In fourteen books, published over a span of nearly forty years, Raymond Geuss has adopted a combative stance towards contemporary Anglophone moral and political philosophy from within the halls of its most august institutions (Princeton, Columbia, Freiburg, Cambridge, from which he retired in 2014). There are alternative ways of thinking, he has consistently argued, which analytic philosophy is too provincial to get to grips with. Instead, its commitment to an ahistorical conception of reason presents barriers to a serious understanding of political and aesthetic experience. This leads analytic philosophers to think that political philosophy’s primary task is to provide an abstract account of what values we ought to have, while art and literature should be understood as containing argumentative content awaiting philosophical analysis. Both approaches fail to take their subject matter seriously, subordinating an actual investigation of art and politics to philosophical ideals generated a priori. In the aesthetic domain, this results in various forms of Platonism. In the political realm, it leads to an ‘ethics-first’ approach—the ahistorical adumbrations of Rawls’s Theory of Justice.
Geuss’s most forceful critique of Rawlsianism can be found in Philosophy and Real Politics (2008), where he argued that political philosophy ought to concern itself with a concrete investigation of relations of power. Instead of reassuring a priori formulations, it needs to develop what Nietzsche called a Tatsachensinn—a sense for facts. Geuss’s subsequent writings might be seen as an attempt to cultivate this sense. They are a kind of prolegomena to philosophy: mapping out a conceptual terrain, full of provocative and gestalt-shifting suggestions. The subject of his latest work is summed up most economically in its title: Who Needs a World View? The book contains five previously published essays—each of which meditates from a different perspective on the collective tendency to form a ‘global overview of life as a whole’—alongside four new, shorter texts on individual and aesthetic questions. Geuss recognizes that the allure of world views cannot simply be dismissed as illusory; there is, rather, something ineluctable about the systematizing role they play in human life which philosophy can help to clarify. The need to construct these totalizing Weltanschauungen arises out of the epistemic demands imposed on us by our attempts to organize politically, follow a religion, or engage in any other activity that requires an interpretation of collective experience. These constructions synthesize our ‘drives, impulses, projects, beliefs and commitments’, binding them into an imaginary unity which confers a sense of subjective orientation.
The titular essay, ‘Who Needs a World View?’, forms the argumentative heart of the collection. Here Geuss provides an intriguing intellectual self-portrait through the world views of his teachers: Béla Krigler, a Hungarian schoolmaster-priest, and Sidney Morgenbesser, a pragmatist philosopher with a rabbinical education. This narrative begins in 1959 with Geuss, the 12-year-old son of a Pennsylvanian steelworker, winning a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school mostly staffed by priests who, like Krigler, left their native Hungary for the us due to restrictions on religious practice imposed by the Communist regime. From the charismatic Krigler Geuss learnt that there were, in truth, only two world views: Communism and Catholicism. Both shared with critical theory a fundamental scepticism towards human motives and intentions, and an imperative to think critically about the context in which people’s desires are formed (unlike liberalism, which takes them at face value). Catholicism believes that the human will is inherently corrupted by original sin, while Communism interrogates ‘the ideological distortion of belief and mechanisms for the deformation of human desire in capitalist societies’. These world views also share the conviction that their respective truths have emerged through contingent historical events: the fall of man, or the rise of capitalist production. Communism, or rather Marxism, was securely grounded in historicity thanks to its roots in Hegel. For Krigler, however, the historical character of Augustinian Catholicism had been eroded by a ‘sclerotic’ nineteenth-century Thomism, which withdrew from the dizzying pace of social change by trying (and failing) to interpret the movement of human history through simplistic biological metaphors of ‘genesis, growth and development’.
This ahistorical turn left Communism as the only viable alternative to liberalism, about which Krigler was absolutely scathing: an ‘unphilosophical rubbish heap of narrowminded prejudices, bits of wishful thinking, and random observations’. Krigler’s world view offered a bracing contrast to the kitschified realm of post-war American culture. He would often tell his students that ‘unless your knowledge surpasses that of the Time magazine, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of God’. Unlike Alasdair MacIntyre, Geuss was never tempted by religion. His own world view, if it can be called that, is profoundly atheistic, and much of his work is dedicated to imagining a philosophy that refuses to appeal to any transcendent justification for values. What he took from Krigler’s intransigent Catholicism was a vigorous anti-liberal critique of human needs, onto which his pragmatist suspicion of transcendentalizing reason would be mapped.
Here the figure of Sidney Morgenbesser steps onto the scene. What appealed to Geuss in Morgenbesser’s world view was his adaptation of the classical notion of philosophy as a therapeutic practice that arises when traditional beliefs are upset by new forms of knowledge and asks, ‘what had to change for smooth and harmonious interaction to be re-established?’ Against the conservative impulses of Platonism and Kantianism, with their ambition to restore a lost social harmony, Morgenbesser’s modernizing Deweyite perspective proposed that philosophy should adopt a flexible, forward-looking approach, working in concert with evolving modes of knowledge. The pragmatists aimed to determine what ‘works’—what enables us to overcome the manifold obstacles to our will—rather than what is ‘true’ in any absolute sense. Geuss does not attempt to resolve the conflict between the pragmatist concern with utility and the metaphysical concern with truth, but rather frames this distinction with an anecdote. He recalls that Morgenbesser had trained at a Jewish theological seminary and was briefly drawn to Reconstructionist Judaism—a secularized pragmatist interpretation of Judaism heavily influenced by Dewey. During this time, Morgenbesser came to realize that the attempt to interpret Judaic myths as metaphors which served a practical purpose failed to acknowledge the inescapability of ‘truth’ as Krigler would understand it. Midway through a sermon recounting how God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, Morgenbesser paused and looked at his congregation, asking them, ‘Do you believe any of this?’ As Geuss points out, there are different possible meanings of ‘belief’ in play: Morgenbesser might be asking whether this story has a ‘warrantedly assertable’ correspondence with reality, or whether its truth lies in its ability to guide the actions of believers. One can try to fold these meanings together, claiming that the congregation act as they do because they believe in the veracity of the scriptures. But ‘nevertheless’, Geuss reflects, ‘the two senses are different, and it seems impossible to imagine that there would not be at least some small space between the two.’ The pragmatic value of a world view cannot be conflated with its conformance to fact.