in conversation with Raymond Geuss
Does the world suffer from relativism and nihilism or is it imbued with meaning after all? Philosopher Raymond Geuss talks to four by three about his book A World Without Why, why clarity can be a function of repression, constructive versus radical criticism, and the role of art within philosophy.
Our world, you suggest in your latest book A World Without Why, is not one which is ‘in order’, but one which seems characterized by instability, insecurity, unintelligibility and uncertainty. Could you expand on what vision of the world this gives us? Is it intended to be a substantive claim or more of an exaggeration prompting critical reflection?
Raymond Geuss: At the beginning of The German Ideology, Marx writes that in the future there will only be one science: the science of history. If you look at the history of the human species, it seems reasonable to assume that human beings have generally been confronted with a world that did not immediately reveal itself to them in its true shape and also did not automatically satisfy their needs. As members of the human species acted on this environment so as to cause it to satisfy their needs, they thereby created new needs. When humans need water, that water is not always easily available. When the Romans began to build aqueducts to make water available, they did contribute to satisfying that need more reliably but at the cost of generating a new need, namely a need for engineers with a certain kind of specialized experience and expertise who could ensure that the aqueducts were maintained in good order.
To say that the world is unstable, insecure, and uncertain was not intended to be an exaggeration, but simply an expression of this historical observation. The claim that the world is not ‘in order’ adds to that generalisation an evaluative twist. Socrates expected the book by Anaxagoras to show that it was for the best that the world was as it was, but you could only expect to have to learn this from a book if your immediate experience did not incline you to take it for granted. The world we live in does not on the whole conform to the patterns, which we think it would be good for it to instantiate. There is a discrepancy between how we perceive the world to be and how we think it would be good for it to be. To assert this (rather than just entertaining it, as it were, silently) is to act so as to highlight or draw attention to this discrepancy, and thus to intervene politically (in a minimal way) in the struggle against complacency.
In response to this, you suggest that at times seeking clarity ‘can be seen as a requirement of conformity to structures of repression’ (A World Without Why, 41). Why, and to what extent can a focus on clarification be a bad thing? And how can obscurity have a positive force and value?
RG: The concept of ‘clarity’ is not itself absolutely clear, indisputable, and self-validating virtue in all contexts. It does not unquestionably take priority over all other virtues. What clarity is, and what sorts of things concretely count as ‘clear’ depends on context.
Something is clear for someone, in some context, for some purpose. How important is it to be clear (and what that will mean) equally depends on the context, and that means on a set of presupposed human purposes and assumptions about background conditions. It is not, then, that ‘unclarity’ is a positive virtue, as that the whole question of what should count as clear in a given context is more open than people often take it to be. Given that clarity is often depended on context, it is very often (and almost invariably in politics) a good idea to ask what kind of clarity is being demanded. Clarity for whom – for what kind of people, how placed and with what beliefs and interests – clarity for what purposes, under what further assumptions, in what context. The point about ‘clarity’ is parallel to that made by Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s in his essay on ‘repressive toleration’, which everyone used to read, or at any rate pretend to know about, but which now seems to have dropped out of view. He did not hold that all toleration was bad, but rather he wanted to make two slightly distinct points. The first was that in reality the liberal societies that professed universal tolerance, actually did not practice it – roughly speaking they exercised toleration toward the Right, but found various ways of repressing views from the Left. The second point was that it would actually be a catastrophe to treat the views of those who preach sociability, compassion, human cooperation and those who actively propagated sadistic practices as equally to be tolerated. Whatever the practical complications involved in dealing with real cases, it seems wrong not to discriminate at all here.
Similarly, the demand for ‘clarity’ can in some circumstances be an expression of a more or less innocent incapacity on the part of the person who makes the demand. If you think what I am saying is ‘not clear’ it is not apriori true that that is my problem. This demand, can, however, also in some circumstances be a mask for a highly motivated rejection of something that would threaten my own position or interests.
In the preface to the book you advocate a modified enlightenment project of ‘critique’ and in so doing distinguish this critical attitude from its Kantian form. One of the main contrasts seems to be that the critique you advocate is highly context specific, does not aim at antecedent foundations or absolute truths. How does this form of critique avoid collapsing into a form of relativism? And how can different methods and approaches to topics be used in a ‘responsible’ way – i.e. without becoming a kind of ‘play’ or ‘game’ of historical scholarship?
