A World without Why

A World without Why

Raymond Geuss
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    A World without Why
    Book Description:

    Wishful thinking is a deeply ingrained human trait that has had a long-term distorting effect on ethical thinking. Many influential ethical views depend on the optimistic assumption that, despite appearances to the contrary, the human and natural world in which we live could, eventually, be made to make sense to us. InA World without Why, Raymond Geuss challenges this assumption.

    The essays in this collection--several of which are published here for the first time--explore the genesis and historical development of this optimistic configuration in ethical thought and the ways in which it has shown itself to be unfounded and misguided. Discussions of Greco-Roman antiquity and of the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Adorno play a central role in many of these essays. Geuss also ranges over such topics as the concepts of intelligibility, authority, democracy, and criticism; the role of lying in politics; architecture; the place of theology in ethics; tragedy and comedy; and the struggle between realism and our search for meaning.

    Characterized by Geuss's wide-ranging interests in literature, philosophy, and history, and by his political commitment and trenchant style,A World without Whyraises fundamental questions about the viability not just of specific ethical concepts and theses, but of our most basic assumptions about what ethics could and must be.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4848-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. 1 Goals, Origins, Disciplines
    (pp. 1-21)

    In 1894 Wilhelm Windelband, who was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Straßburg, gave the annual Rector’s Address to the assembled members of the university. He took as his topic the structure and classification of the sciences.¹ It is superficial, he claimed, to try to divide the sciences by reference to their subject matter into sciences of nature on the one hand and sciences of spirit (or culture) on the other. A physical object like Mont Blanc or a species of plant or animal can be the subject of aesthetic analysis and evaluation, but such analysis is not part...

  5. 2 Vix intellegitur
    (pp. 22-44)

    The title of this essay is taken, with appropriate grammatical modification, from a comment by Cicero on Thucydides that has always fascinated me. in one of his treatises on the art of rhetoric Cicero is discussing the proper style to be adopted by the public speaker, and he discourages the aspiring orator from imitating the speeches in Thucydides’ history. Thucydides, he admits, is good at describing battles and grand public actions, but this narrative style is not directly transferable to political or forensic oratory, and as far as the elaborate speeches that Thucydides includes in his work are concerned:“Ipsae...

  6. 3 Marxism and the Ethos of the Twentieth Century
    (pp. 45-67)

    One of the things I have always most admired about Alasdair MacIntyre’s work is the particular kind of intellectual courage it exhibits. This virtue manifests itself in a number of ways, including a willingness to address large philosophical questions head-on and to give straightforward answers to them. This is a form of courage, rather than merely of some other more etiolated cognitive excellence, because giving relatively bald and unvarnished answers to big questions makes it difficult to avoid facing up to the implications of what one says for action, and the action involved might be of a kind that requires...

  7. 4 Must Criticism Be Constructive?
    (pp. 68-90)

    There is a widely held view—at least in contemporary Anglo-American societies—that “merely negative” criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It is part of the responsibility of a critic, it is assumed, notsimplyto denigrate some institution, social arrangement, or form of action but to do so while providing at least the suggestion of a “preferable” way of acting, or a “better” way of organising some sector of the society. Though this view is widely shared, it is perhaps not unimportant to recall that it is notuniversallyheld. One might think, for instance, of Bakunin, who notoriously...

  8. 5 The Loss of Meaning on the Left
    (pp. 91-111)

    By, at the latest, the final decade of the nineteenth century, many thinkers were diagnosing a deep malaise in Western culture, which expressed itself in various forms of individual and social disorientation. Thus, Durkheim claimed that increasing suicides rates were connected with the growth of what he called “anomie,” that is, with the fact that people were losing a certain kind of normative orientation they had once had.¹ Suicide is an act performed by people who no longer know how they “ought” to deal with the various crises of human life. Durkheim’s account might be seen as a kind of...

