Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1961 Léon Morin, Priest is a strong contender for the best philosophical film ever made. It is not a subtle movie, flagrantly violating the familiar dictum to show rather than tell. Set in 1940s Provence under first Italian and then German occupation, it centers on an extended conversation between Barny, a young communist widow with a half-Jewish child, and an equally young Jesuit priest, Léon. They meet when Barny goes to confession on a dare and declares that religion is the opium of the masses. Léon, far from being scandalized, takes her critique seriously. The rest of the film is devoted to their back-and-forth.
For Léon, true faith is a matter of action in the here and now, and the institutions of the Church are getting in the way of the gospel. He is not a communist, but his vision of faith has nothing to do with the ultra-reactionary Catholicism being promulgated in Vichy France or Francoist Spain. He rescues Jews and supports the Resistance, and the film ends with him departing the city to minister to rural peasants. The triumph of Léon Morin lies in its ability to show that philosophical and theological commitment is not merely a matter of dispassionate argument, of the victory of the better reason. It equally concerns those factors typically deemed the enemies of reason: passion, emotion, attraction. Barny and Léon spend hours arguing, but philosophical conviction and political commitment, like religious faith, are as much of the heart as they are of the mind. They never do more than shake hands, but the unmistakably erotic dimension to their relationship is neither opposed to, nor even separate from, their philosophical conversations. Communism and Catholicism are not merely elaborate theoretical positions; they are worldviews in which their partisans live and die.
This would come as no surprise to the philosopher Raymond Geuss. Geuss, an American who teaches philosophy at Cambridge, opens his latest book, Who Needs a World View?, with a memory of Béla Krigler, his teacher at a Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania set up by and for Hungarian refugees after the 1956 revolution. Despite having fled the Soviet invasion, Krigler, like Morin, was not an anti-Communist. Geuss lovingly and movingly describes being instilled by his teacher with the idea not only that communism was the only serious opponent to Catholicism, but also that the Church needed to meet the challenge posed by Marxism in order to renew its ideological and social structures.
Catholicism and communism are, for Geuss’s purposes, exemplary “world views.” His encounter with Krigler instills the fundamental lesson that a world view is not just a theoretical or even an ethical outlook, but an identity: I don’t just think Marxian political economy is correct, I am a communist. From the perspective of the individual, a worldview is the narrative arc of one’s life: it is what determines my singular and objective “purpose” or “meaning.”
But there is a second sense of worldview that is decidedly impersonal. Here, a worldview denotes a single comprehensive world picture—a “view from nowhere” of the cosmos and all that is contained within it. (To borrow the mid-twentieth-century American philosopher Wilfred Sellars’s much-quoted characterization of philosophy, a worldview is a picture of “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”) Though these two senses seem distinct, their intimate connection is perhaps most evident in religions, which attempt to describe the universe and how it came to be, the gods, the place of humans in the cosmos and, ultimately, how we are to live. This dual view—to cosmic totality and to the individual life—is the keystone of worldviews more generally: the attempt to simultaneously capture the true nature of things and to provide a systematic guide for how to organize society and live as individuals.
In the “West,” so the story goes, worldviews first became at least partially separate from religion in the fifth century BCE, in the Greek city-states ringing the Aegean. There, the philosophers we now call the pre-Socratics began to develop theories of everything. The universe was made of water, or perhaps air or fire were the bedrock of reality. Or perhaps the world was held together by a cosmic harmony or by the twin forces of love and strife. Plato and Aristotle, through whom we know much of what we do about their predecessors, took the decisive step of integrating cosmology with ethics and politics. The forward march of history brought Greek philosophy into contact with monotheism, producing the grand theological systems of the Middle Ages. Finally, the seventeenth century saw the scientific revolution overturn the supernatural trappings of religion in favor of a fully rational view of the cosmos and our place within it. It is only in the eighteenth century, that the idea of a world became an explicit object of reflection. Indeed, the term “world view” is a translation of Kant’s, and later Hegel’s, Weltanschauung. Along with this reflexive turn came the recognition that there were many competing worldviews that varied according to time and place, to religion, to culture and to language. By the nineteenth century the pursuit of a worldview had become, at least in some quarters, suspect. A total image of the cosmos, a theoretical view from nowhere and a complete, objective set of rules for how to live, was both impossible and undesirable. Nietzsche, who saw reality as a matter of competing perspectives and morality as the product of power struggles, is associated with this kind of skepticism about the achievement of comprehensive worldviews.
