Piecemeal Engineering vs. holistic Utopianism

  1. Introduction
  2. Engineering Society: Piecemeal Engineering vs. Holistic Utopianism
    1. Step-by-step change: Piecemeal Engineering
    2. Radical Revolution: Holistic Utopianism and its Relationship to Historicism
    3. Piecemeal Engineering as an Alternative to Holism?
      1. How effective can Piecemeal Engineering be as a Method for Managed Social Change?
      2. How big is the Difference between Piecemeal Engineering and the Holistic Approach really?
  3. Conclusion


„Historicism, as Popper understands it, is not just an intellectual error, of interest only to professional philosophers; it is a prime source of moral and political devastation.“ (Passmore 1975, S. 30).

With these words, John Passmore introduces his review of one of Karl Popper’s most influential works, The Poverty of Historicism. Passmore thus illustrates the real threat that Popper saw in historicism and explains, in part, the motivation that moved Popper to write this book. This is not at all to suggest that The Poverty of Historicism is an emotionally charged sermon against those approaches to the philosophy of history that he subsumes under the term historicism and that he implicitly (only rarely explicitly, at least in this work, and then often only in parentheses (cf. Popper 2003(7), e.g., p. 64 or p. 75)) attributes to Marxism as well. Rather, Popper’s aim with this work was to present as clearly as possible the standpoint or standpoints of the “historicists”, as he calls the adherents of these different, sometimes contradictory approaches (which he himself roughly divides into pro-naturalists and anti-naturalists), in order to then refute and replace them all the more convincingly with what he considers to be more scientific approaches. What this means in detail will be examined in the following with special regard to Popper’s piecemeal engineering.

This piecemeal engineering, which according to Popper is a tool for step-by-step improvement of society, will first be presented in the context of The Poverty of Historicism in order to enable a critical examination of this method. Thereupon it will be contrasted and compared with its antagonist, which Popper calls either utopian or holistic social technique and which is summarized in this thesis under the term holistic utopianism. In this context it is of special importance to explain the relationship between holistic utopianism and historicism and why the piecemeal technique is – according to Popper – a better alternative to the holistic methods of the former. Subsequently, the piecemeal technique will be subjected to a critical examination; on the one hand, it will be investigated whether this method is actually suitable for significant changes of society in general by minimal interventions in individual aspects of it and, on the other hand, whether it is actually as different from utopianism as it may appear at first glance.

To conduct this investigation we will draw primarily on The Poverty of Historicism itself, of course, but also on several essays from philosophical, social, as well as political science journals on Popper’s work and on the themes of utopianism, holism, and piecemeal technique, as well as on reviews of the book itself.

This article is rounded off by a conclusion, in which a balance is drawn to the actual effectiveness and applicability of the piecemeal technique and to the problem of Popper’s definition of the same in comparison with holistic utopianism. The aim is to show that Popper’s piecemeal technique is a method with the potential to change and improve society, even if the definition of this method and the differentiation from holistic utopianism is sometimes difficult due to Popper’s formulations. However, what has partly been judged as an argumentative weakness of the misery of historicism offers at the same time the possibility to modify this approach for an improved application to real social problems, as should have become clear at the end of this thesis.

2 Engineering Society: Piecemeal Engineering vs. Holistic Utopianism

Popper’s work is, as the title suggests, mainly about a critique of historicism. This approach or these approaches, because what exactly Popper understands by historicism or what falls under this term is not always quite clear, he sees in an “unholy alliance” (Popper 2003(7), p. 63) connected with other approaches, which he calls holism or utopianism, and which are also sharply criticized because of this connection. According to Popper, these approaches, which are summarized in the following under the term holistic utopianism, are characterized by their methodology: society is to be turned upside down holistically and best at once according to the ideas (which according to Popper are utopian) of an individual or a group. Holism and utopianism are for the most part used synonymously by Popper (cf. Freeman 1975, p. 21), but the designation of holistic utopianism makes sense if one considers that Popper’s criticism applies above all to the goal of the holists, which – according to his account – amounts to a utopian and thus idealized, but unattainable and thus unrealistic state of society, which is to be achieved by holistic means, to which we will return in the course of this paper.

