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LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS
RAYMOND GEUSS Universityof Cambridge
Westernsocieties find themselvesin an odd situAgents in contemporary ation. On the one hand,we seem to have no realisticalternative to liberalism; thatis, we know of no otherapproach to humansociety andpolitics thatis at the same time as theoreticallyrich andcomprehensiveas liberalismand also even remotely as morally acceptableto wide sections of the populationin Westernsocieties, as they arenow in fact constituted.'Liberalideaspermeate oursocial worldandoureverydayexpectationsabouthow people andinstituwithin which tions will and oughtto act; they constitutethe final framework ourpoliticalthinkingmoves. Primafacie nonliberalforms of habitualbelief, such as those associatedwith certainreligions,formsof nationalism,residual class enmities, and so on, still, of course, exist, but they seem to be, at best, isolated and localised foreign bodies in a universe,the overall structureof which is essentially liberal;in societies that are or are aspiringto be 'Western', even these nonliberalideologicalfragmentssometimesadoptprotective colourationin the form of the best veneer of compatibilitywith liberalism they can muster. On the otherhand,there are signs of a significanttheoretical,moral,and political disaffection with some aspects of liberalism.Liberalismhas for a potential;it is good at dissolving long time seemedto lack muchinspirational
AUTHOR 'SNOTE:Thistextis a revisedversionofan article I wrotein Germanandpublishedin December2001 in the DeutscheZeitschriftfir Philosophieunderthe title 'Das Unbehagenam Liberalismus'.The original Germanarticle in turn was the content of a series of three talks I gave at the Universityof Saarbriickenin December 2000. My thanks to Professor Wilfried Hinschof Saarbriickenforthe kindinvitationto speak there,and also to the colleagues in Camand bridge with whomI have discussed this topic mostfrequently,John Dunn, Zeev Emmerich, QuentinSkinnerI also owe a greatdebtof gratitudeto Hilary Gaskinand to the two anonymous readersfor thisjournal who helped me to correctseveral mistakesand significantlyimprovethe original Germanversion of the essav.
POLITICAL THEORY,Vol. 30 No. 3, June 2002 320-338 ? 2002 Sage Publications 320
for reprehensible and so on. poverty.and unpredictableworld there are good general reasons not to embarkon radicalchanges in one's social formation unless one is forced to it by demonstrableoverwhelmingnecessity.toleration. 'Discontent'with civilisation is an unavoidablefate. As the Harvard notoriouslywrote. the discontentwe feel with liberalismis of a differenttype. it is hardto avoidthe that it is rather of the than of problem suspicion part part the solution.will sooneror laterdissolve liberalismandrender it as irrelevant to us as feudalismor theoriesof moralitybased on honour. are deeply anchored in the social institutions.it seems to havebeen used for the first time in about 1810-11 to refer to a group in Spain whose membersadvocateda limitationof the privilegesof the king andthe introduc- .though.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 321 traditional modes of life andtheirassociatedvalues. rather. and Freudthinks thatit is strictlyimpossibleto do awaywith it altogether. our social arrangements. To the extentto which liberalismis committedto the principlesof individualinitiativeandthe defence of privateproperty.in an uncertain.3Oldercriticismsof liberalismhave also lost none of theirpower and plausibility:thatit has no clear remedyfor forms of inequalityof power. but that we are also not able simply to throwoff.5 was originallya wordused to designatea politicalparty. the best we can do is try to mitigatesome of its worsteffects. What contributioncould liberalism conceivably make to thinking Liberalideals about the general degradationof the planetaryenvironment? like individualism. 'Whatis universalpolitical scientistSamuelHuntingdon ism to the Westis imperialismto the rest'.2 at replacingthem with anythingparticularly all too comfortablywith some of the more ignoble aspects of commercial society.and the form of life of large and wealthy populations cannot easily be shifted by even the most vigorous forms of intentionalhumanaction.4For Freud we modems are condemnedto suffer from culturalimperativesand regulationsthat do not allow us to lead a biologically fulfilling life.we are stuck with a political and social regime and a set of associateddoctrineswhose deficiencies are palpable. which.seem eithershortsightedly confused or mere covers for hegemonic designs. in our politics.In the meantime.or limitationof statepower. 'Liberal' Historically.or perhapssimply an improvementin our powers of theoreticalimagination.liberalismis aninventionof the nineteenthcentury.dangerous.Political theories. given the incompatibility betweenourbiology andthe necessary demandsof any form of specifically humansociety. however. but less obviously good It fits distinctiveor admirable. The title of this essay is modelled on that of a late essay by Freud. In contrastto this.the mentality. economic circumstances.of conditionsof life. like liberalism. if only because we can be surethat our changes in the world aroundus. This inertiaeven in the face of massive andtelling criticismis not merely the disreputable resultof the brutepower of the past.
ate object of liberal criticism. phenomena pass both conceptualor theoreticalelements and real social forces pose special difficultiesfor traditional forms of philosophy. theoreticalprecursors.a reaction againstcertainevents. vis-a-vis the past. a legitimising of liberalism is constructed in which Spinoza. values. prehistory Adam and others are made to featureprominentlyas Smith. concepts-and to a in social reality. Thus.classical liberalismstrongly by rejectsthe exaggeratedmoralisationof politics thatit sees as propagated the FrenchRevolutionaries.The ideological precursorsof liberalismin the of politics to eighteenthcenturywere staunchopponentsof the subordination theology.andsocial andpoliticaltendenciesin the late eighteenthand early nineteenthcenturiesthatearly liberalsidentifiedas In addition.ideals. Locke. Montesquieu. In the other direction.322 THEORY/ June 2002 POLITICAL tion of a constitutional monarchyon the Britishmodel. for the early liberal Benjamin Constant.and .secularmoralauthority. In one direction.Expost. Rousseau's theory of the republic as the embodimentof a unitarygeneralwill opens up a highly insalubrious. then.6 II Classical liberalismis best understoodas a negativephenomenon. theories. as it were.this was a twofold reaction. ical groupsis not a seminardiscussion. Since at the latestthe middleof the nineteenth century. specifically modernpossibility.andto the extentto which an absolutistethics simply steps into the place thatnow discreditedtheology once occupied in the political and social it too becomes an approprispherewithoutchangingthe existing structures.thatof clothing political decisions with the mantle Kant'sattemptto groundpolitics on of an unlimited. liberalism opposes absolutismand also the cameralistidea that the state had the duty andthe rightto carefor the positivewell-being of its membersin an extensive sense.7 on two fronts.phihas oriented itself losophy primarily on the analysis and evaluation of well-defined butthe strugglebetweencompetingpolitrelatively arguments. Robespierre's 'republique de la vertu et de la terreur' is a natural outcomeof takingRousseau'scentralconceptionsat face value.Questionsof definitionandof purely theoreticalconsistencyareoftennotthe mostrelevantones to ask in politics.facing the future.Since its beginning. 'liberalism'refersboth to a relativelyabstracttheoreticalstructure-a collection of characteristicarguments.a politicalmovementthatis at leastpartiallyinstitutionalised kind that Janus-faced historical of this encomorganisedparties. a nonnaturalist categoricalethics is understoodby liberalsas a parallelphenomenon and correspondingly condemned.a kind of war especially dangerous.