There is in general much in this three-thousand-year story that is to be criticized, whether it be the portrait of Nietzsche or the notion that either the ancient Greek philosophers or the figures of the scientific revolution saw their thinking as being in tension with the religions of their day. But the story is, in general, less important for its accuracy or truth than for its durability as a narrative of human thought that forms the unspoken background to Geuss’s project. Geuss, drawing inspiration from Nietzsche, suggests we should rid ourselves of the metaphysical baggage of worldviews at the cosmic, social and individual level.
The standard philosophical questions to ask here would be: What is the argument for this? Is it any good? But these are the least interesting questions in this case. Geuss is not the first to argue that our concepts and ideas are the result of historically contingent processes and tend to reflect the self-image of the powerful, thereby legitimizing and maintaining their hegemony. This is a thoroughly familiar line of thinking, though it is effectively deployed here, with Nietzsche as the star inspiration, supported by Hegel, Marx and Foucault. At other times the argument is equally unoriginal but shoddier, as when Geuss appeals, in the very opening of his book, to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. It is certainly not obvious that the impossibility of a complete axiomatic system for arithmetic should rule out the project of a synoptic worldview. There may well be lessons far beyond the mathematical and logical realms to be learned from Gödel, but the idea that mathematical and political incompleteness are simply the same is little more than a clever trick, and one that has long acquired the status of a cliché. (It is only one step beyond lazy appeals to quantum indeterminacy in order to argue for some form of relativism.)
But arguments are not everything. In fact, in pursuing argumentative rigor, academic philosophers are sometimes led to badly mistreat their readers by utterly depriving them of any pleasure. This is not Geuss’s problem. Even when he is not very convincing, he is a pleasure to read. One of the pleasures quite particular to Who Needs a World View? is a sense of untimeliness, that the document has arrived from a world that has ceased to exist, though perhaps not long ago. This begins with the evocation of Father Krigler, but is fully realized in Geuss’s style, whose common thread, despite a great deal of heterogeneity, is a sort of anachronism.
Most of the references in Who Needs a World View? are to sources in French and German, which Geuss only chooses to translate when it is absolutely essential to the argument. There are untranslated bits of French, German and Greek, even though the argument really doesn’t require that we have the original of a quote from Foucault, or that Nietzsche’s works are referred to by their German titles only, let alone that a line from the first choral ode of the Antigone be left untranslated. At other times, he writes sentences like: “We are all familiar with Marx’s criticism of utopian social thinking.” This tendency culminates in introducing several stanzas of Old High German poetry as follows: “Anyone with even a minimal knowledge of German literature would here immediately be reminded of the beginning of one of the oldest recorded works in a direct ancestor of the modern language, the Hildebrandtslied.”
There is no denying that such a pronouncement may be off-putting, given that it seems to say: “This book is not for you.” But I am not complaining about pretension or elitism. For a reader who knows Greek or the history of medieval German literature, these brief dips into the original provide a sort of flattering gratification. For those who do not, they are not so crucial as to obscure the overall point, but they serve to signal something like: “There is more here than the sum of words and sentences—behind each allusion, a whole history of thought.”
I do not want to suggest that this experience of pleasant ignorance is a universal one, so perhaps a personal anecdote will help clarify things. I first read Heidegger at a time when I did not yet know the full Greek alphabet. Heidegger’s writing is scattered with Greek words and small phrases, most of which meant nothing and many of which I could not even sound out. This was a small impediment to understanding, but the unknown letters had a peculiarly seductive power. This book wasn’t simply making an argument about the history of Being, it was drawing me into a new way of thinking, of speaking. It was holding forward the possibility of initiation. Argumentative clarity is a good thing, but its pursuit need not come at the expense of the erotic or spiritual charge that the best philosophical texts can have.
In sum, Geuss remains committed to philosophical pleasure just as much as the proponents of worldviews. For Barny and for Léon Morin—and for Geuss’s teacher Krigler—it is not just that communism and Catholicism are true, but also that immersing oneself in them, learning the details, committing to their precepts, is profoundly satisfying. It is clear that this joyfulness is also present in Geuss’s anti-universalizing, non-systemic, anti-worldview approach to philosophy. (Ironically, Geuss is famously curmudgeonly in interviews, going so far as to dismiss the value of philosophy entirely and claiming that the only reason he does it is because it pays the bills. One wouldn’t know it from reading him.)
So far, so good. However, things are not so happy if we turn to the other side of the form-content divide, where the untimeliness of style finds a mirror in the very basic concerns driving the argument against worldviews. Where stylistic and formal anachronism is pleasurable, philosophical anachronism is much less so.
Let me back up a bit in order to make this explicit. Geuss asks who needs a worldview. This presupposes that people have them. But who even has a worldview anymore? Sixty years ago, it made sense for Krigler to proclaim that communism and Catholicism were the two great competitors for making sense of the world and how to change it. Does it still? Looking back seventy years, we can see the enormous power of that competition play out in the microcosm of Léon and Barny’s erotically charged philosophical encounter. Could we do so now?
By the 1980s, it was becoming commonplace to declare the advent of postmodernism, an era marked by fragmentation, the dissolution of single coherent political projects, the loss of “grand narratives” for making sense of the world. Whether this disintegration of traditional religious, philosophical and political frameworks was good or bad was another question, on which there was and still is little agreement. A little later came the proclamation that we had reached the end of history. The dissolution of the Soviet empire was accompanied, in the West, by an optimism that we had overcome the need for totalizing worldviews. The triumph of liberalism would mean a single, harmonious world knit together by the power of the free market. The title of one typical book lauding the advent of unipolar American hegemony joyously announced that the world was flat.
Crucially, this vision of global liberalism is not a worldview in the sense that communism and Catholicism were. Geuss recognizes this. A grand worldview like Catholicism or orthodox Marxism is something best avoided, but liberalism is simply beneath contempt, so intellectually inconsequential as to not be worth the time or energy to argue against. When Geuss cites Father Krigler’s dismissal of liberalism as “a clumsy and completely unphilosophical rubbish heap of narrow-minded prejudices, bits of wishful thinking, and random observations,” he is clearly not just ventriloquizing his one-time teacher. It is not at all clear, though, that his rejection of a universalizing worldview doesn’t end up collapsing precisely into such a form of eclecticism. Despite his reputation as one of political liberalism’s most unsparing critics, there is more than a trace of liberalism in Geuss’s sensibility. Liberalism is perhaps the only political stance that not only allows for but thrives on a lack of commitment, which means it is quite easy to slip into it unawares. Critique may be the lifeblood of radical politics, but too much of it will turn even a self-professed anti-capitalist into a de facto liberal.
The strongest apparent challenger to the anti-worldview of liberalism is the assortment of more or less chauvinistic nationalisms, which appeal to a sense of community, of tradition, of racial, linguistic and often religious unity, with perilous consequences for those who do not belong. But very few, if any, pose any serious challenge to the supremacy of an integrated planetary market. Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey and Netanyahu in Israel have successfully mastered the art of synthesizing ethnoreligious supremacy with neoliberal orthodoxy.
