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Sunday, August 28, 2016


The comments on my post about Rawls and reading a philosophical text indicates that I failed to make myself clear, so let me try one more time.  S. Wallerstein asks “Couldn't you say that Plato's Republic is one educated Greek's sense of justice?  Does that make it any less worth reading? If that is the case, why does the fact that Rawls’ Theory of Justice is one educated person's sense of justice make it any less worth reading?” 

Of course you can say, if you believe it, that Plato’s Republic is one educated Greek’s sense of justice.  And if that makes the Republic an interesting work for you, then by all means read it that way.  The same for A Theory of Justice [although no one is going to suggest that they are equally great works.]  My point was that powerful works of philosophy can sustain competing and even diametrically opposed readings because their authors are struggling with the articulation of insights that may not be entirely compatible with one another and which they may have difficulty bringing to the surface of their writing.  Inasmuch as “powerful” in this context is not descriptive but rather evaluative, serious readers will differ not only about how to interpret certain texts but even about which texts deserve the encomium “powerful.”

Why am I not interested in reading A Theory of Justice as “one (educated) person’s” sense of justice?  Because I do not find John Rawls to be in this regard an interesting person.  Jack was very smart and very widely educated, but his writing exhibits no influence of Freud, of Marx, of Mannheim, of Durkheim, no easy familiarity with the concepts of ideology, repression, projection, displacement, little or no evidence of having been powerfully influenced by great novelists or poets.  His perspective is transparently that of an upper middle class member of the privileged professoriate.  Indeed, as I show in my book [but cannot go into here as it involves some technical mathematics], his argument for maximin as the principle of choice in the Original Position makes sense only if one assumes that the person deliberating is just such an upper middle class professional pretty well satisfied with his place in the income pyramid.

BUT THAT IS JUST ME.  That is not intended as an argument that no one else should find Rawls’s book interesting as a meditation on one (educated) person’s reflection on his sense of justice.  It would be absurd to say to someone, “You ought not to find that interesting, even though you say you do.”

By the way, is there anyone out there sophisticated enough as a reader to understand the deep significance of the brackets around the word “educated?”  I say no more.


howie b said...

Professor Wolff:

Rawls is familiar through the summary of others like yourself.
The other thinkers are more familiar to me, as are both sides of the track, the haves and have nots.
You're saying that for people who are repressed, marginally more is an insult, as is Rawls sense of justice
while justice is to have what the upper or higher classes take for granted and take as their god given or hard earned right.
There is a queasy tension between an infantile all or nothing and a sense of justice and I do not know how to resolve that tension either theoretically or in life.
Your point is that Rawls overlooked this problem almost as if he were managing an estate, and Freud and even Plato may not have been aware of this problem or may have misconstrued it, being oblivious of class

That is my attempt to grasp and get the point you're making


s. wallerstein said...

Thanks for clearing things up.

Your position is now clear to me and very convincing.

As a guess, I imagine that your bracketing the word "educated" has something to do with the fact that Rawls and so many others can be considered "educated" by the conventional wisdom while having no idea of Marx and Freud and Mannheim and Durkheim, without having mastered the concepts of ideology, repression, displacement, projection, etc. and showing no influence of the great poets and novelists.

If that is your criterion of being educated, few of us, including myself, can be considered educated, but some of us are on the road, so to speak.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, no, it is Rawls who bracketed the word. What does that tell you about his world view?

formerly a wage slave said...

Does Plato's Republic express his sense of justice? I wouldn't recommend that way of reading the book. Plato--as an "educated" Greek..
That reading strikes me as problematic.
In the first place, a lifetime of scholarship would be required to seriously sort out the phrase, "Plato as a Greek" or "Plato as an educated Greek." Plato, in so many obvious and deliberate ways, set himself apart from others who spoke his language at that time. EG his critique of Homer, not to mention Socrates remarks about Pericles in the Gorgias. In what sense was Plato's approach Greek? If you prefer, where were the ideologies he never recognized? Where was he original? All tough stuff to work out. (Of course, worth doing....) So, the phrase "Plato as X" does mark a starting point. So, reading him that way makes nothing easy....(which is not to disagree with Bob)
Secondly, as an "expression" of an (implicitly) temporally culturally restricted /indexed view (note below on v i e w ) about justice: question-begging (philosophically ) as to the nature of what we're doing when we talk about justice. I sense in the suggestion an air of: hereby we avoid certain problems--as in, we don't now have to tangle with certain issue or questions--esp., what justice really is--......(He is just a man of his time......)(((Well, yes, in the end, you may wind up saying something like that; but if you begin by saying it, then you will miss out on the stuff that's beneath the surface....A conclusion like that has to be won in a struggle to understand the text.....)
More tendentiously, it sounds as if one were dipping into a bag of flavors to sample yet another (the educated Greek flavor of it) Yet, it would be more Platonistic, more true to Plato's philosophical stance, to suppose that the subject here is, or at any rate should be, what justice itself is--not justice for a Greek of 5th Century BCE, or justice for a North American of the 21st Century. And if you balk at that, then you may only be disagreeing with Plato. Or, you may begin to understand just how hard the task is, by Plato's lights. Because if Plato only managed to "express" his take on justice, as an educated Greek of his day, then (by Plato's lights) he failed.
Of course, many philosophers as well as others will shy away from the talk of what justice simply is. And there are deep and important issues there, but I am speaking of Plato as I have understood him.
And as a footnote, I want to add something irrelevant. Stephen Stich once complained that Plato was an example of a philosopher in pursuit of quick, snappy definitions of general terms. And we know, SS said, from contemporary cognitive science, that it's hopeless to want that. Yet, here's this big book trying to say what justice is---and it's big and complicated like a novel, and it's not a short snappy definition. So, maybe Stich missed something.....
NOTE I use 'view', not 'sense'. This matters. I prefer to read Plato as a philosopher, offering a theory, which can be defended, argued for, criticized.
APOLOGY: The above is a bit of a jumble, but I hope something comes across.