RG: ‘Relativism’ (and its cousin ‘nihilism’) are both bogeymen constructed artificially by philosophers to scare the children. No one actually believes that all beliefs are equally good (relative in the noxious sense) or that nothing is any more desirable than anything else (nihilism). These two constructs, ‘relativism’ and ‘nihilism’, are part of a complex scheme of blackmail by philosophers of a Platonic persuasion. Platonists have argued that unless you have a single, final and absolute framework for knowledge, you have nothing, no way for orienting yourself in the world at all. Historically, this form of blackmail has been highly successful, there is no reason to accept the alternative: either you have an absolute framework or anything goes. Suppose I tell you that there is a cup of tea just to your left. If that is true, does it allow you to orient yourself? Clearly you can: reach to the left and you will get the cup of tea, to the right and you will not. It does not follow from this that either I or you will have a final framework within which to organise all knowledge. Even if the knowledge in question is 'only' relative to my or your situation, that is enough, provided that is the situation I (or you) actually is in. The denigration of merely local, contextual, or relative knowledge (or for that matter value) as not really knowledge (or ‘really valuable) depends on a huge mass of Platonic assumptions which the whole history of recent philosophy has been devoted to demolishing. So I am not worried by the spectre of ‘relativism’ of that of nihilism.
As far as criticism is concerned, Foucault makes an important observation. He distinguishes between the ‘ethos’ of enlightenment and the ‘dogma’ of Enlightenment. The ethos is a matter of maintaining an open and questioning attitude toward the world and toward the claims people make. The dogma is the idea of an absolute, trans-historical Reason, and the whole conceptual apparatus that is associated with it. There is no reason why one cannot keep the ethos while rejecting the dogma. Open-ended, Socratic questions can be an important part of human life. Not the only thing, the most important thing, or even always a necessary thing, but something that is very frequently of great value. There is no reason to think that when criticism becomes radical it necessarily becomes empty. If that were the case, it would be highly convenient for the ‘haves’ of this world, the minority of people who benefit most from current arrangements, but it isn’t true. Whether or not a form of criticism is or is not ‘empty’ depends, like most other things, on context.
Following from this, you have discussed criticism as either being constructive, but repressive, or radical, which some argue to be counterproductive and bleak. Do you believe that criticism at its best can or should be both radical and constructive, or are they indeed mutually exclusive? Is this simply a historically specific tension?
RG: There is a distinct repressive potential in the demand that criticism must be ‘constructive’. Why, after all, should anyone assume that a form of criticism is valid only if I can specify an alternative to what I am criticising, partially if I allow my opponent to say what counts as an alternative? If the surgeon botches the operation on my leg, I can surely validly complaint about that and criticise him even if I could not tell him in detail how he ought actually to have performed the operation. After all, it is his job to know how to operate; he is hired to sort this out, not me. To say I can criticise only if I can specify an alternative is sometimes just a way to trying to dampen down criticism. This is especially true in cases where certain forms of required expertise or bits of information are difficult to acquire or even consciously monopolised.
It would be a good thing in general to get away from exclusive focus on the following structure: you have a certain view; I verbally assert a set of propositions which has the structure of what we call an ‘argument’ and which is directed against that view; as a result you change your mind. That happens sometimes and when it does it is by no means unimportant, but there are many other forms of critical intervention. I can, for instance, not say something, but do something that focuses attention on some aspect of a situation or which causes people to think about a situation differently or consider new possibilities. One of my students reminded me recently of something Emily Pankhurst said. Someone asked her how she thought that breaking windows was a way by which suffragettes could persuade people to give them the vote. How could that be a form of criticism? She responded that to ask this question was to misunderstand the whole situation completely. Breaking windows was not intended to be a form of arguing, but was to change the situation so that, as a result, people would have different views more appropriate to the situation. That has a different structure from that of verbal argumentation. In thinking about criticism it makes sense to think of it as one possibility within a wide spectrum of different ways of acting.
