passmore. The book started with an account of the views of philosophers such as Frege, went on to philosophers such as Ryle, Moore, Russell and Whitehead, and ended with philosophers such as Wittgenstein. It was through this book that I became acquainted with Popper. Not many pages had been devoted to him in the book, but, even so, it was here that I first came across his ideas, including the idea of falsifiability. And this information proved useful to me when I went to Chelsea College's philosophy of science department for an interview. The head of the department asked me if I knew anything about the philosophy of science. I mentioned Popper's name and spoke about falsifiability, in as much as I understood it then. Later, when I registered as a student in the field of the philosophy of science, Karl Popper was one of the philosophers that people were talking about a great deal. Interestingly, a little earlier, Popper had been working as a professor at LSE [London School of Economics; insertions in square brackets are translator's notes], which was just a few streets away from Chelsea College. Of course, when I went to Britain, Popper had already retired and was living somewhere outside London.

Q. You mentioned a book in which you came across Popper's name for the first time. Do you remember what year that was?

A. It was 1973. I don't remember whether I bought the book just by chance or whether someone had recommended it to me. Later, I heard that Mr Ma'sumi-Hamadani was translating it, but, apparently, he stopped midway and never finished the translation.

Q. After reading the book, did you acquire a particular interest in Popper? Did his name stick in your mind?

A. Yes, as you say, Popper's name stuck in my mind after that. I found his notion of "fasifiability" particularly interesting, I had a feeling that it was an idea unlike other ideas and that it merited reflection. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about Popper's social and political ideas. I became acquainted with Popper's philosophy via the philosophy of science and empirical philosophy, not political philosophy.

Q. Hadn't you read Popper's Poverty of Historicism at the time which had been translated into Persian?

A. No, I hadn't read it. When I returned to Iran after the revolution, I saw the Persian translation of the book and I really found it incomprehensible. It made me understand why Persian speakers didn't know anything about Popper's philosophy. It was because the book's translation was incomprehensible. And once, in Iran, when I was teaching the philosophy of history, I asked my students to read the book but then I regretted it and never suggested it again, because I felt that reading that translation was a waste of time.

Q. Before the revolution, had you also not seen Reform and Revolution, which contained Popper's conversations with Marcuse and had been published in Persian by Kharazmi Publications?

A. No, I hadn't seen or read that book either. It was in Britain that I became acquainted with Popper in earnest and, before that, only through John Passmore's book, as I said.

Q. When you were in Britain, did you try to get to know Popper better? Did you seek him out?

A. No, I wasn’t even able to attend any of his talks because he didn’t often come to London. I heard from one of my professors that Popper was unhappy with his colleagues and that he’d said: “I’ll never go back to my former college because they stabbed me in the back there.” I don’t know what had happened between him and the other professors and why he was upset. But, more or less throughout the time I was at Chelsea College, Popper never gave a talk at LSE, which was his main base, or at Chelsea. So, I never saw him personally.

If we were occupied with Popper it wasn’t because we saw him a lot; it was because his views were constantly being discussed in our department and, each year, two or three books for or against Popper’s views were being published and he was very topical. Of course, alongside Popper, there was also a great deal of interest in Lakatos, who was Popper’s student and whose philosophy of science was a continuation of Popper’s philosophy. But Popper was the main focus of interest and anyone who said anything about the philosophy of science would take a stance for or against Popper and speak in relation to him. You couldn’t ignore Popper. All of this was in the philosophy of science. Later, in the light of my own personal interest and in view of the fact that I took up the philosophy of history and the philosophy of religion, I became acquainted with Popper’s other views too.

Q. Was this interest in Popper at the time unique to Britain’s academic circles or was it a global interest?

A. Popper was being very seriously discussed and debated in Britain and his views were being covered extensively in academic journals. I still have many of those journals. One of my professors used to tell me that the philosophy of science in Britain was under the sway of two people, a man and a woman: Karl Popper and Mary Hesse. Of course, it wasn’t the same in the United States. There, Popper was not as well known as Thomas Kuhn. In 1977, when I went to the US and to Harvard University’s history of science department, I noticed that Thomas Kuhn’s works were being read more than Popper’s. Be that as it may, even then, many of Popper’s works had been translated into various languages and any student of the philosophy of science had to be acquainted with his views. You couldn’t study the philosophy of science and ignore Popper’s views. You had to write at least one essay about him. But this is not to say that Popper’s philosophy had engulfed the West like thick smoke, as one of our anti-Popperians once said!

