Raymond Geuss

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Raymond Geuss (born 1946 in Evansville, Indiana), a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, is a political philosopher and scholar of 19th and 20th century European philosophy.


Outside Ethics (2005)[edit]

  • Nietzsche seems sometimes to replace the “transcendence” which stands at the center of traditional accounts—the existence of a transcendent God, or, failing that, a transcendental viewpoint—with that of a continually transcending activity. … There is no single, final perspective, but given any one perspective, we can always go beyond it.
    • pp. 8-9.
  • The idea that all problems either have a solution or can be shown to be pseudo-problems is not one I share.
    • p. 9.
  • The notion of being an “enlightened” person does not reduce simply to that of being a person who has highly developed cognitive abilities or disposes of a vast stock of knowledge; neither does it reduce to the idea of being a morally good or socially useful person. “Enlightenment” is not a value-free concept because it is connected with some idea of devoting persistent, focused attention to that which is genuinely important in human life, rather than to marginal or subsidiary phenomena, to drawing the “correct” conclusions from attending to these important features—whatever they are—and to embodying these conclusions concretely in one’s general way of living. It involves a certain amount of sheer knowledge, an ability to concentrate and reflect, inventiveness in restructuring one’s psychic, personal, and social habits; but to be enlightened is not to “have” any bit of doctrine, but to have been (re)structured in a certain way.
    • pp. 9-10.
  • The Kantian philosophy is no more than at best a half-secularized version of such a theocratic ethics, with “Reason” in the place of God. This does not amount to much more than a change of names.
    • “Liberalism and its Discontents,” p. 20.
  • The pure normative standpoint that Kant’s ethics tries to occupy, a standpoint in which we consider only the normatively relevant features of a possible world, abstracting strictly from the real world and the empirical accidents of concrete situations, is an expression of what Dewey called “the quest for certainty.” In an insecure world, weak humans struggle convulsively to reach some kind of stability; the a priori is an overcompensation in thought for experienced human weakness. This is one of the origins of Kant’s notorious rigidity, his authoritarian devotion to “principles,” and his tendency to promote local habits of thought to constituents of the absolute framework in which alone (purportedly) any coherent experience was possible; thus, Euclidean geometry is declared the a priori condition of human experience, and sadistic remnants of Puritanism become demands of pure practical reason. Classical liberalism rejected Kant’s practical philosophy, but perhaps this is not enough. Perhaps one should also reject the very idea of a pure normative standpoint.
    • “Liberalism and its Discontents,” pp. 20-21.
  • The point of one of [Rawls’] main constructions—the introduction of the “veil of ignorance”—is precisely to exclude from consideration empirical information that might prejudice the overriding normative force of the outcome. It is, then, extremely striking, not to say astounding, to the lay reader that the complex theoretical apparatus of Theory of Justice, operating through over 500 pages of densely argued text, eventuates in a constitutional structure that is a virtual replica (with some extremely minor deviations) of the arrangements that exist in the United States.
    • “Liberalism and its Discontents,” p. 22.
  • The actual effect of Rawls’s theory is to undercut theoretically any straightforward appeal to egalitarianism. Egalitarianism has the advantage that gross failure to comply with its basic principles is not difficult to monitor, There are, to be sure, well-known and unsettled issues about comparability of resources and about whether resources are really the proper objects for egalitarians to be concerned with, but there can be little doubt that if person A in a fully monetarized society has ten thousand times the monetary resources of person B, then under normal circumstances the two are not for most politically relevant purposes “equal.” Rawls’s theory effectively shifts discussion away from the utilitarian discussion of the consequences of a certain distribution of resources, and also away from an evaluation of distributions from the point of view of strict equality; instead, he focuses attention on a complex counterfactual judgment. The question is not “Does A have grossly more than B?”—a judgment to which within limits it might not be impossible to get a straightforward answer—but rather the virtually unanswerable “Would B have even less if A had less?” One cannot even begin to think about assessing any such claim without making an enormous number of assumptions about scarcity of various resources, the form the particular economy in question had, the preferences, and in particular the incentive structure, of the people who lived in it and unless one had a rather robust and detailed economic theory of a kind that few people will believe any economist today has. In a situation of uncertainty like this, the actual political onus probandi in fact tacitly shifts to the have-nots; the “haves” lack an obvious systematic motivation to argue for redistribution of the excess wealth they own, or indeed to find arguments to that conclusion plausible. They don't in the same way need to prove anything; they, ex hypothesi, “have” the resources in question: “Beati possidentes.”
    • “Liberalism and its Discontents,” pp. 22-23.
