Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-4rdrl Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-14T01:43:55.307Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

On Philosophy's (lack of) Progress: From Plato to Wittgenstein (and Rawls)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 June 2010

R. Read*
University of East Anglia


I argue that the type of progress exhibited by philosophy is not that exhibited by science (as analysed e.g. by Thomas Kuhn), but rather is akin to the kind of progress exhibited (say) be someone becoming ‘older and wiser’. However, as actually-existing philosophy has gotten older, it has not always gotten wiser. As an illustration, I consider Rawls's conception of justification. I argue that Rawls's notion of what it is to have a philosophical justification exhibits no progress at all from Euthyphro's. In fact, drawing on a remark of Wittgenstein's, I suggest that Rawls's conception is inferior to the situation as depicted in Plato's famous dialogue – because at least in the case of Plato's Euthyphro, there is no illusion of justification.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2010

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 L. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, (revised edition; Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 22.

2 L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (London: Routledge, 1922 (1961), trans. Ramsey and Ogden), sections 6.371–2.

3 Section 1, Philosophical Investigations (London: Macmillan, 1953 (1958), 3rd edition). To avert a possible misunderstanding here: Wittgenstein is saying here that not ‘everything’ gets explained, which (of course!) doesn't mean that nothing gets explained. In other words, there is no attack on science, here, whatsoever. The point of my paper is to do with the sense of talking about – and the degree to which recently there has been any – progress in philosophy (e.g. in philosophy of science – or in moral and political philosophy). Not about the perfectly-fine and reasonably-straightforward sense in which there is normally progress in science itself (on which, see my and Sharrock's, WesKuhn (Oxford: Polity, 2002)Google Scholar).

4 Thus, by Wittgensteinian lights, the move from early to later Plato is far from exhibiting progress.

5 For one important account of Rawls as a (would-be) Wittgensteinian, as (allegedly) a true follower of, a worthy successor to, Wittgenstein, see Dreben's, Burton essay in the Cambridge Companion to Rawls (Freeman, S. (ed.), Cambridge: CUP, 2003).Google Scholar For my response to this claim, see my “Wittgenstein vs Rawls”, forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Wittgenstein Symposium.

6 Take for instance this useful and influential discussion of Obama as a Rawlsian (in particular, as an advocate of Rawls's concept of the overlapping consensus, discussed below):

7 The obvious exception to these ‘mosts’ and ‘muchs’ is Noam Chomsky, who allegedly provided the ‘existence proof’ for cognitive science, in his ‘discovery’ of ‘syntactic structures’. I come (briefly) to Chomsky, with his truly theoretical ambition, below.

8 Sandel in my opinion does a good job at doing so: see e.g. 34f of Liberalism and the limits of justice (Cambridge: CUP, 1982). (Attempts to refute Sandel on this point, such as the well-known argument made by Simon Caney in his ‘Liberalism and Communitarianism: a misconceived debate’ (Political Studies XL (1992), 273–289) seem to me to fail badly. But again, it would take us too far afield in the present context to settle that question.) See also my “How ought we to think of our relationship to future generations?”, forthcoming.

9 A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971; italics added). Rawls has of course more recently qualified and partially-retracted the claim with which this quotation closes: see page 60 of his ‘The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus’,New York University Law Review (May 1989), 64 (2): 233–255, and also n.7 on page 53 of his Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia, 1996 (1993); see also n.21 and n.23, below). I deal with the later Rawls below. But this localized partial-retraction in any case makes few odds with regard to the claim that I am making here about the basic problem with Rawls's method (at least, with his early method), a problem summed up beautifully in the following quote, from Paul Johnston, at page 71 of his Wittgenstein and moral philosophy (London: Routledge, 1989): “Rawls is caught between a recognition that reasons come to an end and a belief that reasonable moral argument must aspire toward proof and a Euclidean-type system.”

10 Again, it might be objected against me here that the later Rawls has a less ‘rationalistic’ approach. This is true – see below for my response to the later Rawls in respect of the subject matter of this paper. However, we shouldn't in any case exaggerate the change between ‘early’ and ‘later’ Rawls: Rawls' Political Liberalism still fully endorses the original-position-style-approach (and the veil of ignorance; see e.g. 1:4), and only ‘clarifies’ that it is a “device of representation” (25).

