Does anyone still need advice on how not to think like a liberal? Amid widespread doubts on both left and right about the legitimacy of liberal institutions and economic arrangements, it might appear that the new book by Raymond Geuss, an American-born Cambridge University professor of philosophy, has come to tell us how not to do what we have already ceased doing. Yet as Geuss observes, “Some form of liberalism”—with its characteristic emphasis on uncoerced consent and open discussion among notionally free individuals—“is…still the basic framework which structures political, economic, and social thought in the English-speaking world.” So deeply embedded are liberal ideas in our institutions and discourse, he writes, that even when the conditions that gave rise to them have altered, “it can be difficult for someone who does not have a slightly deviant social position or education to get an appropriate cognitive distance from them, and thus to see some of their deficiencies for what they are.” Not Thinking Like a Liberal tells how its author came to acquire such deviancy.
Its essayistic chapters take as their primary setting the boarding school outside Philadelphia that Geuss attended as a scholarship student in the late 1950s and early ’60s. There he was taught by exiled Hungarian priests of the Piarist Order, which had been founded during the Counter-Reformation to educate the poor of Hapsburg lands and eventually widened its tutelage to include the Spanish and Hungarian elites. If the steel mill that employed Geuss’s father (and occasionally Geuss himself) constituted one formative world—its values embodied in the figure of St. Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of the Geuss family’s local church—it was the still more “total institution” of his boarding school that decisively shaped Geuss’s attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions. In its austere “world of exiled Habsburg high culture,” his mind found a tenuous freedom.
What did all this have to do with liberalism? In one sense, the dominant American ideology was simply absent from this education. Geuss’s teachers, priests who had lived through two-and-a-half decades of the right-wing dictatorship of Miklós Hórthy, subsequent Nazi and Soviet occupations, then ten years under the Hungarian Communist Party, had liberalism neither as part of their experience nor of their intellectual formation. In another sense, however, liberalism was a constant shadow presence, thanks to the priests’ running critique of “what they took to be a typically Protestant (by which they meant…what they thought was the Lutheran) position.” This critique advanced on multiple fronts, assailing what it took to be Protestant hypocrisies, such as a specious claim to toleration that nevertheless proscribed dissenting practices and beliefs, as well as the fixation on the literal apprehension of written scriptures—foreshadowing liberal veneration of written law—as opposed to their mediation by tradition and interpretation. However, this instruction set itself one target in particular: “the conception of the sovereign, self-transparent individual which was central to all forms of liberalism.”