To be was of sure. philosophy 'theory justice'. Since my intentionis to startfrom liberalismas a historicalphenomenon. however.especially as documentedby Theoryof Justice9led to a corresponding the attemptto reinterpret of liberalism in the his of This had some history retrospectively light position. it is understandable thathe organiseshis political around a of is a rathersurprising This.concentrated.a discipline thathadbeen pronounced moribund by some of its most distinguishedpractitioners a few years before.slightly etiolatedversion of the same basic position. as the cardinalvirtueof humansocieties.Second.he placedthe conceptof justice at the centreof attention. development. These four elements constitute the political substanceof the traditionalliberalism of the nineteenthcentury.liberalsassign a high positive value to toleration. This is the oldest layer in the liberalsynthesis. The two originatorsof modem political philosophy.8 There are four chief componentsof the classical liberalismof Constant. . Firstof all. liberalsattribute to a special normativeimportance kind of human freedom. Mill.Limitation of such power is thus always a goal of liberalpolitics. andde Tocqueville.liberalsarecommittedto individualism: a society is good only to the extentto which the individuals in it are well off.Since 'justice'for him is the chief virtueof a humansociety. should consist as much as particular Society possible of voluntaryrelationsbetweenpeople. Precisely become increasingly common in late twentieth-centuryliberalism. or arbitrary power. it is important to try as far as possible to avoid anachronism. andin particular.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 323 absolutistethics of the Kantiantype is just another. Fourth. Startingin the later 1950s. and his early achievement.liberalismis characterised by a particular kind of anxiety. justice great importanceto a numberof pagan thinkersin the ancient world-the qualification'pagan'is important herebecausethe Paulinestrandof primitiveChristianity once againdemoted justice (andthe 'law') in favourof 'grace''0-but I thinkit is fairto say thatno to 'justice'in the political philosophy particular saliency had been attributed of the modem period. thatis. Rawls's work gave impetus to a revival of political philosophy. as the title of Rawls's majorearlyworkindicates.the fearof unlimited. the free assentof the membersis the only sourceof political authority.First. especially underthe impactof the workof JohnRawls. given that Theoryof Justice (and the associatedearly writa significantdeparture fromwhathadbeen the mainline of ings) represented liberalthinkingin a numberof important respects. peculiarresults. Third. to avoid the of liberalism from an in the narrating history presentthatis posend-point valued and assumed as the natural itively teleologically goal of the historical this kind of anachronistic view seems to me to have process.
a politicalcommunityis the objectof praise on accountof its 'greatness'. and that defining charactertrait of the administrator.rather of given laws. The theoreticalupshot of the work of or the administration administhese two theoristsis thatjustice is a minorpropertyof subordinate trativesystems ratherthan the chief virtueof a society as a whole.324 POLITICAL THEORY/ June 2002 Machiavelli and Hobbes. For Hobbes. honour. 'being just' is the appropriate or rather thanof the politicianor citizen. of goods thanfor being 'just'in mattersof the distribution andso forth. toleration.political philosophywas 'appliedethics'.the contentof which is given by the law laid downby the sovereign. in contrast to most nineteenthcenturyliberals.it is thusa highly derivativeandnot very significantphenomenon.Mill. For him. security and selfpreservationare the basic political virtues and the highest goals of politics. and an individual is 'virtuoso'by virtueof being able to attainfame. treats justice as an Eachsocioeconomicformationgeneratesthe conceptionof epiphenomenon. If this is correct. Tojumpforbureaucrat functionary. Machiavellirecognises the varietyof disparategoals thathumanspursue and a corresponding varietyof differentconceptionsof the good and of the good life-there is the life of piety. but justice was either completely invisible (Constant).Primafacie. and it 'needs' justice this conceptionremainsdependenton and has no standingoutside the mode of production in question. or finally an object of some suspicion because it could be thoughtto presupposea unitary. to allow productionto proceedas smoothlyas possible.or at best a minor side-issue (J. it seems highly unlikelythatthe analysis of a conceptlike 'justice'. Mill). could give one any real graspon the centralphenomenonof politics. Marx.glory.After all.but it seems especially characteristic cal liberalism. The second main element in Rawls's early programmewas a remoralisation of political philosophy.a movementwhose membersoverwhelmingly had very differentconcerns. and de Tocqueville. and individualismwere focal issues. praise. it representsa singularlyunfortunateposition from which to try to rewritethe history of liberalism.of politics. for Humboldt. set the tone.centralisingview of society thatwas a dangerto individualism(Humboldt). which is so highly dependenton shiftingforms of economic activity and on historicallyextremelyvariableconceptionsof the good life. of wealth accumulation. Even withinthe realmof politics.Thisrelativetheoreticalinsoucianceaboutthe conof cept justice is not merely a generalfeatureof muchof the most interesting of classimodem political philosophy. 'Justice'is a mereword. too. but even if Rawls's reorientationof political philosophy aroundthe concept of justice was on its own termsa philosophicallyfruitful move.the Rawlsianprojectwas headedin the wrongdirection from the start. andthe 'ethics' in .Constant. freedom. ward by several centuries from Hobbes.not its justice (in the Discorsi). S.