11 M. Sandel, Liberalism and the limits of justice, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1998), 119.

Now, the following objection might here be made against me: Isn't there something good about the project of finding ‘a middle way’ between dogmatic poles, at least from a Wittgensteinian point of view? Doesn't John McDowell for example do something like this in his Mind and World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1994), in seeking to ‘oscillate’ such as to find a way between empiricism and idealism? But there is all the difference in the world between seeking as Wittgensteinians (perhaps including McDowell) do to dissolve the nonsensical poles of most philosophical debates, and in that way find a way ‘between’ them, on the one hand, and merely seeking to compromise between them or find some (illusory, incoherent) middle ground between them, on the other. It is some version of the latter that Rawls appears to be doing; and that leaves him, I am claiming, falling badly between two stools.

12 A useful tool for gaining clarity on how to place Rawls in relation to other thinkers, and indeed on how to see how widely the implications of the critique in the present paper reaches, is provided by Stephen Darwall's edited collection, Contractarianism/Contractualism (Oxford: Wiley, 2002). The titular distinction is between (what he calls) “contractarianism”, where the focus is on the self-interest of the participants in the ‘contract’, and “contractualism”, where reasonableness and justifiability to others are what is central. The dialectic of my text hereabouts might be described as worrying whether Rawls and other liberals are (and can possibly be) really clear about which of these strategies/methodologies/philosophies they are pursuing. I think that this dilemma is particularly stark vis a vis “the original position”, and also vis a vis most libertarian thinking (The question for which is: what is the force of this thinking for others than oneself?).

13 For my Wittgensteinian critique of Chomsky, see “How I learned to love (and hate) Chomsky”, Noam, in Philosophical Writings 15 & 16 (2000/1), 2348.Google Scholar

14 This immediately raises the worry that I explore further below: that there is what Wittgenstein would see as a kind of constitutive unclarity, a ‘conjuring trick’, in the movement, via ‘reflective equilibrium’ ‘in’ ‘the original position’, from “widely accepted but weak premises to more specific conclusions” (Rawls, Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971; henceforth ToJ), 18).

15 Sandel tends to lean toward this interpretation of Rawls, in the latter part of his book. (Compare here also note 13 (169) to chapter 1 of Hutchinson's, PhilShame and Philosophy (London: Palgrave, 2008).CrossRefGoogle Scholar)

16 They have no knowledge even of the level of technology of the society that they are choosing principles for!

17 In short, they do not seem to escape having the metaphysically dubious status of Kant's ‘noumenal selves’, the legislators in the ‘Kingdom of Ends’. Little indeed has changed since the time of G/gods, indeed since Euthyphro's and Socrates' time.

Rawls, being anxious to avoid such dubiety, reinterprets the original position in his subsequent work (subsequent to Theory of Justice; all references to this work are to the original edition); I discuss this in some detail below.

18 See page 20 of Rawls' ToJ. Some argue that ‘reflective equilibrium’ undoes the Rawlsian claim to liberal neutrality; or alternatively that it is already inconsistent with any ambition for an ‘Archimedean point’. These interesting claims have been much-discussed elsewhere, and I cannot engage with them substantively here. I would, however, remind readers of the very subsidiary role that Rawls conceives ‘reflective equilibrium’ as having, in A Theory of Justice. One ought to beware of reading Rawls' later work back into his early work: the fact of the matter is that, in A Theory of Justice, the great majority of the text is occupied by rational choice theory, and it is ‘the original position’ and not ‘reflective equilibrium’ that mainly determines the content of such theory. (See e.g. 328 of ToJ.) One (admittedly somewhat crude!) indicator of this is as follows: ‘reflective equilibrium’ occupies only one and a bit lines in the index to the text; ‘the original position’ occupies fully 29 lines!

