15 August 2008

Is Experimentalism Possible?

I have just been reading a couple of essays by Raymond Geuss, a wonderfully insightful political theorist at Cambridge. Among the themes of these essays has been relentless assault on the late John Rawls and his work, which Geuss presents as exemplifying a certain sterile (because abstract and ahistorical) approach to political theory. I find Geuss's criticisms telling, even if I am not entirely persuaded that "Rawls is not a major moral and political theorist, whose work self-evidently deserves and repays the most careful scrutiny." There is a Rawls industry in the U.S. and his work surely gets extraordinary attention. But I do think we can learn from Rawls - even if many of the lessons are negative. Enough of that for now.

What I really want to highlight is a passage I've just added to the sidebar, in which Geuss raises a difficult problem. He says:
"Politics depends, to a great extent, on judging what is actual relative to what is possible. [. . .] However, we have an inherently weak grasp of what is 'possible' and most societies are not set up so as naturally to improve this, or to make us aware of possibilities we may have ignored or taken with insufficient seriousness."
And it is in this context that he advocates that political theorists cultivate an historical sensibility. The point is that history can expose us to possibilities we otherwise might not consider, even at the risk of temping us to implement possibilities whose time has, for various reasons, passed. Of course, there are other sources on which we might rely here - say literature or the arts. But that is not what I want to pursue.

Instead I want to ask whether we might "set up"societies in such a way that they do encourage the exploration of possibilities. Geuss is right, I think, that the institutional arrangements characteristic of most current societies are anemic in that respect. But the question remains as to whether it is possible to encourage experimentalism in social, political and economic arrangements.* Most of my writing and thinking these days presupposes that it is.
* An obvious corollary is how we might devise schemes to indemnify, as it were, those who bear the burnt of failed experiments.

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Blogger dtm said...

Thank you for this post. Thinking about the 'possible' is something we tend to do far too little of. Possibly because it involves stopping and thinking in a way that disrupts our tendencies to accept current conditions as necessary conditions. That, and thinking about the 'possible' requires a little more than the rhetoric of hope...

Anyhow, I'm interested in reading more of this paper. Would you be able to provide the citation?


15 August, 2008 15:42  

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