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BookForum[A] terrific collection. . . . Philosophy fails, writes Geuss, mostly by being unhistorical; he makes the case for understanding politics only in a richly articulated historical context.
— Brendan Boyle
In politics, utopians do not have a monopoly on imagination. Even the most conservative defenses of the status quo. Raymond Geuss argues, require imaginative acts of some kind. In this collection of recent essays, including his most overtly political writing yet, Geuss explores the role of imagination constructs interact with political reality. He uses decision about the war in Iraq to explore the peculiar ways in which politicians can be deluded and citizens can misunderstand their leaders. He also examines critically what he sees as one of the most serious delusions of western political thinking-the idea that a human society is always best conceived as a closed system obeying fixed rules. And, in essays on Don Quixote, museums, Celan's poetry, Heidegger's brother Fritz, Richard Rorty, and bourgeois philosophy, Geuss reflects on how cultural artifacts can lead us to embrace or reject conventional assumptions about the world. While paying particular attention to the relative political roles played by rule-following, utilitarian calculations of interest, and aspirations to lead a collective life of a certain kind, Geuss discusses a wide range of related issues, including the distance critics need from their political systems, the extent to which history can enlighten politics, and the possibility of Utopian thinking in a world in which action retains its urgency.
In his recently published memoirs the former British ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer, describes a dinner party which he attended in Washington in early February 2001. George W. Bush had just been elected-or at any rate, inaugurated as-president of the United States, and the members of his new administration were awaiting the first visit of the British prime minister Tony Blair. Present at the dinner were several close advisers of the new U.S. president, figures strongly associated with the Republican Right, so-called "neoconservatives" such as Richard Perle and David Frum. The conversation quickly moved to Britain's recent decision at the meeting of the Council of Europe in Nice to support closer European defense cooperation. These "neoconservatives" thought that Blair had fallen victim to a French plot to harm the United States by introducing a new, independent military force in Europe, which could in principle compete with NATO. Sir Christopher, however, tried to convince them that the projected new form of defense cooperation represented no more than an increase in Europe's ability to discharge subaltern functions within a NATO that would continue to be dominated by Washington. The new arrangements, correctly understood, were therefore not only no threat to the United States; they were in Washington's own best long-term interest. Sir Christopher then continues:
I found it an uphill struggle to place our initiative in the context which Blair had intended. I withstood a full frontal assault from all concerned against our alleged sell-out to the French.... [One of the neoconservatives present] argued that now we were allowing ourselves to be corrupted by political correctness and socialist Europe. We were, he said, drifting away from our traditional transatlantic loyalties-look at the threat to fox-hunting, for Pete's sake!
Some of this was barking mad. But lurking in there was a serious point. How could even Tony Blair, the most gifted performer of his generation in the circus of British politics, ride the American and the European horses at the same time, without falling between two saddles? The real answer was: with difficulty. At [this] dinner I fell back on the holy mantra of British foreign policy. There was no choice to be made between Britain's European and Atlantic vocations. If we were strong and influential in Europe, this would strengthen our hand in the US. If we were close to the US, this would redound to our benefit in Europe. "No, no!" the cry went up around the table, in an unconscious echo of General De Gaulle, "Britain must choose." To this audience of Manicheans I sounded feeble and temporising, a typical product of the Foreign Office.
This anecdote seems to me to present an archetypical instance of a "political" disagreement. One of the first features of it that strikes me is that it has a certain specific historical density. Sir Christopher in 2005 tells the story of a group of people who encountered each other in Washington in February 2001. At this meeting in 2001 each group presented, and tried to argue for, a radically different interpretation of a series of decisions which already at that time lay in the past, namely the decisions made at the meeting of the European Council in Nice in December 2000 about European defense. Each of the two different interpretations contains, as an integral part of itself, a divergent projection about what future we can expect to result from the events in Nice. Sir Christopher thinks it will strengthen Washington's ability to project its military power around the world; his neoconservative interlocutors deny this strenuously. This disagreement takes place within the framework of a set of values shared by both of the two participants to the discussion, namely the assumption that it is a good thing for the United States to be able to project its power as widely and effectively as possible. This, of course, is an assumption with which it would also be possible to disagree. It seems natural for us to say that the disagreement between Sir Christopher and the neoconservatives mirrors or results from differences in the respective "political judgments" each of the two parties make about the project of closer European cooperation on defense.
