The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Book Review

You Won’t Miss Them Till They’re Gone

A lamentation and a memoir.

Paul Franz

Piarist monastery, Litomysl, Czech Republic; Profimedia.CA.a.s./Alamy Stock Photo.

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.”

This instruction, as portrayed by Geuss, was far from crushing indoctrination; its most powerful effects were indirect. Although it did not make him a Roman Catholic (Geuss is an atheist), he portrays his education as having immunized him for life against liberalism’s undergirding habits of mind. No less significant, however, was the barrier his high school experience erected against antiliberalism in its conservative humanist form: With their “characteristic existentialist hostility to anything that seemed to make appeal to human nature,” his Piarist teachers had more in common with the Marxist Georg Lukács or existentialists such as Søren Kierkegaard than they did with neo-Thomists such as Jacques Maritain. Whatever Geuss took from his instruction, it placed him at a considerable distance from contemporary conservative “postliberal” calls for a revival of community based on a restored sense of putative natural order. His watchwords are, instead, a resistance to settling for absolute claims and a strong refusal—shaped by his encounter with a reading of history that privileged the “rationally unpredictable and actually uncomputable fact” of the incarnation—to take any particular state of affairs as final. Radical transformation can never be ruled out.

Although Geuss repeatedly tells us that Not Thinking Like a Liberal does not present an argument, it stands in some distinct relation to argumentative claims. Much of the book, after all, is structured by Geuss’s insistence that his education embodied a critique, not just of liberalism, but of what are typically thought of as liberalism’s alternatives. Whatever is not liberal is generally assumed to be authoritarian and wedded to a crushing homogeneity in the acceptable forms of human life. (These assumptions can only be strengthened when, as in Geuss’s case, they arise in the milieu of the Roman Catholic Church.) Fending off the first assumption leads Geuss into his multifaceted main strand, which relates how “some of my teachers mounted a constant and unremitting theoretical assault on authority as a concept.” He disposes of the second by observing that his teachers’ Kierkegaardian antipathy toward the merely ethical embraced an all but “aesthetic” view of morality stressing the splendor of certain acts and lives, irrespective of their lack of conformity—or even flagrant hostility—to conventional morality.

But the deeper argumentative stakes are implicit—embodied in the formal device by which Geuss claims to have left argumentation, that distinctively liberal mode of public disputation, behind. He has long been renowned for the grace and artfulness of his writing. Digressions wind back to the primary thread of his argument, rejoining it at unexpected and always highly salient points. His new book tightly braids together content and form, the motive and the method of its author’s thinking. Consider his treatment of ideology, a concept considered exhaustively in his 1981 book The Idea of a Critical Theory, but which his recent writing has distilled to a pithier view: the motivated conflation of particular, usually dominant, interests with those of society as a whole. The central insight of Geuss’s most important teacher at his high school, Father Béla Krigler, consists in a similar skepticism about universalizing claims.

Although Krigler argues that the “authority” of the Roman Catholic Church, rightly construed, is advisory rather than despotic (an argument that, Geuss acknowledges, will strike non-Catholics as “very thin beer”), his deeper critique—and the one that has left the strongest trace on Geuss’s thinking—consists of historicizing the concept of authority itself. No such concept exists in classical Greek; the word comes from Rome. The Greeks understood rule and command, but they did not ascribe to these the normative force that Geuss observes to be conveyed by auctoritas. That concept is inherently linked to Roman institutions and their modern derivative, the state. To attend to the term’s history is to demystify it, to sap its universalizing force. In a similar way, Geuss’s account of his own history reveals that other assumptions are possible than those that are currently dominant.

After these resonant chapters on his high school days, the book’s closing chapters, on Geuss’s experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student in the philosophy department at Columbia University, read like a series of fading echoes: the last nails sealing up an enchantment that never occurred. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War—which showed liberals as, respectively, belated champions of justice and initiators of industrial-scale violence—mainly confirmed Geuss’s prior intuitions. But there is a question driving these chapters as well, namely that of the author’s own position: How is he to place himself, intellectually and politically, in the world from which his training has seemingly equipped him mainly for dissent?

