Living Without Philosophy

On Narrative, Rhetoric, and Morality

By Peter Levine

Subjects: Philosophy
Paperback : 9780791438985, 292 pages, July 1998
Hardcover : 9780791438978, 292 pages, July 1998

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Table of contents



Part I. The Abstract Argument

1. Moral Judgment

An Ethical Problem

The Meaning of Moral Words

"Thick Description" and Aspect-Seeing

A Legal Illustration

Aristotle's View

Objections to Rhetoric

The Sufficiency of Judgment

2. Agreement

The Ideal of Consensus

Consensus and Moral Theory

Moral Relativism

Philosophy and Liberation

Democracy or the Market?

Part II. Concrete Illustrations

3. A Philosopher Encounters a Humanist

Socrates and Protagoras

The Dialogue: Opening

The "Great Speech"

Socrates' Dialectical Response

A Debate about Method

Simonides and the Problem of Contingency

Dialectical Conclusion

Who Wins the Debate?

4. Instructive Tragedy, Ancient and Modern

Aristotle on Tragedy

Objections to Aristotle

Nabokov's Modern Tragedy

Nabokov's Intentions

5. Religion versus Theology

Metaphysics in Religion

The Non-Metaphysical Roots of Judeo-Christian Religion

Christianity Encounters Greek Philosophy

Asceticism and Iconoclasm

The Consolation of Philosophy

From Boethius to Dante

Theology and Spiritual Experience

6. Humanists and Scholastics in the Renaissance

Humanism versus Scholasticism

Humanist Methods of Interpretation

The Educational and Political Ideals of the Humanists

Erasmus and Christian Humanism

Luther as Humanist

Erasmus versus Luther

7. The Wise Fool

The Praise of Folly

Shakespeare as Humanist

King Lear

A Market Metaphor

Natural Law

A Man Pregnant to Good Pity

Seeing and Blindness

Shame and the Consolations of Philosophy

This Great Stage of Fools

That Glib and Oily Art

Conclusion: The Beloved Community



Drawing on implications from ethics, theology, law, politics, and education, this book argues that we can decide what is right by describing particular cases in detail, without the aid of ethical theories and principles.


Living Without Philosophy argues that we do not need ethical theories, rules, and principles to decide what is right. Instead, particular cases can be judged by a detailed description of the relevant circumstances. When our judgments differ, we can decide how to act by deliberating under fair conditions. The author provides both a philosophical argument for this position and readings of literary texts in which moral theorists are portrayed as concrete characters. These works include Plato's Protagoras, selections from the Gospels and Dante, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, the debate between Erasmus and Luther, Erasmus's Praise of Folly, Shakespeare's King Lear, Nabokov's Lolita, and Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Thus, Levine offers essentially a moral argument for the humanities, discussing the implications not only for ethics, but also for theology, law, politics, and education.

Peter Levine is a Research Scholar at the Institute for Public Policy, University of Maryland. He is also the author of Something to Hide, and Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities, also published by SUNY Press.


"Levine draws the contrast between the 'pragmatist' position and the 'philosophical' position so that the reader understands exactly what separates them. I particularly appreciated his close readings of primary texts. Each was detailed and persuasive. Levine's writing is free of academic jargon and affectation, making it very available to a general audience. " — Zev Trachtenberg, University of Oklahoma

"Living Without Philosophy is very well written, clear, and easy to read. It relates previous debates in the history of ideas to contemporary issues in an enlightening and unusual way and its topic is centrally relevant to current debates about the proper nature of moral theory. " — Jonathan Dancy, University of Reading