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John Rawls: Secularized Calvinism, Moralized Protestant Vocationalism
A postmodern critique of a significant book on political philosophy.
By Michael Weinstein
Editor's Note: The following is a review of a book by John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press), 1993, from a postmodern perspective. The review was written twenty-five years ago, the year the book was written. Postmodernism was especially the rage during the 1990s and constitutes a strong critique of "modernism" and everything associated with it. When I read Political Liberalism I had a similar reaction to the reviewer in that the book is so full of references and footnotes about every last person who had made any comment on Rawls' earlier book, A Theory of Justice. But the basic point of the book made sense to me, that liberal constitutional democracy is not a form of government capable of or designed to adjudicate among the differences of comprehensive religious belief systems. It is designed rather at some lesser level to be able to establish some rules for people with different basic beliefs to live together in the same community. Since, in 2009, the influence of Rawls work is still being felt, it is interesting to look back to see this strong critique of his whole philosophy. The following was published in an early version of the postmodern journal C-Theory. The review is interesting for a journal of public theology which wants to try to ascertain the role of the Protestant idea of vocation.
For John Rawls, his Political Liberalism is a coming to terms with what he has learned in the two decades since the appearance of his academically paradigmatic (academic monument) A Theory Of Justice. The Rawlsian retro-move, in A Theory Of Justice, of recurring to pre-Rousseau contract theory and giving it a Kantian gloss, created a humongous Rawls industry, judging from the footnotes filling Political Liberalism in which Rawls carefully notes and acknowledges anything he could get his hands on that has ever been said or written by anyone about A Theory Of Justice, whether in print, in class or conference, in correspondence, or in private conversation. Political Liberalism is also, then, a massive ego-trip in which John Rawls becomes a center of attention trapping the normal-science worker ants in his paradigm with gobs of condescending and self-important gratitude delivered in a tone of humility. Welcome to Rawlsiana.
Don't expect to find Rawls engaging other paradigms than his own. He has been devoting himself for twenty years to the industry that TJ started, processing its feedback. He has been entrapped completely in a self- referential Rawls-loop that TJ produced and to which he has leased his mind. Political Liberalism is a deeply narcissistic text — philosophically narcissistic: the narcissism of the Rawls industry is reflected in a recursive mirroring through Rawls as the industry's founder and leading guru.
PL is also a deeply resentful text. As Rawls threw himself into the service of TJ he had to confront the binds and wounds of micro-philosophy (normal science), which had gotten down with its accustomed legalistic zeal to analyzing each particular phrasing of each Rawlsian notion, each operation tying down another Rawlsian limb. To write a book that becomes an industry means to be Gulliver in Lilliput. No more than Gulliver could Rawls avoid being hog-tied.
PL is a self-avowed strategic retreat, a recline from the moral posture in TJ to a more supine (crypto- moral) "political" stance. Rawls is now sure that our views of life's meaning and significance are plural and, even within the bounds of "reasonable" views, cannot be adjudicated by reason. For Rawls, if that is so, then the point of moral-political philosophy is to reveal the internal ("political") grounds for a democratic-constitutional order in which seekers after the good who are on different paths agree to disagree and to provide one another with more-or-less equal opportunity to pursue the good life as each of them understands it, consistent with the maintenance of the democracy of "reasonable" men (a very conventional picture from the folio of American liberalism).
The ghostly abstraction from TJ of the reasonable man who chooses the rules of the politico-social game under a veil of ignorance as to where he will actually stand in the game remains as the dead power that motivates PL, but now that specter haunts a more restricted fantasy world. Whatever moral utopianism that there was in TJ has been lanced and has ceded to a retracted (crypto-moral) "political" utopianism. Our "comprehensive doctrines" about the meaning of life are solipsistic — we share only the wisdom of our fallibility: we are best off being tolerant of each other's life-commitments and it would also be reasonable (in terms of the form that selfishness takes under the veil of ignorance) to make sure that individuals have some modicum of control over how they lead their lives.
