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Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism: On the Epistemology of Justice by Eric Thomas Weber (review)
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Reviewed by
Eric Thomas Weber
Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism: On the Epistemology of Justice
London: Continuum, 2010. 168pp. Index.

In Rawls, Dewey and Constructivism Eric Thomas Weber focuses on the epistemological basis of John Rawls’ political philosophy and discusses such basis through two different lenses. Firstly, relying on Tom Rockmore’s recent interpretation of Kant, Weber qualifies Rawls’ work against the background of Kant’s epistemology and its tensions between constructivism and representationalism. While the term “constructivism” here applies broadly to epistemological positions holding ‘the objects of knowledge to be affected or conditioned by the knower’, “representationalism” covers any epistemological approach taken as ‘requiring an analysis of the relation of a representation to an independent object … as it objectively is’ in the moral as well as in the physical realm (p. 1). Despite Rawls’ commitment to constructivism (most distinctively in Political Liberalism), Weber takes pains to [End Page 476] identify tensions between constructivism and representationalism in Rawls’ epistemology. Secondly, Weber launches a criticism of Rawls’ lingering representationalism by drawing on John Dewey’s philosophy which Weber sees as containing a more consistent and thoroughgoing constructivism. The aim of the book is thus to offer ‘a Deweyan criticism of John Rawls’ constructivism’ (p. 5). Before assessing some selected strains of this criticism I give a brief overview of the various chapters of the book.

After an introductory chapter on the overall structure of the arguments in the book, the second chapter considers Social Contract Theory as an historical and philosophical background for Rawls’ Theory of Justice, taking account also of Hume’s, Hegel’s and Dewey’s criticisms of Social Contract Theory. The third chapter compares Rawls’ and Dewey’s forms of constructivism and distinguishes both from David Brink’s recent form of moral realism. Although Weber takes both Rawls and Dewey as rejecting that we can have moral knowledge of mind-independent objects, he sees Rawls as preserving certain rigid conceptual requirements and priorities (such as that of the right over the good) that are foreign to Dewey and other pragmatists, and that on Weber’s interpretation are due to a lingering Kantian representationalism. The fourth chapter provides a Deweyan criticism of Rawls’s Kantian prioritization of freedom in conceptualizing and defining personhood. Taking the latter as a mark of Rawls’ dependence on (though not overt commitment to) a noumenal theory of persons, Weber proposes a Deweyan constructivist alternative centering on ‘phenomenal persons’ and on ‘the intelligent development of persons as a crucial political endeavor’ (p. 89). In the fifth chapter Weber explores how tensions between constructivism and representationalism in Rawls’ basic concepts of The Original Position and of Reflective Equilibrium bear on standards of objectivity in Rawls’ political philosophy. In response to such perceived tensions, and inspired by Dewey’s notion of inquiry, Weber sketches a more thorough-going constructivist notion of objectivity. The sixth and last chapter distinguishes Dewey’s theory of education as a more profound constructivist alternative to Rawls’ account of education, stressing the centrality of education in Dewey’s political philosophy.

In assessing Weber’s critical Deweyan strategy I concentrate on two of his applications of the latter. In chapter four Weber uses Dewey’s text “Philosophies of Freedom” to criticize Rawls’ Kantian approach of taking freedom as a defining concept for understanding moral responsibility as well as personhood. As Weber shows, Dewey accounts for moral responsibility without leaning on a Kantian notion of freedom. Rather than providing an abstract philosophical analysis of antecedent conditions of action Dewey focuses on future consequences of actual moral and legal practices of holding [End Page 477] people responsible. Through being held responsible by others one may change one’s future conduct through developing habits more responsive to a variety of conditions and to the needs and claims of others. Hence, Weber rightly stresses, Dewey’s ethics focuses on the moral development and educability of the self, not on freedom as ‘antecedent to moral situations … [and] to moral experience’ (p. 76). Such account of human selves has implications for political philosophy: selves involved in lifelong process of education become the centrepiece of a reconstruction of legal and democratic institutions, rather than idealized persons to which freedom (and...