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Reality and Its Dreams

By John Rapko.


Raymond Geuss, Reality and Its Dreams, Harvard University Press, 2016.

Geuss diagnoses the appeal of normativism as stemming from the acceptance of a single and spectacularly bad argument dubbed ‘The Platonist Blackmail’: ‘if you do not have a guide to action that is absolute [sic] certain and absolute [sic] universal, you have nothing at all.

Raymond Geuss’s latest collection of essays, Reality and Its Dreams, discusses a range of topics unusually wide even for Geuss. Earlier books of his juxtaposed discussions of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and poetry with sympathetic reconstructive accounts of German philosophers, especially Marx, Nietzsche, and Adorno, and largely critical accounts of Kant, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick. The new book contains discussion of all of these, but expands an interest exhibited in his two prior collections in addressing contemporary political and artistic phenomena, including some contemporary paintings, a recent play about a Holocaust survivor, and the political thought of the British comedian Russell Brand. Geuss proposes that what unites these essays is the concern to attack ‘normativism’, a philosophical orientation that aims to present an abstract and unified set of criteria for evaluating and judging the legitimacy of social and political phenomena and practices. One of the motifs of Geuss’s political thought is that political utterances are never merely statements of doctrine, but also actions. Where normativism constructs political concepts and judgments prior to or in abstraction from their concrete contexts, Geuss considers and criticizes normativism in light of the actions it motivates and the guidance for practices it provides. Another motif is that orientations and doctrines are variously and to various degrees embodied in acts, practices, and institutions. Geuss’s criticism of normativisim is accordingly not only a critical account and rejection of certain philosophical doctrines, but also a defense against certain kinds of political speech that are ignored or slighted by normativist thinkers, and a critique of political institutions and practices to the degree that they embody normativist doctrines.

The central characteristic of normativism as a philosophical orientation is the assumption that there is a ‘realm’ consisting of principles, claims, concepts et alia, that is in conception distinct and underived from how the world or, perhaps better, empirical reality is. Normativist philosophers disagree on the contents of this realm and the relation it bears to empirical reality, but they are united in thinking that
appeals to inquiries or results in anthropology, sociology, psychology, or history play no role in determining the contents of this realm. Rather, one arrives at the contents through on or another of both of two methods: eliciting ‘intuitions’ and constructing thought experiments. Say I’m a capable swimmer, and I see two people, a child and an adult, floundering in the ocean. Who should I attempt to save first, and why? Although in the hands of any particular philosopher the results of applying these methods may be extremely intricate, it is further assumed by normativist philosophers that the resulting structure must be coherent; but what the criteria of coherence are and what counts as coherent are themselves matters of dispute among normativists.

Geuss claims that in political philosophy there has been a kind of ‘normative turn’, analogous to the ‘linguistic turn’ diagnosed by the philosopher Richard Rorty in the 1970’s. In the ‘linguistic turn’ philosophers passed from treating philosophical activity as the analysis of concepts to one basically engaged in the analysis of bits of language. In the ‘normative turn’ philosophy passes from historically informed and socially diagnostic works such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle to works aiming to analyze concepts such as ‘justice’ or ‘rights’, but without reference to their historical development or social embodiment in practices and institutions. The paradigmatic works of the incipient normative political philosophy of the 1970’s are John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). In that same decade one sees the beginnings of our period of political reaction that soon effloresced under Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States. Geuss sees an elective affinity between normativism in political philosophy and political reaction in the former’s attempt to draw attention away from historically concrete and complex instances of oppression, exploitation, alienation, and above all inequality. Political reaction and normativist political philosophy likewise treat politics as a kind of applied morality, wherein judgments are made and actions motivated in terms of simple dichotomies. Geuss’s favored example is Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq with the simple statement: ‘Saddam Hussein is evil’. Insofar as normativist political philosophy deigns to examine the world, it contents itself with simple judgments of approval and disapproval, issued without reflection upon historical and contextual considerations. Geuss likens the claim to authority of such judgments to that claimed by main lines of Christian preaching: the categorical framework is never called into question, and the very articulation and uttering of the judgment would allegedly convince any uncorrupted person of its rightness.

Geuss here and in previous books presents an array of arguments against the basic conceptual moves of normativist philosophy. His core objections are that its elaborate conceptual structures are invariably based upon simplistic and naïve conceptions of actual human life; and further that because of the abstractness of the constructions and their great distance from actual political problems and historically specific cultural diagnoses results, in practice they cannot but help function as compensatory phantasies for academics, who feel themselves to be clever in pondering and analyzing the intricacies of the structures and somehow in contact with realities more profound than those of everyday instances of power, oppression, and inequality. As such, normativism never issues in imaginative projects aiming at fundamental reforms or revolutionary proposals. Instead, normativist political philosophy, when not simply ratifying and providing an ideological justification for current conditions, can at most recommend small palliative measures. For there to be some trickling down of wealth under our ever-intensifying global conditions of massive inequality, normativists fret over just how many centimeters the spigot should be turned.

