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The estranged self : alienation, personhood and politics in John Rawls Philips, Menaka


This paper argues that John Rawls presents two conflicting notions of the self in his theory of justice, one political, the other metaphysical. Though Rawls claims that his theory of justice utilizes and protects his political notion of the self, his work in fact relies upon the metaphysical persona. Rawls's political conception of the self articulates a socially, historically and civically grounded view of the person and, as I argue, is a productive notion of personhood for political theory. In contrast, his metaphysical entity bears no resemblance to concrete human selves, and is therefore a highly problematic element of his work. Standing critiques of Rawls have located the metaphysical or unencumbered notion of the self in his works, and have presented challenging arguments against it However, Rawls's political conception of the self remains largely unexamined by his critics. The lack of attention given to his political self is due, as I argue, to Rawls's inability to support or develop this persona within his own project. I suggest that the conceptual frameworks Rawls utilizes to build his theory of justice, namely the original position, the overlapping consensus, and public reason, effectively strip down his political conception of the self and replace it with an abstract entity. My analysis employs Karl Marx's notion of alienation and his socio-historical approach to politics. I use Marx's conception of alienation to identify what happens to political selves within Rawls's project. Further, I identify similarities between Marx's view of humanity and Rawls's political self concerning their political implications, and questions of class and social justice. In essence, I argue that Rawls's theory of justice opposes his valuable but submerged theory of the person; his approach to obtaining a just society violates the political selves that he claims to defend. However, while his theory of justice cannot be sustained for these reasons, Rawls's theory of the self should be recovered and its relevance to discourses of justice re-assessed. As a critique of Rawls's failure to support his theory of the self, this paper, I hope, may be an initial step towards such a recovery.

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