  • In its origin, liberalism had no ambition to be universal either in the sense of claiming to be valid for everyone and every human society or in the sense of purporting to give an answer to all the important questions of human life. … The ideal of liberalism is a practically engaged political philosophy that is both epistemically and morally highly abstemious. That is, at best, a very difficult and possibly a completely hopeless project. It is therefore not surprising that liberals succumb again and again to the temptation to go beyond the limits they would ideally like to set for themselves and try to make of liberalism a complete philosophy of life. … In the middle of the twentieth century, Kantianism presented itself as a “philosophical foundation” for a version of liberalism, and liberals at that time were sufficiently weak and self-deceived (or strong and opportunistic) to accept the offer.
    • “Liberalism and its Discontents,” pp. 24-25.
  • A major danger in using highly abstractive methods in political philosophy is that one will succeed merely in generalizing one’s own local prejudices and repackaging them as demands of reason. The study of history can help to counteract this natural human bias.
    • “Neither History Nor Praxis,” pp. 38-39.

Philosophy and Real Politics (2008)[edit]

  • When Catullus expresses his love and hate for Lesbia, he is not obviously voicing a wish to rid himself of one or the other of these two sentiments. Not all contradictions resolve into temporal change of belief or desire.
    • Chapter 1.
  • An imagined threat might be an extremely powerful motivation to action; and an aspiration, even if built on fantasy, is not nothing, provided it really moves people to action. … Even illusions can have effects. The realist must take powerful illusions seriously as factors in the world that have whatever motivational power they in fact have for the population in question, that is, as something to be understood. This is compatible with seeing through them, and refusing steadfastly to make them part of the cognitive apparatus one employs oneself to try to make sense of the world.
    • p. 11.
  • Kantians, of course, will think that I have lost the plot from the start, and that only confusion can result from failure to make these essential, utterly fundamental divisions between “is” and “ought,” fact and value, or the descriptive and the normative, in as rigorous and systematic a way as possible, just as I think they have fallen prey to a kind of fetishism, attributing to a set of human conceptual invention a significance they do not have. … In some contexts, a relative distinction between the facts and human valuations of those facts, or norms, might be perfectly useful. But the division makes sense only relative to the context, and can’t be extracted from that context, promoted, and declared to have absolute standing.
    • pp. 16-17.
  • Asking what the question is, and why the question is asked, is always asking a pertinent question.
    • p. 17.
  • It would be a mistake to believe that one could come to any substantive understanding of politics by discussing abstractly the good, the right, the true, or the rational in complete abstraction from the way in which these items figure in the motivationally active parts of the human psyche, and particularly in abstraction from the way in which they impinge, even if indirectly, on human action.
    • p. 28.
  • Neither the good nor the true is self-realizing, so it is not generally a sufficient explanation of why people believe that X that X is true, or of why people do Y that Y is good.
    • Philosophy and Real Politics (2008).
  • Intellectual honesty requires that one reflect on the contribution one’s theory makes to the class struggle, and acknowledge it openly. One does not have to accept the specific claim that there are two, and only two, mutually exclusive worldviews, to one of which any theory must commit itself, to accept the general claim that entertaining, developing and propounding a theory are actions, and as such they represent ways of taking a position in the world. This means that any kind of comprehensive understanding of politics will also have to treat the politics of theorization, including the politics of whatever theory is itself at the given time being presented for scrutiny, as a candidate for acceptance.
    • Philosophy and Real Politics (2008).
  • The general point that a political theory is, among other things, a partisan intervention, is well taken. So question about the actual political implication of a theory cannot be excluded as, in principle, irrelevant.
    • Chapter 2.
  • To the extent to which the pull that moves me really is irresistible, like an invincibly strong addiction, the normal procedures of evaluation, deliberation, choice, decision, etc. that constitute the substance of our political life are not operating. The same is true of overwhelming aversion. The person being tortured who simply wants it to stop, period, is also not a good model for an agent acting politically.
    • Chapter 2.
  • Can one understand politics without understanding history, especially the history of political thought, and will this distinguish political philosophy from some other kinds of philosophy (such as, perhaps, logic) to which the study of history is not integral?
    • p. 38.
  • Although Aristotle may have been right to claim that a desire to know is part of the fundamental constitution of human nature, … Nietzsche is also correct to emphasize that the impulse to evaluate our surroundings, our fellows, and ourselves is at least as deeply rooted in our human nature as is any natural “desire to know.” “Der Mensch ist ein abschätzendes Tier.”
    • pp. 38-39.