You explore our contemporary philosophical obsession with clarity through different riddles and puzzles. In The Loss of Meaning on the Left you discuss two stories of a boy at a pond, that of Narcissus' obsession with his reflection in the water and Hegel's image of a child throwing stones into the water. What are the possibilities of ‘the meaning of life’ in our modern society? Have we lost meaning or are we suffering from an oversaturation of meaning?
RG: Until the 19th century no one asks about ‘the meaning of life’. That is a very modern question, not an age-old one, and so I assume that in that form it is connected with specific features of the way modern populations think about the world. Both Wittgenstein and Marx thought that if the question even arose, that was a sign that it had no answer, because it was characteristic of those whose lives were ‘meaningful’ that for them the question did not even arise.
Theodor Adorno’s claim that ‘there is no correct living in the false life’ seems to resonate with your view that the world in its current form is not conducive to the good life. The claim of its lack of clarity and rationality further suggests a strong limitation to what ethical or moral philosophy can teach us about how to respond to and live well in this situation. What do you take the limits and possibilities of ethics in the modern world to be? Can it help to answer the question of 'how one should live' and if so, in what ways can moral or ethical philosophy do so?
RG: All sorts of things can teach us how to live. My cat Tabitha can teach me how to live, so can music, so can a thunderstorm, so can contemplation of the reflection of the sun in a puddle or concentrated observation of three drops of blood in the snow. So it would not be surprising if philosophy was, in some way, one of the things that can teach us how to live, too. People who speak about the task of philosophy as that of teaching us how to live don’t mean that. They don’t mean that by reading books by philosophers or talking to philosophers I can come to understand something, as I can by observing or interacting with my cat. They mean that philosophy is a specific theoretical discipline which can provide you with well-grounded advice for a wide range of situations. However, there is no separate cognitively grounded discipline which will tell you what to do in every situation and bless you with the knowledge that you have done what can be known to be right. Of course we can read traditional philosophers who [falsely] thought that that is what they were doing and learn from them, but we don’t learn from them in the way they thought they were teaching us. Tabitha doesn’t [falsely] think she is teaching me anything when I learn what I learn from her. Learning from traditional philosophers will take a different form from the one they think it should and must take, namely that you follow out their arguments and by being convinced for the plausibility of them, accept their conclusions. Just how the process of learning is different from that model is a complicated affair, and one about which I can’t really say anything illuminating in very general terms, and certainly not in a brief compass.
In the essay A World Without Why you suggest that rather than looking to much of contemporary philosophy, in order to think about matters of importance, that it might be helpful to turn to art, which ‘invites’ reflection and shows us the world in a new configuration. Art, in the form of myths in particular, also features heavily throughout your other essays. Could you say a bit about the philosophical and social value that you find in art and how it relates, for you, to your own philosophical work?
RG: Plato uses the phrase ‘didonai logon’ – ‘give an account’, ‘give a reason’, ‘give a rationale – again and again. For him this is the central task of philosophy: it is about clarifying concepts, giving reasons, providing and evaluating arguments. Art, however, is meaningfully structured, but in a way that often resists conceptualisation. Once can, of course, talk about works of art, and one can even ‘argue’ about them, but engagement with works of art is not primordially and chiefly a cognitive, conceptual, or theoretical matter. It doesn’t have the structure of the asking for and then finding or evaluating ‘reasons’. You can go three ways with this. You can try, like Hegel, to expand what you mean by logos and hope to capture art in the thus expanded conceptual net. Or, you can give up on the possibility of getting to what is important in a given work through the logos and try to say something about some possible other way of getting access. Or, this would be the third way, you can try to combine both of these two ways. How exactly that would work, I don’t know.
I do, however, think that engagement with art is a highly salutary form of hygiene for philosophers. And the same is true, by the way, for the engagement with religion, political activism, what is called ‘mental illness’, and serious ethnological research. Philosophers, given the training they get in modern universities, get obsessed with conceptualising things, as well as giving and refuting arguments. Not all art gives you the means to resist pressures toward conformity, but you have a better chance of resisting if you have as wide a range of kinds of experience at your disposal as possible. An example of something that for me seems to give the auditor a valuable kind of distance to our world would be Kurt Schwitters Ursonate – a composition that lies on the boundary between poetry and music, and implicates the listener in a kind of experimental activity of an ambiguous nature. The activation of human powers it induces seems to me not unconnected with the development of powers of resistance.