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Rawls and subject 33

May 16, 2017

This last point deserves further emphasis. “Nonpublic” does not denote “private” as the latter proves an incoherent notion:

The public vs. nonpublic distinction is not the distinction between public and private. This latter I ignore: there is no such thing as private reason. There is social reason—the many reasons of associations in society which make up the background culture; there is also, let us say domestic reason— the reason of families as small groups in society—and this contrasts both with public and social reason. As citizens, we participate in all these kinds of reason and have the rights of equal citizens when we do so (PL, note 7, p. 220)[1].

With this in mind, we should take care not to confuse “nonpublic” with the “social”, for the “nonpublic” includes other kinds of reasons than the “social”, proper to background culture associations, such as the “domestic”, proper to the family unit. Regardless, the author is intent on showing in what way, as opposed to private reasons, nonpublic reasons qua social and domestic reasons bring out the interpersonal conditions in which various instantiations of reason necessarily unfold. This seems relatively clear.

What proves less clear is the author’s understanding of the relation between different nonpublic reasons. That which Rawls implies but neither states nor demonstrates is that nonpublic reasons in full justification are incommensurable not only with public reasons in pro tanto justification but with each other. More simply, while the exchange of reasons within a nonpublic, background culture association is public with respect to its members, the exchange of reasons between nonpublic, background culture associations and members thereof is, presumably, nonpublic in that no one way of reasoning sets criteria, standards and ends by which to constrain that exchange so as to reach a relative consensus. Just such an implication of insularity between nonpublic, background culture associations and their members and ways of reasoning would seem to fall out of this picture. In short, between different instances of full justification, there can be no “meaningful” exchange of reasons, short of a complete overlap between the instances’ audience members[2]. This point will prove essential for understanding Rawls’ explanation of the third phase of justification, that of public justification, given in the third section below.

More importantly, this incommensurability limits the kinds of consensus to which full justification might lead. If justification between nonpublic, background culture associations proves implausible in the way specified above but an association’s justification of a political conception in terms of comprehensive doctrines is nonetheless necessary, then consensus between such associations converges on the substance of the political justification rather than on the framing of that justification. In other words, persons within background culture associations reach consensus on content without regard to the reasons offered in favor thereof. The author dubs such a consensus “overlapping”.


[1] Undoubtedly, one may draw the parallel between Rawls’ conclusion and that of Ludwig Wittgenstein on private language in Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ______. Unrelatedly, given the careful delimitation of citizen, on Rawls’ part, and, consequently, of citizen standpoint, on our own, it is unclear whether Rawls truly intends to suggest that we participate in nonpublic reason qua citizens. After all, it is not as citizen but as person that the person participates in all these kinds of reason, for the conception of person as citizen and the citizen standpoint are peculiar to public reason and pro tanto justification. Put differently, it is not as citizen that the mother addresses the child or the pastor a congregation member but as individual within an association and from that standpoint. The relevant conception of person and standpoint does not seem the citizen as such but a conception of person to which Rawls sometimes alludes without systematizing: “individual”. Certainly, Rawls would draw attention to the way in which rights of citizens apply across all groups and associations, independently of their nonpublic reason, be it social, domestic or other. And the author could conceivably add that this provides a connection between different spheres of human activity. Yet it remains to be seen whether a one-direction connection or set of formal rights constitutes a true point of articulation between those spheres. After all, Rawls’ view of justification goes to considerable lengths to isolate those spheres from one another (see “public justification” in section 3 below). What further value(s) might bring them together? Otherwise, if the distinction between public political culture and background culture respectively helps to generate the citizen and individual standpoints, one may nonetheless detect a certain rigidity in these terms. After all, Rawls admits that a relation of public reason can obtain in civil society between persons in an association who have set criteria and ends for justification. One can imagine that a similar relation could obtain in political society between persons in the public forum. Either a person could address a subset of the public forum which accept certain set criteria and ends for justification which are not those of public reason or the same person could ask others momentarily to grant certain set criteria and ends for justification while later granting them the same concessions.

[2] We place emphasis on the word “meaningful” insofar as Rawls may allow for but otherwise discount this exchange. Put differently, whether such incommensurability proves a problem for Rawls or his readers hinges on the extent to which they envisage as feasible or necessary an exchange of reasons between members or representatives of different background culture associations. In other words, does the exchange of nonpublic reasons between different associations add to or form part and parcel the justification of a political conception? While Rawls leaves this question as worded unanswered, one imagines that the answer is “no”, for this would both place an unrealistic epistemic burden on members of associations in the form of translating reasons (see Habermas, _______) and add little to the justification not already contributed by individual instances of full justification. Nonetheless, Rawls would likely allow that persons do engage in such exchange on a regular basis and that this being left without a place in his justificatory scheme does not devalue that practice. Rather, it merely does not play an important role in justifying a political conception of justice. For a different take on this question, see Part II below on Jeffrey Stout and his account on which such exchange of reasons remains both feasible and significant with regards to justifying political positions in public discourse and deliberation. Lastly, it should also be noted that Rawls’ hypothetical answer thereto trades on the supposition of relatively well-defined, homogenous associations centering on full comprehensive doctrines shared by all their members. Whether such a supposition holds up on scrutiny remains to be seen in ____.

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