Reflective Equilibrium from a Wittgensteinian Perspective

Philosophia 49 (4):1631-1649 (2021)


The lingering mystery of John Rawls’s reflective equilibrium is that its nature is unclear. Rawls at times suggests he is merely describing people’s conceptions of justice, whereas at other times he implies that his reflective equilibrium is a way to justify his conception of justice. Faced with seemingly conflictual passages, most scholars privilege the justificatory ones. However, I argue that this is not an effective strategy because understanding how the descriptive and justificatory aspects of reflective equilibrium fit together is the key to unlocking its nature and actual force. This paper compares Rawls’s method to the philosophical method of later Wittgenstein in his so-called private language argument to argue how the descriptive and justificatory aspects of Rawls’s reflective equilibrium fit together. In my view, both philosophers’ methods are descriptive clarifications of our unclear conceptions. However, their clarification is not just descriptive; they also aim at their readers achieving enlightenment. Importantly, I argue, that enlightenment offers us justification of the conception resulting from their clarification. Hence, their methods are justificatory as well. Finally, I claim that this way of understanding reflective equilibrium makes us realise how Rawls could respond to a prominent objection to it.

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References found in this work

Being Realistic About Reasons.T. M. Scanlon - 2014 - Oxford University Press.
Political Liberalism.J. Rawls - 1995 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 57 (3):596-598.
Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory.John Rawls - 1930 - Journal of Philosophy 77 (9):515-572.
Ethics and Intuitions.Peter Singer - 2005 - The Journal of Ethics 9 (3-4):331-352.

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