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Political theory and social practices: G.A. Cohen, Rawls, Habermas and the problem of self-grounding

Gledhill, James (2010) Political theory and social practices: G.A. Cohen, Rawls, Habermas and the problem of self-grounding. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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In a time of transitions, post-Rawlsian political philosophy is itself in transition, engaged in a methodological dispute regarding the relationship between political theory and changing social practices. This thesis enters this dispute through engaging with John Rawls’s philosophical project and the two leading but contrasting critiques of Rawls’s constructivist methodology. I first seek to rescue constructivism from G.A. Cohen’s critique of its fact-dependence, but secondly argue with Jürgen Habermas for a shift from constructivism to reconstructivism. Part I establishes a theoretical framework. I analyse competing paradigms of the relationship between normative principles and social practices and situate them in relation to the problem of self-grounding. This is the methodological problem of how, in accordance with a conception of freedom as autonomy, philosophy can find normative foundations within existing social practices. While Cohen rejects this problem in arguing for a choice between realism and utopianism, Rawls’s realistic utopianism and Habermas’s utopian realism are both driven by the problem of self-grounding. Part II defends Rawls’s constructivism against Cohen’s criticism of its restricted focus on the basic structure of society and fact-dependence. Part III analyses and critiques the development of Rawls’s project. It analyses Rawls’s concern with the problem of stability and critiques from a Habermasian perspective the approach to the problem of self-grounding this represents. Part IV argues that post-Rawlsian deliberative democrats who have sought to combine ideas from Rawls and Habermas also fail to adequately address this methodological problem. Part V engages with Habermas on his own terms. I first analyse Habermas’s reconstruction of the tension between facticity and validity in morality and politics. On this basis, I conclude that Habermas’s procedural reconstructivism allows him to more successfully address the problem of self-grounding than Rawls’s substantive constructivism, and assess the implications of this conclusion in theory and practice.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2010 James Gledhill
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JC Political theory
Sets: Departments > Government
Supervisor: Flikschuh, Katrin

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