Q. Was the extensive interest in Popper in Britain at the time directed at his views on the philosophy of science or his political ideas? Was he famous because of his argument about “falsification” or because of his views about Marxism and fascism and the enemies of freedom?

A. Both. We have two Poppers: the Popper who was a philosopher of science and the Popper who was a social philosopher. His status as a philosopher of science is clear. He holds an elevated position in this respect and he’ll have a lasting name in the history of the philosophy of science. He was an amalgam of Hume and Kant; with a much better grasp of empirical science of course. But his social philosophy, too, was undoubtedly very important. His Open Society, which was published after World War II, was highly praised by philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle and Bertrand Russell. Russell, who wasn’t one to engage in niceties, said: “Every line in this book teaches us something.” The book was very well received in Britain and was rapidly translated into other languages. The book attracted attention because it told the tale of a malady: why is it that ideologies that promise to create heaven on earth lead to the creation of hell on earth? He used historical and political arguments to explain how this came about. It was here that he said that, in politics and in medicine, anyone who makes a lot of promises is a charlatan. Most importantly, as one of the book’s reviewers put it, Popper hadn’t attacked Marxism’s weak points; he’d attacked its strong points. He hadn’t made a straw man in order to be able to knock it down. He’d seen Marx in full strength and attacked him, whilst also noting Marxism’s good points. They’ve said the same thing about Popper’s attack on Marxism in this book as they did about Al-Ghazali. They’ve said that, after Al-Ghazali’s attacks, Islamic philosophy was never able to stand up straight again. And, in the West, they’ve said that, after Popper’s attack in The Open Society and its Enemies Marxism was never able to stand up straight again in the West.

Q. Did Popper’s Marxist background make his criticism be taken seriously?

A. Perhaps. At any rate, Popper’s critique of Marxism in The Open Society was read in earnest at the time and it had a great impact; just as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon had a great impact in France and dealt a severe blow to the Communist Party in France.

Q. You went to Britain holding a critical view of Marxism and the Tudeh Party [Iran’s communist party], and, there, you ran into Popper’s views, which offered a serious critique of Marxism. Was this not what attracted you especially to Popper’s views?

A. Yes, that’s true, in the sense that I’d studied Islamic philosophy with several professors in Iran and, in terms of the critique of Marxism, I’d mostly read the views of Allameh Tabataba’i and Ayatollah Motahhari. And, from then on, I’d acquired an anti-Stalinist and anti-Marxist disposition.

Q. Did your acquaintance with Popper give your criticism of Marxism a liberal aspect, in addition to an Islamic aspect?

A. I’m not afraid of liberalism, but my criticism went deeper than a merely liberal critique. That is to say, at the time, I didn’t have it in mind to replace Marxism with liberalism for example. I was mainly interested in breaking Marxist philosophy. What I’d learnt from Tabataba’i and Motahhari had more of a philosophical-research aspect, and it hadn’t been carried out with direct reference to the views of Marx and his followers, but mostly with reference to the views of Dr Arani [Taqi Arani (1902-40), an Iranian Marxist intellectual]. At the time, based on what I had learnt from Tabataba’i and Motahhari, I felt that I had the key to debunking Marxism. But later I entered a much bigger world and I found Marx much more attractive than I’d thought. I found his works and read them. I also found Popper’s critique of Marx very attractive and, in this way, I entered a new setting, which did not merely seek to reject Marxism; it was, rather, a new academic and cultural setting. It was no longer a matter of religion for me; it had acquired a philosophical aspect. I believed that I was a bystander, watching a battle and a feud between giant thinkers, and that I was reaping much benefit from watching this feud.

Q. When you became acquainted with Popper and his critique of Marxism, did it affect the way you viewed developments in Iran? I want to know what your motives were at the time. Did you think that Popper would be useful in Iran’s political setting?

