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Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I have learned something about philosophy these days from this series of exchanges on Rawls, something, I confess, that has surprised me.  I grew up in a simpler time, when philosophers advanced theories about this or that and then presented arguments in defense of those theories.  We all tried, of course, to make our arguments as powerful as possible, and the great philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant, Leibniz, Hume and the rest -- even claimed that their arguments were definitive, necessary, irrefutable.  They weren't always right, of course;  indeed, if the truth be told, they very rarely were.  But they tried.  That was the point of the exercise, or so I learned when I was young.  Hence, when I read Rawls' work, first as a journal article and much later as a book, I understood it to be an imaginative, original, even daring attempt to prove a certain thesis, namely that what Rawls called The Two Principles were indeed the principles that rationally self-interested individuals would coordinate on under the bargaining conditions he specified.  This fact, assuming that he could actually prove it to be a fact , would , he thought, thereby be a good reason to consider those principles as the principles of social justice.  Rawls, I was quite confident, was not simply taking the opportunity to tell the world how he felt about things, nor was he, despite all the chatter about "reflective equilibrium,' merely presenting us with what an earlier era called the consensus gentium, or "agreement of the people."

But it is clear from the comments that no one sees things this way anymore.  Instead, when a major work purporting to be philosophy comes along, everyone apparently treats it either as a Rorschach ink blot calling for subjective responses or as a grab bag of taglines that can be attached to whatever one is thinking about.

I don't know what to do.  I do not want to be a bore, like the old uncle at a family party who keeps telling anyone he can collar that it was different in the old days.  But I really am too old to change, and besides, if I had known this was what philosophy was going to turn into, I might have chosen a more honest profession, like bank robbing.

Look, folks, I will say it one more time:  John Rawls presented an argument for a claim, the claim that a pair of principles are The principles of distributive justice.  His argument consisted of showing, or trying to show, that the principles would be chosen by persons in certain rather special and constrained circumstances.  He thought that if he could indeed show that persons so circumstanced would choose those principles, that would constitute a powerful reason for accepting those principles as the principles that ought to regulate the basic economic and political structure of society.  IF THAT IS NOT WHAT HE IS DOING, THEN HE IS NOT DOING PHILOSOPHY AS I UNDERSTAND IT.


Tom Hickey said...

There are four major periods in the history of philosophy — ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern.

Rawls is doing philosophy in the modern tradition, which is an extension of the ancient and medieval in seeking to explain in terms of as few fundamental principles as possible. It is similar to scientists building models being as economical as possible with assumptions in order to develop a general theory.

Postmodern philosophy rejects that approach as being based on hidden assumptions that are not identified, likely because the author is unaware of them, as the audience also is.

Postmodernism is about exploring the basis of doing philosophy rather than presuming rationality and objectification.

See the debates between Chomsky and Derrida, Chomsky and Foucault, and Chomsky and Zizek, for instance.

There are different points of view based on different stand points — Wittgenstein's Weltbild and Lebenform in PI. No worldview and no form of life is definitive. Following Hegel, the process is dialectical. The Absolute Idea unfolding itself to itself in time through history goes on.

You make this point, I think, in pointing out that Rawls was influenced by the context in which he was writing and that his attempt is not only to understand it but to rationalize (justify) it. As Hegel set about justifying the Prussian state, Rawls did something similar with respect to the 20th century liberal welfare state. Those who share that context with Rawls may agree with him, and those that don't likely won't and they will either criticize him or provide a counter-explanation.

There is also the argument from the side of psychology and cognitive science that the presumption of rationality is simply contradicted by scientific research showing that reason and feeling are entangled in brain functioning. See, for instance, Damasio's Descartes' Error, and Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh.

Anthropology also has something to say about the notion of justice. See, for instance, David Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.

So while it is of interest whether Rawls's argument is philosophically sound, that is, rationally, the issues are much deeper, it seems.

This is being borne out presently in the kerfuffle over Greece.

Unknown said...

Prof. Wolff, I was responding to your example of the executive and the guy on the loading dock and noting that few execs would give up their positions for the other one. Rawls explicitly addresses that situation with the difference principle. Of course, if the difference principle is invalid, then Rawls’s explanation is worthless. But in that case, it seems to me, the argument should be directed to the difference principle and not the loading dock worker and the executive.