PL is a deeply resentful text. As a retreat into Lilliput, it is a sacrificial act. Each worker ant in the footnotes is another Lilliputian tying down the moral idealist Rawls. The just and fair society begins to resemble a Whig gentleman's club. PL is a work of a reclining liberalism that has already crashed. It is the after-image of dead liberalism projected in the halls of academe. John Rawls — King, Captive, and Sacrifice of "his" industry.
For a habitue of Rawlsiana PL is surely a treat of treats, an encyclopedia of all of the Rawls-questions that have been raised for two decades along with the master's commentaries on them. The encyclopedic seriousness of the work is underscored by its index which "contains, in addition to the standard kinds of entries, a brief analytical description of the contents of each section in the text, with the name of the entry based on the corresponding section's title in the table of contents." (p.373) This index is a guidebook for getting around the special conceptions of Rawlsian discourse. For fans and the industry PL is Disneyworld after Disneyland. It is not clear, though, that the book will renew the Rawls discourse. It just might be its death knell, its exhaustion.
For someone who is not a devotee of Rawlsiana, PL, after the Introduction and Lecture I (out of six), "Fundamental Ideas," is a crashing bore. Over and over again the same Rawlsian terminology is brought to bear on the internal structure of a liberal "political" utopia in retreat and recline. Rawls's utopia looks like the following:
We enter his little rarified hothouse world of reasonable men thinking out how to live with each other. They have to agree on some ground rules. They find that they have different, perhaps incompatible, metaphysical and even axiological presuppositions, all of which, they all assent, a reasonable man might hold, even if each one is convinced of the truth or desirability of his own presuppositions. They figure out that they should tolerate each other and provide themselves as a whole with the opportunities necessary to sustain their solidarity of reasonable men (in this ideal world it is, of course, reasonable to be reasonable in the Rawlsian way) and to follow their own paths in life. The above is, in a nutshell, what Rawls means by "political liberalism."
We could also call it the ideology of the (interminably) (Last) Puritan, another document in the secularized Calvinistic line of American thought defined by Santayana in Character And Opinion In The United States, only now academically processed and mummified, an after-image of Calvinism, in which the Protestant category of vocation is simulated in a play-world of reasonable men who privilege a defensively moral point of view lying somewhere between Hobbes and Kant.
It is here, in the territory of "constitutional democracy," the bastion of reason(ableness), that dogmatism breaks out. Moralized Protestant Vocationalism (politics as the defense of the freedom to pursue a moral vocation) functions in just as exclusive a way as does a "comprehensive doctrine" to regulate society — it is itself a form of life and calling it "political" rather than "comprehensive" doesn't change that fact. Rawlsian liberalism provides the freedom of life-style solipsism and the discipline of civic duty grounded in what he and his reasonable interlocutors consider to be "reasonable." Rawls often adopts the rhetoric of chumming up to the reader by using the form of address "you and me" (as reasonable people). The reader is invited into the club, to contribute to the industry.
Let's return to all of those footnotes, to all of those names of interlocutors, most of them not well known, who are acknowledged by Rawls. This profusion of acknowledgements is the most interesting feature of PL, its point of originality, its most symptomatic feature. Moralized Protestant Vocationalism isn't new at all. It's familiar from Josiah Royce's "loyalty to loyalty" and William James's "will to believe," only now American philosophy is simulating its moral quest in political virtuality. So what about those acknowledgements? Here are some suggestions: They instantiate Rawls's reputation. But why does his reputation need that kind of instantiation? Perhaps Rawls feels at some level that he is a fraud — his will to believe in his industry is, perhaps, bolstered by recalling how many people are in the industry. Maybe it's just a matter of where the benefits are. Reclining liberalism has only commentaries to sustain it. Politically, moderate-welfare liberalism had died by the time TJ came out more than a generation ago, replaced by liberal fascism.
July 28, 1993
Michael A. Weinstein is a professor of political science at Purdue University, and is the author of 19 books including, most recently, with Deena Weinstein, Postmodernized Simmel (Routledge, 93).
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