Saturday, May 14, 2016

Karl Popper on the Paradox of Tolerance

From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies:
“The so-called paradox of freedom is the well-known idea that freedom in the sense of absence of any restraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. This idea is, in a slightly different form, and with a very different tendency, clearly expressed by Plato.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: 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. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right even to suppress them, for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists. 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, exactly as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping; or as we should consider incitement to the revival of the slave trade.” Popper 1945: 226, n. 4).
This is a controversial and perhaps misunderstood passage.

Popper’s comments here are deeply inspired by his experiences in Austria in the 1920s and 1930s when Austria was torn apart by violent communism and then fascism of two kinds (namely, the nationalist fascism of Dollfuss and pro-Nazi Austrian fascism). (For a wonderful biography of Popper’s early life, see Hacohen 2000.)

But Popper’s point in historical context remains a powerful one: how can a liberal society tolerate violent, subversive fascists or communists or others like them who, if they gained power, would totally destroy a society’s freedom? Some balance between freedom of speech and the right of a liberal society to preserve itself has to be struck – at the very least in times of dire emergency.

Popper’s answer seems to be that when such movements become dangerous and violent – when they are directly inciting violence, sedition and the overthrow of the basic legal and political system of a democracy – a liberal society must reserve the right to ban them for the sake of preserving freedom.

Naturally, one can argue whether Popper was right about this, but his paradox of tolerance is a thought provoking concept.

Hacohen, Malachi Haim. 2000. Karl Popper, The Formative Years, 1902–1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York.

Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies. Volume I. The Spell of Plato. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd, London.


  1. Wow i will save his words he expressed it in so good way

  2. How is this passage misunderstood? It's crystal clear.

    1. How can it be misunderstood? Well, I am confident Gene Callahan has read it, or Hedlund.

    2. Okay, but how would either of them misunderstand it? I feel like there's some level of inside-baseball communication here that I'm not catching.

    3. Well now I'm into explaining the joke. But if you are asking the mechanics of how to get *anything* misunderstood, I'd say Hedlund should be your first stop.

  3. The paradox of tolerance uses second order logic, therefore the incompleteness theorem applies. The most common misunderstanding comes from believing that it's not a paradox. As a result of this misunderstanding, people often use the paradox of tolerance to defend intolerance. They claim that their intolerance is in opposition to intolerance.

    1. Except intolerance of intolerance is exactly where Popper took it, stupid.