A. That’s really not what I was thinking. Maybe as we approached the end of the Mohammad Reza Shah era and as the revolution was gaining momentum, my attention was drawn to Iranian society a bit more. At the time, I was interested in understanding and knowing Islam. I believed that, if I understood Marxism’s weak points, I could be of more service to Islamic thought. When I became acquainted with Popper and his critique of Marxism, it was, as a said, a very attractive academic and cultural experience for me. In the debates, I could hear the clattering of the swords wielded by various feuding thinkers; I could see one retreating and another advancing. This was what I enjoyed. I gave a great deal of thought to Marxism’s theory of knowledge, in particular, because I was deeply immersed in epistemology. And also to Popper’s criticism of Plato and Hegel which was very powerful. Hegel’s statements about scientific matters were especially extraordinary and Popper had really shown him up and likened him to a magician who suddenly pulls a dove out of his handkerchief and makes it fly. I realized then how difficult it is to speak with academic rigour and how easy it is to philosophize.

Q. So, at the time, you weren’t like Popper, who was criticizing Marxism on the basis of libertarian and pro-freedom concerns. You wanted to be of service to religion. And you saw the fact that Popper had stood up to Marxism as useful to that end. Popper’s feud with Marxism was a tool with which you could weaken Marxism. Is that right?

A. I didn’t go towards Popper in order to obtain a tool or to sharpen a sword, but I felt that Popper was providing me with the best tools for strengthening a thinking in which I believed and for tackling a danger to it that I wanted to thwart. At the time, liberalism didn’t seem as attractive to me as it does now. What I found attractive was the concept of freedom in philosophy and in science.

Q. Be that as it may, in his critique of Marxism, Popper was criticizing an ideological form of thought and he was of the general view that anyone who promises heaven on earth will drag people to hell. He was defending a free and libertarian polity. It seems that, at the time, you weren’t that concerned with this stream in Popper’s thinking; you approached his feud with Marxism from the perspective of the philosophy of science and you also used it in Islamic thought.

A. Yes, this was at first the case.

Q. So, you hadn’t established much of a link yet with the political and pro-freedom spirit of Popper’s thinking?

A. No, I just felt that a powerful rival by the name of Marx had been knocked down by a strongman by the name of Popper. And since that rival was also Islam’s rival, that was very valuable to me. I had learnt from Tabataba’i and Motahhari that Marx was Islam’s enemy and, now, I was glad that I, too, had acquired a weapon with which I could attack this enemy. It was only years later that I understood the true meaning of liberalism and I owe this understanding to Popper, Marx, Kant, Hayek, Rawls and others. Being a proponent of freedom is one thing and liberalism is another thing. Liberalism means the creed of rights (as against the creed of duties), not licentiousness, which is how some people have tried to portray it to the public. Of course, my own reflections also played a part.

Q. So, when did Popper’s political philosophy and its libertarian spirit first catch your attention?

A. I first turned to Popper’s political philosophy when one of my professors in the philosophy department of Chelsea College asked me to write an essay about Popper. In order to write the essay, I referred to Popper’s Open Society and I wrote the essay on “Essentialism in the Social Sciences”. As you know, Popper is of the view that talking about essence and nature is not useful or appropriate anywhere; particularly so in the social sciences. You cannot say that democracy or the state and politics has an essence. One of the insightful points that Popper made was that, instead of essence and nature, we should talk about expectations. For example, what do we expect of democracy? It was from this perspective that I turned to Popper’s political philosophy. And I later came across an article by one of the expounders of Popper’s thought - entitled “Politics without Essence” - which explained this same point. At the time, what Popper’s political philosophy meant to me was freedom from essences and natures in science and philosophy.

Q. Popper believed that this same essentialism in politics turns even democracy into tyranny.

A. Yes, that’s right. In Popper’s view, essentialism and pursuing an essence turns even democracy into its own antithesis. Hence, instead of talking about what democracy is and endlessly discussing its essence, we should explain and demand what we expect from democracy. And if we don’t achieve what we want, we shouldn’t try to change its essence and our definition of it; we should demand some other form of polity that will fulfil our demands and expectations. Popper’s views about democracy and what we expect from democracy are known and clear to everyone in Iran today. What Popper is saying is that the important thing is not the means whereby the ruler is put in place, but the ease with which the ruler can be removed. Later, I think I expressed this phrase of his in the following way: democracy is a method of installing, criticizing and dismissing rulers.

Q. Did your knowledge of Popper’s political philosophy, which you gained over time, complement your previous views and ideas? Did you feel that this new data was filling gaps in your mind or did you sense a clash and feel that the new data was challenging some of your previous ideas and views?

