Philosophy and Real Politics

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Overview

Many contemporary political thinkers are gripped by the belief that their task is to develop an ideal theory of rights or justice for guiding and judging political actions. But in Philosophy and Real Politics, Raymond Geuss argues that philosophers should first try to understand why real political actors behave as they actually do. Far from being applied ethics, politics is a skill that allows people to survive and pursue their goals. To understand politics is to understand the powers, motives, and concepts that people have and that shape how they deal with the problems they face in their particular historical situations.

Philosophy and Real Politics both outlines a historically oriented, realistic political philosophy and criticizes liberal political philosophies based on abstract conceptions of rights and justice. The book is a trenchant critique of established ways of thought and a provocative call for change.

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Editorial Reviews

The Philosopher's Magazine
A manifesto for a new political philosophy. . . . Geuss's realist proposal brings forcefully to the contemporary political discussion the idea that philosophy is an engaged discipline, both in the sense of engagee, of directly speaking to the political issues of the day, and in the sense of having its own historical cultural commitments firmly in view.
— Katerina Deligiorgi
London Review of Books - Glen Newey
A discipline-altering book.
City Journal - Adam Kirsch
[Geuss's] intention in Philosophy and Real Politics, his short, sharp new book, is . . . to introduce a note of realism into contemporary philosophical debates about justice, by force if necessary.
The Philosopher's Magazine - Katerina Deligiorgi
A manifesto for a new political philosophy. . . . Geuss's realist proposal brings forcefully to the contemporary political discussion the idea that philosophy is an engaged discipline, both in the sense of engagee, of directly speaking to the political issues of the day, and in the sense of having its own historical cultural commitments firmly in view.
Law and Politics Book Review - Christoph Konrath
Philosophy and Real Politics is an impressive and provocative essay on contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy theory.
Social Theory and Practice - David Sherman
[G]iven the current trends in political philosophy, Geuss's book is both timely and extremely important. One of Geuss's many virtues as a political philosopher is his ability to effectively confront philosophical complacency, and this superb book is surely successful in this regard.
Outlook India - Sunil Khilnani
A slim, devastating critique of the flight towards abstraction and pristine idealism in contemporary liberal political thought—a path led by the late John Rawls. Geuss's work deserves to be far better known.
From the Publisher

"A discipline-altering book."--Glen Newey, London Review of Books

"[Geuss's] intention in Philosophy and Real Politics, his short, sharp new book, is . . . to introduce a note of realism into contemporary philosophical debates about justice, by force if necessary."--Adam Kirsch, City Journal

"A manifesto for a new political philosophy. . . . Geuss's realist proposal brings forcefully to the contemporary political discussion the idea that philosophy is an engaged discipline, both in the sense of engagee, of directly speaking to the political issues of the day, and in the sense of having its own historical cultural commitments firmly in view."--Katerina Deligiorgi, The Philosopher's Magazine

"Philosophy and Real Politics is an impressive and provocative essay on contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy theory."--Christoph Konrath, Law and Politics Book Review

"[G]iven the current trends in political philosophy, Geuss's book is both timely and extremely important. One of Geuss's many virtues as a political philosopher is his ability to effectively confront philosophical complacency, and this superb book is surely successful in this regard."--David Sherman, Social Theory and Practice

"A slim, devastating critique of the flight towards abstraction and pristine idealism in contemporary liberal political thought--a path led by the late John Rawls. Geuss's work deserves to be far better known."--Sunil Khilnani, Outlook India

London Review of Books
A discipline-altering book.
— Glen Newey
City Journal
[Geuss's] intention in Philosophy and Real Politics, his short, sharp new book, is . . . to introduce a note of realism into contemporary philosophical debates about justice, by force if necessary.
— Adam Kirsch
Law and Politics Book Review
Philosophy and Real Politics is an impressive and provocative essay on contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy theory.
— Christoph Konrath
Social Theory and Practice
[G]iven the current trends in political philosophy, Geuss's book is both timely and extremely important. One of Geuss's many virtues as a political philosopher is his ability to effectively confront philosophical complacency, and this superb book is surely successful in this regard.
— David Sherman
Outlook India
A slim, devastating critique of the flight towards abstraction and pristine idealism in contemporary liberal political thought—a path led by the late John Rawls. Geuss's work deserves to be far better known.
— Sunil Khilnani
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691137889
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Pages: 126
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Raymond Geuss teaches philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His books include "Outside Ethics" (Princeton), "Public Goods, Private Goods" (Princeton), and "The Idea of a Critical Theory".

