Philosophy and Real Politics

Philosophy and Real Politics

Raymond Geuss
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 126
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  • Book Info
    Philosophy and Real Politics
    Book Description:

    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 inPhilosophy 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 Politicsboth 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3551-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    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 atleast 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...

  5. Part I Realism
    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 19-23)

      Modern political philosophy begins in Europe in the seventeenth century when Hobbes attempts to find a solution to the problem his contemporaries have in living together without assuming either a divinely ordained and enforced order, or a naturally implanted, invariable, and irresistibly powerful human impulse toward one particular form of cooperative action. Any entity that modern political agents would recognise as a human being in the full sense has grown up as a member of a human group, that is, among other humans who interact with each other in a certain way, minimally in what is called a “nuclear family”...

    • Who Whom?
      (pp. 23-30)

      Lenin defines politics with characteristic clarity and pithiness when he says that it is concerned with the question that keeps recurring in our political life: “Who whom?” (KTO KOΓO) What this means in the first instance is that the impersonalised statements one might be inclined to make about human societies generally require, if they are to be politically informative, elaboration into statements about particular concrete people doing things to other people. The sign in the Underground that reads, “Non-payment of fare will be punished” means that a policeman may arrest and fine you, if you fail to buy a ticket;...

    • Priorities, Preferences, Timing
      (pp. 30-34)

      That, then, is the first and by far most important of the three questions the conjunction of which in some sense— namely, for the realist view with which I am concerned—maps out the realm of politics. The second question is, by contrast, one that represents not a new line of thought, but something more like an addendum to the first. The best way to think about how the second question arises is to think about Nietzsche’s insistence on the finitude of human existence and on the fact that the structure of human valuation is always differential. The model for...

    • Legitimacy
      (pp. 34-36)

      The third question I wish to raise is one with a long history, but in its modern form it is most clearly articulated by Max Weber. Sometimes human beings feel themselves forced to act by overwhelming pressures in their environment, and sometimes we simply give ourselves over to routines and established habits of action. When the pressure to act, however, is relaxed slightly and our routines are interrupted, we are also capable of asking ourselveswhywe should act in one way rather than another, that is, we look for reasons for action and exchange these with one another. Weber...

    • Tasks of Political Theory
      (pp. 37-56)

      The image of the subject-matter of political philosophy that one finds when one puts together the three elements of the realist view sketched above is rather clear. In the historical period we can survey we find ourselves as finite, vulnerable, mutually dependent creatures who are also independent sources of action and judgment. We are bound to each other by various relations of power, and we try to act in a concerted way under pressure of time and resources, and in such a way as to give some kind of account to ourselves and others about why we are acting in...

  6. Part II Failures of Realism
    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 57-60)

      One might worry that the form of “realism” described in the foregoing is so broadly construed as to be vacuous, excluding nothing. As with Reason, Mother’s Love, the Internet, or The Idea of the Good, it is hard to be against “being realistic.” The preliminary sketch given in Part I of this book might usefully be further clarified through a contrast between it and two influential contemporary views that represent almost the direct opposite of “realism” in the sense in which I wish to understand the term. One fashionable way of failing to be realistic is to try to construct...

    • Rights
      (pp. 60-70)

      To start with the first of my two examples, the notion of an “individual right” plays such an important role in our society that it has come to seem perfectly natural to us to assume that the basic framework for thinking about politics is a set of properly constituted rights, either legal rights or some more vaguely envisaged “human” rights. If this is the best way to proceed, and rights really are so central to understanding politics, it might be thought important to get clear about what a “right” is.

      Historians make a broad distinction between what they call “objective”...

    • Justice
      (pp. 70-76)

      The second example of a nonrealist political philosophy is John Rawls’s early theory as presented in hisA Theory of Justice(1971). Again I am not in the first instance interested in the details of Rawls’s view here but wish to treat him merely as a representative of a particular style of theorising about politics.32

      Rawls begins his political philosophy not with a substantive account of human nature and its exigencies, of the demands that collective action imposes on us, or of purportedly basic or historically constituted human social and political institutions, but with the analysis of the concept of...

    • Equality
      (pp. 76-80)

      This brings us to the notion of “equality,” which is perhaps part of the motivation behind various specific attempts to promote the status of “justice” in politics. Many have found it tempting to follow the French Revolutionaries in countingÉgalitéas one of the cardinal political virtues. No one, to be sure, who wished to follow the lead of Marx and Engels even approximately could take this line, because both of them had been very firm and explicit antiegalitarians, or, rather, they had held that abstract equality as a social ideal was philosophically incoherent, and whether concrete equality in some...

    • Fairness, Ignorance, Impartiality
      (pp. 80-89)

      For a variety of easily comprehensible reasons, however, including inherent difficulties with conceptions of justice centred on equality/inequality, discussion can shift from the abstract comparison of the absolute states in which different members of society find themselves—some have more wealth, some less; some work longer hours, some shorter; some have more children, some fewer; some are healthy, some ill—to the processes by which these states are assigned or distributed to different people. This, of course, presupposes that we think of society as a whole as a huge mechanism for distributing people into categories (wealthy, poor; healthy, ill; etc.)...

    • Power
      (pp. 90-94)

      That brings us to the most serious general line of criticism of Rawls as a political philosopher. If one looks at the body of his work against the background of the general approach I sketched earlier in this book, one is immediately struck by the complete absence in it of any discussion of what I have described above as the basic issues of politics. The topic of “power,” in particular, is simply one he never explicitly discusses at all.46If one thinks that ideological conceptions are an important feature of modern societies, and that the analysis of ideologies will therefore...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 95-102)

    If politics should be concrete, oriented toward action, and “partisan,” what particular politics do I, Raymond Geuss, advocate? This is in principle a perfectly legitimate question,48but one that is misplaced here. The version of “contextualism” I wish to defend is definitely not a “one-size-fits-all” view. “Eventually” or “in the final analysis” political theory and philosophy are connected to practical interventions, and one ought to be clear about these, because they can never beassumedto be irrelevant, but that does not mean that one must expound them explicitly in every possible discussion. There should be space for a variety...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 103-108)
  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 109-112)
  10. Index
    (pp. 113-116)