Tuesday 20 March 2012

Abdolkarim Soroush: Critical Rationalism and Religious and Political Reform in Iran

Abdolkarim Soroush
On 15 March, the Iranian intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush (real name: Hosein Haj Faraj Dabbagh) delivered the Sir Karl Popper Memorial Lecture 2012, at the London School of Economics (LSE). Although he has never directly studied under Popper, Soroush memorated that he was studying philosophy of science at Chelsea College (later absorbed into King's College London) when Popper was teaching at LSE.

In his preliminary remarks Soroush noted that there is, and always has been, a very vivid interest in Iranian intellectual circles in philosophy, traditionally also extending into theoretical mysticism (in which Soroush is something of an expert too). However, when it comes to modern Western philosophy, until relatively recent, that interest was generally restricted to continental philosophy rather than the analytical Anglosaxon tradition.

In fact, prior to the revolution of 1979, Popper's work was virtually unknown in Iran -- except for his The Poverty of Historicism.
 (for free pdf download click here).

However, when he was appointed to the Cultural Revolution Institute in 1980, Soroush issued a directive making the teaching of philosophy of science mandatory for all university studies. This set in motion a wave of interest in the writings of Karl Popper and his work was translated into Persian and studied across Iran, including the shi'a seminaries in Qom. For almost ten years, Popper was one of the most widely read and discussed Western thinkers in Iran. As an anecdote, Sorouch recounted how, also later, President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami during his term in office (1997-2005) encouraged his cabinet members to study The Lesson of the Century (1992), an interview with Popper which was published in book form.

According to Soroush, for many Iranians the attraction of Popper's thought lay in its combination of anti-Platonic, anti-nominalist, and anti-Marxist views. Recalling the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, Soroush stated that Popper's criticism of these various philosophy schools eventually brought together these forces against Popper and eventually led to the repression of his ideas in Iran.
Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994)
Soroush's personal sympathy towards Popper's thinking comes from the modesty it exudes -- for example, his encouragement of piecemeal social engineering (Soroush recalls the Popperian anecdote that when it rains one brings an umbrella, rather embarking on theorizing how the cosmos could be redesigned so that it no longer rains).

To listen to a podcast of the full lecture, click here.

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