Popper contrasts these means with what he calls the piecemeal technique or technology (cf. Popper 2003(7), p. 51). In the following, we will first discuss the details of this technique, followed by a closer look at holistic utopianism in Popper’s presentation. During this investigation, comparisons of one method to the other will (have to) be used again and again, since Popper, at least in the beginning, distinguishes or defines both methods from each other mainly by their differences, even if this distinction becomes blurred already during their presentation and comparison, as he himself admits (cf. ibid., p. 60).

2.1 Step-by-step change: Piecemeal Engineering

The piecemeal technique appears for the first time in connection with the methods of historicism, which, according to Popper’s own statements, he obviously rejects, in The Poverty of Historicism. Popper describes this method, in contrast to those of historicism, to which he ascribes a holistic or utopian character, as a successful one (cf. Popper 2003(7), p. 51). The designation as piecemeal technique already points to the nature of the method: In contrast to a large-scale and holistic plan to overturn society, which underlies holistic approaches, this technique is to be understood as “tinkering around,” which, according to Popper, is “in combination with critical analysis, the best means of obtaining practical results in the social as well as in the natural sciences” (ibid., p. 52). He thus addresses the principle of trial and error that, in his opinion, underlies all scientific research and thus should also underlie the social sciences and, within them, the piecemeal technique (cf. ibid., pp. 50-52). In general, he sees this technique as analogous to the “nature-processing technique” (ibid., p.57), a term under which theoretically different methods for changing and processing nature can be understood, which are subject to the scientific laws and make use of them (perhaps at first glance and in a literal interpretation of the term, a landscape gardener would suggest himself as a nature-processing technician, here, however, Popper would probably miss the scientific, especially the physical aspect). However, Popper himself repeatedly refers explicitly to engineering and thus sees the piecemeal technique as the closest to this branch of nature-processing techniques, which is why the term “social engineering” is often used in English. From Popper’s point of view, one could almost speak of an affinity between the two methods, merely applied to different aspects of reality: On the one hand, to nature determined by physical laws in the case of the engineer, and on the other hand, to the social world of man, society, in the case of the piecemeal engineer.

Similar to Popper’s natural engineer trying to figure out how best to build a bridge (in this example, it may make sense to assume that no bridge has ever been built before), the piecemeal engineer has to figure out what is the best approach or method for his goal by tinkering on a small scale. The engineer does not build the entire bridge at once, but rather breaks down this process into several steps that must be tackled one at a time. Similarly, the piecemeal engineer must deal with society. He cannot “rebuild” society as a whole, as the holist would, since this approach is rejected by Popper as utopian (more on this in detail in the next subchapter). Instead, he must focus on individual aspects of society, as small as possible, and try to improve them. These aspects can be changed according to the technician’s ideas, e.g. through “social institutions”, which the technician either designs, redesigns, or maintains (cf. ibid.). Should he fail, this has less far-reaching consequences than with the holist, since in principle only small changes and interventions are made. This also allows the technician to learn from his mistakes and do better next time, similar to the engineer who improves a prototype bridge due to, for example, poor structural integrity, or a scientist who notices that the conditions of his experiment are not ideal and changes them as a result.

According to Russell Price’s interpretation of the piecemeal engineer, Popper is concerned here with “the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, its greatest ultimate good.” (Price 1960, p. 152). He imputes the latter goal to the holists and calls it “if at all attainable, […] far distant” (ibid.). For this reason, among others, the piecemeal technician limits himself to minor changes in the form of fixing minor evils (cf. ibid.), or, as Afisi puts it, “to identify problems at hand and begin to take a series of incremental steps toward finding solutions to it.” (Afisi 2020, p. 12). The piecemeal technique can also be understood in this sense as “negative utilitarianism,” which “requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number [of people].” (Afisi 2012, p. 7).

