But the embarrassment goes deeper. Most stand-ups do have jokes to tell, while contemporary philosophers may not even have “a philosophy” in the intended sense. What’s wanted is not a list of views on philosophical questions — “I am a nominalist in metaphysics, a deontologist in ethics, etc.” — but rather a single, unified, coherent worldview. Alternatively, a pithy saying or proverb. I cannot offer either.
The Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss thinks I shouldn’t be embarrassed. Geuss is a gifted and recently prolific writer, having authored a landmark book about critical theory and the Frankfurt School, followed by volumes on morality, culture, and history; realism in political theory; and the history of philosophy from Socrates to Adorno. His latest collection, Who Needs a World View?, informs us that no one does.
For Geuss, a worldview is not just a theory about the world as a whole but a core identity that gives one a role to play within that world, encoding expectations and obligations. Communism and Christianity are Geuss’s main examples, but there are other worldviews, too. You may have one of your own. Geuss is against all of them, commending in their place a flexible pragmatism, sensitive to history and local possibility, that aims to improve the world piecemeal. His book is fittingly episodic, drawing on Adorno, Nietzsche, and Hegel, as well as on creative artists from Bruegel the Elder to Tolstoy. It ends with a brilliant reading of Antonin Artaud’s controversial 1948 radio play To Dispense with the Judgment of God. But at its center is a systematic argument against the need for comprehensive worldviews.
What could generate that need? Geuss usefully distinguishes two pressures, both of which he resists. The first is epistemological, having to do with knowledge, the second practical, stemming from our emotional lives. Geuss associates the first argument with Aristotle, “who was essentially an extroverted biologist and natural historian rather on the model of David Attenborough, but who also engaged in a bit of general theorising on the side.” Aristotle holds that we all “by nature” desire to know and that the pursuit of scientific truth draws us to a unity and coherence of belief.
Geuss is unimpressed by this, but his reasons are not good. He contends that we can’t separate the ideal of a single, coherent, overarching truth from a confused conception of truth as correspondence with reality — correspondence, that is, between our concepts, propositions, and theories, on the one hand, and a bare, unconceptualized reality on the other. No doubt that picture is mistaken, but it has little to do with the appeal of unity and coherence, which call for nothing more than Aristotle’s trite but excellent observation that “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” I don’t see why the pursuit of a grand unified theory should either rest on or support the enigma of things in themselves.
It’s a pity that Geuss takes the line he does, since there are better ways to make his point. That science cares about unity and coherence is not an argument for a comprehensive worldview, one that tells us who we are and how to live, since that is not what scientific theories do. As Max Weber argued in his 1918 lecture “Science as a Vocation”: “Apart from the overgrown children who can still be found in the natural sciences, who imagines nowadays that a knowledge of astronomy or biology or physics or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world?” Once we turn from science to ethics and politics, the allure of simplicity is obscure. We are dealing now with the messiness of human life, the patchwork of history and society — and we don’t associate simplicity with moral wisdom. The ethically sensitive among us are alert to the complexity of social life. As Geuss puts it, more pungently: “[O]ne would have to have a seriously deranged personality to consider tidiness the highest human virtue.”
So, ethics is complicated — and politics, from which it is inextricable, is even more so. It’s a fool’s errand to compose a final guidebook to the world. But what is the alternative, you may ask? How can we deal with the complexity of life except by seeking a synoptic view, finding such unity as we can? Are we to give up on philosophy altogether? No, says Geuss: the alternative is a form of pragmatism, shared by John Dewey and Geuss’s teacher, Sidney Morgenbesser. For the pragmatist, philosophy responds to disruptions in the flow of life — to alienation and injustice — with social critique, performing local repairs or reconstructions that make our practices work better.
Geuss has no patience with the obvious retort — that this is a worldview of its own — calling it “so predictable and lame as to be unworthy of consideration.” Had he considered it, he could have pointed out that his style of philosophical pragmatism doesn’t meet the definition of a worldview, a unified theory that tells you who you are. It’s more modest than that: a theory that relates the project of philosophy to our varying, historically inflected conceptions of how to live.
