Raymond Geuss on the role of the humanities in an open society

In this 5-min. clip, the philosopher Raymond Geuss argues that self-knowledge is at the heart of humanistic inquiry.

John Madera and I over at Big Other.

  1. Hi, Andrew.

    I’m not sure if we can, like Raymond Geuss seems to, take for granted that the pursuit of self-knowledge is an impulse, that it is, strictly, a wish or an urge. Seems to me that it is choice or will, that is, controllable things, rather than impulse, something seemingly, to me, largely outside of our control, that primarily drives us toward the pursuit of self-knowledge. Perhaps it’s a fusion of all three of these things, and, I suspect, other forces, both internal and external, that drives us toward self-knowledge.

    Whether it comes from an impulse or not, is, perhaps, beside the point, but how do we substantiate Geuss’s claim that the pursuit of self-knowledge is “the central legitimating principle of the humanities”? Why do the humanities need a “central legitimating principle” anyway? While I understand that so-called legitimating principles are necessary in order to protect the constantly-under-fire humanities (and yes, let’s do everything we can to protect them), I’m not sure why, in the greater scheme of things, the arts and humanities need to have a value imposed on them from outside.

    One idea that doesn’t get developed in Geuss’s talk, which we can perhaps address here, is how knowledge of the other can result in self-knowledge.

    A side point: what happens to Geuss’s argument after you counter his claim that the Athenians put Socrates to death “because he wouldn’t stop asking questions,” with the historically grounded assertion that he was put on trial for two, admittedly ambiguous, reasons, namely, corrupting the Athenian youth and for his supposed impiety, specifically for “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and for “introducing new deities”? To split hairs even more, didn’t Socrates, by drinking the hemlock, actually carry out his own execution?

  2. Hi John,

    Great comments. Let me try to say what I think Geuss is up to and then I’ll try to distinguish Geuss’s project from my own.

    As a contemporary professional philosopher, Geuss stands uneasily in 2 different traditions. He was trained at Columbia in analytic philosophy, but his interest lies in continental philosophy–specifically in first-generation Frankfurt School Critical Theory.

    Analytic philosophers tend to be concerned with achieving conceptual clarity (what is a horse?) and logical rigor, with making air-tight arguments that are immune to error, and with providing knock-down challenges to their opponents’ arguments. In all these respects, they hew closely to formal logic, mathematics, and science.

    First-generation Critical Theorists, for their part, tended to take seriously 2 different thoughts: 1.) This is NOT the best of all possible worlds. Or: There’s definitely something rotten in Denmark. 2.) The truth is the whole–that is to say, a philosopher must know the broad stretches of land called sociology, economics, psychology, and epistemology. Let’s say that Critical Theorists value prescience and social change. Let’s say further that they think of philosophy in terms of provocation.

    We might say that Geuss tries to marry the clarity and rigor of analytic philosophy with the critical orientation of Critical theory. Not without some difficulty, however, since analytic philosopher is oriented toward providing the best description of a current state of affairs while Critical Theory directs its attention toward challenging those states of affairs.

    Consider Geuss’s talk now. In demeanor and repose, Geuss is an analytic philosopher. But in attitude and focus, he is a Critical Theorist. His thesis–”the impulse toward self-knowledge is the single legitimizing principle of the humanities”–contains both traditions at once.

    All this, then, by way of context.

    I take it you think Geuss’s thesis is dubious on 2 fronts. First, what is the *source* of the pursuit of self-knowledge? Second, is the humanities grounded on a First Principle? (And does it need to be in order to persist in its existence?)

    I’m not sure that self-knowledge stems either from an impulse or from choice. Rather, I think we first ‘take an interest’ in self-knowledge after we’ve been kicked in the teeth. By my lights, we start philosophizing because a world that used to make sense no longer does. Out of the blue, our child passed away or the World Trade Center buildings collapsed or the financial industry imploded. We’re not sure how to go on (call it the problem of nihilism), and we turn to philosophical reflection *out of necessity*. Some people do anyway; most try, ineffectually, to return to their affairs and their routines.

    Now to your 2nd question. Like you, I don’t believe that self-knowledge is the single final end of humanistic inquiry. Unlike you, however, I think the humanities do aim at a finite set of final ends: a sensible model for being in the world (philosophy of life), the common good (public philosophy), and wholeness (speculative philosophy). I think this conception, though not spelled out, leaves plenty of room for poetry and the arts, for history, for sociology, and so on.

    I’m not sure that the humanities will last unless they have some way of understanding themselves more clearly as well as some way of legitimizing their existence in and to society.



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