As a reason for these changes, which are limited in scale, Popper states, among other things, that changes too large in their impact could result in too many unforeseen consequences. Furthermore, in the case of these larger interventions, unintentional changes that were actually caused by the social engineer could be detrimental to the achievement of the desired result, i.e. they could work against the goal of improving society in the sense of the respective social engineer. These would therefore be undesirable side effects. For even if the piecemeal engineer does not aim at a change of society at one stroke, he may, according to Popper, possess a conception of a – in his or her sense – better society as a whole, similar to the holist. Unlike the holist, however, he approaches this improvement or change of society piecemeal, in which Popper himself first outlines a main difference to holism and utopianism. The intended changes can, of course, be of a very different nature, depending on the ideas of the particular technician, both liberal-democratic and authoritarian or otherwise politically or ideologically motivated, as Popper admits (cf. Popper 2003(7), p. 59). However, one may probably assume that the risk of drastic developments in the direction of the latter is, in Popper’s opinion, much lower with the piecemeal technique than with the holistic method (cf. ibid. and p. 70 f.). According to Irzik, the avoidance of human suffering is even the main reason for Popper’s method of social reform (cf. Irzik 1985, p. 5), even if in principle there is nothing to be said against a totalitarian regime adopting the methods of the piecemeal technique in order to reduce the probability of the occurrence of undesirable side effects and thus to secure its power (cf. ibid., p. 9). The reasons why this seems more likely with the holistic method from Popper’s point of view will be presented in the following.

2.2 Radical Revolution: Holistic Utopianism and its Relationship to Historicism

According to Popper, the goal of holistic utopianism is to realize an utopian ideal, in the sense of an unattainable and thus unrealistic goal, through a holistic, planned intervention in society. In order to achieve this ideal, holistic utopianism must necessarily resort to the institutions of the state or overthrow the existing system of government within a society or state and seize governmental power itself in order to be able to holistically transform society according to the ideas of the utopian(s) (cf. Popper 2003(7),p. 70 f.). This means that holistic utopianism must necessarily be of a public nature, while piecemeal utopianism can also operate on a private level (cf. ibid., p. 59 f.), which Popper sees as a problem because of the implications for state and society that have just been briefly touched upon.

The reason for which Popper addresses holistic utopianism in the first place in a work primarily devoted to the critique of historicism is “the unholy alliance” which, according to Popper, often links the two approaches. Historicism, as outlined by Popper, can see itself as a “‘holistic’ technology” (as opposed to the piecemeal technology initially concerned only with individual aspects of society) (cf. ibid. pp. 62-65), namely when it is “in alliance with the very ideas [that] are typical of the holistic or utopian social technology, such as the idea of the ‘reordering of society’ or of ‘central planning'” (ibid., p. 65). What historicism and holistic utopianism have in common, then, is that they are concerned with the big picture, with society itself, rather than with its component parts or individual aspects. Historicism prophesies a certain change in society, and holism specifically tries to bring about such a profound social development (cf. ibid., p. 66). This might at first seem contradictory from the almost fatalistic view, which Popper attributes to at least some historicists, that social developments cannot be stopped (cf. ibid., pp. 43-46). However, the plans and the resulting deeds of the holists and utopians could be interpreted as manifestations of certain social forces (cf. ibid., pp. 34-36) and tendencies (cf. ibid., et al. p.19), to use Popper’s terminology, and thus fit again into the picture of the historical development of society within at least one type of Popper’s historicism. According to Popper, “Both the historicist and the utopian […] believe they can find the true ultimate goals of ‘society’ by, for instance, ascertaining its historical tendencies” (ibid., p. 66), that is, by examining society for certain currents and trends and making predictions about future social developments based on the results of this examination. The historicist, as outlined by Popper, now assumes that these developments cannot be stopped and that the only thing (or the best thing) to do now is to prepare the totality of society as holistically as possible for the coming changes; he thus uses methods of holism to achieve these “true ultimate goals” (ibid., p. 74 f.). Popper has also expressed it in such a way that the holistic-historicist social technique, through these preparations, “can help to shorten and […] mitigate the birth pangs of a new historical epoch” (ibid., p.63). Thereby the historicist or the holist assumes of course that his predictions or prophecies are reliable. (So here we can only speak of grandiose developments concerning the whole society and taking place over a long period or time, which are called “grand forecasts” by Popper, in contrast to – according to Popper’s historicists – less reliable forecasts referring to temporally less distant and much more specific aspects of society). These predictions, by the way, are what characterize historicism in general, according to Popper (cf. ibid., pp. 32 f. and pp. 34-48), and are one of Popper’s major, if not the major, criticisms of historicism as presented in The Poverty of Historicism.