" The characteristic of great suspicion towardthe intrusionof specifically moralcategoriesinto politics.or thatthe rightsof propertyare incompatiblewith taxation.buthe is also at painsto emphasisea certaincontinuitybetween his position and Kantianethics. Berlin. the concept of the a priori. theirrespectiveconceptionsof freedomareradicallydifferent. that this of freedom can be used to jusstronglysuspect 'positive'conception forms of totalitarianism.thatis.Rawls is not in any interesting sense a Kantianbecause he has no room in his theory for such central Kantiandoctrinesas thatof the 'a priori'. Pre-Rawlsianliberals had two main objections to Kant. although both Kant and classical liberalismare committedto the value of freedom. it might be possible thatthe two could be made to converge. also Benthamand Dewey) as an archanti-liberal.because Kant hadbeen seen for most of the nineteenthandearlytwentiethcenturiesby the main philosophic proponentsof liberalism (Constant.and willingness to revise one's view andadapt to the realitiesof the situationdemandedof liberalpolitics. to assumethatthereis an essence of liberalismandan essence of Kantianism andthatthe two can be compatibleor incompatible. in fact.12 tify To avoid any possible misunderstanding on this point. particularlyon two issues: the centralityof individual 'autonomy'and the priorityof the earlierliberalview.A Kantianethics of unvaryinga prioriprinciplesis incompatible with the openness.To makean assertionlike thatwould be to makeprecisely one of the mistakesI am suggestingthat(some) moder liberalsmake.flexibility. Mill.If 'liberalism'and 'Kantianism' are open concepts. however.was one rightto the good. I.An a prioriphilosophyis for liberalsa fetteron human progress.J.Most liberals are highly suspicious of Kantian freedom-based-on-reason and. S. and cannot perhapseven coherentlyimagine any alternatives. Rawls's work had the curious effect of advancingKantto the position of a kind of patronsaint of liberalism. it is not excluded that after a sufficiently long periodof time. I am certainlynot that a Kantian is claiming style philosophy absolutelyincompatiblewith any formof liberalism. . and in particularof principled rejection of the Kantian ethics. First of all. andthusto freeze human pen to be socially important at some level. Kant'sabstractconception of reason (whichcan in some sense be seen as the sourceof his doctrineof the a priori) constitutesan attemptto absolutiseaccidentalformsof thinkingthathapat some particular time. Second.which is structurally indispensablefor all forms of Kantianism. Because development people at a certaintime andplace given all thinkthatmurderers shouldbe executed.is not acceptableto liberals.This is mildly paradoxical.thatall formsof telling anuntruth are intolerable.these beliefs will be stylised as universalprinciplesandcircumflexedwith the hyperbolic radianceof the a priori.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 325 questionis a complex andoriginalconstruction.
S.beliefs.J. was convinced that the capitalisteconomic formationmade it possible for individuals to develop and participatein a wide varietyof diverseforms of life. therefore. III To pass now fromthe historyof liberalismto its presentstateandpossible future. This is a highly misleadingassertion.We areboth standingin the rain.People do as othersdo in some particular much thought.The second kind of case is that of adaptivebehaviour. The term vacillates between descriptiveand normativeuses in a way that is confusing. neitherKantnorRawls providesan illuminatingmode of cognitive access to the historical phenomenonof liberalism.and undernormal circumstancesI will assumethatyou too know it is raining. andhabitsof theirmembers. If they were wrong.despite the fact thatthey by no means agree thatthey should give up this practicethat they take.conformism. Marx. too.or because they thinkthey must bow toforce majeure.acquiescence. why exactly were Constant. or modus areaof life withoutgiving it vivendi.though.nothingpreventsus fromusing ourpresentconcepts anachronistically if we wish to do that.one sometimeshearsthe claim thatliberalismdiffersfromotherpolitical philosophiesthroughits recognitionof the pluralityof potentiallyvaluable modes of life. certain Islamic groups in the United Kingdom no longer circumcise their young women becausethey don't wantproblemswith the Britishpolice and courts. to be partly .After all.Whatis distinctiveaboutliberalismisn't.One can distinguishfourkindsof case.especially if we can give some plausiblereasonfor wantingto do it. to use the now fashionablejargon. liberalism has no monopoly on the praise of pluralism. The firstis the case of simple empiricalagreement.so muchits openness to pluralismas its view thatall societies shouldbe seen as capable of attainingconsensus.despitea lack of homogeneityin the manners.saw Kantas an opponentof their basic project and that this is a fact that liberals who wish to be Kantians should recognise and take some kind of position on ratherthan ignoring. Dewey.Firstof all. Second.326 THEORY/ June 2002 POLITICAL Similarly. and Isaiah Berlin wrong aboutthe compatibilityof Kantianismand liberalism?Whatever the best way forwardfor liberals in the twenty-firstcenturymight be. Mill.is thatas a matterof fact the in the nineteenthcentury. WhatI do wish to assert.Can one give any reasonsfor adoptingthis attitude towardconsensus? It is not completely clear what 'consensus' means.Thus.anda not insignifimajorityof liberaltheoreticians cant numberin the early twentiethcentury. the multiple forms of life which liberalismrecognises are always assumedto be embeddedin an overridingconsensus thathas a latentmoral significance.