If one wants to understand what was going on in Sir Christopher's anecdote, one must keep in mind that most of the individuals engaged in this discussion had specific institutional roles which in some cases might give their words extra weight, but which would also require them to be especially circumspect in expressing themselves, and which might even require them on occasion to "represent" in public an institutional position about which they actually had some private doubts. In his memoirs Sir Christopher is admirably clear about the distinction between his role as a diplomat and thus a member of the Civil Service, and his own private views. He is equally clear about the distinction between either of these and particular policy decisions of the current UK government. Thus, in saying that the UK did not need to choose between an Atlantic and a European "vocation" he was, as he explicitly says above, voicing the institutional opinion of the British diplomatic corps. When he writes in the passage cited above that this policy was difficult to pursue successfully, I think we can assume that he is speaking in his private capacity, and I think we can be rather sure that Sir Christopher never said to his U.S. interlocutors even in private conversation that, to use his own pungent formulation, Mr. Blair's project was to ride them as one of the horses in a two-horse circus act.
The political judgment expressed in a directive to the members of a highly centralized Leninist cadre party has a very different standing and meaning from the manifesto of a contemporary British political party. The abstraction of (mere) opinions or beliefs from their wider context may be highly useful, or even necessary, for certain purposes, but any kind of adequate understanding of political judgments will require reference back to that original full matrix of individual and institutional action. Even when the abstraction is perfectly justified, as it is for most normal cases, one will never know when extracting the judgment from its wider action context and formulating it as a "mere" belief will distort it, and in what way it will distort it.
The decision at the conference in Nice was a political act, a choice made by agents empowered to represent recognized states about a future set of courses of collective action, but the later disagreement between Sir Christopher and the neoconservatives about the retrospective interpretation of that original decision was also a political controversy and not a seminar discussion. I think it is a great failing of much contemporary political philosophy that it tends to focus too exclusively on discussion and also tries to construe discussion on the model of a highly idealized conception of what purely rational or scientific discussion is. Forming and holding opinions and engaging in discussion of those opinions are, of course, important parts of human life, but (a) opinion formation and discussion are not all there is to politics, and (b) even the formation and evaluation of opinions is comprehensible only in one or another of a number of different wider historical and institutional contexts; most of these contexts will be in one way or another action-orienting. Genuine understanding of any real or envisaged course of action, however, requires one to understand the concrete constellation of power within which it is located.
So in the rest of this paper I would like to try to elaborate an intentionally rather overdrawn distinction between a political disagreement and a certain ideal-typical account of academic discussion. I will exaggerate slightly in order to bring out some features of the political which philosophers sometimes lose sight of. I wish to emphasize that I am not trying to assert any general distinction here between politics and science, but rather between politics and a certain set of philosophical claims that have been made about the nature of rational human discussion.
The political philosophers from whose untender embraces I would like to save politics focus their attention on deliberation resulting in a political judgment, where the process of deliberation is construed as a kind of discussion, the model for which is an idealized version of a Socratic dialogue. This idealized model is characterized by the following eight elements:
1. A judgment is essentially an opinion (or belief), that is, the affirmation or negation in thought of some proposition ("Tabitha has four paws"; "Thou shalt not kill"). 2. The content of an opinion is always expressed in language. 3. An opinion is always in the final analysis the opinion of an individual. 4. Those who express opinions in discussion must expect these to be subjected to scrutiny to determine whether or not they are correct or true; this means that the whole apparatus of evaluating truth claims that has been an obsession of Western philosophy since its origins can be activated in the discussion. 5. Opinions can be investigated atomistically, that it, one can abstract them-without remainder and without falsifying them-from the context of actions and other opinions in which they are usually embedded, and treat each one in isolation. 6. Participants in the discussion are anonymous; they do not speak as bearers of any social roles or offices or with any special authority, but always as naked individuals. The opinions discussed are treated ahistorically, as if it were irrelevant what the person who holds the opinion might have said or done in the past. 7. "Ethical judgments" formulate a particular "moral ought" which prescribes once and for all how each individual should act and trumps all other practical considerations. 8. Political philosophy is a part of applied ethics; that is, in discussion ethical judgments are clarified and justified, and they are then applied in the political sphere.