If it be asked why ToJ remains worthy of attention at all on its own, given Rawls' later move away from it, part of the answer is that it is because many avowed Rawlsians - notably for instance ‘left’ Rawlsians such as Brian Barry (see for instance his Culture and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2001)) and ‘Kantian’ Rawlsians such as Onora O'Neill (see for instance her “Constructivism in Rawls and Kant”, in The Cambridge Companion to Rawls) – continue to follow/support it, and do not much care for Rawls' later philosophy. (The situation thus neatly inverts that of Wittgenstein: virtually no-one doubts that the Tractatus is worthy of scholarship on its own terms, even though the majority of ‘Wittgensteinians’ do not care for Wittgenstein's early philosophy. …Their judgement is not, incidentally, one that I share – along with other ‘New Wittgensteinians’, I believe that Wittgenstein's later work shows progress relative to his early work less than is commonly believed – for I believe his early work to be far superior to the caricatural understanding of it that still tends to prevail. And, in support of this reading of later Wittgenstein as only improving to a certain limited degree over the (genius of) early Wittgenstein, I would of course cite the motto of the Investigations, my epigraph, above.)

19 Now, what if these “considered judgements” stably differ, reflecting an enduring pluralism? This is a key problem that Rawls's later work addresses: see below for some discussion.

20 See page 139 of ToJ. All the talk of “the parties” and of “agreement” is thus rather bizarre: if the Theory turns out to be about an individual reasoning. (The individual who reasons in the original position cannot, for Rawls, have an identity that matters. Once we think of the occupant of the original position as (if h/He were) a g/God, this indeed becomes pretty obvious: a g/God just reasons, unencumbered by an identity with others, and not, presumably, co-constitutive with any others. That, presumably, is what makes ‘h/Him’ a g/God.)

21 See the latter's “The priority of democracy to philosophy”, in Malachowski, A. (ed.), Reading Rorty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990)Google Scholar.

22 See again his essay in the Cambridge Companion to Rawls. (This of course explains why some ‘Rawlsians’ don't much like the later Rawls – it threatens to remove the sense of quasi-scientific explanation with which they hope to take on and beat their opponents. It also threatens to leave Rawls highly vulnerable to the charge of why he is supposedly entitled to regard himself as superior to or in any meaningful different from MacIntyre's characterization of him as merely the latest example of a liberal tradition. See the relevant chapters of After Virtue (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1981) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality (London: Duckworth, 1996).)

23 Take the following striking remark, from page 53 of Political Liberalism New York: Columbia, 1996 (all quotes from the 2nd (‘revised’) paperback edition): “To see justice as fairness as trying to derive the reasonable from the rational misinterprets the original position. Here I correct a remark in A theory of justice, where it is said that the theory of justice is a part of the theory of rational decision … this is simply incorrect.” Reading remarks such as this, one can see why some theoreticistically-minded Rawlsians were dismayed by the revisionary claims of later Rawls… It is, however, another issue, though one I shall not address here, whether remarks such as this one can be successfully followed up, in re-reading early Rawls, without simply jettisoning vast portions of (i.e. most of) the text of the Theory of Justice altogether, which later Rawls doesn't want to be doing.

24 See Rawls's “The idea of public reason revisited”, 573, in Rawls' Collected Papers (ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1999)).

25 Political Liberalism, 37.

26 See 319f. of Dreben, for amplification.

27 Harvard Law Review 107 (1994); 1765–1994. Furthermore, as Sandel argues (1782f.), and as I provide flesh for in my “How ought we to think of our relationship with future generations?” (forthcoming), there is pluralism too concerning the content of justice (and also concerning the reach and the centrality or otherwise of justice). Is it really remotely plausible to hold, as Rawls seems committed to holding, that the rejection of political liberalism amounts ipso facto to an unreasonable view, part of an unreasonable pluralism, concerning the proper nature of justice in societies such as ours? Is it remotely plausible that holding rival views about justice (to Rawls's) is less reasonable than holding rival views about morality, philosophy, and religion? As Sandel puts it at page 1788: “Is Milton Friedman's objection to redistributive policies a less “reasonable pluralism” than Pat Robertson's objection to gay rights?” (See especially also page 1783 of Sandel; and further discussion in the body of my text, below.)

28 I do so, in my “On Rawls's failure to preserve genuine (freedom of) religion”, forthcoming, and in chapter 3 (“Religion without belief”) of my Philosophy for Life (ed. M.A. Lavery; London: Continuum, 2007).

29 Summed up by Dreben thus: “under what conditions will someone properly accept a law as legitimate, even if he differs with it, even if he thinks it unjust” (op.cit., 317).

