Popper and Laozi

These two Great Philosophers who were apart two and half thousand years in time and five thousand miles in space, yet were amazingly agreeable with each other

The great(est) 20th Century philosopher Sir Karl Popper had had a lasting fondness of Laozi’s thoughts, and he wanted to know more and deeper of Laozi’s philosophy all his life. Coincidentally, when I was translating Laozi’s Daodejing into English, I remembered his words from his The Open society and Its Enemies. Their views were so similar! His words (in English) and framework of thoughts had enhanced my translation, not to mention his many analytic (scientific) methods he emphasized, i.e. demarcation, conjecture and refutation and verisimilitude.

Because as being a profound and thoroughly-going thinker, Popper could not accept what he considered frivolous and shallow thoughts. He says:
“A minute criticism of minute points without the understanding of the great problems of cosmology, of human knowledge and of political philosophy and without serious and devoted attempt to solve them, appears to me fatal.” Karl Popper (1992: p. 185)

The same goes with any thoughts and translations, in my case, it was the guiding principle for the translation of Daodejing/Laozi.

Before the end of Popper’s life, he published the book In Search of A Better World which gives a sketch of the goal of searching for better societies for humanity. In this case ‘open society’ is no longer a slogan, but a pragmatic means seeking life, liberty and justice for all human beings.

Karl Popper Book

Karl Popper On Violence

Laozi, who is also against violence, says:
“My Teaching is the unified theory based on my knowledge of [various] learning of our forefathers taught to me [by scholars in the court].”

[My motto is] “One who imposes his way by force to sit on top of others will die of unnatural causes [by violence].”

Lately I discovered, after many decades of deliberation, the most thorough and comprehensive modern philosophical illustration of the first chapter of Daodejing, available, is in Part One On Knowledge of Popper’s book In Search of A Better World (ISBN 0415087740). If one keeps on reading about Popper’s explanation of how to clarify our problems, about the reality imperfectly perceived by human beings, so we could reach more certain and perfect knowledge? Naturally, we are bound to make correction and adjustment as time goes by. That is learning from the history we could be making improvement and progress for human knowledge. Therefore how can we, in good conscience, treat our ad hoc knowledge, achieved through our relatively piecemeal and partial observation in restricted time and space to be valid perpetually and comprehensively? The following is the opening statement in the First Chapter of Daodejing:
“I Dao [Truth] can be talked about [described or theorized] in any manner each person considers feasible, though hardly any of these descriptions will be perpetually valid; Names [Descriptions] can be ascribed to Dao in any manner each person deems workable], yet hardly of these will last forever.”

Similarly Popper’s Axiom is: (his translation of Xenophanes’ poem in Greek)
But for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
The Gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time, we may learn, and know things better.

Laozi’s Daodejing—English Translation could be read at:


Ayer and Popper