Modes of Philosophizing

[Cogito 06, Athens 2007, p. 36-37]


Raymond Geuss



Politicians often use relatively abstract concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘human rights’, ‘welfare’, ‘market’, ‘equality’, ‘the international community’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘terrorist’, ‘justice’, ‘modernisation’, ‘the rule of law’, secularism,  in trying to justify particular courses of action.  Many of these concepts are internally complex; many are ambiguous, having a variety of different meanings; The use of many of these concepts is historically integrated into forms of argument in which theoretical, descriptive, interpretative and evaluative claims are inextricably mixed. Thus, in the contemporary world ‘democracy’ is not generally used as a merely empirical term to pick out a set of observable institutions, but both refers to a range of particular political institutions (multi-party electoral systems on the French, the British, or the American models) and at the same time gives to those arrangements a particular aspirational interpretation (elections of this kind purportedly give ‘the people’ ‘power’ over their collective life). The use of the term ‘democracy’ (and related terms) is clearly not evaluatively neutral; to call something ‘undemocratic’ in early 21st century Europe is not merely to describe it in a certain way but to criticise it.

In some individual cases it is not necessary to have a very clear or extensive understanding of the concepts used in a particular political argument in order to evaluate the policies they are invoked to support. Thus, when Bush Junior claimed at various points to be invading Iraq in order to bring ‘democracy’ to the Middle East, it did not require complex conceptual analysis, historical knowledge, or any form of philosophical theorising, merely common sense and attention to the information that would be provided by any moderately good newspaper, to see that there is no reasonable sense of the term ‘democracy’, complex and obscure as the meanings of that term are, in which bringing ‘democracy’ to Iraq had anything to do with the decision to invade; the decision was pretty clearly motivated by American concerns about the promotion of its own interest in increasing its control of a geo-politically important region. It also required no special philosophical knowledge to see that the overwhelmingly most likely outcome of this policy was going to be one that would be horrible for Iraqis (and others), and unconducive to peace and stability in the world.

Sometimes, then, philosophical analysis is not a necessary precondition to coming to a reasoned political judgment, but in other cases minimal conceptual clarity may be essential to having any grasp of the question under discussion at all. Thus, some have claimed that a ‘free market’ will necessarily underprovide in certain areas of human welfare; others think individual human rights sets limits on what the sovereign state may do to its citizens. Some people think social justice requires the use of procedures that in some sense treat everyone ‘as equals’; others that justice must track merit, or natural human rights, or provide an equal level of welfare (or of agency) for everyone. It is not clear how one would even begin to come to some reasoned view about these issues without understanding concepts like ‘free market’, ‘justice’, ‘rights’.

Perhaps a preternaturally intelligent agent could in principle analyse the semantic components of our political concepts on the basis of current usage alone. This issue, however, is not worth arguing about because as a matter of fact for finite cognitive agents like us, to understand any of the basic concepts in politics is to understand their history, and, if one thinks there is a close connection between politics and ethics, the same is true of our moral concepts.  This includes but is not restricted to their history as objects of philosophical reflection, that is, to what philosophers have said about them. In particular it must include their real history, that is, to understand political concepts one must understand the real contexts of human action in which they have arisen and have functioned, and the way in which they have changed in response to changing social, economic, and political events. The questions one must ask include such things as: How have ‘free markets’ actually worked? What actions have been necessary to set them up and maintain them in existence? Has this had any effect on the concept (and theory) of the ‘free market’? In what exact sense is a ‘free market’ ‘free’? Under what actual circumstances has ‘freedom’ established itself as a central political and moral value? What could be meant by a ‘human right’; where does the concept come from and what is its actual use? When do people appeal to ‘human rights’, and when is that appeal likely to be successful? At what point and under what circumstances do people begin to speak of ‘the international community’, what do they mean by this, what kind of normative status do they seem to grant it, and why? Although it is highly desirable to study the meaning, use, and history of these central concepts in their real historical context, it is also important not to exaggerate the potential positive effects of attaining knowledge. Being philosophically clear about concepts, theories, and arguments, even if this were to be combined with an understanding of the actual causal processes that govern the political world, is probably of great value to most human individuals, but political and social change depends on institutional actions that are by and large outside the control of individuals.  The path from the individual enlightenment which philosophy, as it is now constituted, gives to any kind of improved political practice is at best a rocky, circuitous, and uncertain one.


