- A World without Why by Raymond Geuss
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 264 pp.
The overwhelmingly traditional view among Western philosophers is that one has knowledge of something only if one successfully defends a theory about it. That is why Socrates thought that artisans lacked true knowledge — because they could not talk like philosophers about their techne. Geuss thinks this presumption explains a lot of what is wrongheaded about Western philosophy. It makes philosophers expect to find values in nature, in the world as it is in itself, and not in our conventions or selections or preferences. A value, to be really respectable, has to be something we discover and know, sort of like scientists. And there are such values: this is the good news that our philosophy tirelessly evangelizes. Nature, properly understood, has a pattern that makes sense of life and aspiration. The universe is on our side, a moral cosmos. You do not find this idea in Pindar or Sophocles, poets from before the rise of philosophy. They depict a world that is at best only partially intelligible and not at all well adjusted to ethical aspiration. “Philosophy is not the natural successor of tragedy,” Geuss concludes, “but, if anything, [of] comedy” — a pale comedy without the humor, retaining only the combination of pedantic earnestness and delusion.
Nietzsche said all of this too, of course, a long time ago, and to some extent [End Page 338] Geuss is Nietzsche with footnotes. “What if truth were a woman?” And what of all those truth-loving philosophers courting her, sending her syllogisms, reciting their boring books? What a date! Geuss concludes, in the essay from which he takes his title, that “it is a mistake to expect the world to make moral or human sense.” Sometimes things are simply beautiful: “the rose is without why” (Angelus Silesius). Other times they are unspeakably ruinous, as at Auschwitz, where Primo Levi also found no warum. The world is without why, “wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time” (Beyond Good and Evil).
Barry Allen’s books include Truth in Philosophy; Knowledge and Civilization; Artifice and Design: Art and Technology in Human Experience; Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts; and Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. He teaches philosophy at McMaster University.