Nietzsche sees humansociety as a field of potentialand actual conflict. but coordinationof action requiresthat some kind of at least minimalandtacit agreementin values andnormativeconceptions exist betweenthe cooperatingparties. thereexists in every society a basic consensus thatcan serve as the basis on which furtheragreementscould be reached. One standard liberalline of argument tendsto runthe notions of 'consensus' that are prominentin these differentcases together.all partiesto a contractneed not have equally good reasons to enterinto it. Second.Two people can agree on state-enforcedvegetarianism.as in the paradigmatic In a all affirm that will behave in a contract partiesexplicitly contracting. in every functioningsociety there is.therebyexpandingeven further the humansocial spherein which freedomandnormativity peacefully intertwine.Fromthis the further conclusionis drawnthatit is alwayspossible and rationalfor humansto try reach consensus with their fellows.MarxistsandNietzscheanscan makecommon cause.the one for religious. or at any rate with those with whom they must regularlydeal. and they certainlyneed not have the same reasons. First an empiricalversion: in fact.Effective coordination of actionis highly desirableif humansareto surviveandlive a life anyof them will find worth living. Therefore.a basic consensus. They just think they have no choice. wanting cooperatein a burIf one that the number of personsinvolved does not glary. However. the politicalthesis thatit is alwayspossible 'in principle'to elaboratethe basic consensuson which social life rests so thatpeaceful resolutionof conflicts is possible. Againstthese liberalpositions.it does not follow from thatfact alone thatthe agreementhas anyparticular normative valueor standTwo have reasons to thieves can the same for ing.13 To be more precise. The strongerassertsthatwe areall in some sense obliged to reachconsensus or thatit is alwaysrationalfor us to tryto reachconsensus. The thirdmoralisingvariant has a strongerand a weakerversion. they certainway. universalconsensus need be anythingmore than one fact among others. althoughthe 'conflict'in questionmay not alwaysbe a matterof fisticuffs but may involve only the exchangeof arguments andwitticisms.If the partiesdid not sharea large number of such values. there are three variantsof the liberalthesis. A third case of group of cases concerns formal agreements. one way or another.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 327 constitutiveof their 'identity'.the weakerthat it is always a good idea to try to reachconsensus.The fourthpossible case of conhave the same reasonsfor agreement. it is claimed. increasing agrees the of it isn't clear thateven the existence of change standing any agreement. the otherfor medical or sociopolitical reasons. cooperation would break down.In the . sensus is one in which the participants Even if the agentshavethe samereasonsfor agreeing. usually by transferring certainresourcesor performingcertain services.
however. and institutionsmust learnto deal with both. In a given case. Firstof all. less good. the above analysis nowadaysseems out of date. For a varietyof reasons.Insteadof one maincontradiction between workersand capitalists.Marxismteachesthatevery class society is dividedinto groups that not only have no common good but have diametricallyopposed basic and vice interests. of a modThe thesis thatthe economically and politically relevantstructure em society can be exhaustivelydescribedby the contrastbetween capitalists is no longer plausible.social groups.be takento and proletariat liberal that imply conceptionsof social harmonyand the unlimitedpossibilof consensus have become any more convincing. completely incompatibleinterests and control over considerablepowers and resources. it may sometimesbe possible to attainagreementabout some points of disputein real or hypotheticaldiscussion. or the reasonswe do (or do not) have in a particular ridiculouslybad is an empiricalmatter. andthe only sensibleway to act in the long run is active engagementin the class struggle. because the ity peaceful main problemof the Marxistanalysis is thatit oversimplifiesthe sources of conflict anddivision in the modem world. all formsof society thathaveexisted up to now. Sometimesthereis neutralgroundor a groundconstitutedby sharedbeliefs on to which one can withdrawto find compromises-sometimes. In its thatis as deep andunbridgeable classic form. and to expect anythingmore is a utopianhope.any existing 'consensus'can be no morethana reasonsandwith no moralimplitruceenteredinto for pragmatic momentary cations. politics-as-usualis a pointlessactivity for membersof the proletariat.Apparent publicconsensusis the cover that hides a chasm of division false (and thin) ideological merely as anythingin the humanworldcan be.Nietzsche argues. versa. not always. it seems obvious thatmanysocieties areperfectlywell able to maintainthemselves althoughtheirmembersdo not takepartin a consensus . Naturallywe often-but not always-have perfectly is good reasonsfor takingpartin discussion. especially when the alternative physical violence with opponentswho are strongerthanwe are.This should not. and individuals.In capitalistsocieties. continuingdisagreement.groupsthat in some cases have very sharplydefined.328 POLITICAL THEORY/ June 2002 real world. Both shouldbe understood naturalistically.'4 None of the threeliberaltheses aboutconsensus seems to me at all plausible.but whether case aregood.there is an almost unsurveyablevarietyof groupsthatarepotentiallyor actuallyin conflict with each other.Whatis good for the capitalistsis bad for the proletariat.Only a classless society could lack socially entrenchedinsolubleconflicts of interest. In every society therearebothareasof consensusandareasof conflict. Marxistsin any case have always been of the opinion that irreconcilable andsocial divisionarethe normalstatesof conflict.
with 'Reason'in the place of God.it is by no meansclearthatI oughtto arguewith themratherthanimmediatelyandunilaterallydisarmingthem. what is anotherform of the same thing. Perhaps phy.16 kind of to reach some stability.his authoritarian tendency to promotelocal habits of thoughtto constituentsof the absolute frameworkwithin which alone (purportedly). The Kantianphilosophy is no more thanat best a half-secularisedversionof such a theocraticethics. explicitly or implicitly theocentric)forms of ethics. of classical liberalismdeserve to be furtherdeveloped and cultivated?In the first place the criticism of theocraticconceptions of society or. .I will probablyhave variousreasonsfor tryingto do this with as little use of force myself as possible. abstractingstrictly from the real world and the empiricalaccidents of concrete situations.then. the claim were true.the a prioriis an overcompensaconvulsively This is one of the origins tion in thoughtfor experiencedhumanweakness. principle'always possible to attainconsensus is until one knows.15 relevantfeathe in which we consider a normatively only occupy. in more detailthanhas ever been uninformative completely even if what exactly 'in principle'means.To be sure.17 devotionto 'principles'.Furthermore. This does not amountto muchmorethana that Kant'sethics tries to The purenormativestandpoint change of names.it is alwaysan open question whetheror not it is a good idea to enterinto discussionor attemptto reach consensus. If I am dealing with a small group of armedfanatics. know that any particular IV Which parts. of absolutist (that is.is an expression of what Dewey In an insecureworld. Secwith existing arrangements putup it 'in claim that is the ond. buteven if I use minimalforce I won't be discussing anythingwith them.why shoulda statementabouta consensusthat 'couldbe attained'under some fictive or hypotheticalcircumstanceshave any direct relevanceto a given realpoliticalsituation?Finally. and a prioriI can't level of applicationof force will be sufficient. become demandsof humanexperience.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 329 thatis in anyway normatively binding.manypeople in manysocieties simply thatthey mustendureas best theycan.andhis of Kant'snotoriousrigidity.and sadisticremnantsof puritanism Kant's liberalism reason. geometry possible.18 Classical rejected practicalphilosopurepractical one should also is not this but reject the very enough. perhaps idea of a pure normativestandpoint. providedby liberals. standpoint tures of a possible world.weak humansstruggle called 'thequestfor certainty'. any coherentexperience was is declared the a priori condition of Euclidean thus.