LFC said...

The quote from 'A Theory of Justice' around which some of this conversation is revolving does not say that one person's sense of justice amounts to a theory. It says "if we should be able to characterize one (educated) person's sense of justice, we would have a good beginning toward a theory of justice." (emphasis added)

I would hesitate to read too much into R's use of "educated" in parentheses in that passage, though I suppose one could read it as a hint of elitism or something like that.

Btw, I was looking earlier on Amazon at Jon Mandle's Rawls's 'A Theory of Justice': An Introduction (2009). Might be a good primer for some of us who aren't philosophers (including me). Mandle lists Prof. Wolff's book on Rawls in his bibliography, though there appears (at least according to Amazon's 'Look Inside' copy) to be a typo on the subtitle: the word 'reconciliation' appears rather than 'reconstruction'.

s. wallerstein said...

Since it's my day for making wild and inaccurate guesses, I'll try again, as gamblers do.

My guess is that Rawls saw himself as spokesperson for everyone, without regard for social class, gender or race, etc, that he did not take into account how much his own social class, education, income level, gender, race, etc., influenced or could influence his sense of justice.

How different that is from a sociologist like Pierre Bourdieu who wrote so much about how his upbringing, education and social position formed his worldview!

LFC said...

How different that is from a sociologist like Pierre Bourdieu

My somewhat ignorant guess is that no one has ever suggested that Rawls and Bourdieu had a lot in common.

Rawls and Habermas, on the other hand, had an extended exchange, published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1995.

J. W. F. said...

LFC, I would recommend Samuel Freeman's book, Rawls (Routledge), though it may be a bit more long-winded and perhaps not quite as friendly to the layman as you might be looking for.

LFC said...


Andrew Lionel Blais said...

This may not be relevant or right, but as I have read the Republic, the conclusion is about "justice" in an individual and the relatively unargued premise is about "justice" in the polis or state. If so, Plato and Rawls are doing somewhat different things.

Chris said...

I always felt like A Theory of Justice was the ontological argument of the liberal era. Such an obvious product of our times, that anyone who wasn't a true believer could see through it as a circular conjuring trick.

Thus this is really brilliant, and to non true believers, transparent:

"Because I do not find John Rawls to be in this regard an interesting person. Jack was very smart and very widely educated, but his writing exhibits no influence of Freud, of Marx, of Mannheim, of Durkheim, no easy familiarity with the concepts of ideology, repression, projection, displacement, little or no evidence of having been powerfully influenced by great novelists or poets. His perspective is transparently that of an upper middle class member of the privileged professoriate."

LFC said...

Every book is to some extent a product of its time and of the author's intellectual background and propensities, and to some extent socio-economic background as well. That in itself doesn't amount to much of a criticism.

However, to suggest the absence of influence of Marx, Mannheim, Durkheim etc. is more of a substantial criticism, or at least the beginnings of an explanation of why one would not or does not find Rawls's views -- assuming they are not a rigorous theorem but a more discursive set of ideas -- "interesting". (I think maybe there are some Durkheimian hints in Part III of 'Theory', but never mind.)

Re "little or no evidence of having been powerfully influenced by great novelists or poets": of course a lot of great novelists and poets have a strong tragic sense, they're attuned to the many ways in which lives go wrong, ambitions are crushed, hopes dashed, dreams unfulfilled, etc. Take one of the greatest 19th-century English novels -- if not the greatest -- namely, 'Middlemarch' -- which is centrally about how society constrains the possibilities and limits the scope of action of intelligent, idealistic women, or to be more precise, of one such woman in particular.

It's true there's not much of that tragic sensibility in 'A Theory of Justice', but then it's not that kind of book. There is an undercurrent of optimism in 'Theory', which is doubtless partly a product of when it was written. That doesn't especially bother me, though I can see why others might be bothered by it (or perhaps find it somewhat shallow).

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