Karl Popper’s Undistinguished Take on Existentialism

In Chapter 18 ‘Utopia and Violence’, of Conjectures and Refutations, Karl Popper writes:

We can see here that the problem of the true and the false rationalisms [Utopianism] is part of a larger problem. Ultimately it is the problem of a sane attitude towards our own existence and its limitations–that very problem of which so much is made now by those who call themselves ‘Existentialists’, the expounders of a new theology without God. There is, I believe, a neurotic and even an hysterical element in this exaggerated emphasis upon the fundamental loneliness of man in a godless world, and upon the resulting tension between the self and the world. I have little doubt that this hysteria is closely akin to Utopian romanticism, and also to the ethic of hero-worship, to an ethic that can comprehend life only in terms of ‘dominate or prostrate yourself’. And I do not doubt that this hysteria is the secret of its strong appeal.

One thing Popper does well in this passage is instantiate irony. Here, in a chapter, which is an ode to non-dogmatic rationalism, he flirts with an especially dogmatic attitude towards existentialism. This produces an exceedingly peculiar piece of writing. After noting that the problems under consideration, those of true and false rationalisms, are part of a ‘larger problem’, that of devising the appropriate orientation to the basic fact of existence, Popper seems to suggest too much is made of it by the new theologians i.e., the existentialists. Thus, this problem is fundamental, but too much is made of it by other theorists. There clearly is no pleasing some people. It gets worse. Not only are the new theologians guilty of making perhaps too much of this problem, they do so neurotically or hysterically. It is more than extremely curious that Popper, the arch-critic of Freud and psychoanalysis, should have picked two terms straight from their vocabulary to  show just how severe his criticism is, how acute the pathology under consideration is. He does not explain why these terms, in particular, apply. Are there symptoms of interest on display that might help us make up our minds? Popper does not explain too, why one of the central theses of a doctrine amounts to an ‘exaggerated emphasis’ on its claims by the proponents of the doctrine. How is a thesis to acquire centrality without emphasis?

But the dogmatism doesn’t end there. There is no argument to make the case that this ‘hysteria’–whatever it might be and however it might be manifested–is indeed as similar to ‘Utopian romanticism’ as Popper claims it is. What is the evidence for such a claim and why is this term is applicable to the attitude Popper is describing? Perhaps we are to be reassured by his statement that he has ‘little doubt’ about it. Popper then switches to posing a false dichotomy: that the existentialist ethic insists on comprehending life in terms of either domination or prostration. Popper seems to be making some vague gestures here toward Nietzsche, but this, prima facie, does not seem like a very coherent reading of him. Finally, to deliver the finishing touches, Popper then again reassures us of just how he does not ‘doubt’ that the aforesaid ‘hysteria’ is the reason for existentialism’s ‘strong appeal.’

All in all, this is not a distinguished display by Popper. Passages like these are not uncommon in philosophical polemics; I only note this one because its placement renders it especially incoherent.

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