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Read an Excerpt

Philosophy and Real Politics
By Raymond Geuss Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13788-9


Introduction A strong "Kantian" strand is visible in much contemporary political theory, and even perhaps in some real political practice. This strand expresses itself in the highly moralised tone in which some public diplomacy is conducted, at any rate in the English-speaking world, and also in the popularity among political philosophers of the slogan "Politics is applied ethics." Slogans like this can be dangerous precisely because they are slickly ambiguous, and this one admits of at least two drastically divergent interpretations. There is what I will call "the anodyne" reading of the slogan, which formulates a view I fully accept, and then there is what I will call the "ethics-first" reading.

The anodyne reading asserts that "politics"-meaning both forms of political action and ways of studying forms of political action-is not and cannot be a strictly value-free enterprise, and so is in the very general sense an "ethical" activity. Politics is a matter of human, and not merely mechanical, interaction between individuals, institutions, or groups. It can happen that a group of passengers in an airplane are thrown together mechanically when it crashes, or that a man slipping off a bridge accidentally lands on a tramp sleeping under the bridge. The second of these two examples is a salutary reminder of the role of contingency and of theunexpected in history, but neither of the two cases is a paradigm for politics. Political actors are generally pursuing certain conceptions of the "good," and acting in the light of what they take to be permissible. This is true despite the undeniable fact that most human agents most of the time are weak, easily distracted, deeply conflicted, and confused, and that they therefore do not always do only things they take to be permissible. One will never understand what they are doing unless and until one takes seriously the ethical dimension of their action in the broadest sense of that term: their various value-judgments about the good, the permissible, the attractive, the preferable, that which is to be avoided at all costs. Acting in this way can perfectly reasonably be described as "applying ethics," provided one understands that "applying" has very few similarities with giving a proof in Euclidean geometry or calculating the load-bearing capacities of a bridge, and is often more like the process of trying to survive in a free-for-all. Provided also one keeps in mind a number of other important facts, such as the unavoidable indeterminacy of much of human life. Every point in a Cartesian coordinate system is construed as having a determinate distance from the x-axis and from the y-axis. This way of thinking is of extremely limited usefulness when one is dealing with any phenomenon connected with human desires, beliefs, attitudes, or values. People often have no determinate beliefs at all about a variety of subjects; they often don't know what they want or why they did something; even when they know or claim to know what they want, they can often give no coherent account of why exactly they want what they claim to want; they often have no idea which portions of their systems of beliefs and desires-to the extent to which they have determinate beliefs and desires-are "ethical principles" and which are (mere empirical) "interests." This is not simply an epistemic failing, and also not something that one could in principle remedy, but a pervasive "inherent" feature in human life. Although this fundamental indeterminacy is a phenomenon almost everyone confronts and recognises in his or her own case all the time, for a variety of reasons we are remarkably resistant to accepting it as a general feature of the way in which we should best think about our social life, but we are wrong to try to evade it. A further reason to be suspicious of quasi-Cartesian attitudes to human life is that people are rarely more than locally consistent in action, thought, and desire, and in many domains of human life this does not matter at all, or might even be taken to have positive value. I may pursue a policy that is beneficial to me in the short term, but that "in the long run" will undermine itself. This may not even be subjectively "irrational," given that in the long run, as Keynes pointed out, I will be dead (along with all the rest of us), and I may very reasonably, or even correctly, believe that I will be lucky enough to die before the policy unravels. When Catullus expresses his love and hate for Lesbia, he is not obviously voicing a wish to rid himself of one or the other of these two sentiments. Not all contradictions resolve into temporal change of belief or desire. Any attempt to think seriously about the relation between politics and ethics must remain cognitively sensitive to the fact that people's beliefs, values, desires, moral conceptions, etc., are usually half-baked (in every sense), are almost certain to be both indeterminate and, to the extent to which they are determinate, grossly inconsistent in any but the most local, highly formalised contexts, and are constantly changing. None of this implies that it might not be of the utmost importance to aspire to ensure relative stability and consistency in certain limited domains.