Historicism and holism also “agree that a social experiment […] could only be of value if it were conducted on a holistic scale.” (ibid., p. 76,), thus eliminating the piecemeal technique as an alternative approach to changing society for the historicist or holist (cf. ibid.). Furthermore, as already addressed in the previous subchapter, Popper criticizes that nothing can be learned from the holistic approach of holism, since such drastic changes in the structure of society would necessarily entail so many consequences that it is impossible to assign them to specific causes (cf. ibid., p. 79). In this context, Popper’s assessment of holism is as “pre-scientific”, since it – unlike piecemeal – does not devote itself to individual aspects of something, as other sciences do, but works holistically (cf. Freeman 1975, p. 21).

However, Popper sees the greatest difference between piecemeal technology and the methods of holistic utopianism in the implications which the application of the respective method has for the social order. In contrast to the piecemeal technique, which can be used for authoritarian or totalitarian purposes as well as for liberal-democratic ones, Popper sees holistic utopianism exclusively associated with the former, since its methods presuppose a “centralization of power” and thus endanger the “individual liberty” of the members of a society and must forcibly suppress resistance to its plan (cf. ibid., p. 22 and Popper 2003(7), p. 70f.). The extent to which more holistic approaches may yet have a place in liberal social engineering methodology, and how the boundary between such approaches and piecemeal engineering blurs, will be explored below.

2.3 Piecemeal Engineering as an Alternative to Holism?

As was mentioned earlier, Popper himself pointed out the problem of similarity or the “blurred dividing line” (Popper 2003(7), p.60) between the piecemeal technique and the holistic social technique. In the research literature on Popper’s social science theories in general and the misery of historicism in particular, this fact has often been criticized, and some of these criticisms will be examined in more detail and contrasted with Popper’s account in this subsection. Of particular interest here will be how much the piecemeal technique actually differs from the holistic methodology and whether other approaches, possibly situated between these two extremes, offer effective alternatives.

2.3.1 How effective can Piecemeal Engineering be as a Method for Managed Social Change?

In his 2018 review of The Poverty of Historicism, Jack Birner describes the piecemeal technique as a method that allows one to learn from mistakes, a “conclusion that expresses both optimism and humility” and calls it “the most important message of The Poverty of Historicism.” (Birner 2018, p. 192). But how meaningfully can this method actually be applied if only a single aspect of society, as small as possible, is ever changed as little as possible in order to avoid unforeseen side effects (cf. Afisi 2020, p. 13 and Irzik 1985, p. 1 f.)?