these need not be thoughtto reflect Is thereany reasonto thinkthat negativelyon the purenormativestandpoint. As I said. then. in Theoryof Justice. the pointof one of the mainconstructions-the introductionof the 'veil of ignorance'.extremelystriking. This state of reflective equilibriumis best understoodas a kind of successor to the purenormativeperspective. the very idea of a purenormativestandpoint implies the attemptto absolutise accidentalexisting habits of thought? Ratherthantryingto give a directanswerto this question.not overriding to say astounding. it is hard to see how Rawls's perfectly genuine redistributive hopes could have any chance of being realised-and not merely because Rawls has no theoryof political action or agency. Theoryof operatingthrough pages densely argued eventuatesin a constitutionalstructurethat is a virtualreplica (with some that exist in the United extremely minor deviations) of the arrangements States.would light on precisely these Some criticsmightfastenon this as an indicationof the essenarrangements.After all. rationaldiscussion. Rawls claims to be thatwould be attainedby certainfully describingthe 'reflectiveequilibrium' rationalagentswho engagedin discussionundercertainidealisedconditions. To startwith the first example.I would like to approachit by discussing two examples. This mightseem grossly unfair.is precisely to exclude from considerationempiricalinformationthat might prejudicethe normativeforce of the outcome. however. If. but in orderto reproduceit schematicallyin thought.19 It strainscredulity to the breakingpoint to believe that 'free and rationalagents'(with no furtherqualifications). Both are drawnfrom the work of JohnRawls. one thinks it at all reasonable to judge what is afterall presentedas a politicalphilosophyby its actualpolitical effects.he movedfurther awayfromcommitmentto anyform of purenormativity.presentingit as the outcome of full. this seems to me to give furtherweight to suspicions about the normative standpointas a whole. Kantianshave some humanfailings like everyoneelse.and as his thought andfurther developed.even if they were discussing behindan artificialveil of ignorance. tially conservativebias of Rawls's discussion:the theoreticalimaginationis employed not to think about alternativesto the status quo. text.It is.to the lay readerthatthe complex theoreticalapparatus of over of 500 Justice. Rawls was never a strictKantian. .andassumingthatthey were to agreeon anything at all under those circumstances. althoughthat is also true. This is a further reasonto use him as an example:if some of the deficiencies inherentin adoptinga purenormativestandpoint arevisible even in a philosopherwho has moved as far beyond Kantas Rawls has.20 dent intention to produce a work that would have some powerful redistributiveimplications.given Rawls'sevifree.330 POLITICAL THEORY/ June 2002 This might be thoughtto be a ratherextreme suggestion.
the preferthe incentivestructure.the form the particular economy in question had.and also away from an evaluation of distributionsfrom the point of view of strict equality. more recently Germany'were instances of 'outlaw states' (pp. well-known and unsettled issues about comparabilityof resourcesandaboutwhetherresourcesarereallythe properobjectsfor egalitariansto be concernedwith.The second examplecomes from Rawls's late work On the Law of Peoples.There are. has the advantage thatgross Egalitarianism failure to comply with its basic principlesis not difficult to monitor. 'have' the resourcesin question: 'Beatipossedentes'. are the have-nots-or intellectuals speaking in their thatdependsboth on convincingothname-supposed to makean argument ers of the generalplausibilityof Rawls's approachand in additionon what cannot be more than a highly speculative evaluation of a complex counterfactual claim? That Rawls's early views have had no real redistributive effect is not merely a result of the usual difficulty of implementingpoliticaltheoriesin the realworld. Spain. a 'regimethatrefuses to comply with a reasonableLaw of Peoples' (p.ex hypothesi. to be sure. buttherecan be little doubtthatif personA in a fully monetarisedsociety has ten thousandtimes the monetaryresourcesof person B.he introducesthe categoryof an 'outlawstate'. however. and writes that 'France. the Hapsburgs-or.21 butionof the excess wealththey own.instead. the actualpolitical onus probandiin fact tacitly shifts to the havethe 'haves'lack an obvious systematicmotivationto arguefor redistrinots. 90). 'Outlaw state' is a slightly more refined variantof the term 'rogue state'. which has come to fashionableuse in the contextof the attemptby the Bush administra- . How. Rawls's theoryeffectively shifts discussion away from the utilitarian discussion of the consequences of a certaindistributionof resources. or indeedto find arguments to thatconclusion plausible.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 331 The actualeffect of Rawls's theoryis to undercuttheoreticallyany straightforwardappealto egalitarianism. and in particular andunless one had a rather robustanddetailedeconomic theoryof a kindthat few people will believe anyeconomisttodayhas. In this work in which Rawls discusses certainaspectsof international relations. of the people who lived in it. ences.Theydon't in the sameway needto proveanything. then undernormalcircumstancesthe two are not for most politically relevantpurposes 'equal'.). The question is not. 'Does A have grossly more than B?'-a judgment to which within limits it might not be impossible to get a straightforward answer-but rather the virtuallyunanswerable: 'WouldB have even less if A had less?' One cannot even begin to think about assessing any such claim withoutmakingan enormousnumberof assumptionsaboutscarcityof various resources.he focuses attentionon a complexcounterfactual judgment. they. In a situationof uncertainty like this. 105f.
