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Life as Art

Rawlsian Affirmation of Difference 2

Political Construction of the Citizen

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons

Individual vs Citizen

John Rawls’ theory is not dependent on a thick ontological or epistemological vision of the individual.

While liberal theory has tended to highlight the individual as the primary unit of focus vis a vis the state, Rawls makes no claim as to what the truth of the individual might be, nor does his theory rely on any such vision.

His theory depends on the citizen qua citizen of the liberal state, a thin theory of humanity characterized as interdependent:

Each citizen’s claim to be free and equal is in connection only with a construction of the ordering of political and social institutions.

The theory does not rely on an atomistic view of the individual, nor a social or communitarian one.

Constructing the Citizen

The citizen is purely a construction for purposes of understanding how society might be organized.

The citizen is an immanent creation, situated in the immanent field; engaged in and concerned with the ordering of society vis a vis the freedom to pursue the specific conception of the good that citizen may hold.

The parties to the original position are knowledgeable that citizens have conceptions of the good, but knowledge of the possession of any particular conception is deliberately denied.

No thick theory of the individual is determinate of the principles of justice selected.

The citizen is endowed with public reason, the ability to deliberate rationally on the justice of the ordering of political institutions. There is no identity here based on or enmeshed in a transcendental image of thought.

Immanence over Transcendence

Indeed, Rawls has come under intense scrutiny for constructing what some might refer to as a stickman approach to a theory of justice. But this is intentional: Rawls throughout keeps the discourse immanent.

He, like Deleuze, understands that reference to transcendence can easily defeat the political autonomy he constructs; one based purely on practical reasoning in a strictly political context.

Practical reasoning in relation to the ordering of society is coherentist.

Deliberation is based on a consistency that emerges through reflection of the collective circumstances and experiences of human society at various levels of generality.

Fallibility over Perfectionism

Practical reasoning in this context is not deterministic. Citizens qua citizens do not possess a perfectionist view of reason. They are endowed with an understanding of justice, but that reasoning is fallible, subject to disagreement and change.

Practical reason is borne of desire, and informed by all of the unfinished perceptions, affectations and intuitions of human beings as they evolve and become.

Our understanding of justice evolves with history as duration.

Rawls recognizes that our thoughts regarding the liberal state change; the meaning we attach to a pluralist society is subject to change. And justice as fairness is only one approach to justice that is possible within our current understanding of the liberal political state.

The original position is a procedural thought experiment in political constructivism; reflective equilibrium nothing more than open practical thought, fallible and incremental.

The original position is not an abstraction of the individual as the carrier of rights. It is a thought experiment that sets up a procedurally just scenario for deliberating on how society might be organized.

A conception of the citizen that possesses public reason is independent of comprehensive view of individual, and any perfectionist ethic.

The two moral powers, understood purely in terms of the ability to conceive of the just society, and the ability to pursue one’s own version of the good, are indeterminate vis a vis any particular comprehensive ethic of the good. There is no duty of public reason beyond the sphere of office and engagement with the political system.

Evolution over Identity

There is only minimal identity at work here, which is hypothetically set up in aid of fostering deliberations in relation to a society that embraces freedom, equality and fairness; or put another way, fostering independence, creativity and the affirmation of life itself.

The two moral powers amount to nothing more than an acknowledgement of the will to be free and the will to create within the social formation of the liberal state.

The freedom to exercise our private ability to create and experiment and affirm life is explicated in a social context in which we respect the ability of others to do the same.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



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Tomas Byrne

Tomas Byrne


Jagged Tracks Music, Process Philosophy, Progressive Ethics, Transformative Political Theory, Informed Thrillers, XLawyer