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Raymond Geuss is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
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According to the Frankfurt School, Marx's theory of society and Freud's theory of psychoanalysis are both "critical theories." What is said to distinguish a critical theory from an ordinary theory in the natural sciences is that it is "reflective" rather than merely "objectifying." What makes a theory reflective is that it can function as a guide to action for the agents who hold it, helping them to realize their true interests; in this way critical theories are said to be both enlightening and emancipatory.

The bogeyman of critical theorists is the positivist of the Vienna Circle. In the positivist's view critical theories are at best a mix of empirical claims and moral judgments, exceeding the bounds of science proper. The Frankfurt School wants to combat the positivist's view and vindicate critical theory as a distinctive and legitimate form of knowledge, showing up the too-narrow epistemology of the positivist.

Geuss reviews different ways this vindication could be pulled off, and it's not easy. He focuses on the centerpiece of Marxist critical theory, its criticism of ideology (Ideologiekritik). A successful criticism of ideology is one that frees agents from the grip of their society's false ideology -- making it both emancipatory and enlightening, as good critical theories must be.

What makes this tricky is that positivism could, in principle, be quite accommodating, making space for objectifying theories that would show an ideology to be false for many interesting senses of "false": false because illegitimately presenting as objective what is in fact socially contingent; false because self-fulfilling in a way that depends on agents not appreciating its nature; etc. Geuss considers what a critical theory *must* be if it can show up positivism with a distinctive kind of knowledge.

He argues that Juergen Habermas's criticism of ideology has what it takes to be a critical theory imparting a kind of knowledge that positivists would deny is possible: it can condemn an ideology as "false" in a sense that positivism could not, and it can do so in a way that enlightens and emancipates agents who hold it. In abbreviated form, Geuss summarizes Habermas's criticism of ideology like this: "For Habermas, ideology is fundamentally false conscious­ness [...], but the 'falsity' in ques­tion is 'reflective unacceptability,' and to say of a form of consciousness that it is reflectively unacceptable is to [say] that it could only have been acquired under conditions of coercion."

For an hour or so this morning I felt I was tracking how criticism of ideology like this could be a valid form of knowledge that, like a butterfly, manages to elude the positivist's empirical net. Just as I write this, I'm unsure again. The maneuver that saves it from restatement in purely empirical terms may be the deduction from "could only have been acquired under conditions of coercion" to "reflectively unacceptable" and then to "false"--? There is a transcendental argument vibe, and Geuss points out this is distinctive to Habermas; other critical theorists do not formulate their criticism of ideology quite that way.

For me this was a valuable short book. My encounters with critical theory in the past have been frustrating, but Geuss is a very clear writer if you like the analytical style -- and of course not everyone does.
… (mer)
 
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leeinaustin | 2 andra recensioner | May 17, 2021 |
Edifying essays on 12 important western philosophers and a nice overall effort to legitimize the work of philosophy in today’s pluralist and neopragmatist society.
 
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chrisvia | Apr 29, 2021 |
This is worth reading for footnote 49 alone: "I think it possible to retain much of Adorno's analysis within a (revised) Leninist framework, but this is not a claim I propose to discuss in these pages."

Not exactly the kind of thing you get in standard political philosophizing, which ignores Adorno (probably because Habermas's horrifically bad reading of him has become the accepted understanding in the anglosphere) and regards Lenin as kind of Hitler with better prose. So at least Geuss is doing something different.

That said, there's a bit of a Wittgenstein feel to this project: it's really for people who buy the current philosophical mainstream approach to the matter, but feel a bit uncomfortable, and would like to know why. Just as Wittgenstein is a helpful purgative for analytically trained thinkers, Geuss would be for contemporary political theorists. But is there anything else to it? Perhaps not much that you don't already think.

i) don't construct ideals without attending to material circumstances. There is no 'justice,' only justice for...
ii) politics is about how people *act*, not what they believe. Their beliefs will contribute to actions, but the latter are the really important bits.
iii) political theory, and politics, is historical, and can't be understood aside from history.

Okay, sure. And he's right to bring ideology back into political discussion; and he's right to point out that standard liberal political theory just is ideological (i.e., it points us away from real problems). He's right that politics is about power relations, not about abstract good like justice/equality/fairness etc... But it's hard to see how any of this matters to anyone who doesn't already believe that standard liberal political theory is the way to go.

In other words, this is at best a ladder to be kicked away. The arguments are inconsistent (he wants to 'start with today,' rather than ideals, but doesn't want to start with rights discourse--which just *is* today's discourse), the prose pleasant, the length just right. But the audience is tiny and unimportant.

… (mer)
 
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stillatim | 1 annan recension | Oct 23, 2020 |
Raymond Geuss examines preconceptions about contemporary politics held in advanced Western societies. His discussions cover the state, authority, violence and coercion, human rights, legitimacy, liberalism, toleration and democracy.
 
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British-Section | 1 annan recension | Mar 24, 2014 |

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