history politics.S. but narrow-minded. Freud. At this late gan's characterisation in Rawls has moved very farindeedaway from Kantianism. and repeated militaryinterventionin CentralAmerica(andelsewhere).332 POLITICAL THEORY/ June 2002 tion to justify its missile defence programme.It is hardeven for those of us who belong to the privileged.and dogmatismhas left behindin liberalisma thick deposit of scepticism not only vis-a-vis all- . The historicalstruggleagainsttheocracy.and so on.The BritishEmpiredid not always use kid gloves in dealingwith competitorsand neveran 'outsubjects. The ing the appropriate factthatoccasionallyin some particular extremecases one can'tfindanyconfor the politicalrelevanceof the vincing differencesis not really an argument strictlynormativestandpoint.In those extremecases in which adoptingthis standpointdoes deliver a practicallyuseful answer. slavery. is what is actuallydoing the work.Dewey-wished to put modes of dealing with an end to and replacewith morehighly differentiated For truth and it seems a too self-evident to require Rawls. his career. PresidentReaof the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire'. moralisationthat some of the most interestingpolitical theorists of the nineteenthand early twentiethcenturies-Hegel.'this is fraud'.23Nowadays most moder governmentswill have huge staffs of who arepaid to seek out groundsfor makexperts. and researchers distinctionsas vividly and convincinglyas possible.Naturallythere are massive differences betweenthe SpanishEmpireof the seventeenthcenturyandthe British Empireof the nineteenthcentury-who would deny that?It is also truethat politicians have a strong interest in distinguishing as sharply as possible betweentheirown policies (andthe actualeffects of these) andthose of their analoguesin otherstates-what is firmnessof purposewith us is repression in them.22 and Rawls's claims about 'outlaw states' are the philosophicalpendentof formerU.butfor Rawls it was. which eventuatesin thejudgment 'this is murder'. despite a history of annihilationof indigenous populations. America in the that over Latin eighteenth mentioning Spanish hegemony century was something utterly differentfrom and much worse than North Americanhegemonyoverthe sameregionin the earlytwentiethcentury. inherently nonoutlaw. point but this is still the sort of easy-going.lawyers. in contrastto France.This analysis.absolutism. AngloAmericanworldto resistthe conclusionthatthispartof Rawls'stheoryis significantly influenced by ethnocentrism.Nietzsche.apparently law state'. we usually have sufficient reasonsto come to a decision of a varietyof kinds. It also does not seem to occurto him even as an abstract possibility thatthe UnitedStatesmightbe consideredby some an 'outlawstate'. Marx. and in most run-ofthe-millcases normativity gives us a cleardecision thatseems plausibleonly because the analysis that must precede the normativity judgment rendersa complex situationartificiallysimple and perspicuous.
Firstof all. In its origin.andliberalsat thattime were sufficiently weak and self-deceived (or strong and opportunistic)to accept the offer.Kantianismpresenteditself as a 'philosophicalfoundation'for a versionof liberalism. andhe seems to drawfromthis interpretation two false consequences.and a specific form of the 'spiritof all naturallygo together. . Neither has it demonstratedan ability to remainfaithfulto its originaltheoreticaland moral abstemiousnesswithout losing political effectiveness. however. Burke) are of one accord.It is therefore not surprising thatliberalssuccumbagainandagainto the temptationto the limits go beyond they would ideally set themselvesandtryto makeof liberalisma complete philosophyof life. The ideal of liberalismis a practicallyengagedpolitical philosophythatis bothepistemicallyandmorallyhighly abstemious.theocentrism(even in its attenuatedform as a 'philosophy of reason'). Rorty strongly suggests an interpretation tion thatdoes not dojustice to it. Rortyis obviouslykeen to promoteirony as the most appropriate attitudefor a contemporary liberal.Classical liberalismdid not wish to be an all-encompassing. Anotheralternativeis to adopt an extremelybusinesslike attitude.While. any point Rorty (and also. On and this Constant. it is truethatthe rejectionof a theocentricview of the world will most likely bring with it a discreditingof a certainnumberof humanattitudesthatwere closely associated with it-automatic deference to authority.Even with the infusionof a significantdose of the Kantianphilosophy. liberalismhas not succeeded in producinga position that is 'universal'in any relevantsense. a very difficultandpossibly a completelyhopeless project. of Popper.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 333 encompassingworldviews.Thatis.unctiousness.in the middle of the twentiethcentury.attractionto certainkinds of solemnity.universal worldview but merely a political programme aimed at eliminatingspecific social and political evils. Forcomplicatedhistoricalreasons. course. the purely normativestandpoint. of this observaUnfortunately. There is no clearly developed single epistemology for classical liberalism. however.butalso vis-a-vis universalist politicaltheoriesof kind. but it would seem that a liberal would have to believe that liberal views are easily accessible to humanswho have no special expertiseor epistemically privilegedposition. Rorty has made the extremely astute and importantobservationthat the a priori.to identify oneself fully with variousprojectsin the world.andobscurantism-irony is not the only alternativeto piety.A consistentliberalismwould have to heaviness'24 turnits back on all of them. at best. Berlin. liberalismhad no ambitionto be universaleitherin the sense of claiming to be valid for everyoneand every humansociety or in the sense of purporting to give an answerto all the important questionsof humanlife.
