by Raymond Geuss. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008. 126pp. Cloth $19.95/£11.95. ISBN: 9780691137889.

Reviewed by Christoph Konrath, Parliamentary Administration, Austrian Parliament. Email: christoph.konrath [at]


John Rawls famously distinguished between four roles of political philosophy (2001): 1) the practical role arising from divisive political conflict and the need to settle the problem of order; 2) the role of orientation, specifying principles to identify reasonable and rational ends; 3) the role of reconciliation, providing a means through which history and institutions of a given society can be understood as rational; and 4) the role of political philosophy as realistically utopian – that is, as probing the limits of practicable political possibility. For Raymond Geuss, Rawls and numerous other contemporary political philosophers got entangled primarily with the fourth role. In his new book PHILOSOPHY AND REAL POLITICS, Geuss argues for a different political philosophy which is not realistically utopian but concerned with real politics. Geuss does not deny the importance of idealizations in philosophy, but he criticizes what the canon of contemporary political philosophy has made of them. Being “realistically utopian,” as Geuss sees it, means nothing else than to develop an ideal theory of rights or justice which allows one to guide and judge political actions. It is an approach that can be characterized by reductionism and modes of exclusion of complex social realities. Often, it tends to rest on some basic assumptions of its concepts or moral intuitions that are claimed to be “ours” and thus somehow general and timeless. Although such theories are formulated within a specific historical and sociological setting, these contexts remain unstated. They are sustained, Geuss holds, precisely by “ignoring or blanking out history, sociology, and the particularities that constitute the substance of any recognizable form of human life” (p.59).

Contemporary political philosophy is a broad and fascinating enterprise. Yet, it often seems to be engaged only with itself – it produces philosophical discourses on other philosophical discourses. Contemporary political philosophy claims to be concerned with political actions, while it has long lost touch with the outside world. We may reply that this kind of distance is actually necessary to reflect on the meaning of political action and to justify what is or should be done in real life. But one needs to address the question how wide this distance should be. Geuss attempts to provide an answer, demanding that philosophers should first try to understand why real political actors behave as they actually do.

He argues that many contemporary political philosophers and even political advisors tend to regard politics as applied ethics. Geuss calls that an “ethics-first” view (p.8). It is based on the assumption that one may complete the work of ethics first, thereby attaining an ideal theory of how we should act. [*1079] Only then may one apply that ideal theory to the action of political agents. In other words – and using a popular phrase of political theorists – they prefer to meet before the bars of justice than in public places or parliaments.

In his essay, Geuss wants to expound and advocate a political philosophy that is the opposite of such a view. Such a political philosophy should be realist. It should be concerned with the way the social, economic and political institutions actually operate within given circumstances. This approach implies the analysis of rationalist concepts, imaginations, and ideas as far as they influence real behavior. Secondly, such a view recognizes that politics is first and foremost about actions and their context, not about mere beliefs or propositions. Propounding a new theory can therefore be analyzed as a political action. Thirdly, Geuss defends the thesis that politics is historically located and that this shall be reflected in the study of politics. He thus rejects the claim that there are “eternal questions of political philosophy.” According to Geuss, these have become such generalizations that they are seriously misleading for the understanding of real politics. Finally, Geuss views politics as the exercise of a craft or art that requires skills and forms of judgment.

Up to this point, such a concept of political philosophy is neither new nor original. It retrieves conceptions of politics and political philosophy that have lost prominence in many contemporary discourses. Like Quentin Skinner or James Tully, Geuss reminds us that political philosophers are political actors engaged in the problems and conventions of their age (cf. Tully 2008: xii). And Geuss’ argument is foremost an approach along the lines of critical theory. It attempts to provide the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry and social change. Geuss can therefore but insist that political philosophy ought to combine the poles of philosophy, history and the social sciences. However, the central difference of his approach is that he refers to Lenin, Nietzsche and Max Weber as advocates (or straw men?) for his arguments. Geuss argues that, whenever we speak of politics, we do think of a number of fundamental questions which are primarily associated with these three thinkers.

