Public Reason, Rawlsians, Political Philosophy, etc

Public reason may be possibly the most boring topic in contemporary political philosophy, which takes some doing, but it is also the name of a new blog by a bunch of political philosophers which looks as if it might become quite good. They’ve got a distinguished line up of contributors, not all of whom have yet contributed, and I suppose those of us with a sense of history will worry that this looks a little bit too much like the old Left2Right blog, which looked so promising at first, but never seemed to me to do that much beyond hosting some great posts by Elizabeth Anderson on Hayek and other related topics, and rather ran into the buffers. Anyway, I’m particularly pleased to see my old-friend-whom-I-haven’t-seen-in-years Alyssa Bernstein on the roster, as she’s great fun, if not a little Rawlsian.

Thinking of Rawlsians, this thread over at Brian Leiter’s place could become great fun, and possibly quite heated. In my balanced splitting-the-difference kind of way, I’m comfortable with the thought that Rawls was both a political philosopher of the first rank and that much Rawlsian thought is very possibly deep down “a generalizing [of] one’s own local prejudices and [a] repackaging [of] them as demands of reason”. And I think I’m comfortable with that thought because it seems obvious to me that much top-notch political philosophy has always been that, but the good stuff has never been just that, and one of the reasons progress gets made in philosophy, if it does, is through thinking about the extent to which this might in fact be the case and what, if anything, we might do about it. What’s funny is that philosophers sometimes get quite so defensive about the idea that their work might just be a little bit more parochial and a little less universal than they like to think it is, and that historians too often use their discipline’s own distinctive and not always attractive prejudices as a way of avoiding thinking hard about the difficult, interesting stuff.

Thanks also to this thread from Harry B at Crooked Timber, who asked the important question, “are philosophers scruffy?”, thereby reminding me of one of my favourite bits of De Civitate Dei, at the start of Book XIX, in which Augustine discusses Varro’s demonstration that there are 288 logically possible sects of philosophers, 144 of which are scruffy (“following the habits and fashions of the Cynics”), which I suppose follows naturally from our discussion of bearded philosophers from a few days ago.

Right: back to work.

13 thoughts on “Public Reason, Rawlsians, Political Philosophy, etc”

  1. Have you an alternative?

    (I’m not denying it’s important, it’s just that back in the days – say, 1996-2001 – when I used to attend seminars on public reason from time to time, they were generally very tedious indeed, and always degenerated into some kind of “what can the political liberal say to the [Nazi – Nietzschean – egoist – Islamic fundamentalist – insert name of preferred kind of loony here]” discussion that never really went anywhere. If you’re very, very good indeed you can make public reason interesting. I remember Micah Schwartzman managing to do that, once upon a time. But it’s bloody hard.)

  2. (Actually – and I know I’m probably not supposed to think/say this – but I have some sympathy with Chris on this. Especially when it comes to seminar discussions.)

  3. Get away. The Stoicism literature’s going through a good spell at the moment: Brennan on The Stoic Life, Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Warriors, A. A. Long’s From Epicurus to Epictetus, Inwood’s new edition of Seneca’s Letters, and so on.

  4. As someone noted to the leiter thread already, Burt Dreben, in his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Rawls provided the definitive answer to the “what do you say to Hitler?” worry. His answer was, “when you meet Hitler, you don’t reason with him, you shoot him!” (I made most of the indext to the Rawls companion and lobbied very hard for an entry, ‘Hitler, what to do with’ but was required in the end to just list this bit under ‘Hitler’.) It seems about the right answer from Dreben, though.

  5. Levelling down. Levelling down is really boring. Public reason, on the other hand, is full of interesting questions about what justification is, and not just to lunatics. Actually, I think that Dreben’s thought about what you say to Hitler is a) not really about public reason, because it’s obvious that he passed beyond the scope of proper justification and b) not obviously true.

  6. You have telic tendencies? Are you sick in the head? Something which is not about the features of anyone in particular, that can only be picked out by comparing the relative position of x and y, can make the world better?

    Equality of what is actually slightly less boring than levelling down, mainly because it’s not a totally crazy debate. If you were being spectacularly charitable, you could even read the equality of what debates as being subsets of the debates about public reason: what can we demand is the metric of justice is, for example, clearly a question that has some relationship to those about public reason.

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