Friday, April 23, 2010

Risse, Mathias. Review of Raymond Geuss, POLITICS AND THE IMAGINATION. NDPR (April 2010).

Geuss, Raymond. Politics and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. As Raymond Geuss states in the introduction to his 2008 Philosophy and Real Politics (PP), his book "wishes to suggest the possibility that there might be a viable way of thinking about politics that is orthogonal to the mainstream of contemporary analytic political philosophy" (p 18). Politics and the Imagination (PI) is plausibly understood (though does not explicitly introduce itself) as a sequel to PP. PI is a wide-ranging collection of essays with which readers will come to terms more easily if they have some sense of how they fit in with Geuss' attempt to provide such a non-mainstream approach. Therefore I begin with a few recollections of, and comments on, that earlier discussion. Geuss rejects a particular way of understanding the idea that "politics is applied ethics," a view he calls the "ethics-first" reading of that slogan, and that he thinks penetrates contemporary political philosophy in pernicious ways. According to the ethics-first view, there is an independent discipline called "Ethics" that arrives at prescriptions concerning human activities independently of empirical investigations of concrete and historically embedded human endeavors. This discipline tends to formulate relatively few basic and rather abstract principles meant to provide systematic guidance for human behavior and that, in principle, apply to all contexts of human interaction. Often this view also presupposes some kind of individualism and gives considerable weight to basic moral intuitions. Geuss considers Rawls, Nozick, and Habermas defenders of this view, and attacks them for it. The view Geuss champions also adopts the idea that "politics is applied ethics," but interprets it rather differently. Far from being a value-free enterprise, politics is populated by actors who pursue their respective conceptions of the good and think what they are doing is permissible, no matter how inconsistent or unreflective they are in their attitudes. Yet there is no independent subject called "Ethics" that can generate insights that then only need to be applied to the study of politics. Instead, value judgments of, or about, political actors always occur in particular contexts that we must understand before their historical background. This background must not merely inform value judgments, but a full understanding of this background renders abstract, non-context-specific ethical inquiries at best superfluous. At worst (and not unrealistically, as Geuss thinks, for instance with regard to Rawls) such inquiry leads to gross misconceptions of reality and thus, as the case may be, also to misguided interventions in it. Presumably as a consequence of this attitude towards what should be considered appropriate academic inquiry into human action, Geuss' Cambridge website recommends that prospective post-graduate students in his areas of interest consider applying to the interdisciplinary M. Phil. in Intellectual History and Political Thought, administered by the Faculty of History, rather than to the M. Phil. of the Faculty of Philosophy. Geuss advocates what he calls realist political philosophy. The study of politics is a study of action, which is always historically situated action. Beliefs and ideals (according to Geuss a central preoccupation of post-Socratic philosophers) do matter, but only to the extent that they motivate people, not for some independent philosophical value they may have. Geuss obtains a good deal of his own philosophical inspiration from the pre-Habermasian Frankfurt School, especially Adorno, but also from Nietzsche. (Like Nietzsche's, Geuss' writings help themselves to frequent references to antiquity.) In the spirit of Critical Theory -- which Geuss elucidated very well in his first book, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School -- ideals must never be taken at face value: what people think about why they endorse ideals and about what their effects are may be totally wrong. Ideals -- like, say, social orders or academic disciplines -- have a way of inculcating illusions about their own character. (As far as academic disciplines are concerned, and as readers of Geuss' 2005 Outside Ethics may recall, he thinks that it is especially those who see themselves in the Rawlsian camp who are so deluded.) The study of politics, as a study of human action, is the study of power relations, and the adoption of belief systems cannot be detached from power relations. Politics itself is understood on the model of an art or a craft that requires particular skills (to make good judgments about what will happen, or to act at the right moment) that cannot be fully codified and thus neither systematically taught nor learned. . . . Read the whole review here:

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