Outside Ethicsby Raymond Geuss
Outside Ethics brings together some of the most important and provocative works by one of the most creative philosophers writing today. Seeking to expand the scope of contemporary moral and political philosophy, Raymond Geuss here presents essays bound by a shared skepticism about a particular way of thinking about what is important in human lifea way/i>
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Outside Ethics brings together some of the most important and provocative works by one of the most creative philosophers writing today. Seeking to expand the scope of contemporary moral and political philosophy, Raymond Geuss here presents essays bound by a shared skepticism about a particular way of thinking about what is important in human lifea way of thinking that, in his view, is characteristic of contemporary Western societies and isolates three broad categories of things as important: subjective individual preferences, knowledge, and restrictions on actions that affect other people (restrictions often construed as ahistorical laws). He sets these categories in a wider context and explores various human phenomenaincluding poetry, art, religion, and certain kinds of history and social criticismthat do not fit easily into these categories. As its title suggests, this book seeks a place outside conventional ethics.
Following a brief introduction, Geuss sets out his main concerns with a focus on ethics and politics. He then expands these themes by discussing freedom, virtue, the good life, and happiness. Next he examines Theodor Adorno's views on the relation between suffering and knowledge, the nature of religion, and the role of history in giving us critical distances from existing identities. From here he moves to aesthetic concerns. The volume closes by looking at what it is for a human life to have "gaps"to be incomplete, radically unsatisfactory, or a failure.
"Absorbing. . . . Fourteen essays of uncommon interest. . . . [They] exhibit a striking combination of careful analysis and utter iconoclasm. . . . Despite Geuss's justified claim to be on the outside looking in, he would be a wonderful guide for all those on the inside who want to come out."George Warnke, Ethics
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By Raymond Geuss
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
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IntroductionMOST OF THE FOLLOWING essays are pièces d'occasion, responses to concrete invitations to address a particular topic in a specific forum, and my primary hope is that as many of them as possible will be able to stand on their own as illuminating contributions to the understanding of whatever particular topic or topics each treats. However, it is, I hope, not mere whimsy to collect them into a single volume. There are various connections between the topics the different essays discuss: a number of them deal with the relation between ethics and politics, between individual values and the structuring of human social life, or with liberalism as a political philosophy; others are concerned with such central political and ethical values as freedom, happiness, or suffering, or with the idea of the success (or failure) of an individual human life or of a collectivity. Finally, several of the essays are concerned with the possibilities of radical social criticism, including the possibility that certain forms of historical inquiry or of art might have a critical potential. These are obviously closely related issues.
What strikes me most on rereading these essays, however, is a certain unity of attitude. One of the things that holds the essays in thiscollection together most closely is their shared skepticism about a particular way of thinking about what is important in human life which I take to be characteristic of contemporary European societies. By a "way of thinking" I do not, of course, mean a specific belief or even a characteristic set of specific beliefs, such as the belief that the earth is (roughly) round (or: flat), that witches must be burned at the stake (or: that there are no witches, and in any case no one ought to be punished by being burned at the stake), or that all species of plants and animals evolved gradually through natural selection (or: that they were all created, each in its unchanging form, at a particular point in time by an omnipotent deity). Rather what I have in mind is a very amorphous and ill-defined tacit assumption or set of assumptions about the nature of the human world, what is important in it, and how we can conceptualize it.
In the late eighteenth century Kant spoke of the distinction between a "cosmopolitan" and a "scholastic" conception of philosophy. The scholastic conception was one which was limited to specifying the internal goal of philosophical activity: in Kant's view, the attempt to attain and justify a maximally extensive but unified system of knowledge of the world, without concerning itself with the intrinsic value of such activity, or its relation to any further human goals. Philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense, on the other hand, is concerned with the relation of knowledge to the final or essential ends of human reason, or, as Kant also puts it, with things that are necessarily of interest to every rational being. In the twenty-first century one might be inclined to wonder whether it makes any real sense of speak of the "essential ends of human reason," but Kant is firmly convinced that this is more than a metaphor expressive of what would have been for him an uncharacteristic state of exuberance. Human reason itself, he believes, has an essential interest, and this interest is summed up in the asking and answering of three questions:
1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope for?
Philosophy as a cosmopolitan enterprise, then, is metaphysics (answer to question 1), ethics (answer to question 2), and religion (answer to question 3). Philosophy as a whole, or various detached parts of it, might have any number of, as it were, "collateral" benefits, such as contributing to the general training of the mind or helping to resolve particular problems that arise in the domain of one of the special sciences. However, to focus exclusively on these instrumental contributions philosophy can make to human life is to miss the point, which is that the asking and answering of these questions has value in itself for human beings. It is, Kant thinks, self-evident that there is a specifically moral "ought" which binds our actions, and it is self-evidently important for its own sake to know what limits human knowledge has, how we "ought" to act, and whether the hopes for an afterlife held out by religions are or are not justified, or, if not exactly positively warranted, rationally permissible.
