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Fr. 768

February 27, 2017

Chapter 6:

The work’s last chapter, “Dewey and Rawls on Education”, seeks to bring to fruition in the practical realm Weber’s epistemological critiques of Rawls’ incomplete constructivism. The practical realm in question is that of education and serves to contrast Dewey’s and Rawls’ rival constructivisms. More specifically, Weber aims to show just how Rawls’ epistemology and incomplete understanding of person and concept-formation leads him to articulate an educational philosophy which proves ill at ease with educational realities.

Weber opens the chapter by the thinkers’ similarities and differences. Though linked by the notions of constructivism, reconstruction and democracy, their approaches differ on the historicity of the person, concepts and meaning. These differences come out particularly in their views on eduction with regards to political theory. Whereas Rawls’ envisions a “minimal” role for the state in line with his version political liberalism, Dewey foresees a more substantative engagement on the state’s behalf in promoting open, “organic” inquiry. If a minimalist approach makes sense in the perspective of avoiding “imposition without consent” and follows naturally from Rawls’ deductive approach to the concept of justice, it runs the risk of tolerating “dangerous and detrimental patterns of thoughts that can arise freely without guidance” (p. 112). (Although Weber grants that Rawls’ approach to the concept comprises both deductive and inductive aspects, through the justificatory devices of the original position and reflective equilibrium, Weber is not convinced that the latter’s methodology is as inductivist as Rawls maintains, albeit for reasons which the author fails to clarify.)

For Rawls’ minimalist approach is blind, on Weber’s view, to the way in which political society is also responsible for inculcating the conceptions which it must then try to accommodate. Contrast this with Dewey’s “careful directing of our formation of concepts”, dubbed by the latter “intelligence” (idem.). To bring this contrast out more clearly, Weber divides the last chapter in five parts: a.) a critique of Rawls’ political theory by way of the notion of “black box”; b.) the attribution of different kinds of value to education; c.) how distributive justice might concern education; d.) criticisms of Dewey and answers thereto; e.) the link between democracy and public inquiry for Dewey.


The first section begins by recapping the notions of the original position, the veil of ignorance and the relation between Rawls’ early and late work. Most importantly, Weber recalls of these notions that:

“[I]ts reiteration is important for noting the fact that Rawls does not begin with the question of how real people can best act for the improvement of their societies. Real people come from lengthy histories, filled with bloody struggles and conflicts. Rawls wanted to set aside real histories to see whether an essential answer can be deduced to address the question of justice’s content. He wanted a principled measure for addressing our conflicts” (p. 114).

Certainly, as Weber points out, such an approach is far from new. Yet the intuitions which Rawls employs to measure real society themselves issue from that very society. With Political Liberalism, the thinker attempts to shift to more “realistic” terrain with some reference to the United States constitution. The document’s authors had, however, advocated for inculcating respect for democracy and constitutionalism in citizens through an education decidedly less minimal than foreseen by Rawls. In leaving aside this question, Rawls again, for Weber, loses sight of the very real premises from which he nominally sets out.

To correct for this, Weber draws on Bruno Latour’s notion of “black box” as employed in Science in Action. In a word, this notion designates an idea seemingly “inert, clearly and simply principled, and predictably stable retrospectively” (p. 115). Hence, the notion is not entirely without relation to the philosopher’s fallacy introduced above. Regardless, the black box which Rawls fails to open up, on Weber’s view, is precisely the concept of justice. Despite differing conceptions and intuitions thereof, the thinker does not move to develop or refine either his definition or his approach. For this, it would be necessary to dig into the very histories in which persons and conceptions form and which Rawls left aside.

This gives rise to two problems in particular. On one hand, one makes overly strong predictions based on the seemingly clear principles at work in the box-concept. When those predictions fail, it is necessary to delve into the box-concept’s inner workings rather than double-down on its principles. On the other, should a box-concept’s principles fail to carry out the work of which it was previously capable, it may be necessary to reinvent concept or principles, at least to a certain extent. On this count, Weber deems that Dewey outpaces Rawls in great measure in his willingness to open up the black box of education.

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