Oseni Taiwo Afisi poses this question in two essays on the piecemeal technique (Afisi 2012 and 2020), criticizing Popper’s approach for being too theory-oriented (cf. Afisi 2020, p. 12) and citing Irzik in reference to his own critique, who summarizes the piecemeal technique as follows: “Irzik interprets Popper as insisting upon the maxims (a) change as few variables as possible, and (b) make quantitatively small changes.” (ibid., p. 13). Both maxims are rejected by Irzik, mainly because in this way it would take a very long time before significant changes could be achieved within a society (cf. ibid. and Irzik 1985, p. 1f.). This is quite understandable, since those societies that can benefit the most from change are usually also those that need it the most (cf. Afisi 2012, pp. 1-3). However, if reforms are delayed for too long, this in turn can have negative consequences. However, Irzik concedes, as does Popper, that major interventions in society can produce unforeseen and undesirable side effects, making it difficult to attribute them to specific causes (cf. Afisi 2020, p. 14). Instead, Afisi proposes to change “many-pieces-at-once” of a society with the aim of improving it more quickly and effectively, a method in which he sees nothing in principle contrary or “revolutionary” to Popper’s piecemeal technique. On the contrary, he sees this approach as a realistic improvement of Popper’s piecemeal technique, in which not all consequences are as well comprehensible as in the individual interventions of the piecemeal method, but which has the great advantage that significant changes of a society become possible in a shorter period of time (ibid.). His main arguments against the piecemeal technique include that it is simply too slow and not extensive enough in the scale of its actions to bring forward significant change, and that the situation often requires tackling several things at once instead of a single aspect (cf. Afisi 2012, p. 2 f.) Moreover, Afisi argues, society changes independently of social technicians, and this is likely to mean piecemeal technicians as well as many-pieces-at-once technicians and holists (cf. Afisi 2020, p. 14). This could make an approach such as that of piecemeal technology particularly difficult, since the latter counts on being able to causally attribute changes in society to, among other things, the interventions of a piecemeal technician, which of course is not or cannot always be the case. Furthermore, planned interventions could become obsolete because the piecemeal technician does not manage to keep up with the changes within society that are independent of him, and, if the piecemeal technician has a plan or an idea for an ideal society that motivates his actions, this plan could be thwarted or this idea could be nullified by these independent changes. It must be admitted, however, that changes that are too big can lead to similar results, as Irzik notes, “Furthermore, if we introduce changes that are too big, we might end up destroying the system we want to change for the better.” (Irzik 1985, p. 2).

As already mentioned, Irzik defines Popper’s piecemeal technique as being based on maxims of as little change as possible, on the one hand by changing the number of variables as little as possible and on the other hand by changing these variables as little as possible (cf. ibid.). With respect to, for example, old-age provision, this could mean merely a relatively small increase in the pension contribution instead of a fundamental reform of the entire health care system of a society. According to Irzik, Popper believes that both types of piecemeal technology can be used “as a method of obtaining scientific knowledge” as well as “as a method of changing society” (ibid.), a distinction Irzik traces back to Shaw. The point here is that, according to Irzik’s interpretation, Popper does not strictly separate these methods, meaning that both the least possible change in the number of variables and the least possible change in the variables themselves can be used to both ends: Both for scientific research and for reforming society or aspects of it. According to Irzik, both approaches even complement each other in Popper’s account (cf. ibid.). He criticizes, however, that these relatively small changes may not always be the best way to solve a problem. Some problems require more drastic interventions in society. For this reason, it cannot and should not be determined in advance that one may only make minor changes in the piecemeal sense, when certain situations may require one to make major changes. Moreover, it is possible that minor societal changes may not be noticeable at all, especially in cases where the relationship between cause and effect is “relatively weak” from the outset (cf. ibid., p. 5). However, it can also occur that changes that seem small at first glance have far-reaching consequences, as Irzik illustrates with the example of the introduction of steel instead of stone axes to a group of Australian aborigines. The stone axe was an important and valuable trade and prestige item for this group, even playing a role in the aboriginal cosmology, and for which the raw materials had to be acquired from other groups. However, with the introduction of the steel axe by Western missionaries, this trade between groups was no longer necessary, and the spiritual as well as socioeconomic value of the axes dropped dramatically due to the greater availability of the tool. Thus, a relatively small, seemingly trivial change had far-reaching cultural consequences that altered the worldview of a society (cf. ibid.).

