Utanför Rawls ramar

A brief incident from my own life may serve here as an introduction. A little more than two decades ago at Harvard University, the same institution Coicaud attended while writing his book, I took a course in political philosophy from Professor John Rawls, author of the celebrated volume ”A Theory of Justice”. To my disappointment ‘political philosophy’ turned out to mean not much more than ‘moral theory’ so that any political manifestations and issues could be viewed only upon a very distant, almost invisible or unrelated horizon. […]

As was already my habit by then, I engaged in a self-invented ‘education through opposition’: after having discerned the biases and preferences of the instructor, I proceeded to write a paper (in this case, one later reworked for publication) that sought systematically and savagely to contest his views. […]

Now, liberal thought prides itself, certainly, upon its willingness to entertain aplurality of viewpoints. In the response of Rawls, perhaps the pre-eminent liberal theorist at the time, I discovered with a certain perverse inward satisfaction the limits to such professions of openness and pluralism. He refused to grade the paper and instead scrawled a page of comments . . . to explain why he would not comment upon it. Initially mystified and yet also intrigued, I requested a meeting at his office.

We spoke, cordially, for about a half an hour, at the end of which time he asked me, point-blank, ‘What are you: a sociologist, a historian, or what?’, each term, perfectly articulated, falling from his lips with a distinct expression of disdain – as if the very idea of introducing social considerations or just historical context into philosophical thinking about the political world had only now occurred to him for the first time and was immediately experienced with utter revulsion. My explanation that I was a student in his very own philosophy department and not some alien discipline’s import only increased our mutual sense of bafflement, and the interview quickly ended.

When I pointed out to his teaching assistant a few days later, with mock innocence and shock, that I had still not received a grade for the paper, she told me that it was ‘too different’ (so much for liberal tolerance…) and that she and Rawls had decided that it ‘would not receive any grade at all: A, B, C, D, or F’, adding that I would receive a B of some sort for the course, as if that was what should be of paramount concern and might somehow placate me. She quickly fled, running off to watch a Red Sox-Yankees game – a response that greatly upset me at the time, but which I, now older, less serious about myself, and more serious about baseball, can fully appreciate in retrospect.

David Ames Curtis, 2002. ‘Translator’s foreword’, i Jean-Marc Coicaud, Legitimacy and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

”The Aims of Political Philosophy”

Idag har jag läst ett paper av Colin Koopman (University of California, Santa Cruz) med titeln The Aims of Political Philosophy in John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and Richard Rorty. Dess abstrakt:

What ought a political philosophy seek to achieve?  How should political philosophy address itself to its subject matter?  What is the relation between political philosophy and other forms of reflective inquiry?  In answering these metaphilosophical questions, political philosophy has long been dominated by a roughly utopian self-image.  According to this conception, the aim of political philosophy is the rigorous development of theoretical ideals of justice, state, and law.  I show that leading political philosophers of the twentieth century, most notably John Rawls, have continued to perpetuate this utopian conception of the aims of political philosophy.  I then explicate an emerging alternative metaphilosophical view of political philosophy which has recently emerged in two seemingly disparate strands of political philosophy: the first strand being Bernard Williams’s realist conception of political critique and the second strand being Richard Rorty’s pragmatist conception of cultural criticism.  The views developed by Williams and Rorty leave to the side questions about political ideals and focuses instead on definite ways in which we can improve the situations in which we find ourselves.  Such improvement, Williams and Rorty provocatively argue, does not require an ideal theory of best justice.

Koopman noterar att det utopiska förhållingssättet ifrågasattes först av exempelvis ”feminist theory, critical theory and genealogy”, men att dessa ”alternative non-utopian approaches” sällan lyckades möta det gamla utopiska förhållningssättet i ”useful metaphilosophical debates concerning just what it is that we want a political philosophy to do.”

