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  • Gamwell on “The Comprehensive Question”:A Rawlsian Critique
  • Daniel A. Dombrowski (bio)

I. Introduction

John Rawls is widely acknowledged to be the most influential political philosopher of the twentieth century. But the implications of his views for both religious belief and religious believers are hotly contested. Some think that he is largely on the right track, indeed that he solves many of the traditional (and bloody) problems regarding the relationship between politics and religion.1 Others are critical of his approach.2 Perhaps the most insightful of these critics of Rawls, who argues from the perspective of a metaphysical view or a comprehensive religious doctrine, is Franklin Gamwell. It will be the purpose of the present article to both order Gamwell’s criticisms of Rawls, which are spread across seven books that span thirty-two years, and to offer a Rawlsian response to Gamwell’s criticisms.

Some terminological issues should be treated at the outset. By “comprehensive doctrine” Rawls means an overall view of what is valuable in life and that covers all recognized values and virtues in a rather precisely articulated system. One reason he uses this label rather than “religion” is to make it clear that, in addition to religious comprehensive doctrines, there are also nonreligious, or at least nontheistic, comprehensive doctrines affirmed by many reasonable citizens in contemporary democratic societies.

Rawls’s “comprehensive doctrine” has at least a family resemblance to Gamwell’s “comprehensive question” or the “comprehensive order of reflection,” where human beings question and reflect on what the meaning to human life [End Page 27] is in the context of the wider cosmos. Rawls’s “comprehensive doctrine” is also similar to what Gamwell calls a “metaphysical view,” but this latter designation also has a more precise meaning for Gamwell. To be specific, metaphysics is the critical study of what must be the case regarding everything that exists. Gamwell’s metaphysics is transcendental in the sense that it studies what is the case in every experience of the real, rather than concerning itself with what is outside of or beyond experience.

Thus, it makes sense from a Rawlsian point of view to say that Gamwell’s metaphysics is but one among many comprehensive doctrines in a contemporary liberal democracy. Gamwell does not accept this characterization of his position, but not because of any religious intolerance or claim to religious exceptionalism on his part. This is why his thought is so very interesting and poses a challenge to Rawlsian theory.

That is, Gamwell defends a view of metaphysics that purports to stand above the conflicting comprehensive doctrines in contemporary democratic societies, hence he implies an exemption from the restrictions Rawls places on comprehensive doctrines. In effect, there are two different senses of “metaphysics” that have to be distinguished. Metaphysics-1 refers to any general worldview that orders values and virtues and is roughly synonymous with Rawls’s “comprehensive doctrine,” whereas metaphysics-2 refers to the study of the really abstract and ubiquitous features of all reality. Or again, metaphysics-2 refers to the discipline that discovers and articulates the general ideas that are indispensable to the analysis of everything that happens. Gamwell uses “metaphysics” in both senses, although his primary interest is metaphysics-2, the type of metaphysics that is the subject of the above-mentioned exemption. While metaphysics-1 roughly corresponds to Rawls’s “comprehensive doctrine,” it is only metaphysics-2 that is truly comprehensive, as Gamwell insightfully sees things.

Readers of Gamwell’s books have to come to terms with two main areas: first, his view, derived from Charles Hartshorne, that if a metaphysical-2 claim is true, it is true about everything; and second, his view that there is a tight connection between metaphysics-2 and political philosophy. I will pull these two areas apart. Enthusiastic (Hartshornian) support for Gamwell as a metaphysician does not necessarily mean the same for Gamwell’s thesis that a response to “the comprehensive question” is integral to any effort to theoretically understand what a just society would be like. My (Rawlsian) critique of Gamwell as a democratic political philosopher is nonetheless compatible with the belief that he is the most insightful thinker to date of those who think...


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