Monday Musing: Liberalism’s Loss of the Skeptical Spirit

I recently completed Raymond Geuss’ Outside Ethics, a collection of essays from various talks on contemporary Western political and moral philosophy. I’ve been a fan of Geuss’ work ever since reading his very thin but insightful book The Idea of a Critical Theory, which Ram once described as lacking an unnecessary word, and after taking his course on continental political thought in my first year of graduate school. For the most part, Geuss’ concerns have been on continental philosophy and continental thinkers, to which he brings an (for lack of a better phrase) Anglo-American analytic clarity.


In recent years, his books have been occupied with liberalism and what he clearly sees to be liberalism’s confusions and self-delusions—specifically, with what he sees as its inconsistent and unreflective understanding of public and private, and of rights. Although, he does not approach these ostensible limits in the standard ways that intellectual descendants of Nietzsche or Marxists in the tradition of the old Frankfurt School do (though there are very strong elements of both, and others, such as those of Hobbes), which is what makes his books rather unique and worth a read.

The recent collection opens with two essays that critique the work of the great American political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls’ project was of course to provide a rigorous reformulation of liberalism. That reformulation initially began with an attempt to construct universal principals through a thought-experiment that yields a “reflective equilibrium”, a political equivalent of a purely normative perspective that generates an analog of the categorical imperative, a principle that one wills to be universal and, by virtue of which, holds oneself. The project describes itself as Kantian.

The traditional liberalism of the nineteenth century, as Geuss sees it, consisted of a commitment to toleration, voluntary and consensual human interaction, individualism, and a feasibly minimized coercive power.

This historical struggle against theocracy, absolutism, and dogmatism has left behind in liberalism a thick deposit and skepticism not only vis-à-vis all-encompassing worldviews, but also vis-à-vis universalist political theories of any kind. On this point [Benjamin] Constant, [Isaiah] Berlin, [Karl] Popper, and [Richard] Rorty (and also, of course, [Edmund] Burke) are of one accord. Classical liberalism did not wish to be an all-encompassing, universal worldview but merely a political program aimed at eliminating specific social and political evils.

In its origins, liberalism had no ambitions to be universal either in the sense of claiming to be valid for everyone and every human society or in the sense of purporting to give an answer to the all important questions of human life. There is no clearly developed single epistemology for classical liberalism, but it would seem that a liberal would have to believe that liberal views are easily accessible to humans who have no special expertise or epistemically privileged position. The ideal of liberalism is a practically engaged political philosophy that is both epistemically and morally highly abstemious. That is, at best, a very difficult and possibly a completely hopeless project. It is therefore not surprising that liberals succumb again and again to the temptation to go beyond the limits they would ideally set themselves and try to make of liberalism a complete philosophy of life. For complicated historical reasons, in the middle of the twentieth century, Kantianism presented itself as a “philosophical foundation” for a version of liberalism, and liberals at that time were sufficiently weak and self-deceived (or strong and opportunistic) to accept the offer. (Outside Ethics, pp. 24-25)

I’ve also been a fan of Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, though there’s plenty in them to disagree with. But one thing that struck me in Geuss’ essay and made me think of Rawls in a new light was the claim that the move away from a broad, easily accessible and understandable skepticism of the sort found in nineteenth-century liberalism to the deeply grounded and seemingly Kantian certitude of many contemporary formulations of liberalism has gone hand in hand with a “muscular” American foreign policy. It is as much a criticism of Rawls’ spirit as it is of the content of his work. (The ostensibly Kantian Democratic Peace Theory has been invoked as a justification the Iraq war. In addition to Geuss, Perry Anderson recently made such a claim, and he too suggests that Rawls’ work, for all its seeming egalitarianism, is an expression—or is it celebration—of American hegemony. Anderson, though, seems really uncharitable in his readings.)

(The other thing that struck me had less to do with political philosophy than with political science and the social sciences generally; specifically, I was struck by the shifts in attitude in the social sciences, which appear to have moved away from seeing themselves as some form of craft knowledge that uses insights into social mechanisms that in conjunction with a rich familiarity with our world allows us to intervene in it without the illusion of certitude. As I read it, Mark was, among other things, describing one source of that illusion last week.)

The debates around the war have seen a realignment of sentiments. Some thinkers who’ve preserved the skepticism of the old liberalism such as Fukuyama have been designated to be “paleocons”. And certitude certainly seems to be the order of the day of the idealism of the neo-conservatives. The odd thought is that the Kantian turn in liberalism was less an attempt at making liberalism viable by making its acceptance easier than a reworking of liberalism into project it has historically been suspicious of. But the loss of the skepticism that one associated with an anti-utopian and pragmatic liberalism of old is palpable.