Ruck in the Carpet

Glen Newey

  • BuyPhilosophy and Real Politics by Raymond Geuss
    Princeton, 116 pp, £11.95, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 13788 9

A lot of modern political philosophy – at least in the English-speaking world, and in its dominant version, liberalism – sets about applying morality to politics. In what future writers may come to think of as the palmy days of political moralism, theorists have tried to imagine what politics would be like if it were redesigned according to a moral prospectus. It is not usually thought that actually existing politics shadows moral norms very closely; but, the political moralist maintains, surely it ought to?

Philosophers’ high moralism has put considerable distance between their activities and those of historians of political thought. While philosophers purvey big theory, historians, dominated (in the UK at least) by the Cambridge School, gingerly unswaddle texts from their incunabula, reading them as the by-blow of local conditions. Forums like the annual Oxford Political Thought Conference have become a dialogue of the deaf. Both approaches help to embed the idea that, whereas morals are for ever, politics is just one damn thing after another. Eternity is a long time in politics. Unlike most historians, philosophers see the contrast as working to the disadvantage of politics. The idea seems to be that morality is grander than politics, because it is more amenable to reason, for example, or has a longer use-by date; so the thing to do is to put politics on a firm moral footing.

Consequently, political moralists pay little attention to the conditions in which philosophical texts emerge. This is in some ways surprising. For one thing, philosophy aims to be reflective. Failing to take heed of the conditions that give rise to it – not just philosophy in general, but its particular form in a particular time and place – is one form of unreflectiveness, which Hegelians, Marxists and feminists have avoided more successfully than have modern liberals. Without reflectiveness, philosophers risk purveying not eternal verities, but ideology.

Philosophy and Real Politics continues a critique of political philosophy which Raymond Geuss has been developing for several years, notably in his History and Illusion in Politics and Outside Ethics. Geuss is a Cambridge philosopher with extensive interests in the history of political thought: it might be imagined that he would straddle the divide between analytical philosophers and historians. He edits with Quentin Skinner the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. The blue-jacketed volumes present historical texts as dispatches from the front line, be it Quattrocento Florence or post-Jacobite Edinburgh. As these examples suggest, the exegetical approach doesn’t much favour projecting a universal moral from texts across the centuries, and neither does Geuss. Even as an analytical philosopher, however, he is not the full shilling, as he takes critical theory seriously – just about acceptable for a Germanophone philosopher – but, heretically, doesn’t much rate Kant. All this makes him a bit of an intellectual freebooter. It also gives him more distance, though in a way that doesn’t lend much enchantment, on the tribal norms of PoliPhil.

Geuss isolates three kinds of question that are distinctive of thinking about politics. Lenin’s celebrated query – kto kovo?, or ‘Who whom?’ – is, in Geuss’s view, the primordial political question. Second, ‘What is the thing to do here and now?’, which is very different from asking what it would be best to do from an imaginary eternal or universal standpoint. Third, there is a question about legitimacy, derived from Max Weber, but which has also bulked large in Skinner’s analyses of historical texts. What forms of legitimation are available to political actors? Because such actors have to address themselves, on the whole, to the beliefs current among other actors, these forms will be localised rather than abstract. Geuss thinks that political philosophers can do a fair amount in answer to these questions, as long as they treat a lot of social life as given, and resist the temptations of grandiose theory.

The new book’s jacket image, a striking black and white photo by John Sadovy, shows a young man almost literally biting the dust. Only after turning the book over to look at the back does one notice his presumed killer, reloading his rifle. This example already poses questions beyond the ken of liberal orthodoxy. The dead man, a member of the AVH, the Hungarian secret police, was among those put to death by anti-Soviet partisans in the 1956 uprising. As such, the picture provides a graphic, if ironic, illustration of Lenin’s ‘who whom?’ The answer requires an irreducibly historical narrative: the partisans were taking reprisals against the AVH, who had killed unarmed demonstrators a few days earlier. The uprising was in support of liberal principles: what then is the appropriate moral rate of exchange when performing atrocities to promote those principles? Would any killing be justifiable to end what liberals see as gross injustice?

If liberal moralism ignores such questions, it will lack credibility as a practical doctrine. Geuss devotes the second part of the book to such failures of realism in moralists’ writings about rights, equality, justice and so on. Some might immediately object that he has missed the point of morality. Whereas descriptive talk aims to make our words fit the world, as the late Elizabeth Anscombe put it, evaluative talk such as morality aims to make the world fit our words. That the world may not, straight off, fit our moral words is part of what it is for the words to be moral rather than descriptive. The nature of the moral ought is that it doesn’t, on the whole, blandly rubber-stamp the world as it is, but directs agents towards how it will be if they do the right thing.

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