In his thoroughgoing rejection of normativism, Geuss is close to the thought of John Dewey, particularly in how both see the appeal of dualisms, especially the distinction between the empirical and the ideal, as stemming from the failure of imagination and a panicked reaction the supposed threat of relativism. Geuss diagnoses the appeal of normativism as stemming from the acceptance of a single and spectacularly bad argument dubbed ‘The Platonist Blackmail’: ‘if you do not have a guide to action that is absolute [sic] certain and absolute [sic] universal, you have nothing at all.” (60) Against this Geuss asserts, first, that it is simply false to say that human beings require access and adherence to some ultimate framework for routinely successful orientation and guidance in everyday actions. His preferred example is thirst: if I’m thirsty and am told that there’s a water fountain over there to the left, I need no systematic theory for action; when I head off in that direction, I am not acting randomly.

Secondly, and rapidly generalizing, Geuss further asserts that we need no “single systematic theory that provides us, either individually or collectively, with a certain way of proceeding in all situations.” Instead we should treat the need for orientation as piecemeal and context-specific, and accordingly something that may well be satisfied through pragmatically organized activities of “observation, theorization, and rational argumentation.” (61) Another way of putting this point would be to say that there are no context-free needs for human beings aside from whatever is required for the sustainability of individual lives and collective life; a potentially fruitful response to an emergent, contingent, and local need for orientation is rightly understood as an imaginative response, one that arises precisely because the existing state of affairs is unsatisfactory and does not obviously offer the resources for finding one’s way out. Normativism understood as an imaginative construct is a notably fruitless and impoverishing way of answering this need.


The second focus of the book is an attack on neoliberalism in the forms of excavating and scrutinizing into most basic conceptions and assumptions. As the dominant ideology of capitalism in its latest phase, one that emerges in the 1970’s and works for justifying the current period of political reaction marked by the ascendency of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. As an ideology governing political and economic activity in the past forty years, neoliberalism is marked by an overriding concern with individual liberty secured by property rights, a rejection of collective control and public ownership of the means and conditions of social life, and the attempt to treat all spheres of human life as analogous to, or indeed as constituted by, market relations. Neoliberalism is “constituted by two theses”: (a) “the good life must be the life of the human individual, and its goodness is constituted by a triad of three components: welfare, as measured by the level of access to goods and services, the satisfaction of desire, and freedom”; (b) the theory of the free market, wherein independent individuals exchange goods and services without thereby drawing from or developing further social relations among themselves. (154) A typical neoliberal position derives from, exaggerates, and dramatizes an inflated terminology of the anti-paternalist strain of classical liberalism, a strain that starts with the insistence that in every case an individual is or should be the final arbiter of what is good for herself. The neoliberal demands that everyone’s desires and preferences be taken at face value and be given equal weight in public deliberation and political activity. Additionally, the neoliberal position treats the free market as the ideal social mechanism for making the good life available, both for individuals qua individuals, and for individuals treated as parts of aggregates.

Geuss raises a range of considerations against both these in aiming to undermine their seeming attractiveness and/or inevitability. With regard to the model of a free and self-regulating market, Geuss concedes a degree of plausibility to neoliberalism during its triumphant first phase from the late 1970’s through 2008. However, the aftermath of the economic downturn shows quite plainly that existing markets and their mechanisms are not in any sense self-regulating. The chapter ‘Economies: Good, Bad, and Indifferent’ presents Geuss’s most sustained criticism of the neoliberal model of a free market. He attacks the psychological and anthropological preconceptions of the free market model. In that model buyers and sellers are first characterized by the possession of a set of desires and preferences considered in abstraction from how they were acquired, from the advisability of satisfying them, or from the possibilities of transforming them. There is no significant conceptual distinction between desires and preferences; both are typically latent characteristics of consumers that are activated under contingent market circumstances regarding the availability of particular goods the promise of which would prima facie satisfy some pre-existent desire. So prior to the marketing of a certain kind of car, one has no overt desire for this car. But once marketed, the car activates consumers’ desire for it, perhaps so intensely that they think of themselves as ‘needing’ the car. Since the free market model is abstracted from history, in particular from the sorts of changes in social possibilities of human development that Marx viewed as partially inducing the emergence of new needs, its conception of human nature is static, and it can only conceptualize emergent desires as the activation of some prior disposition. The individual’s set of desires as such is unchanging.