Constant.334 POLITICAL THEORY/ June 2002 and so forth.Kierkegaard-only Voltaireseems in any of liberalism. Voltaire. 'Ironically'. Nor.for him an in use ironistis someonewho has doubtsaboutthe existing 'final'vocabulary in society and 'does not believe that her vocabularyis closer to reality than others.28 ironist.Indeed.27 On this use of the term.andI thinkone would searchin vain way a precursor important in the writingsof the majorfiguresof liberalism(Humboldt.also de Maistre'sto some extent) right. conventionaland boring.looking at the matterhistorically. is Hegel.who was anythingbuta liberal. again.Mill) for tracesof irony.immediatelyrecommenditself to anyone who has followed the earth-heavyfootfall of the Sage of Messkirchthrough any of his worksandwho retainsa graspon any of the senses 'irony'has had None of this. because he is not using 'irony'in the normalsense in which we use thatterm-which is admittedly hardto grasp-but ratherhe is engaged in the projectof 'using old wordsin new senses'26 so as to breakdown existing vocabularies. that it is in touch with a power not herself'. who sees the executioneras the necessarycentralpoint of any society.Whende Maistrein a famouspassage25 reportsthatthe executionerafter in home a self-satisfied his function returns mood. The examples of de Maistre and Kierkegaard also show thatirony is not in itself inherentlyincompatible with a theocentricview of the world. de Maistre. holding it all together and making civilised life possible.the pointof view of (post-Beccarian) common sense. not perhapsright to be self-satisfied. Rorty to be sure would be unmovedby all this. or of rejigging the meaningof 'irony'to suit . are ironists.de Maistreis invitingus hereto look at this situation simultaneouslyfrom three distinct perspectives that conflict. breakingdown the old vocabularywill generate paradoxeslike this.would botherRortyin Europeanlife since antiquity. I think. this is an archetypicalinstanceof whatwe usuallycall irony. and my pointingthem out is just partof my strategyof being. Thereis the point of view of the executionerhimself ('the only man who wearsgloves in church'). in Rorty's eyes. Heideggerturnsout on this readingto be an me.a claim thatwill not.If one considersthe most significantironistsof the moder period-Pascal (in the 'LettresProvinciales'). the only obvious 'ironist'amongthe political philosophersof the nineteenthcenturyis de Maistre.therewould not seem to be any particular naturalaffinitybetween liberalismandirony.29 of course. 'No one can breaka man on the wheel as well as I can'. which finds the executioner (and his family) repellent and his selfsatisfactionnauseous. the executioner is (from God's point of view and.althoughI thinkRortywoulddisagreewith Most oddly of all.a consequencethatI neitherPlato.andfinally the pointof view of God.Rather. sayingto himdischarging self. therefore.In fact. but right to glory in the efficient discharge of a dignified and commodious office.Swift.nor Kierkegaard thinkRortywouldwelcome.
An 'ironic' executionis eitherno executionat all (buta literaryor theatrical event). standat a certainkind standpoint of distanceto some kinds of beliefs. or both at the same time: 'Thisis Jesus. a twofold advantage.Of course. or mighteasily be or have been associatedwith existing forms of liberalism. andif differentfrom whatthe tradition would have 'irony'in Rorty'ssense is rather called 'irony'. thought they did in some sense have to act.King of the Jews'. however. my own purposes.I thinkhis motivationis to detachus as much as possible from trying to approachpolitics theoreticallyand to denigrate political action in a very subtle and sophisticatedway.Ironywill not allow the rightkind of theoreticallyreflective. the kind of people Rorty calls with admiration'bookishintellectuals'. Ironystandsorthogonal to any form of active.it might be useful to think about what motivatesRortyto makethis suggestionandwhatthe consequencesof adopting it wouldbe. The Christian thinksthatthis is doubly ironic.andwhom he wishes to encourageto find self-realisationin privatelife.'irony'. It is a luxury of people who do not pressingly have to act.We all have no alternative butto constructthe past in the light of what we taketo be a viable future. one is returnedto the issue from which I started.in the traditional is not the only possible attitudewe can adoptif we wantto avoidpiety.or it is a form of attemptedadditionalmockery of the victim. in my view.If.The anti-Kantianand anti-Rawlsian perspectivehas. And to answer this in turn. also allowed themselves to indulge in irony.This cannot be completely separatedfrom questions about the intentions of liberalism andhow to describethe kinds of attitudesthatare. and that the joke is finally on Pilate. but it does not follow from this that all constructionsare equally forjudgstandards enlighteningor thatthe usualempiricalanddocumentary ing historical accounts are irrelevant. This bringsme to the secondplace in which he seems to me to pointus in the wrongdirection.30 This is why it is particularly and that Socrates who impressive Kierkegaard. not politics. butthe attitudeinvolvedin this does not seem appropriately by calling it either 'irony'or (anotherolderconcaptured tender) 'scepticism'. The liberal who gives up the sanctimoniousnessof the purely normative will perhaps. practicalengagementwith the world.It is a betterguide to liber- .as Rortycorrectlyrecognises.whatattitudewe shouldadopttowardliberalism.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 335 orthe Rortyansense. and the choice of what to emphasise to some extent depends on what I judge to be philosophicallyfruitfuland morallyand politically valuable.it is hardto avoidaskingwhy we shouldaccede to Rorty'ssuggestion. Some will (correctly) object that the demand that I made earlier that be avoidedis an ideal impossible fully to attain.havebeen. engaged political practice. With this. the anachronism account of 'liberalism'I have given is a selective one-an ideal type-that arises from emphasising certain features and downplayingothers. namely.
(Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress. Jenseits von Gut und Bise. chapter VII. 5. 1993). 1-13 and 69-73. one thatallow us to attaina fuller. 5. Alastair MacIntyre. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montanari(Berlin:de Gruyter. andJ. See below. 1924. 4. 2d ed. the strandthat thought is action-orientedbut reflexively anti-utopianand asserts that no system eitherof actionor thoughtis perfect. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montanari (Berlin:de Gruyter. Gauchet [Paris:Hachette. [Paris:Gallimard1967]). however. See Theoryof Justice.Saint Paul: Lafondationde l'universalisme(Paris:PUF. vol. even be discontent liberalism. for instance. for the first of these and Theoryof Justice. See also my History and Illusion in Politics (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress.After Virtue(London: Duckworth.mightnot necessarilybe an objectionbut a sign of the continuingvitality of this tradition.ed. 2001).This shouldhold as muchfor liberalism as for anythingelse.Marcion:Das EvangeliumvomfremdenGott (Leipzig. See also chapter2 of my Historyand Illusionin Politics (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. Samuel Huntington. Collini [Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress.andit also at the same time provides a more promising orientationfor thinking and acting politically in the future. (GiinterBornkamm.vol. NOTES 1. 1980]). 2.1980).Alan Badiou. ?? 11-12. 1989]). As long as the real social.1977). die Grenzendes Staates zu bestimmen[Stuttgart: Reclam. 11.The Clash of Civilizationsand the Remakingof the WorldOrder (London:Simon & Schuster. Sigmund Freud. p. 31 n.Das Unbehagenin der Kulturin Studienausgabe. reprintedDarmstadt1985). footnote 16. ?260 and Zur Genealogie der Moral in Kritische ed. 24) Marcion. 1997). esp. 1981).MA: Harvard UniversityPress. 16 and throughoutfor the second. 5.thatis. I'm particularlyinterestedin four theorists as representativesof classical liberalism: Wilhelm von Humboldt(especially his Ideen zu einem versuch. 1971. 6. BenjaminConstant(De la libertechez les moderes. 184.31 we cannot expect to rid ourselves comof our with This might. 10. John Dunn. This kindof discontent. moredetailed. 9. IX (Frankfurt: Fischer. ? 40. 3. Cambridge. vol. S. 2001). See. 7. ed. This element becomes even more prominent in the work of the Paulus [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.andmorecorrectunderstanding of its history. 1969]. economic. WesternPolitical Thoughtin the Face of the Future. 1967]). Studien-Ausgabe. 8.in 'OnLiberty'andOtherWritings. FriedrichNietzsche. 1974). Mill ('On Liberty'. andpoliticalinstitutionsandcircumstances of our life do not change.1980). S.about 'Ultrapauliner' whom the best work is still Adolf von Harnack. . M. pletely to be a of in the vindication one strand liberaltradition.336 POLITICAL THEORY/ June 2002 alism as a historicalphenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville(L'ancien rdgimeet la revolution ed. Essay II.then. in Kritische Studien-Ausgabe.
In a complex industrialisedworld. similarthoughtsin TheodorAdornoand Die Dialektikder Aufklarung(Frankfurt: Max Horkheimer. Feuerbach. vol. This was not exactly fair because not all of traditional theology would surviveKant'sattack. The whole contentof traditional theology could be reintroducedsimply by renamingit 'Postulatesof Pure PracticalReason'. as he pretends. 26.also the case thatHeideggeris not a liberal.. 2000). 16. remain the same as that of traditional theology. he simply uses the words 'human of Feuerbach'stheoryand the contentof the essence' in place of the word 'God'. See Isaiah Berlin.Irony. (Stirner. 40. . 1999).Der Einzige undsein Eigentum[Stuttgart: doesn't. See also my Public Goods. Hegel did change his mind on a numberof things duringhis philosophicallyactive life.and Solidarity(Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press 1989).A later version of basically the same line of thought occurs in Stirner'scriticism of Feuerbach Reclam.authoritarianism. of course. of course. 2001). Private Goods (Princeton. in Politics (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress. though.Culture. radically detheologise religion. but the one thing he never gave up was the commitment to a form of absolute knowledge (couched in a final vocabulary)and also a rejectionof what he called 'irony'(which he saw as instantiatedin the work of FriedrichSchlegel). Of course it is not at all difficult to see how Americansmight find it plausible that any rational agents discussing politics under favourable conditions would agree on these arrangements. Der Positivismusstreitin der deutschen Soziologie (Berlin: CamLuchterhand. It was a commonlyheld objectionto Kantin the late eighteenthcenturythathis criticism of traditional theology was substantivelyradicalin name only. This is not a logical point. The Questfor Certaintyin John Dewey: TheLater Works1925-1953. 23. 18. 21. 20.and Solidarity. To be sure. 27.see JacquesLacan. 19.and History(Cambridge: bridge UniversityPress. 1988). 73. 150-52. See Noam Chomsky.Stirnerclaims.Contingency. ed. Seminaire VII:L'ethiquede la DialektikderAufklarung.but this is a minorcorrectionthatchanges nothing in the basic of the argument. Ibid. FourEssays on Liberty(Oxford). one in presenting their programmesas being as like as possible those of some favouredmodel. 78. For Kant as 'gallows-philosopher'. Joseph de Maistre. Sometimes. 30. John Boydston (SouthernIllinois Press. 96-104.andis a paradigm of those attitudes of willful obscurantism. See Theodor Adorno. 1967]).Contingency. psychanalyse(Paris:Seuil. Also sprach Zarathustra. John Dewey. 22. 69-76. 1960). structure 14. 28.Irony.Geuss / LIBERALISMAND ITS DISCONTENTS 337 12.Rogue States (London:Pluto Press. from real voluntaryagreement.see also my Morality. 15. 17. Les Soirees de Petersbourg (Paris: Edition du vieux colombier. 4.65.1969). 1972) 'Einleitung'. 24. 25. andalso AdornoandHorkheimer. politicians have the reverse interest. Rorty. 1986). and sanctimoniousnessthat liberalismshould terminate. 13. there is a furtherreason for adherenceto fixed and See my Historyand Illusion rigidgeneralprinciples:efficiency andsimplicityof administration.one mustperhapsdistinguishmerelyapparent consensus. The structure moral obligations it imposes on individuals. It is. RichardRorty. 29. 2001).pseudo-consensus. Fischer.NJ: PrincetonUniversityPress. Nietzsche.
. 2001). PublicGoods. 36.1994). 'Le liberalisme n'est evidemment pas une ideologie ni un iddal. IV (Paris:Gallimard. RaymondGeuss is a Reader in Philosophy at the Universityof Cambridge.338 POLITICAL THEORY/ June 2002 31. vol. C'est une forme de gouvernementet de "rationalite"gouverementale fort complexe. 2001).Dits et ecrits.his most recent books are History and Illusion in Politics (CambridgeUniversityPress.PrivateGoods (PrincetonUniversityPress. 2001).'Michel Foucault. and At CrossPurposes (London:Hearing Eye.
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