A World Without Why

the world map time B&W

In which world do we live? Does the world suffer from ingrained relativism and nihilism or is it imbued with meaning after all?

Philosopher Raymond Geuss talks to four by three about his latest book A World Without Why, why clarity and order can be functions of repression, constructive versus radical criticism, the meaning of life and the role of art within philosophy.


Our world, you suggest in your latest book A World Without Why, is not one, which is ‘in order’, but one, which seems characterized by instability, insecurity, unintelligibility and uncertainty. Could you expand on what vision of the world this gives us? Is it intended to be a substantive claim or more of an exaggeration prompting critical reflection?

Raymond Geuss: At the beginning of The German Ideology, Marx writes that in the future there will only be one science: the science of history. If you look at the history of the human species, it seems reasonable to assume that human beings have generally been confronted with a world that did not immediately reveal itself to them in its true shape and also did not automatically satisfy their needs. As members of the human species acted on this environment so as to cause it to satisfy their needs, they thereby created new needs. When humans need water, that water is not always easily available. When the Romans began to build aqueducts to make water available, they did contribute to satisfying that need more reliably but at the cost of generating a new need, namely a need for engineers with a certain kind of specialized experience and expertise who could ensure that the aqueducts were maintained in good order.

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Karl Marx

To say that the world is unstable, insecure, and uncertain was not intended to be an exaggeration, but simply an expression of this historical observation. The claim that the world is not ‘in order’ adds to that generalisation an evaluative twist. Socrates expected the book by Anaxagoras to show that it was for the best that the world was as it was, but you could only expect to have to learn this from a book if your immediate experience did not incline you to take it for granted. The world we live in does not on the whole conform to the patters, which we think it would be good for it to instantiate. There is a discrepancy between how we perceive the world to be and how we think it would be good for it to be. To assert this [rather than just entertaining it, as it were, silently] is to act so as to highlight or draw attention to this discrepancy, and thus to intervene politically [in a minimal way] in the struggle against complacency.

In response to this, you suggest that at times seeking clarity ‘can be seen as a requirement of conformity to structures of repression’ [A World Without Why, 41]. Why, and to what extent can a focus on clarification be a bad thing? And how can obscurity have a positive force and value?

RG: The concept of ‘clarity’ is not itself absolutely clear, indisputable, and self-validating virtue in all contexts. It does not unquestionably take priority over all other virtues. What clarity is, and what sorts of things concretely count as ‘clear’ depends on context.

Something is clear for someone, in some context, for some purpose. How important is it to be clear [and what that will mean] equally depends on the context, and that means on a set of presupposed human purposes and assumptions about background conditions. It is not, then, that ‘unclarity’ is a positive virtue, as that the whole question of what should count as clear in a given context is more open than people often take it to be. Given that clarity is often depended on context, it is very often [and almost invariably in politics] a good idea to ask what kind of clarity is being demanded. Clarity for whom – for what kind of people, how placed and with what beliefs and interests – clarity for what purposes, under what further assumptions, in what context. The point about ‘clarity’ is parallel to that made by Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s in his essay on ‘repressive toleration’, which everyone used to read, or at any rate pretend to know about, but which now seems to have dropped out of view. He did not hold that all toleration was bad, but rather he wanted to make two slightly distinct points. The first was that in reality the liberal societies that professed universal tolerance, actually did not practice it – roughly speaking they exercised toleration toward the Right, but found various ways of repressing views from the Left. The second point was that it would actually be a catastrophe to treat the views of those who preach sociability, compassion, human cooperation and those who actively propagated sadistic practices as equally to be tolerated. Whatever the practical complications involved in dealing with real cases, it seems wrong not to discriminate at all here.

Similarly, the demand for ‘clarity’ can in some circumstances be an expression of a more or less innocent incapacity on the part of the person who makes the demand. If you think what I am saying is ‘not clear’ it is not apriori true that that is my problem. This demand, can, however, also in some circumstances be a mask for a highly motivated rejection of something that would threaten my own position or interests.

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse

In the preface to A World Without Why you advocate a modified enlightenment project of ‘critique’ and in so doing distinguish this critical attitude from its Kantian form. One of the main contrasts seems to be that the critique you advocate is highly context specific, does not aim at antecedent foundations or absolute truths. How does this form of critique avoid collapsing into a form of relativism? And how can different methods and approaches to topics be used in a ‘responsible’ way – i.e. without becoming a kind of ‘play’ or ‘game’ of historical scholarship?

RG: ‘Relativism’ [and its cousin ‘nihilism’] are both bogeymen constructed artificially by philosophers to scare the children. No one actually believes that all beliefs are equally good [relative in the noxious sense] or that nothing is any more desirable than anything else [nihilism]. These two constructs, ‘relativism’ and ‘nihilism’, are part of a complex scheme of blackmail by philosophers of a Platonic persuasion. Platonists have argued that unless you have a single, final and absolute framework for knowledge, you have nothing, no way for orienting yourself in the world at all. Historically, this form of blackmail has been highly successful, there is no reason to accept the alternative: either you have an absolute framework or anything goes. Suppose I tell you that there is a cup of tea just to your left. If that is true, does it allow you to orient yourself? Clearly you can: reach to the left and you will get the cup of tea, to the right and you will not. It does not follow from this that either I or you will have a final framework within which to organise all knowledge. Even if the knowledge in question is ‘only’ relative to my or your situation, that is enough, provided that is the situation I [or you] actually is in. The denigration of merely local, contextual, or relative knowledge [or for that matter value] as not really knowledge [or ‘really valuable] depends on a huge mass of Platonic assumptions which the whole history of recent philosophy has been devoted to demolishing. So I am not worried by the spectre of ‘relativism’ of that of nihilism.

As far as criticism is concerned, Foucault makes an important observation. He distinguishes between the ‘ethos’ of enlightenment and the ‘dogma’ of Enlightenment. The ethos is a matter of maintaining an open and questioning attitude toward the world and toward the claims people make. The dogma is the idea of an absolute, trans-historical Reason, and the whole conceptual apparatus that is associated with it. There is no reason why one cannot keep the ethos while rejecting the dogma. Open-ended, Socratic questions can be an important part of human life. Not the only thing, the most important thing, or even always a necessary thing, but something that is very frequently of great value. There is no reason to think that when criticism becomes radical it necessarily becomes empty. If that were the case, it would be highly convenient for the ‘haves’ of this world, the minority of people who benefit most from current arrangements, but it isn’t true. Whether or not a form of criticism is or is not ‘empty’ depends, like most other things, on context.

Following from this, you have discussed criticism as either being constructive, but repressive, or radical, which some argue to be counterproductive and bleak. Do you believe that criticism at its best can or should be both radical and constructive, or are they indeed mutually exclusive? Is this simply a historically specific tension?

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