Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno

Raymond Geuss. Harvard University Press, 2017. 334 pages. $29.95.

By Doug Phillips

Knowing but a wee bit when I began graduate school, I once asked a toweringly erudite  professor what he thought every first year student in literature should immediately set out to read, a question that, judging by the rapidity of his reply, he had been asked before. Much if not everything on his list was totally new to me, and so, feeling more inadequate than ever, I began my quest to absorb it all—this atop my actual coursework. Looking back on that list, which I’ve never forgotten, I know it now to be a buffet of standards in the field as well as selections idiosyncratic to the brainy professor, many of whose bookish enthusiasms would become my own. The list, in other words, changed my life. I was, by the end of that first year, a different subject. 

Raymond Geuss, whose career-long contributions to philosophy and critical theory might be called, without exaggeration, profound (his 1981 book The Idea of a Critical Theory is a classic) was never a professor of mine, but he is a maker of substantive lists. His latest book, which rounds-out a baker’s dozen, was born in part by a request for titles that Geuss deems indispensable to the study of philosophy. In his preface to Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno, he explains that a local bookshop, there in Cambridge (Geuss is now Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, where he’s taught since 1993), asked university faculty “to put together a list of ten most interesting books in their respective areas.” It’s the kind of parlor game that one must imagine any college don thrilling to, a welcomed opportunity to deliver up the goods on works “that would, simply, most repay serious study because they had something inherently important to say.”  

From his own list of ten evolved Geuss’s thirteenth book, Changing the Subject, a philosophical primer of sorts with chapter-long reflections on a dozen worthies and their most noteworthy ideas: Socrates, Plato, Lucretius, Augustine, Montaigne, Hobbes, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lukacs, Wittgenstein, and Adorno. His intention, he explains, is to provide “intellectually relaxed, essayistic introductions to some issues that I take to be of interest, by way of a discussion of some historical texts, and its ideal reader would be the intelligent person with no special training in academic philosophy.” What follows, in straight-razor prose that Cambridge philosophers are famous for stropping, is dissection. After Geuss identifies what he understands to be the key issue of each of his subjects, he then proceeds to break it down into its component parts, enumerated usually in waves of three: “…three kinds of reasons for making a mistake”; “…three rather different strands of thought…”; “…three potentially overlapping origins…”; “…three forms of organization…”; “…three kinds of discussion of truth…”; etc. Such measured three-beat explications may seem repetitive at times, but they help to cut a clear path through the nettles of sometimes not-so-easy material, which, for the non-specialist, might otherwise entangle and confuse and prick. In this way Geuss is something like the consummate teacher, his analyses navigable and crystal, his guidance on point.   

“Philosophy,” writes Geuss, “takes place when someone, an individual or a group, begins to try to look for a way out which might include transforming the framework of some situation, changing the rules, asking different questions.” This, it turns out, is precisely the position of the twentieth-century philosopher Wittgenstein, who believed every language, including the language of philosophy, to be a situational and rule-bound game. And philosophers either elect to play by the established rules of the game, or, in what Geuss calls the “philosophical moment,” they break, abandon, or redefine those rules. It’s these latter philosophers, Wittgenstein among them, who comprise Geuss’s list; they are the ones who reframed, ignored, or altogether chucked the fundamental philosophical considerations of their predecessors. And by changing the subject, implies Geuss throughout his study, these philosophers have deeply affected how we, as subjects, conceive of ourselves, our place in the world, our relation to others, our purpose, our raison. Take for example the case of Nietzsche, that rotter, who, when I was nineteen, so upturned my world with his takedown of truth that I was for a time at odds with everything, and everyone, except maybe my cat. Later, as a lover of modernist literature, I would find Nietzsche as instrumental to my understanding of Prufrock as I did the woman then in possession of my heart. Before breaking it, she parroted Nietzsche back to me, on a note taped to the fridge: “I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.” My sense of self, and whatever truth I thought lay within, was suddenly leaky, listing to one side, drowning not waving. Nietzsche, who self-described as “not a man but dynamite,” didn’t just change the subject (the subject of philosophy, as well as my own subjectivity), he exploded it. 

As for the other figures on Geuss’s list, they will, if spent sufficient time with, spin you in new directions, or maybe so upturn your life, as Nietzsche did mine, that business can’t possibly go on as usual. Toward that end here are a few questions and observations—some direct from their source, others glossed by Geuss—that may light a fuse: 

  • “Why are you not taking care that your soul be the best it can be?” [Socrates]
  • The world is atoms moving at random in a void, and the final truth about humans is that we pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and should do that with greater clarity than we have yet managed. [Lucretius]
  • A life conducted according to rules is ‘the most stupid’ imaginable. [Montaigne]
  • The point of philosophy is to show people why nothing is justified in any absolute sense but that it is possible to embrace the world ‘in a warm peace’ anyway. [Hegel]
  • To be a philosopher is precisely not to be a person who never deviates from a single doctrine but to have a history of change. [Nietzsche]
  • A human being is an entity not so much of present fixed properties as of already existing obligations and commitments and of future projects and possibilities that are not yet realized. [Heidegger]
  • “Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the instruments of language.” [Wittgenstein]
  • “What is the right life for a human being to live?” [Adorno]

One last word about Geuss’s list: If it strikes you as especially male and pale and exclusively European then this may have something to do with the fact that his specialty is Continental Philosophy, the domain of which is, by definition, European, and its better-known names mostly, though not entirely, men. What’s less easy to explain, given Geuss’s subject, is how someone like Simone de Beauvoir—who is nowhere even indexed—escaped his notice. And this is precisely the trouble with lists of any kind, the inevitable overlooking or misjudgment or retrospective forehead-slapping that goes into the making of them. 

Whether of laundry, grocery, chores to do, people to apologize to, top ten hits, or the hundred best books, lists are implicitly a form of critique—and a critique, the critical theorist Jacques Rancière tells us, acknowledges the existence of something in order to confine it within limits. That is, a list, like a barrel, is a form of containment, which makes it as easy to shoot as all those fish inside. And so it is that every critique invites further critique, and nobody takes aim quite like the academic (the likely audience of Geuss’s book, despite his assertion that it’s written chiefly for the non-specialist). In other words, offer an audience of lampreys what you believe to be the Twelve Apostles of Philosophy and you’re certain to get fierce pushback in the form of What about X? Hobbes, you say, but what about Hume? Hegel, yes, but what about Marx? Heidegger, indeed, but where’s Sartre? No Descartes? You must be kidding! No Kant? Come on! Or: why must your list be exclusively European? Or: for fuck’s sake, man, where are the women on this list? Did Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler do nothing to change the subject? To overhaul our understanding of sexuality, gender, identity? Indeed, do not the two of them address as powerfully, as effectively, as persuasively, that overwhelming question preoccupying pretty much everyone else on your list—Who am I? 

However insightful, generous, erudite, comprehensive a list, there will be holes of course, and where there are holes, look out! With the next wave, in washes a whole new subject. 

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his degrees at the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University of Alabama is home of the Alpha of Alabama Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.