Posted by: captainfalcon | June 11, 2010

History and Illusion in Politics

To keep on keeping on, if you have an interest in my obsession’s more extended critique of liberalism, get a hold of History and Illusion in Politics. (I certainly will.) Its thesis:

In ‘our’ time and place, that is, at the beginning of the twenty-first century in Western Europe (and in Europe’s ideological dependencies around the world), there are prevailing assumptions about politics and the good society which are no less firmly entrenched in our political life and thought for not always being explicitly expressed. One of the most important of these is an assumption that there is a single ideal model for thinking about politics. This model is the democratic liberal state with a capitalist economy, and a commitment to a set of human rights for its citizens. There are five distinct elements here – liberalism, democracy, the state, the capitalist economy, the doctrine of human rights – but in much contemporary thinking about politics it is tacitly assumed that these five items form a more or less natural, or at any rate minimally consistent and practically coherent, set. I want to suggest – and this is the main thesis of this book – that such an assumption is to a large extent an illusion. The conjunction of these five elements in contemporary Western societies was by no means virtually inevitable or even especially likely, but is rather the result of a highly contingent historical process. Furthermore, if the individual parts that compose this framework are considered carefully, some of them will show themselves to be highly confused or at best only very dubiously coherent, some are extremely implausible, and several can be seen to stand in relations of considerable tension with other elements in the set.

I should add that there are two reasons one shouldn’t dismiss Geuss as an outlier because his epistemic peers – mainstream, neo-scholastic political philosophers – disagree with him.

First, Geuss brings to philosophy an interest in and aptitude for history that most neo-scholastics do not share. Neo-scholastics overlook history because they think it irrelevant to their job, which is to test doctrines (regardless of their historical pedigree) against commonsense (regardless of its historical pedigree). Geuss (Alasdair McIntyre is another one – also anti-liberal) is a philosopher who (a) works “in the neighborhood of” neo-scholastic philosophy, but (b) thinks history is relevant to his job. Thus, when Geuss argues that modern liberalism is a highly contingent synthesis of disparate elements he does not disagree with neo-scholastic liberals, because they aren’t interested in the question.

It is only when Geuss calls into doubt the coherence of modern liberalism that he comes into conflict with neo-scholastic liberals. But, and this is the second reason we should be wary of dismissing Geuss for reasons of epistemic peerage, he only comes into conflict with them obliquely. That is: his primary concern is not with liberalism as an academic construct, but with liberalism as it is in the world – with the values and presuppositions that form the background against which liberal political practicioners make sense of their work. Insofar as academic liberalism is a (revisionary) attempt to grasp the essence of, and justify, liberal institutions, Geuss’s critique suggests it is useless. If liberalism “out in the world” is a hopeless mess, then any revisionist attempt to justify it is likely, in point of fact, to justify something that’s divorced from anything resembling real world politics. That, indeed, is Geuss’s conclusion (expressed in his essay “Neither History nor Praxis” in the context of criticizing John Rawls’ reconstruction):

Rawls’s system, after all, is intricately elaborated and self-contained, and it also claims to embody a particularly well-grounded moral view of the world. Perhaps the pleasure in discussing such an aesthetically attractive and purportedly morally serious construction, and the associated sense of being part of an elite group of people who are both very clever and highly righteous, is a sufficient explanation of the omnipresence of the theory…The advocates of the theory…have no abiding interest in the state of the world outside universities and similiar agencies anyway, and hardly notice it.

This is Geuss’s oblique criticism of neo-scholastic liberalism. It is oblique because it does not call into question the internal coherence or correspondence with commonsense of the theory. It thus does not hold that the theory fails by the standards of neo-scholastic philosophy. (One of the reactions to Geuss from neo-scholastic philosophers has been: so what?) But if the theory doesn’t tell us anything about how to act in the actual political circumstances in which we find ourselves, then why care about it?



  1. […] same issue arises in other contexts, most notably the debate over liberalism. Some commentators criticize liberalism qua the set of beliefs and attitudes that form the backdrop against which we […]

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