Rawls left open the possibility that some jobs might require higher pay to attract people, but that isn’t his default positon. That’s equality. There are, though, many situations in which a higher income would be necessary. For one, my guess is that—if all compensation were equal--most readers of this blog would prefer to be philosophy professors rather than university presidents. (I know I would, although I wouldn’t be qualified to be either). Who would want to give up the classroom and the students for the trustees, the alumni, the donors, the administrative duties and all the rest that goes with being the president?

The example of the guy on the loading dock and the exec reminds me of something Galbraith wrote somewhere, to the effect that the less desirable job should pay more, not less. Both the executive and the guy on the dock presumably would prefer to be the executive and therefore an incentive should be added to attract people from the executive suite to the loading dock.

Derek said...

To be fair, it seems like a good majority of the interlocutors in Plato's dialogues also like the grab bag approach. I'm not sure philosophy ever really had a 'good old days,' rather we now have the benefit of looking just at those philosophers who have stood the test of time, sometimes for literal millennia. Were, say, the interlocutors in Plato's dialogues especially enlightened? Was Callicles in Gorgias, who you've cited often on this blog, of a higher caliber as he veers straight into insult?

The post-modern trend, which Tom mentions above, is indeed the newest flavor, and in my view has some issues uniquely its own. But, as someone who isn't opposed to post-modernism in principle, the theory itself doesn't speak--people do, and the question is who's doing what with what theory. The Greeks had their philosophasters, as did Enlightenment Europe, as we do.

More likely, though, it's just that philosophy is hard, and takes getting used to. Doing well in classes didn't mean that it took me any less than years of study to get what one might call 'the feel' of philosophical argument versus any other sort. Even people who don't agree with Callicles that philosophy is just for the young, can't sit down for the years of careful study that it takes. And that's at the best of times!

Mert said...

Let us distinguish between two different modes of philosophy. One where the goal is to make the most compelling or plausible argument for a thesis all things considered, in the sense that each premise or inference is either asserted to be obviously true or is argued for. The second is where the goal is to make a compelling or plausible argument but where a subset of premises or inferences are neither argued for nor are taken to be obvious. In this second mode philosophers often take certain assumptions as prima facie plausible or as taken for granted within a certain discussion or body of literature that they are engaging. They are working out the philosophical or argumentative consequences of different positions, without necessarily arguing for or against those positions.
There is a sense in which the former mode seems more important and it would seem regrettable if the latter were primarily pursued. But the latter mode is not all that different from the former, and it can be pursued as part of an all of things considered project.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Perhaps I interpreted your usage of 'theorem' too strictly? I certainly am familiar with referring to 'moral theories' in moral and political philosophy, but your explanation of what Rawls was attempting to do seemed far more... mathematical than I've ever seen his ideas presented. (More generally, my experience has been that thinking that moral or political principles are the sorts of thing that can even be theorems is, shall we say, outdated. Perhaps that only evidences my provincialism even more.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, I meant "theorem" as in "conclusion implied mathematically or logically by premises laid down at the beginning of the proof." If you do not think that is what Rawls set out to do, then I have no idea what we are talking about. Whether he succeeded is another matter [he did not]. Whether he sequed into writing asw though he was just summing up the wisdom of his social, economic, and intellectual class -=- which indeed is what happened -- is also another matter. If you really think in the end that is all philosophy comes to, then I am at a loss to figure out why I ought to care about it.

Jerry Fresia said...

I'm having a great deal of difficulty with this. This discussion reminds me of the discussion surrounding your blogs on Bentham; and I had difficulty then with the notion of "laws" as I do now with the notion of "principles that rationally self-interested individuals would coordinate on under the bargaining conditions." Are you saying that Rawls (and probably Bentham as well) is working out "principles" that would apply across time and culture, that Rawls' principles, for example, would apply to whatever bargaining for reforms might have taken place in the 14th century having to do with peasant uprisings? If the answer is no, I really don't get it. If the answer is yes, I really don't get it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am afraid the answer is yes. I wrote about this in my book on Rawls. That is what theorems are like -- valid for all time, given the premises. I quite well realize this is a tall order, but Rawls was shooting for the stars.