Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Geuss' realism

Raymond Geuss’ Philosophy and Real Politics [2008] is a highly polemical book. Its position is basically anti-Rawlsian, against bringing the ‘is/ought’ distinction into political philosophy, and articulates itself as beginning with “assumptions that are opposite of the ‘ethics-first’ view.” The position is identified with a Hobbesian tradition. Geuss’ vision of political philosophy is sketched out in the first half of the book, and clarified in fierce opposition of Rawls in particular, but also Nozik, in the second half. Here, I’m going to give the first, programmatic, part of the book in summary form.

Geuss’s four “interrelated theses that…ought to structure a more fruitful approach to politics” (9) are, as slogans, realism, the study of contextualized action, emphasis on the historical location of politics, and finally, the “assumption that…politics is more like the exercise of a craft or art,” than the application of a theory to reality (15). It seems to me that it is the first and last of these four that are potentially problematic. There is nothing remarkable in history and context—the rub always comes in arguing about what constitutes correct or sufficient history and context. Even the emphasis on action, it seems to me, is not unreasonable or immediately problematic.

For Geuss, it seems that realism really means a non-normative opposition to the analysis of ideal reconstructions or models. This is not simply a materialism of interests, although this is important to Geuss, but also, “tautologically,” that “ideals and aspirations influence…behavior and hence are politically relevant, only to the extent to which they do actually influence behavior in some way” (9). Further on, Geuss says that his Hobbesian, realist approach “is centered on the study of historically instantiated forms of collective human action with special attention to the variety of ways in which people can structure and organise their action so as to limit and control forms of disorder that they might find excessive or intolerable for other reasons” (22). I am suspicious of the rhetoric of ‘hard’ realism as opposed to flabby idealism. Yet I am tempted to read all this, especially given the last half of the book, as a polemical move that can safely be treated as more or less internal to political theory as an academic discipline. This is against Rawls; or put differently, it is Skinner against the rarified history of ideas. Now, the notion of politics, or political action, as basically a skill or craft, seems to me to be close to mystification. Geuss says,

a skill is an ability to act in a flexible way that is responsive to features of the given environment with the result that action or interaction is enhanced…One of the signs that I have acquired a skill, rather than that I have been simply mechanically repeating things I have seen others do…is that I can attain interesting and positively valued results in a variety of different and unexpected circumstances. (15-16)

To say that such and such a political actor is successful because they are politically skilled seems to me to have advanced matters no further than the famous old saw about how it is the dormative quality of opium that makes you sleepy. Maybe Geuss wants us to understand that establishing criteria for success, even local ones, is simply not the task of political philosophy? Whose task is it? Is it a pointless, hopeless task? If so, it seems no more pointless than asking why one person is good at playing the piano and another is not, which is after all a question with answers.

Geuss does give us a clear picture of what he thinks the tasks of political philosophy ought to be, but before that, he presents us with a somewhat oddly mixed together set of questions under three basic headings, with which he thinks political philosophical investigation should start and that “map out the realm of politics” (30). He groups these questions under three proper names: Lenin, Nietzsche, and Max Weber (23). Lenin is made to stand for the contextually complex ‘who [does what to] whom [to whose benefit]?’ Further, and tangentially related to this, is the question of the partisanship of political philosophy itself. Essentially Geuss’ position here seems to be that all theory is somehow political, but that this does not require every ‘theorization’ to commence with a political declaration of faith, or even that isometry must exist between a given clutch of interdependent theoretical positions and the political positions to which they correspond (29). The second set of questions, grouped quite loosely under ‘Nietzsche,’ are basically those thrown up around “priorities, preference, timing,” by the assertion (observation?) that “politics as we know it is a matter of differential choice: opting for A rather than B. Thus politics is not about doing what is good or rational or beneficial simpliciter…but about the pursuit of what is good in a particular concrete case by agents with limited powers and resources, where choice of one thing to pursue means failure to choose and pursue another” (30-31). Finally, ‘Weber’ indicates all that is implied by a notion of ‘legitimacy.’ It seems that Geuss wants to step back from Weber’s interest in the ‘legitimate monopoly on violence’ and take legitimacy more generally. Without a sense of how, in a given society at a given moment, legitimation takes place, one cannot “attain a moderately realistic understanding of why a society behaves politically in a certain way” (36).

There are, says Geuss, five basic tasks of political philosophy. The first three are discussed together, and the last two are given a more extended treatment. Political philosophy is to strive for understanding, evaluation, and orientation. It may also play a role in conceptual innovation, and in grappling with ideology. Although Geuss has various interesting things to say about the first three, their interrelation is summed up nicely in a description of the modern condition, “Humans in modern societies are driven by a perhaps desperate hope that they might find some way of mobilising 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, and to guide their actions to bring about what they would find to be satisfactory…outcomes or to improve in some other way the life they live” (42). Political philosophy may also have a real effect in the world by changing how we think about it. Geuss’ example is the rise of the modern concept of the state, which, he says, had the power it did because it smuggled in alongside its conceptual clarity and explanatory power, certain normative assumptions. We can see historically how, in the aftermath of Hobbes’ invention of the concept of the state, “the ‘tool’ develops a life of its own, and can become an inextricable part of the fabric of life itself” (49). In a nice Hegelian ending, “often you can’t see the original problem clearly until you have the conceptual instrument, but having the instrument can then change the ‘real’ situation with which one is confronted so that other, unforeseen problems emerge” (50). There is, finally, the question of ideology. This is controversial, but Geuss proceeds with clarity, giving us the following definition of ideology, “An ideology…is a set of beliefs, attitudes, preferences, that are distorted as a result of the operation of specific relations of power; the distortion will characteristically take the form of presenting these beliefs, desires, etc., as inherently connected with some universal interest, when in fact they are subservient to particular interests” (52). For Geuss, political philosophy can have different orientations toward a given ideology. Ideology might well enlist in various ways the support of political philosophy—but the latter may also take up the “reputable” task of “analyzing and criticizing” it (55).

Although Geuss makes several interesting moves in the next part of the text, I do not want to enter into it. He essentially sweeps to the side the entire project of a normative, ‘kantian,’ political theory. I will only pull out the following, itself a rather ‘normative’ statement.

Historical arguments…are not in the first instance intended to support or refute a thesis; rather, they aim to change the structure of argument by directing attention to a new set of relevant questions that need to be asked. They are contributions not to finding out whether this or that argument is invalid or poorly supported, but to trying to change the questions people ask about concepts and arguments (68).

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