Kant saw himself and was taken by various of his contemporaries and some of his successors as a revolutionary figure ushering in a new age, but from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, eighteenth-century Prussia belongs to the very distant past, and the Kantian construct, rather than being especially forward-looking, is the last and most elaborate monument of a period of our history that looks in retrospect both brutally archaic and exceptionally decadent. The three great Kantian Critiques are like an elaborate set of stained glass windows, highly original in their genre perhaps and intended to last for centuries, but completed just in time to be smashed by Puritan mobs, motivated by new ideals and energies that put an end forever to the world to which they belonged, and in which alone they made sense. They may be of great interest to the archaeologist or art historian, and retain a certain appeal because of their scope, the boldness of their conception, and the delicacy of their filigree, but they are of no direct relevance to us.
Although we might congratulate ourselves on having left behind Kant's world of metaphysics-morality-religion, Privatdozenten, wigs, copper engravings, Euclidean geometry, public hangings, and enlightened (or unenlightened) royal absolutism, this self-congratulation is premature and unwarranted because the dominant worldview in contemporary Western societies is not as distinct from the doctrines of Kant as one might expect or as we might wish. In fact, it shows some distinct similarities with basic Kantian structures. It, too, is oriented around three kinds of question, and a set of answers to them:
1. What do I want? What do you want? What do they want? 2. What do we know? 3. What restrictions ought there to be on the actions people Perform, particularly on those that affect other people?
To put it very crudely, people in contemporary Western societies recognize three broad categories of "things" as unproblematically important:
a) individual subjective human preferences; these are generally construed as prima facie hard, brassy, externally opaque, and atomistic, and as being expressed through word and deed
b) useful knowledge, especially warranted, empirically supported belief that tells us how the world is, how it can be predicted to change, and how we might use it (i.e., science); to a lesser extent, also certain highly formal disciplines like mathematics that are thought-perhaps, of course, incorrectly-to be about helping us deal with the surrounding world
c) a restrictive set of demands on action that could affect other people and that are usually construed as some set of universal laws or rules or principles; in particular, a set of universal laws on which "we" would all agree (under some further specified circumstances)
Knowledge and universal moral rules, as with Kant, are of intrinsic interest and value, but in place of religion we have individual human preference. Everything else that can have any claim to our automatic and serious interest, it is assumed, must be in some way reducible to one or another of these three categories, or at any rate must be best approached through one or the other of them. Anything that does not is a delusion or at best something marginal and unimportant. Completely outside the three groups, however, there is thought to be only darkness.
When I say that a set of assumptions about the exclusive importance of these three categories in human life constitutes the final framework for most modern thinking, I do not mean that every modern person understands each of these categories clearly or even in the same way, or would necessarily affirm in an unprompted way the general statement that whatever does not fit into the tripartite schema must not be important. The assumptions in question form the tacit background of thinking and debate rather than a set of explicitly held views. We are familiar with political debates, in which different parties disagree so heatedly and, apparently, so radically on specific points that for those standing too close to the debate there seems to be little agreement or common ground between them. People do obviously differ very significantly in their specific conceptions of knowledge, morality, and human preference, and in their views or assumptions about the relation between them, and their relative importance in human life. However, if one is able to stand back, many, if not most, of the disagreements that loom so large for the participants themselves and their contemporaries can be seen to be differences within an overarching agreement of which the parties themselves might not be fully aware. Trotsky versus Stalin, Augustine versus Aquinas, Tiberius versus Piso, Rousseau versus virtually any contemporary of his one might wish to name; from a sufficient distance the similarities are more salient than the differences. There is no view-from-nowhere, and it is perhaps more difficult for us to step back from our own life and beliefs and the social, historical, and political matrix within which they are located than it is for us to take a detached view of people and movements in any case far removed from us in space or time, but that is no reason to think that a relatively abstract attitude is strictly impossible for us to adopt toward ourselves and our contemporaries, or that it would not be worth the effort to try to attain what cognitive distance from ourselves we can. Contrary to the fables convenues, this is, I think, one of the central theses of Nietzsche and of Foucault, and one I wish to endorse: one can reject the absolutist Platonic conception of the world and our knowledge of it without succumbing to Protagorean relativism. Another common thread in these essays is the consideration of the implications of this thesis.