30 See my “On Rawls' failure to preserve genuine (freedom of) religion”, forthcoming.

31 See the argument of my “The case of John Rawls vs. the refuseniks”, Practical Philosophy, Vol. 10.1, (November 2009), 56–63. Much as Sandel argues in his Review of Political Liberalism that the later Rawls would have badly hobbled the Abolitionist movement and Lincoln's Presidency, so now Rawlsian liberalism is implicitly assisting the kind of hospitality our institutions show to environmental profligacy and theft from the future, to systematic animal torture and murder, etc. What this boils down to, in my opinion (and not just mine – see for instance n.35 below, and see Raymond Geuss's polemic against Rawls, in Philosophy and real politics (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 2008)Google Scholar), is this: Political liberalism is a small-c conservative doctrine. It is fine if you believe that our society has very roughly got things right. It is no good if you think that we need to tear up any of our basic institutions and start again, and place different values centrally. In this regard, the later Rawls provides a quasi-Hegelian apologia for the status quo, just like the early Rawls does.

Some will find this an odd take on Rawls, who is normally thought of as a figure on the Left. And indeed, it is of course true that there are many on the political Right who are unreasonably excluded from Rawls's ‘public reason’: such as Muslim and Christian Fundamentalists, and also probably some real libertarians. It is moreover arguably true that liberal thinkers of the past (and the framers of the U.S. Constitution) would have been astonished at the extent to which contemporary liberalism is prepared to accommodate a huge welfarist state. But this is not incompatible with my suggestion that Rawlsian liberalism is in the current political context a fundamentally conservative doctrine, which undercuts the possibility of radical political and social change.

However, I cannot support this claim further here; I do so, in my “The difference principle is not action-guiding”, forthcoming.

32 See Hutchinson's argument in his ‘samizdat’ unpublished manuscript, “Climate change and the liberal programme”.

33 Drawing on an analogy with Wittgenstein's anti-‘private-language’-considerations, I argue otherwise in my “Wittgenstein vs. Rawls” (op. cit.).

34 In Rush Rhees' sense of ‘conversation’ (or ‘discourse’), and possibly also in Oakeshott's (not merely in Rorty's); see Rhees', Wittgenstein and the possibility of discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988)Google Scholar.

35 Liberals and communitarians, Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift (2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 175. My own view, explored in my “An empirical refutation of the difference principle” (forthcoming), is that Rawls ought to worry much more about the social instability caused by inequality and ‘envy’ (i.e. caused by the difference principle). But I cannot explore this here.

36 This point is made at length in the fascinating, incendiary work of Paul Treanor on Rawls' Political Liberalism ( ):

Rawls has a specific view of what liberalism is for: essentially, long-term stability. His work is explicitly intended to provide a basis for transgenerational stability, a goal which he restates several times. At no time does Rawls consider whether transgenerational stability is a desirable goal: apparently he finds that self-evident:

‘…the problem of stability has played very little role in the history of moral philosophy … the problem of stability is fundamental to political philosophy…’ (Political Liberalism, Introduction, xvii)

“I also think the problem of stability is central: political philosophy should be about how to overcome stability. That is a value orientation opposite to that of John Rawls, but you will find no trace of it in Rawls' work. He writes as if no-one could think such a thing. Rawls also has a clear picture of what he wants to avoid: civil strife. Again he gives no justification for making the avoidance of civil strife a primary social goal. He simply assumes it to be self-evidently necessary that societies are like this.”

“In other words, Rawls is presenting what he often claims to avoid: a comprehensive quasi-religious doctrine. It is politically a conservative doctrine. It has two underlying principles: that stability is good in itself, and that society should be structured to avoid civil strife, and promote stability.” (Underlining added)

37 For argument to this conclusion, see 237–8 and 245 of Mulhall and Swift, op.cit. And this passage, from their “Rawls and communitarianism” (in S. Freeman, ed., op.cit.), 484: “There is, in short, no…principled difference between political liberalism and the comprehensive liberalisms it condemned as sectarian- no form of liberal anti-perfectionism that is not founded on a comprehensive and controversial vision of human well-being.” From friends of Rawls such as these, this is a devastating judgement. (For reinforcement, compare also the similar and similarly-devastating criticism of later Rawls on this point at page 307 of Cohen's, JerryRescuing justice and equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

38 And compare also Sandel's later remarks on later Rawls, for instance in his “A response to Rawls' Political Liberalism”, in the 2nd edition of his Liberalism and the limits of justice.

