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C H A P T E R N I N E Marxism and the Ethos of the Twentieth Century R A Y M O N D G E U S S One of the things I have always most admired about Alasdair MacIntyre’s work is the particular kind of intellectual courage it exhibits. This virtue manifests itself in a number of ways, including a willingness to address large philosophical questions head on and to give straightforward answers to them. This is a form of courage, rather than merely of some other more etiolated cognitive excellence, because giving relatively bald and unvarnished answers to big questions makes it difficult to avoid facing up to the implications of what one says for action, and the action involved might be of a kind that requires exhausting, deeply disruptive, and potentially radical changes in the way one lives. In the spirit of an attempt to emulate, at least to some extent, this one of MacIntyre’s intellectual virtues, let me try to give a simple answer to the simple question that is the topic of this conference, or rather let me try to give two simple answers to the two components of the double-barreled question that the participants in the conference are invited to consider: What happened in moral philosophy in the twentieth century, and what happened to moral philosophy in the twentieth century? My answer to this is that Nietzsche is what happened “in” moral philosophy,1 that is, the very idea of a “universal” moral philosophy having any kind of trans-subjective authority came under attack. The notion of “trans-subjective authority” is both unclear and problematic, but 221 222 RAYMOND GEUSS that does not mean that it is not attempting, even if not with complete success, to designate something important. It certainly does not mean what philosophers call “validity,” and in general it is not a mere epistemic notion. A practice with its associated concepts and forms of thought has what will be called “trans-subjective authority” if it is capable of effectively structuring the basic functions of society around itself, endowing them with meaning, telling us how we should understand them, and issuing commands, injunctions, and recommendations that “stick”—that are as a rule taken to have weight and standing—and finally if it is able to give some reasonable account of itself and stand up to criticism. So Christianity is a clear historical example of a form of life and thought that had trans-subjective authority for a long time in the West. Christianity adds to the mix the idea that its authority is “universal.” So the claim is that in the twentieth century Christianity in particular and the very traditional idea of a “universalist” form of ethical life and thought were replaced by a consumerist array of views that was a reflection of a life devoted to more or less unreflective consumption, structured only by aesthetic predilections and the usual sociological imperatives of novelty, snobbism, and so on.2 What happened “to” moral philosophy is that Marxism, which to some extent came from outside the stuffy intérieur of academic philosophy, presented the only genuine and potentially viable attempt at reconstituting some notion of objective moral authority, an authority that was to be based on attributing to production an absolute social and political priority. If this attempt had succeeded, it would have changed the world and with it our intellectual and moral universe, but it failed. It used to be said that Marxism was a pseudoreligion or a religion substitute, and this claim was presented as if it was in itself a criticism, as if Marxists had simply not fully grasped the implications of the death of God. My view is that the problem was not that this was Marxism’s aspiration but rather that it failed to achieve its aspiration. Philosophically, then, the story of the twentieth century is the story of the failure of Marxism. The main philosophical “problem” in the twentieth century, then, is the complex of anarchic beliefs and anomic modes of living for which the proper name “Nietzsche” stands as the designator. This phenomenon “Nietzscheanism” is not a mere historical aberration or an accidental philosopher ’s mistake. Rather, it is in some sense a veridical reflection of our social reality, and thus Nietzsche can be seen as giving a correct diagnosis of a set of ills with deep roots in modern Western societies. One of the ways in...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780268088668
Related ISBN
9780268037376
MARC Record
OCLC
849947046
Pages
544
Launched on MUSE
2013-08-13
Language
English
Open Access
No
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