As I said the above is an ideal type, that is, a constructed paradigm which is taken to have importance because it gives understanding both of cases that conform to it and of cases that deviate. It is not intended as a description of any reality. Nevertheless, this paradigm seems to me to provide such a distorted view of anything that could reasonably be called "politics," that it is not a useful starting point for any kind of illuminating analysis. Roughly speaking, each of the eight theses is either false or so misleading that it might as well be false. Traditional philosophy was utterly fixated on the search for a single fundamental concept the analysis of which would allow one to decipher a whole area of human experience, and for a very wide range of human activities philosophers thought they had discovered an Archimedean point in the concept of a "belief" or an "opinion." I would like to suggest that this traditional approach might in some ways stand in the way of a proper understanding of politics. In contrast to the traditional views, I would like to propose two theses. First, if one thinks it necessary to isolate a single political concept that was purportedly more central than others, one would be well advised to take as basic not "belief" or "opinion" but "action" or the "context of action." Political judgments are not made individually one by one, but always stand as parts of larger sets of beliefs and judgments, and a political judgment is always embedded in a context of action. A political judgment is itself specifically directed at focusing, guiding and orienting future action; expressing, or even entertaining, such a judgment is performing an action. Second, "context of action" would not be a concept that could serve as an essential definition of politics in the traditional sense in which philosophers have sought such a definition. At best, "context of action" is an open concept with indeterminate contours, and boundaries that can expand and contract depending on a variety of other factors.
It is by no means an unimportant feature of politics that it is a kind of interaction between concrete individuals and groups that have different powers and abilities. These individuals and groups act, try to preempt, counter, or control the actions of others and discuss the rationale for and the actual consequences of pursuing a variety of possible and actual courses of action, appealing to general principles and shared assumptions, blustering, threatening, cajoling and arguing to assert themselves and to further particular policies and orientations toward the world. The people engaged in the discussion are also not anonymous or abstract tokens of universal rationality, but persons who have individual histories, and track records of previously held opinions, actions, and associations that are to some degree known to the others. Particularly in the case of politicians who are known magnitudes the possibility of recalling their past actions, the positions they took, and the arguments they used can throw a surprisingly long shadow on a present discussion. This means that agents involved in the interaction will need to think about the consistency of their commitments over time, and about reasons they could publicly give for having changed their views (when they have done so)-reasons that do not do them too much discredit. Thus, everyone present at the Washington dinner party Sir Christopher describes will have known that Richard Perle had been a staunch opponent of any form of arms control agreement with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and was closely associated in the 1990s with a group called "The Project for the New American Century." This group elaborated a plan for U.S. domination of the world by making use of the uncontested military superiority of the United States over any possible constellation of conventional enemies that was one result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the central planks of the program put forward by the Project for the New American Century was the proposal to "discourage" allies, for example the United Kingdom, from acquiring the military capacity to operate independently of the United States. If Richard Perle one day presented himself as an apostle of peace and advocate of genuinely universal disarmament, this deviation from his earlier position would at the very least require him to have some articulable reasons ready to explain why he had changed his mind, or how his new position could be made compatible with the one with which he is so strongly associated. That would not be impossible, but it would be an extra rhetorical task he would have to discharge that might put him at a slight disadvantage in certain discussions. In general participants in a political discussion have internalized at least some minimal historical knowledge about the other participants to such an extent that the past is an essential integral component of the present situation, and one cannot understand what is taking place without knowledge of this historical dimension.
When Richard Perle says to Sir Christopher Meyer that Britain "must" choose, he is not merely floating for disinterested consideration a speculative hypothesis about historical or contextual necessity, in the way in which a biologist might say that all living things must eventually die. Rather, particularly in view of Richard Perle's position as a professional politician and his past, which strongly suggests that he is a bit of a bully, in saying that Britain must choose Perle is most probably trying to influence Sir Christopher's attitude, that is, trying to bring it about that Britain does choose. Even saying this makes it harder for Britain not to choose, and given Perle's connections he is, and is known to be, in a position to make it even harder if he wishes. Western philosophers have historically focused on the analysis of beliefs or opinions, have construed these on the model of detached vision, and have discussed obsessively the conditions under which such beliefs could be considered to represent the existing world correctly. It is not false to think of a political judgment as a belief, but this is an abstraction, an artificial isolation of one element or component or aspect from a wider nexus of actions and action-related attitudes, habits, and institutional arrangements, within which alone the judgment (finally) makes sense.
Excerpted from POLITICS AND THE IMAGINATION by Raymond Geuss Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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