The more serious threat of self-refutation is contained in one of the quips for which Morgenbesser was well known: “Sidney used to say that pragmatism was certainly true; the only problem was that it didn’t work.” The worry here — inspired by Morgenbesser’s own experience with “Reconstructionist Judaism” — is that we have a practical, emotional need for comprehensive worldviews. We can’t get by without them, so they end up being justified by the pragmatic standards tailored to supplant them. The motivation to construct a worldview, then, is not epistemological. It turns on “the overwhelming experience of weakness, failure, pain, loss, disharmony in human life, and the difficulty we humans have in facing up to this fact and dealing with it in one way or another.” Is a worldview essential to any consolation we can find?
The most substantive contributions of Geuss’s book lie in its exploration of alternatives: ways to wrestle with the defects of individual and social life without relying on a comprehensive worldview. There are forms of solidarity that do not rest on central, orienting doctrines and modes of progressive thought that are not framed by final visions of utopia. In a fascinating chapter, Geuss revives the utopianism of Gustav Landauer’s 1907 book Revolution, in which “utopia” stands (appropriately) not for any place that might exist — etymologically, the term means “no-place” as much as it means “good-place” — but for the collection of individual impulses that drive us to reform the unjust elements of our social order. Geuss wants to replace collective creeds and manifestos, which tend to be dogmatic and encompassing, with personal confessions. These, too, can meet the need for consolation insofar as it can be honestly met.
This orientation explains a second thread that runs through Geuss’s book, from start to finish: a strand of autobiographical musings that alternate with explorations in philosophy and the history of thought. Geuss stages the conflict between pragmatism and comprehensive worldviews as an imagined debate between his two great teachers: Sidney Morgenbesser and Father Béla Krigler, who taught the 12-year-old Geuss in Catholic school. Subsequent chapters cast a playfully skeptical eye on the idea of life as a work of art, on life as a game, and on life considered from one’s deathbed. These essays glitter with insights. When one makes a work of art, one finally surveys a finished whole; until then, everything is subject to change. Not so with life, in which one’s past is irrevocable and one never gets to see how it all turns out. The first sentence of the essay “Life Is a Game” reads, “No, it isn’t.” Most games give us strictly limited goals, fixed rules, clear standards of success and failure. Life does not. Geuss’s themes — resistance to viewing one’s life as a whole, and to any measure of living well that “imposes itself” on us — are of a piece with his hostility to worldviews.
There is philosophical work to do in reconciling the belief that there is no “given” perspective from which to evaluate our lives with the conviction that not just anything goes. Geuss does not attempt that work here. Still, he makes a compelling case, by argument and example, that one can live well without adopting any view of one’s life as a whole, let alone a systematic worldview.
It’s another question whether he makes a case against picturing one’s life as a whole or embracing a worldview. Geuss does suggest, briefly, that the concept of a final truth “prevents us from focusing appropriately on this openness and changeability of human experience, and thus constitutes an obstacle to free enquiry and human growth.” But he doesn’t offer evidence that worldviews inevitably do such harm or that caring about the shape of one’s whole life is comparably dangerous.
Maybe Geuss does not mean to disparage worldviews too emphatically. We can do without them, as he insists, but if some of us go in for totalizing theories, fair enough. Live and let live. I think the truth is more complex and that it shows up only when we step back from the needs of individuals to consider the needs of human society. Here is Iris Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good (1970):
There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.
Murdoch’s opposition between grand theories and particular facts is not the same as Geuss’s opposition between worldviews and pragmatic ways of getting on. But there is a parallel between them: we need those who incline to comprehensive worldviews as much as we need those, like Geuss, who will resist them. Without Marx, there is no Frankfurt School, no critique of the kind that Geuss admires. There is no Nietzsche without Kant and Schopenhauer.
Who needs a worldview? Maybe we don’t, as individuals — or some of us do, others not so much. But collectively, we need worldviews as elements in the process of free inquiry and human growth. Such visions inspire while they frustrate. As we muddle through our lives together, we need the friction between quixotic efforts to make sense of life, the universe, and everything and impatient demands to mitigate suffering now. Perhaps I can respond to that awkward question after all. If you ask, “What’s your philosophy?” — my answer is: “It takes all sorts.”
Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT and is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.