39 As depicted powerfully in the oeuvre of Zygmunt Bauman, as well as in and around chapter 14 of MacIntyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988)

40 Saying this would perhaps seem to ignore the important concession that Sandel can seem to make to Rawls at page 1770 of his Review of Political Liberalism (op. cit.). In n.17, Sandel points out that Part III of A Theory of Justice already contains a Kantian conception of the person. But Sandel then allows that, in Political Liberalism, “Rather than defend the Kantian conception of the person as a moral ideal, [Rawls] argues that liberalism as he conceives it does not depend on that conception of the person after all. The priority of the right over the good does not presuppose any particular conception of the person, not even the one advanced in Part III of A Theory of Justice.” However, and the remainder of Sandel's review bears this out, there is still a theory of the person presupposed: it is presupposed that persons are the kind of beings that can ‘tolerate’ and indeed embrace the kind of extreme split between public reason and private comprehensive conception(s) – the latter entirely conceived of as merely the person's interests – that the later Rawls demands. I think that they (we) do not and mostly cannot. Often, when we stand somewhere morally, philosophically, or religiously, we can and would do no other. As Sandel in effect points out towards the end of his Review, it would be so much the worse for our political culture, if this were not so.

41 Rawls is living in a time in which society splits apart more in the direction of individualism under the strains of ‘liberal capitalism’. The real trajectory of his work, I am suggesting, is a response to that change. His work is a symptom of its times, and in no way a remedy for their desperate defects. (In future work, I hope to follow the lead of Lohmann's, GeorgIndifferenz und Gesellschaft: Eine kritische Auseinanderzetzung mit Marx (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991)Google Scholar, which suggests that Marx's real topic in relation to the critique (and crisis) of capitalism is how it breeds indifference, by arguing that modern liberal polities and political philosophy turn tolerance (which can seem a good thing) into mutual indifference (which certainly is a bad thing – cf. Norman Geras' The contract of mutual indifference (London: Verso, 1981)) – and that the later Rawls is an apogee of this dangerous and mostly-unintended trend in human relations.)

42 At page 246 of “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14 (1985): 223–252.

43 Sandel suggests that this is really what is happening (at page 130 of his book).

44 Here I am thinking especially of Alasdair MacIntyre's work on the ‘tradition’ of liberalism: particularly of his three powerful post-After Virtue books.

45 See e.g. ToJ, 417. It would be of considerable interest to undertake a thorough compare-and-contrast exercise between Rawls's theory of the self and the Buddhist ‘theory’ of the (non-)self that has finally emerged into some prominence in the West over the last generation. In my “Three strikes against the difference principle” (forthcoming), I begin this task, suggesting that liberalism is actually a paradigm-case of the (anti-Buddhist) Western doctrine of the ‘hungry’ self, a doctrine that has been perhaps-terminally destructive of both solidarity and the planetary ecosystem, over the past few centuries.

46 “No society can, of course, be a scheme of cooperation which men enter voluntarily in a literal sense; each person finds himself placed at birth in some particular position in some particular society… Yet a society satisfying the principles of justice as fairness comes as close as a society can to being a voluntary scheme, for it meets the principles which free and equal persons would assent to under circumstances that are fair. In this sense its members are autonomous and the obligations they recognise self-imposed.” ToJ, 13; italics added.

47 This suspicion of mine is, I hope to have made clear, a well-motivated one; albeit hardly one that I can claim to have supported decisively through textual exegesis. (That would of course require a much longer piece of work.)

48 For directly analogous arguments with regard to the so-called human or social sciences, see 126–130 of my Kuhn (Oxford: Polity, 2002).

49 Though not, of course, all: for instance, ‘perfectionist’ liberals such as Joseph Raz will to some extent need separate treatment.

50 Thanks, for important points of clarification, to Juliet Floyd, Thomas Wallgren, Paul Johnston, an anonymous referee, and the editor of Philosophy. And thanks for painstaking readings of an earlier draft, to Angus Ross and Phil Hutchinson. However, these people do not of course share responsibility for the strong opinions expressed here.