It is thus particularly noteworthy that there has emerged in the last decade or so an altogether different alternative conception of political philosophy which happens to be particularly well-positioned to engage in fruitful dialogue with the dominant utopian conception as it has been developed especially in post-Rawlsian analytic political philosophy.  This new alternative offers a melioristic conception of political philosophy and it is expressed in the recent work of, among others, Bernard Williams and Amartya Sen.  Williams’s conception was developed under the name of a “realism” which he explicitly contrasts to Rawlsian “moralism”. Sen calls his conception “comparative” in contrast to Rawlsian “transcendental” political philosophy. Williams’s and Sen’s conceptions are meliorist in the sense that they aim primarily to describe how we can improve or meliorate the political realities in which we find ourselves.  They think that for these purposes we do not require the sort of theoretical ideals developed by those wielding utopian, moralist, or transcendental conceptions. [s. 3]

Utöver Williams och Sen skulle jag vilja lägga till Raymond Guess, vars bok Philosophy and Real Politics som jag tidigare skrivit om här och här. (Jag hade ursprungligen tänkt att sammanfatta även bokens senare del  som behandlar Nozick och Rawls, men det lär nog inte bli av. Hursomhelst så kändes första delen som den viktigaste och resten var relativt standardmässig.) Guess kallar likt Williams sin variant för ”realism” och hans kritik vänder sig mot ”the ethics-first view”. Denna syn är…

. . . a theory about where one should start in studying politics, what the final framework for studying politics is, what it is reasonable to focus on, and what it is possible to abstract from.


The view I am rejecting assumes that one can complete the works of ethics first, attaining an ideal theory of how we should act, and then in a second step, one can apply that theory to the actions of political agents.

Det är vad Bernard Williams kritiserar under namnet ”political moralism”. (se ”Realism and Moralism in Political Theory” i In the Beginning was the Deed)

Colin Koopman går sedan vidare med att diskutera i vilken mening Rawls är utopisk, och framförallt innebörden av den senare Rawls’ modifikationer som ledde honom till att kalla sin inställning för ”realistically utopian”. Jag ska inte gå igenom hela resonamnget men Koopman anser att ”Rawls is still much too much the utopian” och hans rsonemang påminner här en del om Geuss. Avsnittet om Rawls avslutas som följer:

So even when he does attempt to tune his ideal theory to the actual political reality in which he finds himself, Rawls works from his ideal back to reality rather than from reality toward some ideal.  But we might wonder if this is the wrong direction in which to work.  Perhaps political progress gets made when we start from where we are and work from there up to some vaguely specified ideal.  One risk of focusing too much energy on specifying our ideals is that our realities will never be improved insofar as we have no idea of how we might level them up to the daydreams of the philosophers. [s. 13]

Koopman går sedan vidare med att diskutera Bernard Williams.

The essays gathered in Williams’s posthumous collection of political philosophical essays, In the Beginning Was the Deed, are best read as developing Williams’s claim from one of his earliest essays in political philosophy that “genuine historical understanding is of the first importance in the understanding of politics and political thought.”     [s. 13]


Williams wants to defend a certain conception of liberalism in this book, but he wants to do so in a manner that is obviously different from the typical defenses of liberalism we find in thinkers like Rawls.  Whereas liberalism is typically developed and defended from a perspective that is more or less ahistorical, Williams argues that liberalism must be understood and evaluated from a perspective that explicitly starts from where we find ourselves.  A political philosophy, Williams explains, “will seem to make sense, and will to some degree reorganize political thought and action, only by virtue of the historical situation in which it is presented.” [s. 14]


One point which gets repeatedly emphasized in Williams’s late work is that “[p]olitical philosophy requires history.” Williams offers in justification of this view the thought that detailed history inquiry is what provides abstract philosophical inquiry with traction in the cultural realities in which we find ourselves—philosophy can contribute to our understanding of ourselves only insofar as it has some such traction in historical reality. [s. 16]

Koopman exemplifierar sedan med Amartya Sen:

Sen’s argument is that, “It is not frivolous to seek a framework for a theory of justice that concentrates on advancement, not transcendence.” Sen’s notion of comparative advancement without a transcendental frame of reference against which such advancement is measured is an excellent illustration of the sort of melioristic politics featured in Williams’s late work. [s. 19]

I den utopiska fållan sorterar Koppman in Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin och Raz. Och i den icke-utopiska, ”melioristiska”, realistiska nämner han Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer och Richard Rorty. I denna grupp så är Bernard Williams. . .