Lenin’s fundamental question is “Who, whom?”. Geuss extends this question as “Who what to whom for whose benefit?” (p.25). From this, it follows that to think politically is to think about agency, power, and interests, and the relations among them. This leads to a concept of political philosophy which cannot, by any means, remain abstract. And, following Lenin’s discussion of the principle of partisanship, every theory is “partisan” and takes side in an ongoing war of worldviews (p.29). Lenin’s question is designated as the first and foremost question while Nietzsche’s and Weber’s questions are regarded as addenda. Nietzsche addresses the finitude of human existence and the necessity to choose an action or a pursuit in a given case and in the crucial moment. Weber’s question relates to his insistence on legitimacy. This leads Geuss to emphasize once more the importance of historic contextuality. These three questions lead to the formulation – or rather sketch – of five tasks of political theory. These tasks are decisive for how political thinking [*1080] informs the social world and what role it plays in actual politics.

The first task is to understand how the organized forms of acting together in a given society actually work, to explain why decisions are taken, and so on. This point remains vague and wide, as does the second task which is evaluation. According to Geuss, political theory (he uses the terms “philosophy” and “theory” mostly interchangeably to cast as much doubt as possible on the meaning of these terms) is not only driven by the desire to understand but also by the wish to judge a system as being better or worse in some respect than other systems. Again, he calls on Nietzsche and Lenin, quoting the latter with the statement that revolutionary praxis requires revolutionary theory (p.40). The third task is orientation. It comes close to Rawls’ definition mentioned above. The fourth and fifth tasks are presented in more detail. They comprise conceptual innovation and ideology. Conceptual innovation shall be constructive contribution to politics with a strong normative component. Ideology can either mean criticism of ideology or political theory playing an ideological role in society (p.53).

Geuss is well aware that his concept of realism is rather broadly construed. Therefore, he aims to sustain it by a contrast with two influential contemporary views that represent – according to Geuss – almost the direct opposite of realism. He is concerned with Robert Nozick’s ANARCHY STATE AND UTOPIA (1974) and John Rawls’ A THEORY OF JUSTICE (1971). According to Geuss, both theories fail to be realistic, as they either try to construct a society around an idealized legal system or to formulate a full political theory resting on a single political virtue. He deliberately chooses these books (and not any later contributions by Nozick or Rawls), as they have become especially influential in contemporary political philosophy. Geuss treats them both as representatives of a particular style of theorizing about politics (p.70). It is thus important to note, that he is not interested in the details of their views. Proceeding in this way, Geuss presents a powerful critique of intuitions as starting points of theorizing, of Nozick’s concept of rights, and of Rawls’ concepts of justice, equality, fairness and impartiality.

Arguing against Nozick, Geuss sets an example for why political philosophy should become more historical and presents an example of his mode of genealogical thinking. He asks how subjective rights can serve as a self-evident basis for political philosophy when they themselves are a fairly modern and western phenomenon. Geuss does not aim to reduce philosophy to history but to replace “a rather useless set of questions with a potentially more interesting and fruitful” one (p.69). In his critique of Rawls, Geuss follows a similar genealogical approach. But the most important line of criticism is one of a concept that is obviously not discussed in Rawls’ whole body of work: power. He argues that, to the extent to which Rawls seems to draw “attention away from the phenomenon of power and the way in which it influences our lives . . . [,] his theory is itself ideological” (p.90) or even mystifying (p.94). Geuss underpins his argument by raising the following question: How can we approach politics through “intuitions” and present them as firmly fixed, when [*1081] actually “a minimal amount” of historical research will reveal that many of the most politically significant intuitions are subject to change and predominantly formulated in the context of relations structured by power?

Geuss concludes his book with the central argument that, if political philosophy “wishes to be at all connected with a serious understanding of politics, and thus to become an effective source of orientation or guide to action, it needs to [attain] something like the ‘realist’ view, or neo-Leninism” (p.99). In contrast, he holds, an “ethics-first view” has little to tell us about real politics.

PHILOSOPHY AND REAL POLITICS is an impressive and provocative essay on contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy theory. But Geuss remains vague and is reluctant to expound his methodological position in sufficient detail. He does, however, ask a number of central questions that are usually not raised in this context. But only too often it seems, as if he were writing from exactly that superior position and pedagogical point of view that he is criticizing so heavily –he argues that his is the proper approach to the legitimate political aims.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. ANARCHY, STATE AND UTOPIA. New York, Basic Books.

Rawls, John. 1971. A THEORY OF JUSTICE. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Rawls, John. 2001. JUSTICE AS FAIRNESS. A RESTATEMENT. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Tully, James. 2008. PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY. VOLUME I: CIVIC FREEDOM. Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Christoph Konrath..