Reviewed by JONATHAN RÉE
Back in the 1970s, Raymond Geuss was a young colleague of Richard Rorty in the mighty philosophy department at Princeton. In some ways they were very different: Rorty was a middle-class New Yorker with a talent for reckless generalization, whereas Geuss was a fastidious scholar-poet from working-class Pennsylvania. But they shared a commitment to left-wing politics, and both of them dissented from the mainstream view of philosophy as a unified discipline advancing majesti-cally towards absolute knowledge. For a while, Rorty and Geuss could bond as the bad boys of Princeton. The philosophical establishment denounced people like Rorty and Geuss as relativists, bent on destroying the sacred distinction between truth and falsehood. But they defended themselves by pointing out that even if there is such a thing as an almighty final truth, it looks different from diverse points of view, and gets expressed in different words in diverse times and places. They regarded themselves as “perspectivists” or “historicists” rather than relativists, and believed that – to borrow a phrase from Thomas Kuhn – philosophy needed to find a “role for history”.
In a beautiful eulogy delivered on the occasion of Rorty’s death in 2007, Geuss recalled a conspira-torial moment when his colleague revealed a plan for an undergraduate course called “An alternative history of modern philosophy”. Rorty proposed to fill his lectures with supposedly minor characters such as Petrus Ramus, Paracelsus and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, to the exclusion of canonical drones such as Locke, Leibniz and Hume, and out-and-out deplorables such as Descartes (Rorty’s pet hate) or Kant (Geuss’s). The projected “alternative history” came to nothing. (According to Geuss, Rorty blamed the Princeton “thought police”, otherwise known as the Committee on Instruction.) But Geuss’s latest book could be seen as a fulfilment of Rorty’s plan, forty years on.
Changing the Subject is a history of philosophy in twelve thinkers. There are lucid self-contained essays on Socrates, Plato, Lucretius, Augustine, Montaigne, Hobbes, Hegel, Nietzsche, Lukács, Heidegger, Wittgensteinand Adorno; but Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume and Kant don’t even make it to the index. The whole performance combines polyglot philological rigour with supple intellectual sympathy, and it is all presented – as Geuss puts it – hilaritatis causa, or in a spirit of fun.
Out of his twelve philosophers, Geuss seems closest to Lucretius, who despised religion (though the word religio meant something rather different at the time), and maintained that the world has no moral purpose and is utterly indifferent to our existence. Hobbes comes almost as high in Geuss’s estimation: he invented the concept of the “state” as the locus of political sovereignty, and treated it as an “artificial construct” which pays no regard to such so-called principles as “natural rights” or “the common good”. Hegel, as Geuss reads him, was a good disciple of Hobbes because he avoided trying to “justify” the ways of the world, and he opened the way for Nietzsche’s furious attacks on self-serving ideas of “truth-telling”, “profundity” and “authenticity”. In the wake of Lucretius, Hobbes, Hegel and Nietzsche, philosophy seems to be essentially a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by moralistic sentimentality.
There are two different ways of responding to this predicament. Geuss sketches one of them in a scintillating chapter on Theodor Adorno, the twentieth-century aesthete who sought to combine classical Marxism with disdain for the stupidity of the masses... read more: