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Fr. 758

February 13, 2017

Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism

How do epistemology and justification lead us to conceive of persons?

Chapter 1:

Weber opens his book with the open questions of whether Rawls’ justice as fairness and its attendant epistemology belongs to either constructivism (wherein objects are socially constructed and mind-dependent) or representationalism (wherein objects float free and are mind-independent) and in what ways this first question impacts his conception of the person. In its shortest form, Weber’s thesis is that, on the first, Rawls’ theory proves fundamentally incoherent, stuck between the two, and, on the second, his conception of the person (particularly with regards to education) is woefully underdeveloped, remaining at the level of a noumenal, atomistic, unencumbered view of person or self (Weber uses the terms more or less interchangeably). Given our own interest in Rawls’ epistemology and conception of person, it will prove instructive to explore Weber’s own approach, its strengths as well as its shortcomings.

At the level of the introduction, two particular strengths make themselves felt. First, Weber puts his finger on a series of ambiguities in Rawls’ work. Though nominally constructivist, Rawls’ approach utilizes a number of debatably representationalist terms, analyses and distinctions. Among these Weber counts: the distinction between the concept of justice and different conceptions of justice (what allows us to posit the existence of a conception of justice to be elucidated in terms of the commonalities between conceptions of justice?); the tendency in counterfactual social contract theory and, more particularly, the original position to issue in a single determinate conception of justice, namely, justice as fairness when alternatives thereto seem to exist (why does justice as fairness stand free of inquiry in such a way that all persons might arrive at it, albeit by different means?); the admission that his conceptions of (moral) person and society are unconstructed and allow persons to come to deliberation independently of their normal social settings (what allows us to imagine persons so unmoored and socially unconstructed as parties to deliberation?); the idea that intuitions guide persons towards reflective equilibrium (for what distinguishes intuitions from inclinations on such a thin theory of meaning?).

Secondly, Weber sets out to rehabilitate a notion of objectivity proper to constructivism. As opposed to Rawls’ latent representationalism, as detectable in his claim that one can more or less approximate justice as fairness as the most adequate embodiment of a liberal political conception of justice, the author at least initially suggests a few characteristics which show affinity with object orientedness and socially constructed, rather than individually imposed, objective inquiry. How this relates to O’Neill’s critique of Rawls’ constructivism in The Cambridge Companion and its presentation of the limits of that constructivism’s broader objectivity or universality for peoples outside the democratic state in question remains to be seen.

Yet a number of shortcomings sketch themselves out as well. Perhaps the lesser of the two is our question on how bad it is to be incoherent at some level. In the case of Rawls, is incoherence between representationalism and constructivism as damning as it seems? Can we be constructivist all the way down or are there certain notions which do not admit of construction, as with Rawls’ notion of person? If Weber’s calling this fact to attention issues in a mere call to theoretical purity, it may carry less water than it would initially seem. On one hand, coherence or consistency may not be applicable in all instances across the board (see for example Stout’s discussion of my belief that Hegel is right and my concomitant belief that something in Hegel’s work must be wrong). On the other, totalizing conceptions typically encounter problems of one kind or another (consider those systemic analyses which, unable to sift the good from the bad, sometimes end in a tepid functionalism on which all tends to promote the overall progress of the system, be this consumerist culture, deliberative democracy, or other).

More importantly, we might wonder whether there is a single, unified Rawlsian conception of person like that which Weber puts forward. More specifically, if the shape of Rawls’ epistemology and justification determines the conception of person but his epistemology and justification take different forms in different forums, then there may be reason to doubt whether we can reference a single unitary reductivist account of person on Rawls’ view. Depending on method, one may count as many as seven (party, delegate, legislator, judge, citizen, individual, reasonable citizen). Does Weber then intend an overall notion of person which underlies these more particular instantiations? If we cast doubt on Weber’s efforts so conceived but advane a similar story with regards to Rawls and person, do we then do our own effort a grave disservice?

On a side note, Weber’s Deweyan account may be of some interest for us. Though we are more interested in Stout than Dewey, if one allows for a reasonable proximity between the former and the latter, a significant amount of Weber’s findings may cross-apply. Certainly, a number of his comments sound familiar from Stout’s work, such as the call to greater attention to historical detail, the critique of indefeasible hypothetical conclusions, embeddedness of persons and justification, amongst others. This remains to be explored.

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