Humans' beliefs and desires are in constant flux, and changes in them can take place for any number of reasons. Transformations of specific sectors of human knowledge are often accompanied by very widespread further changes in worldview and values. People have often claimed that Darwinism had this effect in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. In addition, new technologies give people new possible objects of desire and, arguably, new ways of desiring things. It is by no means obvious that the hunger which was satisfied when Neolithic humans tore apart raw meat with their fingers is the same kind of thing as the hunger that is satisfied by dining in a five-star restaurant in 2008. Technological change can also make it possible for people to act in new ways toward each other, and sometimes these need to be regulated in ways for which there are no precedents: once it begins to become possible to transfer human organs from one person to another, and manipulate the genetic makeup of the members of the next generation of humans, people come to feel the need of some kind of guidance about which forms of transfer or manipulation should be permitted and which discouraged or forbidden. Changes in political or economic power relations often make it more or less likely that certain groups will move culturally closer to or further away from their neighbours, thus changing people's ethical concepts, sentiments, and views (again, in the broadest sense of the term "ethical"). Politics is in part informed by and in part an attempt to manage some of these changes. In addition, as people act on their values, moral views, and conceptions of the good life, these values and conceptions often change precisely as the result of being "put into practice." Sometimes one could describe this as a kind of "learning" experience. The total failure of a project that has absorbed a significant amount of social energy and attention, and for which serious sacrifices have been made, in particular often seems to focus the mind and make it open to assimilating new ways of thinking and valuing. Thus after the events of 1914 to 1945 a very significant part of the population in Germany became highly sceptical of nationalism and the military virtues, and the experiences of Suez and Algeria tended in Britain and France to throw any further attempts at acting out the old forms of colonial imperialism into disrepute. Sometimes, to be sure, the appropriate learning process does not take place, or the "wrong" lesson is drawn, and this often exacts a high price in the form of a repetition or failure. Thus the larger significance of the Reagan era in the United States was that the political class in power to a large extent prevented any significant, long-term lessons from being drawn from the defeat in Vietnam. Learning, failure to learn, and drawing the wrong lesson are all possible outcomes, and whichever one in fact results needs to be explained, understood, and evaluated. There is no guarantee that "learning" is irreversible, nor can any distinct sense be attributed to the claim that learning in the longer term is natural, that is, will take place unless prevented. Furthermore, even in the best of cases learning in politics seems to be limited either to very crude transformations over long periods-"we learn" over two thousand years that it is better to have a legal code that is accessible to everyone than merely to allow the priests to consult their esoteric lore-or to what are, in historical terms, very short periods, with little in between. The effects of the short-term learning can often wear off remarkably quickly. Colonial intervention was in bad odour in Britain between the 1960s and the year 2000, but we now (2007) have troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan again.

One can speak of politics as "applied ethics" if this form of words takes one's fancy, but it is not obvious that all the above-described phenomena form anything like a natural kind or a single coherent domain for study by some determinate intellectual speciality: "applied ethics" is just a term applied to people trying to manage forms of action and modes of evaluation that distinguish a good from better or less good as they interact with political programmes, individual and group interests, changes in the economic structure, the requirements of action, institutional needs, and contingently arising historical problems of various kinds.

