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Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Once again I encounter the utterly mystifying fact that not everyone in the world has read every word I have written.  How can this be?  Once I have written something AND PUBLISHED IT, surely everyone will have read it within a few weeks or months, no?  Sigh, well, no.  So I must repeat myself, even though I feel that I am cheating when I say on this blog something I have long since committed to print.

First of all, although I knew Jack personally, I never spoke to him about this, and after I sent him the first copy of my book about his work, he never thereafter made the slightest comment to me or to anyone else about it of which I am aware [he did acknowledge receipt of the book], so my judgments about what he was doing are based solely on my logical analysis of his argument, not on anything he said.

I have always believed that Jack secretly dreamed of proving a theorem in political philosophy as powerful and as rigorous as Kenneth Arrow's famous General Possibility Theorem, which was the subject of Arrow's doctoral dissertation and for which he eventually received the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Had Rawls' proof held up, it would indeed have been that momentous.

Now, the thing about theorems, real theorems, is that they are not culturally or historically or ethnically or religiously relative.  That is why the discipline of mathematics knows no boundaries, whereas the discipline of philosophy is very much culturally embedded [French philosophy is nothing like Anglophone philosophy.  If you tried telling French philosophers that David Lewis and Derek Parfitt were two of the most  important recent philosophers, they would look at  you as though you were crazy.]

Rawls tells us that the individuals in the Original Position [I have trouble not sniggering at that phrase -- it has nothing to do with the Kama Sutra, trust me] do not know where in history they are located.  That is part of his explanation for their adoption of an extremely conservative decision rule -- a version of what Von Neumann, in Game Theory , calls the Minimax Decision Rule.  However, they do know, Rawls says, the general truths about society and human psychology.

In my book [here I go again] I argue that it is in fact epistemologically impossible for the individuals in the Original Position to have the special combination of knowledge and ignorance required by Rawls' theory.  Very briefly, I argue that they could not know, for example, that capitalism presents its exploitation of the working class in the mystified guise of equality and justice, and yet not know that they are located at least in the middle or late nineteenth century in Europe, if not later.

It is my opinion that very early on, Rawls realized that he could not prove his theorem, but he was totally wedded to the truth of its conclusion, so in place of the elusive rigorous argument he substituted 500 pages of elaboration and a self-justifying story about Reflective Equilibrium, all of which would have been quite unnecessary had he actually managed to prove the theorem.

But, you will say, A Theory of Justice is such a rich treasure trove of interesting sketches and elaborations and comments and speculations and imaginary social descriptions, and you are reducing it all to a barebones formal argument!  You don't treat Capital that way, do you?  You don't treat the Critique of Pure Reason that way, do you?

Actually, I do.  I wrote a whole book about the central argument in the Critique, and a whole book about the logical structure of the central economic theory in Capital.  But, speaking now personally, I find the Critique and Capital inspiring and illuminating, and I do not find A Theory of Justice either.  But that is just me.  de gustibus


F Lengyel said...

Bernard Gert proposed impartiality in lieu of Rawls's veil of ignorance, which he considered unnecessarily restrictive. Gert asserts that Rawls needed the veil of ignorance to ensure unanimity. Gert advocates impartial rationality, to allow the decision maker to know "his own rankings of goods and evils," without which decision making would be impossible. In your example, the executive fleeing the working conditions of the dock has access to experiences withheld from him under the veil of ignorance. Since the veil of ignorance precludes what ought to be taken as a rational decision, the veil is too restrictive.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Gert's critique is correct of course. That is why Rawls added the posits of a life plan and an index of primary goods. This is a complex subject, all gone into in my book. But what exactly does impartiality mean in this context? Does it mean an absence of parti pris, or something more?

F Lengyel said...

This is Gert's definition: A is impartial in respect R with regard to group G if and only if A's actions in respect R are not influenced by which member(s) of G benefit or are harmed by these actions. The group G that Gert has in mind is constituted by those persons and beings that morality, in Gert's view, is intended to protect. Gert's discussion of impartiality, includes a critique of Rawls. (If I have more time I could attempt a summary relevant to the past few posts here.) One might appreciate Gert's definition and critique without having to accept his moral theory, which I gather was intended as a serious alternative to that of Rawls.

Chris said...

"But, speaking now personally, I find the Critique and Capital inspiring and illuminating, and I do not find A Theory of Justice either. But that is just me. de gustibus"


Anonymous said...

So let’s grant that Rawls failed on his own terms. But let’s also agree that what we call “the economy”—the productive infrastructure, the people who work in various ways and the markets that link them in a kind of decentralized communication mechanism—should be seen in purely instrumental terms, as a device that produces stuff. Let’s further recognize that this device is a rules-based, social construct that exists only through the consent, participation and cooperation of the people that make up that society. We say good-bye to the swashbuckling capitalists braving the stormy seas of commerce, the immigrant kids who study hard, work hard and “make it” through sheer merit, and the hush-toned sanctity of PROPERTY. And what do we conclude about distribution? Equality, of the most radical kind, no? Equality, subject only to the constraint that if, and only if, (i) incentives are needed to get someone to do something; AND (ii) the performance of that something makes the least well of better off, then that someone will earn more than the least well off—but only to the extent necessary to satisfy (i).

There is grandeur in this view of life!

F Lengyel said...
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F Lengyel said...
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Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Prof. Wolff:

This is irrelevant to the main thread of discussion, but I couldn't let it pass without comment. You wrote:

"If you tried telling French philosophers that David Lewis and Derek Parfitt [sic] were two of the most important recent philosophers, they would look at you as though you were crazy."

That may well have been true at an earlier time, but my experience doesn't support this claim at all. I know a lot of French philosophers and go to conferences in France (especially Paris, but not only) several times a year, and the philosophers there are working on, as far as I can tell, exactly the same problems as I and my English-speaking colleagues. If you were to ask the French philosophers I know who the most important recent philosophers, living or dead, are, I'm just about certain that most of them would mention Lewis or Kripke or both. Maybe some would say Parfit or Williamson or whatever, but I very much doubt that you'd get any non-Anglo names.

In case you're curious, the most prominent French philosophers these days include Francois Recanati, Friedrike Moltmann (not French by birth but working in France), and Pascal Engel. I invite you to look them up and see what they work on.

So maybe this is not a great example of the cultural embeddedness of philosophy. Also it may be -- in fact I'm certain that it's true that -- philosophy is much less culturally embedded than it was in the recent past and continues to become less and less culturally embedded. Right now there's a lot of analytic philosophy of a very high quality being done in Turkey, for example. There's also more and more of it in China, Japan, and South Korea. Nowadays it's perfectly normal for an analytic philosopher like me to give talks in Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Ankara, Mexico City, or Belgrade -- and certainly in Paris! -- to mention just a few places that have a lot of philosophy conferences, workshops, and colloquia, and to encounter audiences who have read the same canonical texts from Frege to Kripke to the most recent work as my colleagues back home. The majority of the world's philosophy departments aren't analytic in orientation (yet), of course, but that's certainly the way things are moving, slowly but surely, and I don't see any forces that counteracting this trend.

Perhaps in the not too distant future philosophy will be about as culturally embedded as mathematics. It will be if present trends continue.

P.S. I'm no longer ABD but I've kept the pseudonymous account for commenting here since I don't yet have a tenure-track job and am trying to get one.