This example shows that even apparently insignificant interventions in a society can have dramatic side effects and that it turns out in retrospect that this change was not as small as previously assumed. The problem, then, is that of the unforeseen but far-reaching consequences that can occur even with the smallest changes within a society (cf. ibid. p. 6f.). Popper himself, of course, has pointed out this problem with regard to holism and its drastic interventions in society, and it must be credited to him that this risk can most likely be generally estimated lower in the case of smaller interventions. However, one is not completely safe from unforeseen but serious consequences of this kind, as Irzik’s example illustrates.

However, the opposite can also be the case, namely that the piecemeal technique does not go far enough, as Irzik shows with the example of a farming community that is to be helped with the aid of the piecemeal technique. According to Irzik’s maxims, the smallest possible number of variables, in this case only one, the income, is changed as little as possible, in this case slightly increased. However, the standard of living of the farmers does not improve. One could now conclude that there is no relationship between the farmers’ standard of living and their income, since no change could be observed. That this is absurd is obvious, but the example shows that at least such a strict interpretation of the piecemeal technique according to the maxims attributed to Popper by Irzik cannot always be purposeful or expedient. Furthermore, Irzik argues that other aspects can also contribute to the improvement of the standard of living, which are or can be disregarded in the piecemeal technique due to the maxim of the smallest possible number of variables to be changed (cf. ibid., p. 7f.). Irzik’s point, then, is that the specific approach, piecemeal or otherwise, ultimately depends on the nature of the problem. In particular, “If a group or an entire society is in a desperate situation, that is, if the problem is too serious and the solution is urgent, then the logic of the situation may dictate a strategy other than piecemeal planning.” (ibid., p. 8).

Price also assumes that “the degree of complication [of social problems] which we can tackle is governed by the degree of our experience gained in conscious and systematic engineering.” (Price 1960, p. 152 f.), so he is optimistic about the application of the piecemeal technique to larger social problems, provided that the necessary experience has been gained beforehand, perhaps also through modifications of the piecemeal technique in the sense of Afisis’ many-pieces-at-once technique, which in turn builds on Irzik’s criticism of Popper’s piecemeal technique. This assumes, however, that the piecemeal technique is indeed as strict as it is interpreted by Irzik and, to some extent, by Afisi. Whether this is indeed the case and, if not, how big the difference to more far-reaching, even holistic approaches really is, will now be examined.

2.3.2 How big is the Difference between Piecemeal Engineering and the Holistic Approach really?

Popper himself already points out in his account of piecemeal engineering, or more precisely in his comparison with holistic utopianism, “One might ask whether piecemeal engineering and holism, as described here, are fundamentally different” (Popper 2003(7), p. 60). He also admits shortly thereafter that “piecemeal methods” can lead to profound changes in society, similar to holism, and that he himself “will not attempt [to] draw a sharp dividing line between the two methods” (ibid.).

As has already been shown, utopian holism, according to Popper, basically refers to society as a whole and wants to restructure or revolutionize it – ideally in one fell swoop. Piecemeal engineering, on the other hand, can – and probably should in principle – be applied to individual aspects of society, although behind it there may also be a plan to change society as a whole or at least larger parts of it. Popper admits that some changes, which a piecemeal technician makes or can make, can be similar in their extent to the intended changes of the holist. And this is precisely what Popper is referring to when he says that he does not want to draw a sharp line between the two methods. Now the question arises (which Popper also poses), what ultimately distinguishes the piecemeal method from holism, if it is not, after all, the magnitude of the intervention itself, as was previously suggested. Popper answers this question with the “perspective” which the piecework technician, in contrast to the holist, takes on the change of society and its institutions. Unlike the holist, the piecemeal technician is willing to learn from his or her mistakes and not cling to them obsessively, trying everything in his or her power to impose his or her idea of the ideal society. This skill is lacking in holistic utopianism (cf. Popper 2003(7), pp. 76-78), and this despite the fact that even the holist must necessarily resort to piecemeal methods, namely when the unforeseen side effects already mentioned arrive in the execution of the holist’s grand plan, and make it necessary to react specifically to them. According to Popper, the piecemeal technician, on the other hand, is better prepared for such side effects, since he has already planned for them in advance, unlike the holist, who is forced by this to “unplanned planning”. (ibid., p. 60 f.). Due to this, among other reasons, the holistic method, according to Popper, “is simply not feasible […]: it is impossible.” (ibid., p. 61).