. . . I would suggest, is the clearest voice in a rising tide of anti-utopian melioristic political philosophy. Williams’s poignant challenge to the prevailing wisdom in political philosophy consists in this thought: the situations in which we find ourselves already contain the resources for their own improvement and so we need not transcend these situations with abstractions in order to develop the political conceptions we need for achieving justice, equality, and liberty.  Political progress, in short, can take place on the basis of ideas and practices in which we already find ourselves situated.  We do not require that flight to the ideal which has always tempted utopian political philosophers. We can get everything we need out of the situations in which we find ourselves here and now.  Improving these situations requires not an ideal of perfection against which we might supposedly measure ourselves, but only that these situations already feature some valuable elements which we can play against the pernicious elements also found in that situation.  Since we are indeed located here and now, and since we indeed have no direct and universal access to the utopian realm of the ideal, I would urge that we ought to take Williams’s challenge to political philosophy very seriously indeed. [s. 20]

Därefter ägnar Koopman sig åt att jämföra Williams med Richard Rorty. Han argumenterar för att de är mer lika än vad Williams ville erkänna samt att man inte ska överbetona Rortys tal om ”the end of philsophy” och därmed att han snarare hade en vision om ett annat slags filosofi (och därmed kommer han och Williams närmare varandra). Koopman noterar att Rortys sista volym heter just ”Philosophy as Cultural Politics”, och man kan tillägga att även Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature kan beskrivas inte som ett ”slut” för filosofin utan bara ett ersättande av en vetenskapligt insprirerad filosofi med en humanistisk, en ”edifying philosophy” istället för en ”systematic”.

Ur artikelns ”Conclusion”:

The melioristic conception of political critique common to Williams and Rorty (and others including Sen), I urge, might point us in a refreshing new direction for future work in political philosophy.  That work undertaken from this perspective might come to seem refreshing would be due at least in part to their claim that the prevailing directions in which we political philosophers travel have grown increasingly musty.  The challenge which the meliorists have issued to political philosophers could be summarized as follows: in order to develop political conceptions which might make some actual difference to the political realities which these concepts are supposed to be about we must begin by locating ourselves fully and firmly within these political realities.  This challenge runs against the ahistorical tendencies of so much canonical political philosophy, including Rawls’s relatively ahistoricist theory of justice and the relatively ahistoricist work of the bulk of contemporary post-Rawlsian political philosophy.  The view shared by Williams and Rorty which can be urged against Rawls holds that we should not abstract too much from our historical situation lest we lose a connection to it altogether. [s. 32]


The metaphilosophical conception of the conditions for political philosophy sketched by Williams and Rorty view is altogether different from this Rawlsian conception.  On their alternative model, reformist meliorism is always prioritized such that utopianism can be invoked but only insofar as it is in the service of improving the definite political realities in which we find ourselves around here just now.  Rather than formulating and defending ideal principles of justice which apply to abstracted entities, their idea is that we must start in the actual political realities in which we find ourselves and attempt to make definite improvements within these realities on the basis of the resources they make available.  Their view is that we do not need an ideal conception of what is best in order to enact actual transformations which are better.  We achieve better political situations not by transforming realities so that they better approximate ideal perfection, but by extending and augmenting what is already best in those situations.  A more just politics, on this view, is more just not in light of an ideal justice but in light of what is most just in the political realities in which we are already working.

All of this goes toward explaining just how Williams and Rorty have challenged the prevailing Rawlsian approaches that so thoroughly dominate one branch of contemporary political philosophy.  But more than just challenging the ahistorical orientation embodied by Rawls, they also sketch an actual alternative to it. [s. 34]