A. As I’ve said in the preamble to the Contraction and Expansion, the tale of the growth of knowledge is like the growth of a molecule. That is to say, when a new element is added to a molecule, it undergoes a fundamental transformation. In fact, what Popper was doing in the philosophy of science was to examine the qualitative growth of knowledge. I have no doubt that what I was gleaning from Popper was being added to the previous data in my mind and, naturally, changing them. I was quite aware of some of these changes and I could understand which bricks were falling out of the wall of my knowledge and which new bricks were replacing them. And some of the changes were more imperceptible.

Q. What did your knowledge of Popper’s political philosophy push aside in your mind? Do you have a mental image of the transformation or not?

A. Yes, two points in Popper’s political philosophy were and are important to me. One is: “how to rule is important, not who should rule” (which was Plato’s question). And the other is: “when it’s raining, we take an umbrella”; we don’t seek to change the whole order by which clouds and rain are formed. These two points contain a world of meaning. But his big impact on me is the one that I mentioned: how easy and valueless it is to philosophize and how difficult it is to speak with precision and rigour. It was from then on that vague and senseless remarks became distasteful to me. One example is the term “Westoxication”, which is obscurity in obscurity.

Q. I’ll present an image of you, as an aid to the answer to this question, and ask you to tell me what you think of it. It seems that, in Britain, while studying chemistry and the philosophy of science, Abdulkarim Soroush becomes acquainted with Popper’s ideas and this acquaintance is mainly with Popper as a philosopher of science. I imagine that you came back to Iran with a full understanding of Popper as a philosopher of science but that you didn’t have much to do with Popper as a political philosopher then. This latter Popper held no attraction for you because, at the time, politics, the absence of freedom and the need for freedom were not your preoccupations. In subsequent years and in view of the practical experience that he gained of the Islamic Republic, Abdulkarim Soroush gradually acquired the necessary motivation to turn to Popper’s political philosophy. Before this, your criticism of Marxism, too, had been more a critique of a rival ideology than a critique of a dictatorial and absolutist system. And your critique was more from the perspective of the philosophy of science than from the perspective of political philosophy. If Popper said, Some people promise heaven on earth and drag others to hell, you understood this phrase to be an attack on Marxism. You sensed no drive to understand this phrase as a message that was directed at more than Marxism and that the problem didn’t end there. I believe that, over time and as events unfolded, your understanding of Popper became more complete and comprehensive. In this sense, in the years after the revolution, when you were back in Iran, you went back to Popper. Do you accept this image?

A. That’s right, more or less. The extent of my acquaintance with Popper and the importance that I attached to him never changed. I was interested in many points in his thought, both when I was in Britain and when I was in Iran. And when some people made a commotion over Popper, I was really surprised. I stood there and watched. I didn’t say anything. And my surprise remains to this day. Of course, I realized and know that they were criticizing Popper from the perspective of fascism; it wasn’t done out of concern for religion and academic rigour. Popper was a philosopher who was useful for us, both for criticizing Marxism and for untangling some logical and philosophical quandaries. And for teaching us precision and rigour. And for exposing those who indulged in vacuous philosophizing. And he was on good terms with metaphysics too.

Of course, I have to agree - and maybe this is your aim in asking me this question - that, after I’d been in Iran for a long time and gained political experience, the profundity of some of Popper’s teachings became clear to me and I became much more aware of Popper’s importance. As you said, I’d read him saying that ideologies build hell instead of heaven, but I could never understand this in the way that I understood it 15 years after the revolution.

Yes, you can say that it was over time that I realized how serious Popper’s ideas were and I became much more acquainted with his statements about ideologies and freedom-crushing ideas. Before, it had been like information for me; later, I saw it in action and experienced it, and this added to my understanding. The interesting thing is that Popper, too, had lived in the heart of those experiences and many of the points that he makes are the expression of his personal experiences. At the same time, I also became aware of the extent to which philosophy in Iran had fallen into the hands of people who love to dwell in ambiguity and obscurity. They don’t offer a single clear definition. They don’t provide any rational arguments. They’re unacquainted with academic rigour. Popper once said that one of the resources of ignorance is to punch holes in words in order to pull out truths. I witnessed this for myself in Iran when I saw that some “grand philosophy professors” had no other resource but this and, if you take the words away from them, they’ll sink into obscurity. Popper was a philosopher-savant; like Kant. This is the model that I admired and I admire now, and I consider this to be the correct way of engaging in philosophy.