Against this narrow conception Geuss brings three points: First, the presupposed conception of the economy fails to include considerations of sustainability. Second, the kinds of consideration addressed by a conception of the economy that is suitably capacious to include sustainability cannot be restricted to (pre-existent) desires and preferences, but must also include needs and interests. Needs, desires, and interests are irreducible to each other, and are all subject to historical variation and development. Third, because of its limitation to considerations motivating liberal anti-paternalism, the free market model blocks the possibility of including considerations wherein existing desires and preferences might be subjected to criticism, or might become open to learning and transformation. The free market model is thus an instance of ‘positivism’ in Adorno’s sense, a piece of social ideology that blocks criticism and discourages acts of collective deliberation and imagination in the service of transforming societies.

A number of previous reviews of Geuss’s works have disapprovingly noted a tone of ‘bleakness’ there, and complained that the battery of criticisms Geuss brings against normativist philosophers like Kant and Rawls or liberals like J.S.Mill and Isaiah Berlin are unconstructive, in that Geuss offers no alternative to the views criticized. Geuss’s chief implicit response in previous books and elaborated here is to defend and elaborate another claim of Adorno’s, namely, that one major form of criticism is ‘internal’. Such criticism is a context-specific activity prominently involving juxtaposing descriptions of practices with the aims whose realization might plausibly be thought to guide such practices. The addressee of the criticism is left to note the lack of fit between the two. Internal criticism, for Geuss as for Adorno, is not typically ‘productive’ in offering a solution for the problems criticized. But here he also offers a second implicit response to the charge of bleakness in developing a philosophical account of ‘utopian thinking’, an imaginative activity that addresses discontents and persistent, unsatisfied desires in the present. The exploration of utopian thinking in philosophy and the arts is the third focus of the book.

Geuss forcefully presents the surprising claim that Utopianism is an aspect of some of the range of theoretical and practical positions grasped under the umbrella term ‘Realism’. As a theoretical position, Realism is initially negatively characterized by its rejection of ‘moralism’, which Geuss construes narrowly as views that treat morality as an absolute and unchanging framework for evaluation. Morality consists in principles and rules for judgment of the goodness and badness or evil of actions. Moralism further insists that moral judgments are in a sense self-realizing, in that the sheer recognition and understanding of the judgment results in the appropriate attitude of approval or disapproval in the mind of an uncorrupted receiver of the judgment. The range of Realisms that reject moralism are not as such opposed to utopian thinking, and Geuss suggests (43) that some incorporate a ‘realistic’ (in the colloquial sense) recognition that in a society the distinction between what is socially and politically possible and what is impossible is itself “to some extent a social construct”.

The Utopianism that ensues is not the classical sort exemplified by Plato and Thomas More, one which proposes a ‘perfect’ and unchanging society as a counter-image to our corrupt society, and without specifying mechanisms for passing from our current state to the perfected state; rather, the Utopian that attends a range of Realisms involves focusing upon the existing desires within a present society, and offering proposals for changing society that if enacted would more fully satisfy the desires than is possible under current arrangements. Some examples cited by Geuss are Russell Brand’s suggestions that private debt be cancelled, co-ops created, and the life span of corporations be limited (78); Geuss correlatively notes that the mainstream academic normativist philosophies of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, as well as the exemplarily neoliberal thought of Margaret Thatcher, can offer little or nothing responsive to Utopian desires.

In his previous book Geuss had suggested three means of escape from his own institutional setting, something motivated by his sense of the institutional world of teaching philosophy at a university as “a penitential domain of reason-mongering” (Geuss 2014, p.232). One possible escape route is what Hegel and Heidegger attempted, to turn ratiocination against itself. A second it to act in such a way that “the spider’s web of bogus rationalizations” is destroyed and new ways of speaking and new facts are created. Geuss takes the third route: to engage in a kind of imaginative activity that invites people to observe novel juxtapositions, such as the images of a Prime Minister addressing the House of Commons placed next to the image of a pile of corpses. Along with having written and published a small body of poetry, Geuss here broadens and generalizes this route in several places, especially in the essay ‘What Time Is It?’, which juxtaposes reflections on a commentary on Pindar, a performance of a play in Paris, and the conversations after the performance.

The key desire that Geuss discusses, again arising from the sense of being trapped in a conformist and repressive verbal universe, is most clearly stated in the previous book as ‘Anywhere outside this world’. (ibid) The Utopian method that offers an alternative to Plato and More is that of Gustav Landauer, who in the early twentieth-century had treated socialism not as a state but as “a tendency of the human will and an insight into conditions and ways that lead to its accomplishment.” (Landauer, 29) It is characteristic of this thinking to treat the world as ‘open’, that is, both subject to transformation through action and as rejecting the claim that it can be surveyed and encompassed from a single viewpoint. The imaginative possibilities that arise from treating the world as ‘open’ are explored most directly in the essays on the paintings of the Romanian artist Adrian Ghennie and on the three under-appreciated achievements of Augustine’s thought. Ghennie’s painting ‘Dada is Dead’ shows a glowing wolf in what looks to be the otherwise abandoned and decrepit interior famous from Hannah Höch’s photograph of the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920.


