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Rawls and subject 50

June 8, 2017

This summary concludes our exposition of public justification, stability for the right reasons and the reasonable citizen standpoint. It also marks the end of our exposition of Rawls’ epistemological standpoints and the different conceptions of person related thereto. Faced with this plethora of distinctions, the reader may nonetheless wonder precisely how they relate logically to one another. After all, there seems a common thread running through them. As such, between the standpoints of representative party, delegate, legislator, judge, citizen, individual, and reasonable citizen, what logical relation could obtain? Two approaches put themselves forward as initially plausible.

One approach might be conceived along the lines of a derivation from or dependence on the representative party standpoint. On this approach, the representative party standpoint and the conception of person associated therewith would stand as the base instance from which the other standpoints and the features therein are either deductively derived from or more generally dependent on the basic instance. This would seem to accord with our habit of tracing the later standpoints to the representative party standpoint and formulating them in terms of its own original formulation. In the end and more imagistically, this would leave us with something like a “tree view”[1] or “arborescence model” on which the representative party standpoint and its attendant notion of person form the core and the subsequent standpoints and conceptions of person grow out from that core, each representing a new ring in the outgrowth. Accordingly, the articulation between the standpoints would be organic and unitary.

Yet this first approach is susceptible of an alternative reading if one takes seriously our description of the standpoints above and on which the person tout court takes up or occupies a given standpoint. This would less seem to suggest an organic whole or outgrowth than a conceptual outgrowth between the rings of which the person moves back and forth freely, as the need arises for considerations of different scope or justifications of different audience or purpose. This second approach could well allow one to retain the derivation or dependence relation from the first approach, but it leaves open another possible understanding of the relation between the standpoints: each may prove more or less independent of the others, at least between those associated with the four-stage sequence and those associated with the three kinds of justification. From this perspective, while we may notice that there exist points of convergence between either the seven standpoints or the two sets thereof, neither can be derived from the other in deductive fashion. Hence, the convergence would prove less derivation than parallelism.

More attention must also be paid to talk of the person moving back and forth freely between standpoints for two reasons. First, it must be asked whether the person is bound to the standpoint(s) or, in some sense, floats free of them. Put differently, may a person don and doff a standpoint as she would a hat? If so, to what extent? As the answers to these questions might well lead us to posit a spurious ontological or epistemological independence of the person tout court, a sort of bare person, such that extreme caution must be exercised.

Still, the question bears answering, whether Rawls has a conception of the person. One could reasonably advance his definition of the person as that of his moral person, i.e. a free and equal person, as being common to each standpoint. One might also point to his talk of the idea of person, like that of society, as an elementary, unconstructed notion from which political constructivism then proceeds[2]. If we are, however, to link that conception of the person with Rawls’ standpoints and standpoint epistemology, it will first be necessary to answer whether Rawls himself suggests that one might take up, occupy or inhabit the standpoints isolated above.

In reality,textual evidence would seem to suggest that the answer is at once positive and negative, owing to the different justificatory devices to which each set of standpoints is related. For representative party and delegate, legislator and judge arise with reference to the four-stage sequence and the original position which frames it, yet Rawls insists on the fact that these standpoints neither concern actual persons nor depict moral psychology as it unfolds in practical reasoning[3]. Rather, both these standpoints and the persons occupying them are constructions of the person’s practical reason; the person is a construction occupying the standpoint, another construction[4]. Nonetheless, this supposes that the person is independent of those constructions to the point of being able to set up and run through them.

For the citizen, individual and reasonable citizen standpoints, these arise with reference to the three kinds of justification and the notion of public reason in terms of which they are set out either positively (citizen), negatively (individual) or indirectly (reasonable citizen). Given that, in contrast with the standpoints native to the four-stage sequence, those standpoints native to the three kinds of justification are to be employed by actual persons in actual political deliberation and that they do not equally concern all spheres of discourse, deliberation or life, we can suppose that the person must be able to take on or occupy them as need be. In short, so long as no one standpoint exhausts all spheres and there exists a multitude thereof, the person must be free to move between the standpoints according to the needs of the sphere at issue.

In the end, this leaves us in a position where, for his epistemology and standpoints to hold together, Rawls must posit at least an epistemologically, if not ontologically, independent conception of the person capable either of taking up different standpoints as the need arises or of expanding or contracting along a number of different dimensions (e.g. personalized, autonomous, political, moral, symmetry, public, nonpublic, etc.) to fit the circumstances. Regardless, in either case, it seems that something, namely, the conception of person, must stand free of its circumstances. For this reason, this base conception of person might be termed subject or moral person[5]. If we also take seriously Rawls’ warning that we must also take heed of the place from where we speak at any given time, it would perhaps prove useful to designate this placeholder conception of person in turn a proto-standpoint which can be inserted into the standpoints above illustrated, much as a module: the subject standpoint.

The questions to which we have just turned are attention may well admit of no definitive answer, and we will again find ourselves asking in Part II in what way, if any, persons are independent of the standpoints which they might be said to occupy. For Jeffrey Stout will also proceed along the lines of a standpoint epistemology, albeit of an entirely different breed. Notably, his own epistemology will give us reason to wonder whether, for matters of political deliberation and public discourse, there might not exist another kind of justification beyond those for which Rawls allows: three, four or even no kinds of justification.


[1] This expression also seems to concern the cascading view of files or folders familiar from computer browsers but could likewise be adapted to the purposes at hand. After all, the highest folder on the branching view could be seen as the representative party standpoint, each subsequent standpoint occupying the folder immediately following in the cascade.

[2] See O’Neill, p. _____

[3] Cf. PL, p.

[4] See also Weber’s talk of a construction within a construction, pp. ___

[5] See TJ, p. ____ where Rawls seems to use these terms synonymously. Etymologically, it is worth noting that subject derives from the Latin “subicio”: sub- ‎(“under, beneath; at the foot of; close to”) +‎ iaciō ‎(“throw, hurl”).

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