Price criticizes this statement as contradictory, first because in the English edition to which Price refers, instead of “not feasible” it says “does not exist,” which cannot be, since Popper admits that these are two different, and thus definitely existing, methods. Price concedes, however, that Popper may have meant what is obvious in the German version, namely, that the holistic method is “not feasible”. The more important observation, however, is that when a holist is forced to use piecemeal techniques whenever faced with unexpected side effects, holistic and piecemeal methods are no different. Moreover, the piecemeal technician can also keep far-reaching goals for society in mind, even if he focuses only on single aspects, thus differing little, if at all, from the holist here, as Popper himself also admitted. In response to this observation, Price justifiably asks, “Now, if there may be identity of objective, and if there must be identity of method, is there very much left of this distinction between holistic and piecemeal social engineering?” (Price 1960, p. 156).

But what about the fact that, according to Popper, holistic utopianism is incompatible with a liberal democratic society? Profound social changes of this degree inevitably entail resistance movements of large parts of the population, to which the holist cannot respond due to the nature of his plan, because this would presuppose that he modifies or compromises parts of the same, which of course does not correspond to the holistic approach (cf. Wiegand 1968, p. 271 f.). For this reason, the holist is forced to either systematically suppress these parts of the population or otherwise force them to cooperate with the holistic plan, either through manipulation or threat potential, which would again amount to suppression (cf. Popper 2003(7), p. 80).

As has already been shown, Popper assumes from holistic utopianism that it can a priori only degenerate into totalitarianism. However, this is a statement that can only be made a posteriori and even then is probably only valid for the individual case considered at this moment, since a transformation of society in the holistic-utopian sense or with the help of holistic methods does not necessarily have to proceed identically or even similarly, because, as Popper himself admits, the holist must necessarily use the piecemeal technique himself in his interventions in society. However, since the latter, at least according to the methodology, concentrates only on individual aspects of society, Popper can have meant only individual problems in this context, and that these would turn out exactly the same with every holistic procedure sounds almost as prophetic or even fatalistic as Popper attributes it to some historicists. Moreover, it has already been pointed out in the context of Price’s criticism of Popper’s account of holism that compromises can also be made in a holistic approach.

At the end of this critique of what Popper called a blurry dividing line between the two methods, however, it is important to point out that Popper himself pointed out its blurriness. This formulation can certainly be criticized, and of course it has been. In some circumstances, however, it indicates that Popper’s own interpretation of the piecemeal technique may not be as strict as that of Irzik and other critics, and that an interpretation or further development along the lines of Afisi might even have been in Popper’s mind. Such a many-pieces-at-once technique would perhaps be located between a strict piecemeal technique in the sense of Irzik and a holistic utopianism in the sense of Popper, possibly approximately where Popper saw this dividing line, and could thus still be accepted by Popper. However, due to Popper’s insistence on a fundamental difference between piecemeal technique and holistic social technique and the unclear or unsatisfactory definition of piecemeal technique and its distinguishing features from holism, this cannot be confirmed with certainty.

3 Conclusion

The aim of this study was to present Karl Popper’s piecemeal technique and the antagonist he outlined as such, the holistic-utopian social technique, in order to work out the differences and similarities between the two approaches and to test the piecemeal technique’s realistic potential for effectiveness.

