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Fr. 528

June 19, 2014

Though unformulated in explicit fashion in this text, Geuss’ view of the critical function in political philosophy does not seem unrelated to a point that Richard Rorty makes in a preface to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. If the two works are separated by an undeniable difference in tone and object, Rorty’s analysis of the frigid receival of Nabokov’s work in those circles under the headed by poetry’s “arbiters” and “keepers” unearths a common vein between Geuss’ implicit critical task and Nabokov’s poetic object: to dent reality as is and to push back at the powers that be. In a tone not far from that of Geuss’ critique, Rorty notes of these arbiters or keepers that:

Those who respect reality, who are sure that it needs no further pressure, insist that what is worthwhile is already a part of reality, and merely needs to be accurately represented. What is not a part of reality is subjective, personal, idiosyncratic, silly, puerile, evanescent, not worth writing down. For reality is, to the respectful eye, the only legitimate authority. The poet’s longing to exert pressure upon reality seems not futile but morally dubious (Everyman’s Edition, p. viii)

We need, they will suggest, to be as realistic as possible: we want not to put pressure on reality but to respect it […] (ibid., p. xviii).

We need only consider the way in which alternative, more radical views of political philosophy have likewise been shunted to the side to find the parallel between these two texts, without apparent connection. When juxtaposed with Geuss’ critique of Rawls and the political establishment, this amounts to an indictment of the indictment of imagination (or, in Rorty’s terms, fantasy) in the elaboration of alternative political visions. If the analysis above recalls something of Hegel’s much maligned remark “all that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real”, this owes precisely to Rawls’ seemingly underhanded and roundabout endorsement of the unjust status quo. Geuss goes on to state his case and present charges:

Rawls allows people who observe great inequality in their societies to continue to feel good about themselves, provided that they support some cosmetic forms of redistribution of the crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich and powerful. The apparent gap which many people think exists between the views of Rawls and, say, Ayn Rand is less important than the deep similarity in their basic views. A prison warden may put on a benevolent smile (Rawls) or a grim scowl (Ayn Rand), but that is a mere result of temperament, mood, calculation and the demands of the immediate situation: the fact remains that he is the warden of the prison, and, more importantly, that the prison is a prison. To shift attention from the reality of the prison to the morality, the ideals and the beliefs of the warden is an archetypical instance of an ideological effect. The same holds not just for wardens, but for bankers, politicians, voters, investors, bureaucrats, factory workers, consumers, advisers, social workers, even the unemployed—and, of course, for academics.

In short, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice encounters the same pitfalls as other instances of ideology. Thus, it is culpable in much the same way as the actual political agents who perpetrated the changes brought here brought to task by Geuss. 

Despite this indictment, it reasonable to think that, for Geuss and others, certain elements of Rawlsian justice and society are to be retained. Among these we might number the underlying intuition of public reason (bringing the public together in earnest political discussion) if not the ideal formulated in his work, or even the notion of “civic friendship” wherein individuals come to hold a certain respect for one another’s lifeplans. On the whole, it seems, however, that these are, for Geuss, little more than mere window-dressing for the larger substantive issues that A Theory of Justice and other works like it occlude. It is with this final indictment of the ideological that Geuss offers up his own work The Idea of a Critical Theory as, perhaps itself, an anticipatory work poised to shape a coming era of political society.

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