  • It is an assumption that there is always one single dimension for assessing persons and their actions that has canonical priority. This is the dimension of moral evaluation; “good/evil” is supposed always to trump any other form of evaluation, but that is an assumption, probably the result of the long history of the Christianisation and then gradual de-Christianisation of Europe, which one need not make. Evaluation need not mean moral evaluation, but might include assessments of efficiency, … simplicity, perspicuousness, aesthetic appeal, and so on.
    • p. 39.
  • We do not wish to “judge” or assess out surrounding merely as a kind of expressive activity carelessly projected onto the world, but we wish to evaluate the world “correctly,” i.e., in according with that it truly is, and the desire to know is directed at determining what the world truly is.
    • p. 40.
  • Monotheistic religions in the West have tended to conflate having a general orientation in life, having a specific theory of the world, having a sense of the positive meaningfulness of one’s existence, and having a fixed set of rules for behavior, but these elements are in principle separable. … The “metaphysical need,” … both Marx and Nietzsche held, is a historical phenomenon that arises under determinate circumstances, and could be expected to disappear under other circumstances that we could relatively easily envisage.
    • pp. 41-42.
  • Humans in modern societies are driven by a perhaps desperate hope that they might find some way of mobilizing their theoretical and empirical knowledge and their evaluative systems so as both to locate themselves and their projects in some larger imaginative structure that makes sense to them. … Furthermore, many modern agents would like it to be the case that the form of orientation which their life has is, if not true, at least compatible with the best available knowledge.
    • Philosophy and Real Politics (2008).
  • In many of the cases of conceptual innovation, … creating the conceptual tools is a precondition to coming to a clear understanding of what the problem was in the first place. It is very difficult to describe the transition after it has taken place because it is difficult for us to put ourselves back into the situation of confusion, indeterminacy, and perplexity that existed before the new “tool” brought clarity and this means it is difficult for us to retain a vivid sense of what a difference having the concept made. We can just barely imagine ourselves in a world in which there are no states, as opposed to local barons, warlords, clans, primitive communal forms of village organisation, etc.
    • p. 48.
  • Some forms of Kantianism put great weight on “what we can imagine” holding that this can be a source of insight into necessary connections. Thus various of Kant’s arguments about space and time depend on the purported fact that it is impossible for us to imagine certain things: we can know, Kant claims, a priori that space has only three dimensions because we cannot imagine it as having more than three dimensions. History in the form of non-Euclidean geometry and modern physics has put paid to that particular line of argument, but in general we should beware of depending too much on “What we can imagine?,” especially in politics. As Nietzsche puts it somewhere, sometimes the fact that you can’t imagine a situation in which things are very different from the way they are now is not an especially good argument for the claim that they must be as they now are, but, rather, represents a failure of your powers about which you should feel mildly apologetic.
    • pp. 48-49.
  • When we use a tool in everyday life, it usually remains a detached instrument under my control and activated only when, where, and how I decide. … In contrast, conceptual innovations often “stick,” escape our control and become part of reality itself. Once Hobbes invents the idea of the “state” this idea can come into contact with real social forces with unforeseeable results. The “tool” develops a life of its own, and can become an inextricable part of the fabric of life itself.
    • p. 49.
  • In some central and important cases, … the existence of specific power relations in the society will produce an appearance of a particular kind. Certain features of the society that are merely local and contingent, and maintained in existence only by the continual exercise of power, will come to seem as if they were universal, necessary, invariant, or natural features of all forms of human social life, or as if they arose spontaneously and uncoercedly by free human action.
    • p. 52.
  • Diverting attention from the way in which certain beliefs, desires, attitudes, or values are the result of particular power relations, then, can be a sophisticated way of contributing to the maintenance of an ideology, and one that will be relatively immune to normal forms of empirical refutation. If I claim (falsely) that all human societies, or all human societies at a certain level of economic development, have a free market in health services, that is a claim that can be demonstrated to be false. On the other hand, if I focus your attention in a very intense way on the various different tariffs and pricing schema that doctors or hospitals or drug companies impose for their products and services, and if I become morally outraged by “excessive” costs some drug companies charge, discussing at great length the relative rates of profit in different sectors of the economy, and pressing the moral claims of patients, it is not at all obvious that anything I say may be straightforwardly “false”; after all, who knows what “excessive” means? However, by proceeding in this way I might well focus your attention on narrow issues of “just” pricing, turning it away from more pressing issues about the acceptance in some societies of the very existence of a free market for drugs and medical services. One can even argue that the more outraged I become about the excessive price, the more I obscure the underlying issue. One way, then, in which a political philosophy can be ideological is by presenting a relatively marginal issue as if it were central and essential.
    • p. 54.
  • One way … in which a political philosophy can be ideological is by presenting a relatively marginal issue as if it were central and essential.
    • p. 54.