Q. When Popper presented his critique of Marxism, no one criticized him for having been a Marxist once. He’d paid his dues. You too paid your dues to Bazargan when you delivered a talk entitled “A man who was Bazargan [merchant/businessman] by name but not by character”. But what did you think of the Bazargan government when it was in place, just after the revolution? Did the fall of the Bazargan government upset you?

A. The fall of the provisional government upset me of course. But I saw events of this kind as the effect of the natural conditions and the chaos of the early days after the revolution. Be that as it may, I never approved of the seizure of the US embassy. I even remember that when the “den” was occupied and revolutionary fervour was at a high and every day a prominent official or Majlis deputy was going there to deliver a speech - and I remember that Dr Peyman and our dear friend Mr Mojtahed-Shabestari, too, delivered speeches there - I rejected the invitation of friends who asked me to go and speak at the den.

Q. Who were they?

A. I won’t name any names. It was a well-known figure who may not want to be named. At any rate, I didn’t accept and I was opposed to some of the events that were taking place at the time. But I didn’t like Mr Bani-Sadr’s approach at all either and I didn’t feel any fellowship with him or work with him.

Q. Of course Mr Bani-Sadr had serious problems with you and this seemed to go back to an argument that had taken place between the two of you abroad. This was why he opposed the suggestion that you should become culture minister.

A. Yes, I never sought government posts anyway. The late Bahonar, too, offered me the post of higher education minister in Mr Raja’i’s government, but I didn’t accept, and the late Rabbani-Amlashi seriously complained about this. In Mr Bani-Sadr’s government, too, as you said, they’d made that suggestion to him, but he rejected it. Later, too, when the higher education minister (Dr Mo’in), nominated me as the first head of the Academy, again, I didn’t accept and I truly didn’t seek posts of this kind. The only official post that I held was membership in the Cultural Revolution Institute which was an appointment by Imam Khomeini. And, in accepting this appointment, I wanted to be of cultural service; that’s all. And I resigned after a while.

Q. You said that you viewed some of the problems in the early days after the revolution, including the resignation of the provisional government, as the kind of events and chaos that were natural in the circumstances. But it really seems to me that events such as the seizure of the US embassy, the closure of universities, the pulling down of the shutters of the provisional government and many other instances of this kind were not just events that occur naturally after a revolution. They heralded what was to come, in keeping with Popper’s prediction I think. And, as it turned out, Popper’s prediction was right. This is why I think that it’s a shame that you didn’t join the Bazargan government. It makes me say: A Soroush who was a proponent of Popper obviously didn’t favour the seizure of the US embassy, but he could also have spoken out and criticized it.

A. Serving in the Bazargan government was an honour of course. And if I had joined the Bazargan government and if they had wanted someone to reform universities, they may well have chosen me. It wouldn’t have made any difference. I was appointed to the post by Mr Khomeini and Mr Bazargan was appointed to his post. In the early days after the revolution, there was no sense of the current differentiations.

Q. Let’s move on from these questions. Dr Soroush, is Popper still as attractive to you today? Do you still consider him an intellectual model or are there also points in him that you’d criticize?

A. When was Popper ever a model for me for him to be so today? Philosophy isn’t the realm of masters and disciples. If I could speak of one person as a model, it would be Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi. No one has played as great a role in my life as he has.

I learnt some very good points from Popper and, from the start, I was also reading the critiques of his views. Where’s the philosopher who is beyond criticism? But there are points in Karl Popper that we must still value. I mentioned them earlier. For example, the idea that, in politics, we shouldn’t be asking, “Who should rule,”, but “how to rule”. This is a very important and profound idea. Also, the phrase that our dear friend Mr Mostafa Malekian mentioned as a catchphrase for intellectuals, saying: Intellectualism means reducing rancour and recounting truth; this is one of Popper’s teachings. In his footnotes in The Open Society, Popper says: We can’t increase people’s enjoyment and profit, so, let’s reduce their suffering. This means reducing rancour. As to recounting truth, this is Popper’s main teaching. He says that we must constantly strive to understand the truth, although it isn’t possible to attain it completely. Popper’s ideas have now been accepted by a large segment of our society and Popper’s other notions about induction and the rejection of essence and nature are still of interest and are the subjects of research.