What has emerged is an overall difficult picture of both approaches based on The Poverty of Historicism. The work in general, as well as the piecemeal technique in particular, have been criticized many times in the decades since its first publication, especially for the difficulties in defining some of the main concepts of the work, including historicism itself (cf. Passmore 1975, 31, among others), but also the concepts of holism and utopianism, which are essential for this work, as well as the piecemeal technique or method. It is therefore not surprising that this method has been interpreted very strictly, for example by Irzik, a circumstance that can hardly be held against him. Whether this interpretation of the piecemeal technique, according to which only as few aspects of society as possible may be changed as little as possible, was completely in Popper’s sense, however, is also questionable. As Afisi has shown, even relatively small modifications of this interpretation of the piecemeal technique can produce great differences in the extent of the results. Afisi himself does not see a break with Popper here, but it is difficult to foresee whether Popper himself would have felt the same way, since the magnitude of the results was what he wanted to keep as small as possible with the piecemeal technique. This was to serve the purpose of being able to trace back the consequences of certain interventions on the part of the piecemeal technician in society as well as possible and to trace them back to their causes with the aim of learning from possible mistakes or successes. It is obvious that this approach is useful, but in some cases it is not far-reaching enough. As Irzik has already pointed out, different situations require different approaches, whether these are by nature the piecemeal technique in a strict or liberal interpretation, or the many-pieces-at-once technique, or even a more “holistic” social technique. The end may not always justify the means but there is no reason to assume, as Price has indicated, that a holistic social engineer cannot be responsive to societal changes in carrying out his plan and adjust his goals accordingly. That holistic action always necessarily leads to a regime of authority and to the oppression of parts of the population can therefore be doubted. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent a holist, as Popper himself admits, from also using or having to use piecemeal techniques, thus the argument that a holist is automatically committed to the scope of his reforms seems difficult to follow (cf. Popper 2003(7), p. 61). And to categorically exclude a priori approaches that do not have a strict piecemeal character is very similar to Popper’s characterization of the holist, who rejects the piecemeal technique from the outset (cf. ibid., p. 60).

The differences between piecemeal technology and holistic-utopian social technology are, as Popper aptly noted, blurred and, due to the different interpretations resulting from the sometimes unclear definition and further development of piecemeal technology, also fluid. Which type of social technique is the “best” can therefore not be determined across-the-board; it is always situation-dependent. Thus it can be stated that Popper’s piecemeal technique is indeed a legitimate form of controlled social development, but to a different extent and with different effectiveness, depending on the interpretation. It is doubtful, however, that it is the only legitimate form of implementing social reforms.


  • Afisi, Oseni Taiwo: Karl Popper’s Piecemeal (or many pieces at once) Social Engineering. Presented at the Australasia Postgraduate Philosophy Conference, University of Auckland, 28th-30t h of September 2012.
  • Afisi, Oseni Taiwo: Re-echoing the Conservatism in Karl Popper’s Piecemeal Engineering. In: Studia Philosophica Wratislaviensia, 2020, Vol. XV, fasc. 1. S. 9-18.
  • Birner, Jack: Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism after 60 years. In: Metascience, 2018, Vol. 27, Issue 2, S. 183-193.
  • Freeman, Michael: Sociology and Utopia: Some Reflections on the Social Philosophy of Karl Popper. In: The British Journal of Sociology, 1975, Vol. 26, No. 1, S. 20-34..
  • Irzik, Gürol: Popper’s Piecemeal Engineering: What Is Good for Science Is not Always Good for Society. In: The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1985, Vol. 46, No. 1., S. 1-10.
  • Passmore, John: The Poverty of Historicism Revisited. In: History and Theory, 1975, Vol. 14, No. 4, Beiheft 14: Essays on Historicism, S. 30-47.
  • Popper, Karl: Das Elend des Historizismus. Tübingen 20037.
  • Russell Price: Holistic and Piecemeal Social Engineering. In: Political Science, 1960, Vol. 12, Issue 2, S. 151-157.
  • Wiegand, Ronald: Zur Theorie der Sozialwissenschaft bei Karl R. Popper. In: Soziale Welt, 1968, 19. Jahr., H. 3/4, S. 268-278.

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