For the young Geuss, this was in a deep sense a question of language. By the time he took up a graduate fellowship at the University of Freiburg, he had come to question whether all the work he had done for his dissertation on Martin Heidegger amounted to little more than rearrangements of its subject’s self-enclosed idiom. Then he encountered the poetry of Paul Celan, first as a reader, then as part of the audience for a reading by the Romanian Jew and Holocaust survivor, during one of his rare visits to Germany. Geuss has earlier told us, in a discussion of his high school teachers’ critique of literal modes of scriptural interpretation, how “any truly divine speech would bend, shape, distort, and crack our language out of all recognition.” In the hermetic poetry of the “anarcho-communist” Celan, he found such difficulty secularized: No longer exclusive to the language of God or to an esoteric sect, it now expressed a resistance to translation as characteristic of human being as such. From here, it is a short step to the book’s closing defense of an essentially negative and critical stance toward liberal discursiveness, as embodied in the work of social theorists Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, for whom the expectation that ideas be expressed in an “easily comprehensible way” was a “repressive demand.”

In Not Thinking Like a Liberal, as in his earlier works, Geuss writes forcefully in defense of an Adornian negativity, rightly rejecting the demand that every critique supply a positive alternative. But his presentation does not quite embody that insight: Alternatives suggest themselves nonetheless. “The liberal overvalues both clarity and free discussion,” Geuss writes. Maybe so, but overvalues them how much? Compared to what? The entire structure of the book makes a strong concession to the demand that it claims to deflect—even if it does so by attempting to elaborate an alternative that is itself negative: a non-authoritarian way of “not thinking like a liberal.” Yet this is the outlook not of a polity but of a school, an outlook that harbored briefly in the midst of a liberal society that seems to have been largely indifferent to it. Geuss entertains but rejects the possibility that his school’s milieu really amounted to “liberalism after all.” His intention is clearly to show that what are taken to be liberalism’s distinctive virtues can be placed on a different footing, one no longer wedded to the “fantasy” of radical autonomy nor one that masks economic injustices and inhibits their redress. Then again, one could also see Geuss as making a series of concessions, all the while denying that they are concessions to liberalism.

As Geuss knows, neither his own nor his teachers’ critique is original (or likely to persuade most liberals). What he emphasizes about Roman Catholicism as a religion—that it is a complex and changing assemblage of historical practices, not to be reduced to a set of inert propositions—he does not concede to liberalism, which he generally reduces to a set of what he mordantly calls “tenets.” Yet as an effort to preserve liberalism as “a specific theoretical doctrine,” and hence a stable object for critique, this reduction sits awkwardly with Geuss’s insistence on liberalism’s permeation of institutions, and hence its construction of a distinctive life-world. Moreover, there remains a basic weakness in the book’s overall presentation of a liberal as, in effect, someone who has never read Marx or, in particular, Freud. For many, Geuss’s teachers’ emphasis on “the inherent complexity of human life, the difficulty of judgment, the unsurveyability of choices, and the obscurity of eventual outcomes” will name, not the grounds for liberalism’s abandonment, but the existential conditions that make its embrace a necessity.

Most enigmatic is the relationship between Geuss’s resolutely critical posture and his commitment to collective projects and, ultimately, to governance. In his earlier Real Politics, Geuss expressed the wish that political philosophy concern itself with the concrete analysis and attainment of power; he is not apt to fall into the trap diagnosed by the conservative Canadian antiliberal student of political philosophy George Grant, who dryly observed in the 1960s that “domestic Marxists have been able as a minority to concentrate on the libertarian and Utopian expectations in their doctrines because unlike the Marxists of the East they could leave the requirements of public order to others.” Yet anyone who, like Geuss, is persuaded that averting the ecological catastrophe of climate change will require “significant coercive measures directed against the major actors and institutions of our current economic system,” will wish for a more satisfactory discussion of the relationship between liberalism in the economic and political realms. (Geuss declares himself among those who regard the latter mainly as an accomplice of the former, and declines to argue the point.) Necessity tramples liberties indiscriminately. Those of us who wish for both humane economic arrangements and a healthy freedom of discourse and inquiry will fear further weakening the latter by declining to affirm them in principle.

In this respect, the book’s opening pages, with their politically savvy but tonally maudlin elegy over the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, strike a warning note. Geuss’s self-described “lamentation”—the word loss occurs three times in two pages—for an institution that many on the left have long held in scant regard raises the inevitable question: What other compromised things might one miss when they are gone?