Several days ago, I received from Raymond Geuss a copy of his new book, Not Thinking like a Liberal, which has just been published by Harvard. It is an intense, complex, deeply interior account of his philosophical development first as a boy in a Catholic private school and then as an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University. Geuss, as I am sure you all know, is a distinguished philosopher now retired from Cambridge University, the author of a number of books.
Geuss and I come from backgrounds so different from one another that it is hard to believe we could ever inhabit the same world and yet, for a span of time in the 1960s and a little bit beyond, our lives intersected on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall at Columbia University. Geuss arrived at Columbia as a 16-year-old freshman in 1963, graduated summa cum laude, and earned his doctorate in the philosophy department in 1971. I joined the philosophy department as an associate professor in 1964 and resigned my professorship to go to the University of Massachusetts in 1971. Both of us took the year 1967 – 68 off from Columbia, I to teach at Rutgers while continuing to live across the street from the Columbia campus and he to spend the year in Germany.
In this book, Ray gives an intense contemplative complexly thought through account of the life process by which he arrived eventually at the condition he describes as “not thinking like a liberal,” beginning with his education at a Catholic boarding school outside of Philadelphia staffed in large part by Hungarian priests who had fled the communist regime. Far away the greatest influence on young Raymond at the school was a Hungarian priest named Béla Krigler, to whose thought he commits a great deal of time in this book. He goes on to devote a chapter to each of three members of the Columbia philosophy department who had a particular influence on him: his dissertation director, Robert Denoon Cumming, Sidney Morgenbesser, and, rather surprisingly, me (hence the gift of the book.)
Like everyone else who ever met Morgenbesser, Raymond was stunned, fascinated, and flabbergasted by this unique inhabitant of the upper West side of Manhattan. I have met a great many brilliant, impressive, sometimes important thinkers in my long life: Willard Van Orman Quine, Nelson Goodman, Clarence Irving Lewis, Noam Chomsky, Hannah Arendt, Desmond Tutu, Bertrand Russell, Martha Nussbaum, Susan Sontag, the egregious Henry Kissinger, and yet none of them made on me the impression that Sidney did. It was quite something to be Sidney’s colleague as a fellow senior member of the Columbia University Philosophy Department. Lord knows what it would have been like to encounter him when one was an undergraduate or young graduate student.
I came away from the book with the sense that Raymond Geuss is not only a vastly more scholarly person than I, he is a more complex and interesting person than I am. His intellectual, moral, personal struggle with the distinctive form of Catholicism with which he was presented at boarding school, deepened and enriched by his scholarly engagement with the Greek, Latin, German, and French texts of the European tradition has resulted in a perception of and interaction with the world next to which mine seems, if I may put it this way, jejune.
Geuss clearly had ties of an intellectual and personal sort with Cumming that explain his decision to choose Bob as his dissertation director. That he would devote a chapter to Morgenbesser is not surprising at all – one could hardly write about those years at Columbia and fail to do so. But his decision to devote a short chapter to me I consider a great honor. I am touched that he saw something in me in those years that I am not sure I saw in myself.
I think it is not inappropriate at all that my reaction to this deeply personal book should, after all, be so personal. I will conclude these words with one brief correction. Ray attributes my ability to see into the failings of John Rawls’s political philosophy even before the publication of A Theory of Justice to the fact that I had known Rawls at Harvard and therefore had access to unpublished papers by him. But in fact, the only thing I had then read by Rawls were several of his published papers. That, together with my by then well-settled skepticism about the liberal point of view, was enough to enable me to see that Rawls had clay feet.