The Roar of Justice

Adam Kirsch reviews Raymond Geuss’s Philosophy and Real Politics, in City Journal:

Raymond Geuss, a political philosopher who teaches at the University of Cambridge, does not seem like the kind of man who would try to devour his opponents. But his intention in Philosophy and Real Politics, his short, sharp new book, is the same as Thrasymachus’s: to introduce a note of realism into contemporary philosophical debates about justice, by force if necessary. “I object to the claim that politics is applied ethics,” he writes in his introduction. Rather than starting out, like Socrates, with questions about the good or the just, we should ask the question famously posed by Lenin: “Who whom?” That is, in any actual society, who has power, what do they use it for, and who suffers as a result? “To think politically,” writes Geuss, “is to think about agency, power, and interests, and the relations among these.”

Of course, this is hardly an unprecedented approach to political philosophy. In addition to Lenin, Geuss invokes Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Max Weber as teachers in his hard-headed analysis of power. But Geuss’s perspective is especially needed today, he believes, because American political thought is dominated by what he sees as the uselessly abstract neo-Kantian theories of Robert Nozick and especially John Rawls. These thinkers commit what Geuss views as the cardinal sin of political thought: they begin not by addressing the concrete power relations of their societies, but by speculating at will about imaginary concepts like rights and fairness.