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Fr. 761

February 17, 2017

Chapter 3:

In Chapter 3, Weber turns to setting different versions of constructivism apart from different versions of realism. When laying out his objectives for the chapter, he emphasizes three important differences between Dewey and Rawls: 1.) Rawls retains rigid concepts; 2.) Rawls prioritizes the right over the good; 3.) Rawls retains Kant’s atomistic understanding of the autonomous individual with regards to the social contract.

To fix ideas, Weber defines constructivism, across its different versions, as a position, either metaphysical or epistemological, according to which “some or all of the objects, concepts, or truths of the world are determined at least to some extent by minds that experience them” (p. 37). If Rawls and Dewey agree on the necessarily constructed nature of moral and political truths, the latter extends that nature to objects of experience. This fact suggests why it is that Rawls fails to account for “the extent to which persons are both subjects and objects of construction”, Rawls privileging “persons as subjects” (idem.). This failing will prove key when asking how the persons comes to have a conception of justice”

In the chapter’s second section, the author shifts attention to the reasons which bring Rawls to speak of constructivism. As concerns moral facts, be they concepts or conceptions, the latter refuses to entertain questions of their mind-independence for (at least weakly) pragmatist and psychological reasons. In other words, it is less important to posit a (more presumptive) moral reality and more important to lay out a (less presumptive) theory of how one comes to moral decisions and judgments. Although Dewey would agree on the general outlines, he would, according to Weber, resist the turn to idealizations to unearth the (more or less unitary) concept of justice but would, instead, focus on the (more or less unitary) practice of justice, hence completing Rawls’ half-pivot away from realism and representationalism.

The third section considers more carefully Rawls’ relation to Kant and the latter’s ambiguous epistemology, stranded as it is between representationalism and constructivism in its simultaneous focus on the rigidity of conceptual requirements and on the role of the mind in constructing experience. Leaving aside the details of this account, it matters to ask which of the two paths Rawls follows. For Weber, the answer is complicated: though nominally constructivist, Rawls retains a representationalist’s view on conceptual rigidity and necessary conditions.

The fourth section turns to the contrast between David Brink’s moral realism, as emblematic of realisms, and the constructivist versions put forward by Rawls and Dewey. Following a critique of Brink’s confusion over independence and evidence, Weber puts forward a number of reasons weighing against Brink’s attendant notion of objective utilitarianism: 1.) the false dichotomy between moral value in the subject or value in the object; 2.) the authoritarian character of imposing “objective” choices on others and compelling them to be happy. Of particular interest to the author is the way in which Rawls manages to avoid these difficulties with his median constructivism yet reproduces the subject-object dichotomy.

In the fifth section, Weber sketches Peirce’s influence on Dewey and locates the roots of Peirce’s thinking in his reaction to Kant’s transcendental idealism. Of note are the primacy which Peirce accords, with Kant, to “stuff” over “things” as the brute matter of experience, the function of conceptions in making sense of the world, and the fact that the most basic conceptions are precisely those on which we think least. All of this amounts to the broader claim that all objects experienced are framed in a way more extensive or thoroughgoing than on the Kantian view. For Kant, it remains possible via a priori uses of reason to think of something independently of experience. In contrast, Peirce would contend that it makes little sense to speak of something independently of experience, the sensuous manifold, evidence therefor or one’s seeing or thinking. In short, such amounts to attempting to use language to get out of language.

With the sixth section comes a pointed contrast between Rawls’ and Dewey’s constructivisms. Weber briefly recalls the three contrasts mentioned in the opening section before turning attention to the fact that four things are constructed for Dewey: meaning, purposeful action, cooperative labors and the mind and self. Such constructions come about through successive cycles of habituation and inquiry. In contrast, in those passages where Rawls is clearer on his constructivism, he sees constructivism as limited to “determin[ing] whether given facts are to be considered right and just” while consigning to psychology both the construction of persons and how they arrive at their conceptions (i.e. concept formation) (p. 59). At times, he is, however, less clear, leading Weber to maintain:

“[W]hat Rawls is trying to do is to insert Kant’s ethics into his constructivism without noting Kant’s troubling representationalism. Whereas for Peirce and Dewey, even in the most basic of constructions out of brute experience, construction is social, Rawls’s construction is built by facts and hypothetical conceptions rather than by people. Rawls does claim that the notion of the person is important for his constructivism, but it is an ideal person. It is presented at times as an impersonal person, one who meets certain conceptual requirements of autonomy, freedom, equality, and reasonableness” (p. 60).

Although Rawls would not assent to Dewey’s farreaching constructivism nor to the pervasiveness of social conflict in Deweyan democracy, they share, on Weber’s reckoning, a sense of political philosophy on which the latter is helpful to society facing problematic situations. Nevertheless, concept formation will prove to be a theoretical sticking point for Weber given the centrality of (abstract) conceptions of person to Rawls’ approach, and the author will go on to specify four points on which Rawls may run a conceptional risk: a.) the rigidity of concepts and categories of experience; b.) the relation between the right and the good; c.) atomic persons and communities of individuals; d.) fallibilism and reconstruction.

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