When I object to the claim that politics is applied ethics, I do not have the above anodyne reading in mind. Rather, I intend a much more specific view about the nature and structure of ethical judgment and its relation to politics, and in particular a theory about where one should start in studying politics, what the final framework for studying politics is, what it is reasonable to focus on, and what it is possible to abstract from. "Politics is applied ethics" in the sense I find objectionable means that we start thinking about the human social world by trying to get what is sometimes called an "ideal theory" of ethics. This approach assumes that there is, or could be, such a thing as a separate discipline called Ethics which has its own distinctive subject-matter and forms of argument, and which prescribes how humans should act toward one another. It further assumes that one can study this subject-matter without constantly locating it within the rest of human life, and without unceasingly reflecting on the relations one's claims have with history, sociology, ethnology, psychology, and economics. Finally, this approach proposes that the way to proceed in "ethics" is to focus on a very few general principles such as that humans are rational, or that they generally seek pleasure and try to avoid pain, or that they always pursue their own "interests"; these principles are taken to be historically invariant, and studying ethics consists essentially in formulating them clearly, investigating the relations that exist between them, perhaps trying to give some kind of "justification" of at least some of them, and drawing conclusions from them about how people ought to act or live. Usually, some kind of individualism is also presupposed, in that the precepts of ethics are thought to apply directly and in the first instance to human individuals. Often, although not invariably, views of this type also give special weight to "ethical intuitions" that people in our society purportedly share, and they hold that an important part of ethics is the attempt to render these intuitions consistent.

Empirical abstemiousness and systematicity are two of the major virtues to which "ideal" theories of this kind aspire. The best-known instance of this approach is Kantianism, which claims in its more extreme versions that ethics can be completely nonempirical, derived simply (but fully) from the mere notion of rational agency, and the absolute consistency of willing that is purportedly the defining characteristic of any rational agent. Kantian ethics is supposed to be completely universal in its application to all agents in all historical situations. Although Kant does not himself use the vocabulary of "intuitions" (or rather, he does use a term usually translated "intuition" (Anschauung), but uses it with no specific moral meaning), he does think that individuals have in common sense ("der gemeine Menschenverstand") - presumably post-Christian, Western European common sense-a reliable "compass" that tells them what they ought to do in individual cases. Philosophical ethics does nothing more than formulate the principle that such common sense in fact uses. Kantianism is at the moment the most influential kind of "ideal" theory, but one can find similar structural features in many other views (e.g., in some forms of utilitarianism), and they are the more pronounced, the keener their proponents are to proclaim the strictly "philosophical" nature of the kind of study of ethics that they advocate. A theory of this kind might consist of constraints on action, such as the "Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal" of various archaic moral codes or Kant's "Never lie even to save a human life"; or it might also contain the presentation of some ideal goals to be pursued, such as "Strive to construct (an ideal) democracy" (or "Strive to construct an ideal speech community," or "Strive to build socialism") or "Love thy neighbour as thyself." The view I am rejecting assumes that one can complete the work of ethics first, attaining an ideal theory of how we should act, and then in a second step, one can apply that ideal theory to the action of political agents. As an observer of politics one can morally judge the actors by reference to what this theory dictates they ought to have done. Proponents of the view I am rejecting then often go on to make a final claim that a "good" political actor should guide his or her behaviour by applying the ideal theory. The empirical details of the given historical situation enter into consideration only at this point. "Pure" ethics as an ideal theory comes first, then applied ethics, and politics is a kind of applied ethics.

In this essay I would like to expound and advocate a kind of political philosophy based on assumptions that are the opposite of the "ethics-first" view, and so it might be useful to the reader to make the acquaintance, in a preliminary and sketchy way, of the four interrelated theses that, I will claim, ought to structure a more fruitful approach to politics than "ethics-first."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Philosophy and Real Politics by Raymond Geuss
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


Preface vii
Introduction 1
Part I Realism
Who Whom? 23
Priorities, Preferences, Timing 30
Legitimacy 34
Tasks of Political Theory 37
Understanding, Evaluation, Orientation 37
Conceptual Innovation 42
Ideology 50
Part II Failures of Realism
Rights 60
Justice 70
Equality 76
Fairness, Ignorance, Impartiality 80
Power 90
Conclusion 95
Notes 103
Works Cited 109
Index 113
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