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Wednesday, June 1, 2022


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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post on this. Looking forward to reading the book myself.

If you're looking for another non-jejune look at campus life back then may I recommend Joshua Cohen's recent novel The Netanyahus? It's a fictionalized story of Harold Bloom coordinating a job talk at Cornell for Benzion Netanyahu in 1960.

John Rapko said...

In this book and elsewhere Geuss quotes Adorno's maxim from Minima Moralia that 'the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass'. Although Geuss refrains from explicitly explicating the saying, I took the core topic of this autobiography to be how the splinter formed in Geuss's eye, the splinter that allowed him to see through and so avoid what he's called elsewhere the moral swamp of liberalism. While insisting on the genealogical point that liberalism has no 'essence' and no 'definition', he does claim that in his (stipulative?) sense it has a core in its adherence to the foundational figure of the bare (non-social, non-historical, non-linguistic, self-clairvoyant) individual. In liberal political thought (on Geuss's accounts elsewhere) the bare individual has or should have various 'rights', and these rights are (ideally) guaranteed by 'neutral' political framework. At one point in the book Geuss notes that his Catholic educators alerted him to the existence of irreducibility social goods, and that these goods are part of what liberal thought cannot recognize, at least not in their irreducibility to an aggregation of individuals' goods. So Geuss's splinter was his education, first his Catholic education in high school, then the education he derived from the thought and persons of Wolff, Morgenbesser, and Cumming, and which culminated in the late 1960s with his discovery of the thought of Adorno. Geuss has also expressed great admiration for the anti-liberalism of Alasdair MacIntyre, who likewise brought the charge that liberalism could not recognize, and indeed is destructive of, the kinds of irreducibly social goods and virtues embodied in the collective practices of builders, fishing crews, and farmers. Geuss's education; MacIntyre's crews--Professor Wolff, what was your splinter? What allowed you to see through and so magnificently diagnose Mill's evasions, contradictions, and compromises in The Poverty of Liberalism?

s. wallerstein said...

I've not read the book in question, but I have his book, Changing the Subject, which studies 12 philosophers from Socrates to Adorno, including such non-orthodox folks as Lucretius, Montaigne, Lukacs and even Heidegger. It's fairly easy to read for a non-philosopher like myself and maybe inspired by the original post above, I'll now reread it.
It's certainly worth reading twice. Recommended.

Eric said...

Geuss in describing his take on Prof Wolff's In Defense of Anarchism put into words what I have been feeling:

"The real question for me was, 'Why be so daft as to start from this quasi-Kantian conception of 'individual autonomy' at all? If you do start from that assumption, you have no one but yourself to blame if you end up nowhere.' Wolff, I took it, found it inconceivable that one might simply not adopt or accept something like the conception of 'individual moral autonomy' which one finds in Kant (and also in liberalism) as absolutely fundamental. That, however, seemed to me wrong. Despite his appropriation of a (kind of) Marxist approach, and his self-characterization as an 'anarchist,' Wolff was in this domain something very much like a liberal.
Unless these two very different forms of anarchism [egoistic libertarian anarchism of Max Stirner vs mutualist communist anarchism of Kropotkin] are clearly distinguished and kept separate, nothing but the greatest confusion will result. While liberals can find some common ground with the libertarian form of anarchism, the communist version would be anathema to them. Looked at from this point, Wolff's libertarian anarchism was just a form of liberalism that got out of control."

J C McGuiggan said...

I've just finished this book on this recommendation of yours. Well worth it. Thanks!