Q. Have any criticisms of Popper’s thinking come to your mind over the years?

A. I’ve not only taught Popper’s views but also the critiques of his views. You should put your question to those who have been peddling Heidegger for years but have never noted or pointed out a single blemish on him. Let me explain something to you and set your mind at rest. Popper’s creed is the creed of criticism. He defends critical rationalism and says that we learn through criticism. This is why Popper is not like a prophet who is above criticism. On the contrary, it is those who don’t want to criticize Heidegger who are presenting him as an infallible prophet. Let me also add, that, in Iran, the anti-Popperians didn’t criticize Popper. They hadn’t even read his works. They just hurled insults at him. And this was a bad precedent; insulting philosophers. Criticize Popper! Tear him to pieces! More power to you! This is precisely what philosophy consists of: criticism. But why do you insult him? Why do you say that he imposed idiocy on philosophy? This isn’t scholarly criticism, is it?

Q. Finally, to round off our discussion, I’d like to evoke something that was mentioned in an article quite some time ago where it was suggested that you had coffee with Popper. You said, of course, that you never met Popper, but did you ever try to find him or to find his resting place?

A. One of the things I like to do when I’m abroad is to visit the resting places of eminent figures. When I was in the Netherlands, I tried very hard to find Spinoza’s resting place and I did find it. I looked for Erasmus’s, too, but then I realized that it’s not in the present-day Netherlands. In Paris, I visited Descartes’ grave. When I was in Berlin, I visited Fichte and Hegel’s graves but I couldn’t find Kant’s; then I realized that his resting place is outside present-day Germany. I also visited Marx’s grave in London, but I wasn’t able to visit Martin Luther’s. It may be interesting for you to learn that, when I was in Germany, I needed to be hospitalized once. As it happens, the hospital was called Martin Luther. This is as close as I got to Martin Luther! I’m saying this so that if anyone is sensitive about my name being associated with Luther’s, they’ll know that this has been the limit of my association with him! Be that as it may, I still don’t know where Popper is buried. I haven’t seen his grave and I didn’t have coffee with him. I have to say in response to the person who made this claim that, never mind about telling the truth, he doesn’t even know how to tell a lie. He is like the ignorant person who wanted to make counterfeit money and decided to make four-dollar bills. Anyway, I may find Popper’s grave one day but, alas, I’ve missed the chance to have coffee with him.

Q. Some people have said, by way of criticism of you, that, when you were a member of the Cultural Revolution Institute, you were promoting a counterrevolutionary philosopher like Popper. I’m not concerned with the sincerity with which the criticism was made, but I want to say, at any rate, that you entered some revolutionary institutions accompanied by Popper and the fact of the matter was that Popper’s thinking was not compatible with a revolution’s big, ideological promises. If this criticism is directed at you knowledgeably, it is understandable. At any rate, some people may be worried about the propagation of Popper in a revolutionary and mass-oriented setting. This is a possible hypothesis, which needs to be considered. After all, in his Open Society, Popper was not just criticizing Marxism; the Marxist order was a token. Hence, going back to Popper may cause problems for some viewpoints in Iran and it may lead to the formation of an opposition against revolutionary institutions and currents.

A. You’ve raised many points. Allow me to make a few points now in order to clarify matters. Note that it wasn’t just Popper who was against revolutions; Kant and Hegel were too, as were many other philosophers. But the label “counterrevolutionary”, in the reprehensible sense of the term, doesn’t apply to them. They presented an analysis of society, human beings and the order of things, on the basis of which revolutions were, on balance, more harmful than beneficial. The reason why Popper was against revolutions was because, one, they destroy traditions and, two, it’s impossible to reverse their mistakes. In Conjectures and Refutations, Popper has an excellent essay in which he explains that if we want to overthrow all our traditions with a revolution, we will have set ourselves an impossible and undesirable goal. This was what Popper understood by revolution and this was precisely what a Leninist and a Stalinist revolution meant. In other words, precisely the notion of overthrowing the whole order by which clouds are formed in order to stop it from raining. But it was not as if Popper was opposed to all uprisings, and what we had in Iran was a popular and Islamic uprising - not a full-blown revolution - and it never intended to turn all our traditions upside down.