  9. 6 Authority: Some Fables
    (pp. 112-134)

    We are familiar with the observation that any number of Greek terms were thought by the Romans to have no proper Latin equivalent and had to be taken over wholesale,¹ but in the third century (AD) a Roman senator from Asia Minor, Cassius Dio Cocceianus, in his history noted that there was one case in which the tables were turned: there wasoneLatin term for which there was no simple Greek equivalent. In a discussion of some of the reforms of senatorian practice implemented by Augustus he spoke of the “auctoritas” of the Roman Senate and added: “έλληνίσαι άυτὸ...

  10. 7 A Note on Lying
    (pp. 135-143)

    It has often seemed odd to me that lying, meaning the intentional telling of what one knows to be false as the truth, has had such a bad press in the modern world, and I can explain this only by the persistence of bog-Christian attitudes. Christianity is, after all, intended to appeal to simple souls whose speech was to be “yea, yea” and “nay, nay” with everything else consigned to the category of the “evil” (ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμ̃ѡν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ τὸ δὲ περισσν τούτων ἐκ το̃υ πονηρο̃υ ἐστιν; Matt. 5:37). In claiming that lying has had...

  11. 8 Politics and Architecture
    (pp. 144-162)

    In 2001 some of the faculties of the University of Frankfurt began to move physically from the often shoddy and distinctly rundown-looking postwar accommodation that had served them since the early 1950s into an architecturally spectacular set of buildings designed by Hans Poelzig in the late 1920s and set in a large park with an impressive view over downtown Frankfurt. Unfortunately, these buildings, known collectively as the Poelzig-Bau, had served as the corporate headquarters of I. G. Farben between 1931 and the occupation of the city by the U.S. Army in March 1945. What this means is that in 2009...

  12. 9 The Future of Theological Ethics
    (pp. 163-174)

    If one looks at a human society from a sufficient distance, it presents itself as a complex structure of informal practices and formal institutions, such as armies, churches, families, corporations, political parties, and so forth. These institutions are kept alive by the participation of human individuals, but they also structure and give substance and content to the lives individuals lead. A life outside a set of structured social institutions is for all save the most unusual individuals not much of a life at all. Despite this, it is individuals rather than institutions that have come historically to occupy centre stage...

  13. 10 Did Williams Do Ethics?
    (pp. 175-194)

    Bernard Williams came to bury ethics, not to criticize or revise it. He did not, of course, mean by that that there wasnothingin traditional forms of ethical thinking (or nothing in traditional moral injunctions) that was of any substance or of any use or significance for human life. He did, however, think that the traditional notion of “ethics,” namely as an autonomous, knowledge-based, reflective, discursive doctrine that could give completely general and rationally persuasive answers to the question, “How should one live?” was unsalvageable.

    What, then, should replace ethics? First of all, perhapsnothingwill or should replace...

  14. 11 The Wisdom of Oedipus and the Idea of a Moral Cosmos
    (pp. 195-222)

    In the spring of 1989 the distinguished philosopher Bernard Williams gave the Sather lectures to the department of Classics at the university of California at Berkeley, and these lectures were in due course published under the titleShame and Necessity. Many people, including me, consider this to be Williams’s finest book, and it is a striking fact about it that it both begins and ends with quotations from the poet Pindar. The exergue, the very first part of the printed book a reader will encounter, is three very famous lines from a poem that Pindar seems to have written very...

  15. 12 Who Was the First Philosopher?
    (pp. 223-230)

    One might think that this question has no answer because it is badly formulated. It might, that is to say, be thought to make two incorrect assumptions. First, it seems to assume that “philosophy” is an individual or even solitary activity like swimming the Tiber or bringing down a particular kind of bird with a boomerang. Provided we can agree on rough and ready “definitions” of the entities and activities in question—homo sapiens, not one of our near simian relatives; “swimming,” not “floating” or “being borne along by the current”; “boomerang,” not “stick” (and this is abig“if”)...

  16. 13 A World without Why
    (pp. 231-236)

    I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative, or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories, and arguments. I thereby help turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace that protects it against criticism and change. I take my job to be only mildly discreditable partly because I...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 237-256)
  18. Index
    (pp. 257-264)