Geuss begins with an account of Dadaism that stresses its concern with the limits of meaning: “If one thinks of the two major strands in the philosophy of art as emphasizing, respectively, the production of the beautiful/harmonious/well ordered/symmetrical, and the production of the meaningful/significant/worthwhile, then Dada rejected both these strands.” (230) He interprets Dada as an exploration of the boundaries of sense: “What, then, is inside and what is outside any given framework is always a matter of importance.” (231) Part of the implication of holding that there is a final framework of meaning is that there is likewise a final framework of meaninglessness; the possibilities of offering different ways of framing phenomena and of creating connections among them is circumscribed. Geuss urges the thought that if one drops the commitment to a final framework of meaning, then the seeming meaninglessness of non-rational Dadaist thought and actions does not necessarily reflect badly upon Dada, but rather might bring out the ways in which our life is so rigid and conformist as to block the imagination of a world in which these seemingly non-rational works would make sense. (236) Similarly the open playfulness of Ghennie’s painting, are not necessarily signs of artistic failure or deviancy; rather, these characteristics reflect badly “on our life and our conception of significance.” Our way of life might be thought so unimaginative and conformist that we cannot find a place for these works within it, and thereby be induced to develop a Landauerian-type desire for something better.

In the essay “Augustine on Love, Perspective, and Human Nature” Geuss finds a related thought in the great thinker of late Antiquity among three underappreciated views advanced by Augustine. These three views are his account of the variability of human nature as shown in the way it changes as a result of the coming of Christ; the account of love as the passion more fundamental than reason; and the way in which the extended account of the two cities in The City of God provides a set of paired alternative perspectives on any phenomenon in human life. The essay is strikingly original throughout, and something of Geuss’s more general aims is brought out in the discussion of the latter two views. Human beings for Augustine are fundamentally creatures of contingent relations of love and desire. The objects of love and desire are always particulars, and the search animating human life is to find objects worthy of love. Since the objects are not given through or as a result of the exercise of reason, but through contingent encounters, we are driven “continually to negotiate the jagged edges of the world” (270) In this context the ‘jagged edges’ are where contingency meets reason; reason is a retrospective activity that justifies the already encountered and already contingently loved object as worthy of love. Further, for Augustine this is not only the activity of individuals, but also has a collective dimension in the establishment and maintenance of a church, a set of institutions that sustains and fosters orientation towards appropriate objects of love. (271) With regard to the third view, the two-cities perspectives are themselves products of different conceptions of what merits love. Geuss’s discussion of this is cryptic, but he insinuates that anyone living now, that is, under neoliberalism and in the face of environmental catastrophe, needs access to a multiplicity of perspectives as an aid to radical social criticism.

What is the pressing need for multiple perspectives right now, for us living in the rubble of the collapse of neoliberalism? Geuss at two points appeals to Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat to characterize the general features of contemporary life, that “of late liberal capitalism and its aesthetic subdivision—fashion.” (250) Normativism is the philosophical ideology of the present in its insistence upon a single, overarching, and internally consistent framework of evaluation. So the very insistence upon multiple perspectives breaks the spell of normativism, and reduces its appeal to whatever it can offer piecemeal for context-specific issues. Geuss offers as an alternative philosophical vision a conception of philosophy as the ceaseless process of creation and destruction of meaning through imaginative proposals altering with ascetic analyses. Likewise, the insistence upon plural perspectives undermines key features of neoliberalism, in particular its market fundamentalism and reductivist conception of human beings as congeries of desires and beliefs. Finally, the arts under a pluralist conception treat the boundary between meaning and meaninglessness as contingent and subject to alteration. For the normativist, our failures are fundamentally our inability to live up to our reasonable ideals. For Geuss, our failures are primarily collective and, in a number of senses explored in this book, are fundamentally failures of imagination.



Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005


Raymond Geuss, A World without Why, Princeton University Press, 2014


Gustav Landauer, For Socialism. Telos Press, 1978 (1911)



John Rapko lives in Berkeley, California. He writes mostly on issues related to the philosophy of contemporary art, including in a book, Logro, Fracaso, Aspiracíon: Tres Intentos de Entender el Arte Contemporáneo. His academic writings have appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the British Journal of Aesthetics, and the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. When moved so, he also writes art criticism and cultural commentary for the San Francisco Arts Quarterly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 22nd, 2016.