Suggested reading: Popper was right about the link between certainty and extremism

by Thomas Costello & Shauna Bowes

Political views are, fundamentally, opinions about the best ordering of society. To paint with the broadest of brushes, progressives are optimists, seeking to plant trees whose shade they may never stand under. Conservatives, by contrast, believe that moving too quickly risks breaking the fragile machinery of society – perhaps irrevocably so. In our view, both of these philosophical positions are logically coherent and, depending on one’s core values, defensible. We hope that this statement registers to most readers as uncontroversial. After all, most progressives can see that some risk accompanies any new, ambitious societal venture, while most conservatives can see that stagnation looms close behind excessive caution.

Regrettably, it is now apparent that reasonable, intellectually charitable discussions between progressives and conservatives are quite scarce in many places – leaving little room for compromise or legislative success. Many people hate those who disagree with them, perhaps seeing no possible route to the other side’s political conclusions other than moral aberrance or callous self-interest. Accompanying this vitriol and anomie, it would seem, is a widespread lack of scepticism toward one’s own political beliefs. Some people are not just confident, but absolutely, 100 per cent certain that their views about how to order society are optimal. For these people, extremism and animosity might seem to be the only logical route. The philosopher of science Karl Popper went so far as to argue that absolute certainty is the foundational component of totalitarianism: if one is sure that one’s political philosophy will lead to the best possible future for humankind, all manner of terrible acts become justifiable in service of the greater good. … (continue at Psyche)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

3 thoughts on “Suggested reading: Popper was right about the link between certainty and extremism

  1. That’s a really interesting article. Writing as someone who has not believed belief since 1974 (to use Popper’s own phrase), after reading his Conjectures and Refutations, I wonder if a bit more could have been discovered by separating some of the strands that make up “belief”.
    For instance, it seems to include at least a) the psychological process of believing, b) the content of the belief, and c) moral and religious values, making “belief” something of a portmanteau word.
    Given the several interpretations possible of the word “belief” I try to use it as little as possible, and use words that are less likely to cause confusion.
    I know from previous exchanges you are not a supporter of Popper’s World 3, but the separation of the process of believing (or psychological state) from the content of what is believed is definitely something in its favour.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robin, agreed, “belief” is a bit of a problematic word. Also, look at the article I published yesterday on Medium about the ethics of belief. It links to a SEP long essay which makes a number of interesting points in this regard.


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