Although I was acquainted with Popper’s political philosophy and accepted parts of it, I didn’t consider him to be opposed to the revolution and his political philosophy absolutely doesn’t point to such a conclusion. The people who have attributed this idea to Popper either don’t grasp his political philosophy or are acting out of some ulterior motive or are equating Nazism and fascism with being a revolutionary. Popper has said in his writings that even resorting to force is permissible in some circumstances and he’s not absolutely opposed to using force against oppressors. What he is opposed to is people saying: we want to overthrow society’s traditions in one fell swoop. Some of these traditions are holding society together; they should be reformed if necessary, not turned upside down.

But when you say that some opponents of Popper in Iran were thinking and worrying about the future, this is to give them too much credit. They weren’t many, in any case. They were just two people: the dearly departed professor and his still very much alive student [Ahmad Fardid and Reza Davari-Ardakani]. As it happens, their writings and their utterances all show that they had no knowledge of Popper’s views. Their anti-Popperism was based on other motives, which I don’t want to go into now. Fortunately, more recently, the admissions made by one of them made it entirely clear that, contrary to the impression that some people had of a Heidegger versus Popper feud, those quarrels were simply political quarrels, with specific objectives and aimed at compensating for failure in other areas. No one was saying anything against Heidegger. They, for their part, didn’t attack Popper in a scholarly way. Even if we were to enter into their feud, we’d have to say: When someone - out of his ignorance of science and scholarship - has said and written so many unscientific and unscholarly things and gone so far as to describe modern logic as the offspring of Westoxication, why does he continue to head the Academy of the Sciences? Why doesn’t he just resign?

Let me underline again: I see no contradiction between Popper and the Islamic Revolution. Rather, as you said yourself, things later took a course that further proved the importance of some of Popper’s insights. As a member of the Cultural Revolution Institute, I was trying to spread “academic freedom” and academic freedom was a part of Popper’s ideas. Popper believed that signs of freedom in society point to the presence of academic freedom. When I was defending academic freedom, I absolutely didn’t imagine that I was acting against the revolution. Any Muslim or non-Muslim can defend academic freedom and change the fate of our universities.

Q. So what was the reason for the opposition to Popper at the time? What danger did they sense that made them go so far as to liken Popper to Gustave Le Bon in order to belittle him? What interests did Popper’s name endanger?

A. It wasn’t as if the people who attacked Popper - and there weren’t many of them - were concerned about Islam. It wasn’t as if they’d devoted their whole lives to piety and purity and Islam, and saw the mention of Popper’s name, as a non-Muslim or an opponent of Muslims, as an offence against their zeal. Had this been the case, why didn’t they attack Russell, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre? Why did they even promote these thinkers at times? The anti-Popperians knew nothing about Popper, just as they knew nothing about the Hidden Imam whom they so duplicitously love to propagate. Do you know who they had a problem with? They had a problem with someone called Abdulkarim Soroush; end of story. What they were concerned about wasn’t God or the revolution or religion or philosophy.

Q. Did they covet your position as a revolutionary ideologue?

A. Do you mean to say that they became ideologues? You use the word “ideologue”, but their motives were much more lowly than this.

Q. Mr Davari-Ardakani has said: If Dr Soroush was a proponent of Popper, instead of going to the Cultural Revolution Institute, he should have joined the Bazargan government and supported it. I’m not concerned with Mr Davari’s antagonistic viewpoint, but don’t you think that, if Soroush had totally grasped Popper’s insights, it would have made more sense for him to back the Bazargan government and to work with it?

A. Of course I never had Professor Davari’s revolutionary cunning; I didn’t contribute to “Identity” [“Identity” (Hoviyat) was the name of a series broadcast on Iranian TV in 1996 that presented some of Iran’s best-known writers and intellectuals as fifth columnists and “lackeys” of the West]; I didn’t sign letters against academics; and I wasn’t a regular contributor to Kayhan newspaper [a major proponent of programmes such as “Identity”]. At any rate, Mr Hassan Habibi was both in the government and in the Institute. In the Institute, we were concerned with cultural work and Mr Bazargan was concerned with political work and matters of state. In fact, it was when I saw that Professor Davari had joined the Cultural Revolution Institute that I decided to resign. I realized that it was no longer the place for me because I could see that the vigilante groups were emerging vigilantly from his philosophy and were turning universities into their rampaging ground. The attacks on university students in July 1999 and June 2006 were the offspring of this same philosophy. I suggest that you drop this sad line of inquiry.


Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser



(64)Source : Shahrvand-e-Emrooz 


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