Here, Geuss’s attack on worldviews resonates. In particular, he remarks—with characteristic flourish—that “it is perhaps those whose community is diseased, especially threatened, moribund, or in steep decline at the end of a period of great vitality who need a world view.” Adopting increasingly bellicose forms of nationalism is a way of reacting—usually by locating a convenient scapegoat, or invoking a mythical past—to the threats that liberal economic orthodoxy has posed to traditional values, practices and ways of life. The most effective piece of reasoning in Who Needs a World View? is not an argument but an image. A worldview, Geuss writes, is necessary not in the way that water is necessary for living, but in the way that heroin is necessary for a junkie. We need faith—in Jesus, in the Internationale—in the way that “a “drug addict ‘needs’ his next dose.” Our need for a worldview is a need born out of weakness in the face of unjust and exploitative social conditions, a consolation for our powerlessness. For all its contingency, such a need is perfectly real. Marx, who recognized as much, prefaced his famous characterization of religion as the opium of the people with a rather more conciliatory claim: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” (Approaching the metaphor from the other side, we find Lou Reed’s evocation of shooting up as a properly religious experience.)
In the run-up to the end of history, a number of worldviews emerged to compete with the traditional Church and Party. Feminism, Third Worldism, Black Power, Islamism, liberation theology, the New Left, gay liberation. These may seem, at first glance, to be poor candidates for full-fledged worldviews. To take just the first two examples, feminism would seem to be essentially a partial view, concerning one half of humanity, and Third Worldism, as the name suggests, focuses on the liberation of a particular part of the world. But this way of thinking commits an error both about the nature of the “new social movements” and, equally importantly, about the nature of worldviews. Recall the dual nature of worldviews: first, that they provide a framework for interpreting not just part but all of the world, and second, that they confer an identity on the one who assumes them. It is obvious that “feminist,” for example, can be a potent political identity. And, far from being a merely local, partial view, feminism at its strongest requires that, in order to achieve the liberation of women, we have to reorient the world as a whole.
But while this newer set of worldviews—at least in comparison to Geuss’s pairing of communism and Catholicism—offers both totality and identity, they do not demand uniqueness. That is, feminism may have something to say about the world as a whole, and indeed, a feminist viewpoint may be indispensable for understanding the world as a whole. (Recall, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s dictum that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition.”) But this sort of totalizing impulse need not—and must not—be mistaken for the claim that a feminist worldview is the only one of value.
This cautious optimism about worldviews must not be mistaken for naiveté. Over the last half-century, liberation theology and Black Power were violently suppressed; the promise of a progressive Islamism (think Ali Shariati, not Khomeini or Sayyid Qutb) was both suppressed and turned deeply reactionary, often in the same places; the nonaligned countries were brought back into the fold of the world market; gay liberation and feminism sold out. But these worldviews, along with a newly revived socialism, are not simply relics. Many of them are embers waiting to be relit. And even if they sometimes make claims for comprehensiveness and supremacy—“This is the correct view, the solution”—they work, at the best of times, if not in perfect harmony then in productive tension. The same might even hold true for the pairing with which we started, communism and Catholicism.
I do not mean to argue for a shallow liberalism that champions the diversity of opinion for its own sake. Some of these modes of thought and action are better than others, to be sure. But it is nonetheless true that it is precisely the clash of worldviews that is, in part, responsible for their vitality. When a worldview is sealed off, it becomes sclerotic; when it has to contend with rivals, it is often forced to renew and revise itself. Communism and Catholicism are two examples of total systems that often took themselves not just to offer a view of totality and to confer identity, but to rule out any competitors. The pretension to uniqueness, then, may be what dooms worldviews to dogmatism and sclerosis. Melville, who recognized this, offers an implicit rebuke in Léon Morin, Priest. But once we grasp the possibility for worldviews to be rejuvenated by close contact with one another, there is no longer a need to reject the aspiration to taking in the whole world all at once.