Within what I claim is this modern shared framework one can distinguish a wide variety of specifically differentiated positions: puritanical views that give absolute priority to (c), positivist views that give priority to (b), and sybaritic views that give priority to (a); realist and instrumentalist views of knowledge; consequentialist and non-consequentialist accounts of morality; etc. One particular political configuration that will play an important role in several of the following papers is liberalism. One of the central pillars of most contemporary liberalism is anti-paternalism, which in most of its forms presupposes that individual preferences in politics are to be taken as they come and not questioned. Depending on the specific version of liberalism one considers, this view about preferences might be connected with a commitment to some universal moral principles.
Differences in the way one construes human preferences, how one thinks they relate to human knowledge and moral principles, or what weight one should give them in human life are extremely important, and much of modern philosophy is rightly devoted to trying to develop coherent, plausible positions on these topics, but looked at in broader terms, many of the controversies that preoccupy contemporary philosophy concern no more than different ways of distributing roughly the same pieces on the same board. I am suggesting that there might be some enlightenment to be gained from looking at the board and the pieces from the outside, even if one finally decides to return to one of the usual games.
All the essays in this collection are devoted in one way or another to trying to undermine what I claim to be the usual contemporary way of looking at and thinking about the world, showing its deficiencies both as a schema for understanding significant portions of human life and as a matrix for making evaluations. The essays share the view that there are many things that are of the greatest importance but do not fit comfortably into the tripartite scheme. The world is full of "things" that are not obviously subjective preferences, things that derive (or purport to derive) their value from being the objects of existing subjective preferences, moral rules, or bits of knowledge. In some societies at some times, and most notably and relevantly for us, in Western societies until about the middle of the nineteenth century, religion was a phenomenon that very notably escaped the tripartite division I have been describing. Religion was not a matter of personal preference-perhaps it has become a matter of mere preference in advanced Western countries now, but that is a sign of how far it has departed from its traditional vocation-nor a matter merely of a set of rules by which we live together. The same is true of music and poetry, and of society, history, power, politics, and existential choice.
Although it would be natural to use the term "ethics" to refer to the third of the categories-rules that contain restrictions on the ways in which it is permissible to act toward other people-and I myself occasionally use the term in this way, I will also use the term in a more general way to refer to this whole way of seeing the world and thinking about it. The title "Outside Ethics" indicates in a narrow sense a rejection of the Kant-inspired view that the correct account of a good human life would give special prominence to universal rules, but in a wider sense it also indicates an attempt to step outside the whole triadic structure.
I am aware of the fact that the tripartite scheme I have described is extremely vague and ill-defined, but, as it were, that is not necessarily my fault. It would be a great mistake, and one it is only too easy to make when studying historical or ethnological material, to ascribe too much precision to that which is inherently imprecise. The need to avoid inappropriate, excessive, or fraudulent clarity in studying the human world is perhaps another general preoccupation that holds these essays together. In the mainstream of Western philosophy, and then also Western culture, since Parmenides one finds a very striking incremental glorification of a set of interrelated properties that are counted as virtues: clarity and consistency of thought, speech, and action, the ability to reflect, to detach oneself from prevailing opinion, to ask questions, to give reasons. By now this has developed into a series of highly structured disciplines-our arts and sciences-and sedimented into our everyday ways of thinking and acting, but it also seems rooted in human nature and is self-evidently of great value. Many of us strive for clarity and we do this for many of the excellent reasons the philosophic tradition has expounded in great detail. We tend to attribute to others an equal striving for and attainment of clarity with respect to their own beliefs, although the apparent generosity of this impulse sometimes can be suspected to mask a certain slyness, because it warrants us to put words in others' mouths, the better thereby to catch them out and trip them up. Socrates, of course, was an unsurpassed master of this technique, and his example remains in this regard paradigmatic for much of contemporary philosophy.
However, as Nietzsche very powerfully pointed out, humans do not always exhibit maximal interest in clarity and explicitness, and they are right not to. Clarity is often of no use to us at all, and can in some circumstances be a positive hindrance to attaining various important human goods. In addition to our desire for clarity and definiteness, humans exhibit a second set of properties that are perhaps equally important, are very inadequately understood, are very little under our control, and are seriously underappreciated. These are the powers of forgetting, ignoring, failing to ask questions. Similarly, when Heidegger speaks of the original conception of truth as "aletheia" the philology might be poor, but one of the points he is trying to make is, I think, correct. What we can "know"-that about which we have "beliefs"-is something we must pull out of the darkness into a clearing that has been made. Determining the relative relation of the light and darkness which we attribute to other human agents requires a nice power of discrimination and judgment.
Excerpted from Outside Ethics by Raymond Geuss Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
Hans Sluga, University of California, Berkeley, author of "Heidegger's Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany"
Robert Pippin, University of Chicago, author of "Henry James and Modern Moral Life"
Meet the Author
Raymond Geuss is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of "Public Goods, Private Goods" (Princeton), "The Idea of Critical Theory", and "History and Illusion in Politics".
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