On what grounds is it reasonable to say that someone should not do X, e.g. should not study philosophy? In contemporary Western European societies people are, by and large, assumed to be free to engage in any activity not explicitly forbidden, and in general for an activity to be forbidden it is thought to be necessary to show that it is in some way harmful. In fact, in the Anglo-Saxon countries often a stronger requirement than that is thought to hold in that a banned activity must be shown to be ‘materially harmful’ to some person other than the person who engages in it. Thus, anyone can buy brushes, paint, and canvas, and paint pictures, or can give people advice about how best to decorate their flats or houses, or can try to predict what the weather will be tomorrow. I can even set up in business as a ‘professional’ painter, interior decorator, fashion adviser, or meteorologist provided I comply with the usual laws governing business activities in my society. I may be an (economic) failure at one of these professions, for instance, because the National Weather Service provides (for free) more accurate predictions than I can (for a price), but that is a separate matter. To be sure, there are legal limits to the kinds of activities I am permitted to engage in, and there are often very good reasons for such legal regulation: I cannot practise surgery or design and build a tall building in a city or pilot an airplane unless I have a special licence which will be issued only if I show I have special qualifications, but that is because in all of these cases there is a specific potential material harm. No one else is harmed if I paint an uninteresting picture, and if an aesthetically obtuse person buys my painting, caveat emptor. On the other hand, if the building I construct falls down, indeterminately many people at some later time may well suffer, and a surgical error can be fatal to a person who is in no position to make an informed antecedent judgment about the skill of someone who offers to perform a certain operation. This gives a clear sense to the ‘should’ in ‘surgery should be performed only by those with appropriate medical training’. The ‘should’ here depends on two distinct features of this situation, first that bad surgery imposes material harm on others, and second that by giving prospective surgeons medical training one can reduce the risk that they will perform poorly. The second feature is as important as the first. If medical training really had no effect on surgical results, there would be no grounds for requiring it. So is studying philosophy really like performing surgery or practicing as a civil engineer?

It is tempting to follow Plato and think that damage to the human soul or mind or spirit is just as much a form of ‘material harm’ as having a building fall on one, having the wrong leg amputated or being on an airplane that crashes.  Similarly one might think that if my soul is damaged, I thereby actively harm all those others with whom I interact. So the untrained philosopher is just as dangerous to the public as the untrained surgeon. Even if one agrees with the beginning of this line of argument, the inference that only those trained in philosophy should pursue philosophy will not automatically follow. To get that conclusion one would still need strong reason to believe that  ‘training’ in philosophy — meaning by ‘training’  formal academic qualification — was like medical training in relevant respects, i.e. that if you did have such training you would be more likely to benefit the soul and if you lacked it you would be more likely to damage it.  That seems implausible.

It is, in any case, wrong to think of philosophy as a body of sacred doctrine or of professional academic philosophers as high priests guarding access to esoteric knowledge that will bring salvation.  Or as surgeons, experts in a skill whose incorrect practice will inflict deadly harm on innocents. Who or what gives us the right to permit or prohibit people from thinking, speaking, or writing about issues they find of gripping significance?

Perhaps ‘should’ in the original question is not to be construed as meaning ‘ought to be permitted’ but  as meaning ‘is advisable’.  So to say ‘philosophy should be pursued only by those with formal training in the subject’ does not mean that we should prohibit those without training from reading or publishing works of philosophy, but merely that it is inadvisable. Perhaps the idea is that philosophy is now so technical that no one without special training could conceivably understand it. So ‘trained’ philosophers can give those who are not trained the good advice not to waste their time in the self-defeating pursuit of an understanding that will always elude them. What advice is ‘good’ advice (i.e. helpful to the person on the receiving end) is highly dependent on context.  In certain contexts people with particular formal training may well be in a position to give those without that training very useful advice, but what would have to be true about the world for it to be the case that no untrained person could ever usefully think about any philosophical question?


Perhaps logic, metaphysics, or philosophy of language leaves its own history behind as it develops, but neither ethics nor politics does.


It is hard to see how the default position for most people in the modern world could be anything other than one which holds that it is in general a good thing to know more rather than to know less (about things in general and about any particular issue). This is the case, although, of course, it is also true that in particular circumstances it is sometimes better not to know various things. A true, but random, or irrelevant, or unrepresentative observation may well divert my attention from something important, destroy my concentration, or send me off on a wild goose chase. The question is not whether a moral philosopher should or should not be interested in logic. Of course, in an ideal world moral philosophers would pay close attention to what all other philosophers said and wrote. They would also pay close attention to advances in biology, new forms of legislation, world history, economic theory, cosmology, and literature. We do not live in such an ideal world and so for us the real question is: given the limitations on human time and attention, what is the most useful thing  for a philosopher who has a primary interest, say in political philosophy, to study? Is it more useful to study logic than economic history?  To say that we know that this is the case apriori, by virtue of the fact that logic ‘belongs’ to philosophy and economics does not, is to fetishise disciplinary boundaries that have no absolute standing.


Whether ‘analytic’/’Continental’ is an illuminating or well-formed dichotomy is less important than the general recognition that for as long as there have been philosophers, they have always disagreed with one another radically on a wide variety of important issues.  In this they differ from scientists or mathematicians.  Lack of  consensus, if not active intellectual hostility, is the natural state for any body of philosophers.  This seems just to be a fact of life about the way humans respond to certain basic features of the human condition , and it seems more reasonable to accept this and try to understand why it is the case and what its implications might be than to try to fit philosophy into a mould derived from religion (the universal consensus of all orthodox believers) or from a certain conception of ‘strict science’ (all biologists agree that the whale is a mammal, not a fish).


Academic philosophers should not give themselves too much importance. People are not going to stop expressing philosophical views in letters, or dialogues, or aphorisms just because this will not get them employment in a Department of Philosophy.