  • [John Rawls's] Theory of Justice begins with this assertion: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust .... Truth and justice are uncompromising” (p. 3). How, one might ask. do we know that justice has this preeminence? Rawls’s second basic claim is that we have a particular kind of access to this preeminence: we have an “intuitive conviction of the primacy of justice” (p. 4) over all other considerations including welfare, efficiency, democratic choice, transparency, dignity, international competitiveness, or freedom, and, of course, over any rooted moral, philosophical, or religious conceptions. There is no account of where these intuitions came from, whether they might be in any way historically or sociologically variable, or what role they play in society.
    • pp. 70-71.
  • One obvious way to specify what it is that is “due” to someone is to appeal to existing legal codes, but what they will prescribe will vary enormously from one time and place to another. A second account of justice might appeal to some notion of merit or desert. The third approach is Aristotle’s “general” conception, which simply identified “justice” with the sum of all the virtues and excellences. A fourth conception of justice is the idea that justice is in some way to be connected to equality of shares, resources, or outcomes. Finally there is the idea of fairness or impartiality of procedure. One might think that Rawls’s view derives some of its apparent plausibility because of a gradual slide between the various senses of “justice.” People start from a vague intuition that justice as a “general” concept (in the third sense above) is extremely important for the proper functioning of a society; they then find it easy to shift from this to a particular conception that connects “justice” with fairness of procedure and (a certain kind of limited) equality.
    • pp. 81-82.
  • What agents would choose in certain well- defined conditions of ignorance (in the “original position”) is, for Rawls, an important criterion for determining which conception of “justice” is normatively acceptable. Why should we agree that choice under conditions of ignorance is a good criterion for deciding what kind of society we would wish to have? William Morris in the late nineteenth century claimed to prefer a society of more or less equal grinding poverty for all (e.g., the society he directly experienced in Iceland) to Britain with its extreme discrepancies of wealth and welfare, even though the least well-off in Britain were in absolute terms better off than the peasants and fishermen of Iceland.” This choice seems to have been based not on any absolute preference for equality (or on a commitment to any conception of fairness), but on a belief about the specific social (and other) evils that flowed from the ways in which extreme wealth could be used in an industrial capitalist society.” Would no one in the original position entertain views like these? Is Morris’s vote simply to be discounted? On what grounds? The “veil of ignorance” is artificially defined so as to allow certain bits of knowledge “in” and to exclude other bits. No doubt it would be possible to rig the veil of ignorance so that it blanks out knowledge of the particular experiences Morris had and the theories he developed, and renders them inaccessible in the original position, but one would then have to be convinced that this was not simply a case of modifying the conditions of the thought experiment and the procedure until one got the result one antecedently wanted.
    • pp. 87-88.
  • If the basic assumption of the theory of ideology is at all tenable, namely, that the general power relations embodied in our social structures can exert a distorting influence on the formation of our beliefs and preferences without our being aware of it, then we are definitely not going to put that kind of influence out of action by asking the agents in the society to imagine that they didn’t know their position. To think otherwise is to believe in magic: imagine you are “impartial” and you will be. In fact, doing that will be more likely to reinforce the power of these entrenched prejudices because it will explicitly present them as universal, warranted by reason, etc.
    • pp. 88-89.
  • At the end of the last book he published, The Law of Peoples, Rawls sets out the task of “reconciling” members of “liberal democratic” societies to their social order, and interprets his own previous work as contributing to that enterprise. Hegel tried to “reconcile” Prussians in the early 1820s with the Prussian state by showing that, although that state needed some far-reaching reforms, it was nevertheless fundamentally “rational” and conformed to all the intuitive demands for moral acceptability that its members might impose on it.” Similarly, Rawls’s work was an attempt to reconcile Americans to an idealised version of their own social order at the end of the twentieth century.
    • p. 89.
  • If one thinks that ideological conceptions are an important feature of modern societies, and that the analysis of ideologies will therefore have to be an integral component of any contemporary political philosophy, Rawls’s view is seriously deficient, because it does not thematise power. The idea that seems to be presupposed by the doctrine of the veil of ignorance—namely, that one can in some way get a better grasp or understanding of the power relations in society and how they work by covering them up, ignoring them, or simply wishing them away—seems very naïve. To the extent, then, to which Rawls draws attention away from the phenomenon of power and the way in which it influences our lives and the way we see the world, his theory is itself ideological. To think that an appropriate point of departure for understanding the political world is our intuitions of what is “just,” without reflecting on where those intuitions come from, how they are maintained, and what interests they might serve, seems to exclude from the beginning the very possibility that these intuitions might themselves be “ideological.”
    • p. 90.

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