A Rawlsian Foray into Criticism


 From Rawls

The Lectures on Political Philosophy by John Rawls outlines certain important bullet-points regarding Political Philosophy

Bullet Point 1. “What is the audience of political philosophy? To whom is it addressed? Since the audience will vary from one society to another depending on its social structure and its pressing problems, what is the audience in a constitutional democracy? Thus, we begin by looking at our own case… Surely, in a democracy the answer to this question is: all citizens generally…”

Bullet Point 2. “What are its claims to authority?… Political philosophy can only mean the tradition of political philosophy; and in a democracy this tradition is always the joint work of writers and of their readers. This work is joint, since it is writers and readers together who produce and cherish works of political philosophy over time and it is always up to voters to decide whether to embody their ideas in basic institutions… Thus, in a democracy, writers in political philosophy have no more authority than any other citizen, and should claim no more. I take this to be perfectly obvious and as not needing any comment, were it not that the contrary is occasionally asserted. I mention the matter only to put aside misgivings about this. Of course, one might say: political philosophy hopes for the credentials of, and implicitly invokes the authority of, human reason…”

Bullet Point 3. “At what point and in what way does political philosophy enter into and affect the outcome of democratic politics? the Platonic view, for instance, is the view that political philosophy ascertains the truth about justice and the common good. It then seeks a political agent to realize that truth in institutions, irrespective of whether that truth is freely accepted, or even understood. On this view, political philosophy’s knowledge of the truth authorizes it to shape, even to control, the outcome of politics, by persuasion and force if necessary. Witness Plato’s philosopher king, or Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard. Here the claim to truth is understood as carrying with it not only the claim to know, but also the claim to control and to act politically… Now, to say that a liberal political philosophy is Platonic (as defined above) is surely incorrect. Since liberalism endorses the idea of democratic government, it would not try to overrule the outcome of everyday democratic politics. So long as democracy exists, the only way that liberal philosophy could properly do that would be for it to influence some legitimate constitutionally established political agent, and then persuade this agent to override the will of democratic majorities.”

In Reply to Rawls

Let’s begin by examining the premises of these 3 statements in reference to aesthetic criticism

Reply 1. Who is the audience of aesthetic criticism. Now, unlike political philosophy, Art is generally seen as a luxury. It bears no pressing need on the survival of our society, and many past societies have even survived with the repression of it. Yet, whilst Art itself is not a critical matter, we find that, generally, everyone has a sense of Aesthetics, and, surprisingly so, we find that Aesthetics is gradually and gradually contaminating the ordinary discourse of our society. Marketing, and Public Relations, for example, is seen as a form of aesthetic applied to practical purposes. The fact is that there is never a situation in society that can be fully separated from aesthetics. We would like to think of ourselves as having the ability to detach to a purely rational view, but this is quite impossible. Thus, with this, we can say for certain, that although Art is not necessarily accessible to everyone, Aesthetic Criticism, as a whole, is a medium that concerns everyone. Thus Aristotle stressed in his Rhetoric, that beyond Logos, the rational aspect of speech, Pathos and Ethos were just as important. Elections are won more with aesthetics than anything else. I am using the term in its broadest sense, and thus it includes any matter that has to do with a body subjected to the expressive affect of another body.

Reply 2. Likewise, in Aesthetics, generally we find the idea of De gustibus non est disputandum. This, though, tends to clash with Rawls’ description. It turns Aesthetics, more than a democracy, into an individualistic battle. The question at the center of everything then, is, can Aesthetics ever be subject to rational grounds of inquiry? I believe that, like anything in the world, it can be subject to a spectrum, lying between Subjectivity and Objectivity. The Subjective transfers into the Objective from experience. The tools of Art are accessible to anyone. Its tropes, structures, and narratives, can be understood by everyone. But it takes practice to pinpoint a stereotype from an archetype from a subtle parody. Furthermore, a well-made plot that follows logical necessity can be distinguished from a bad haphazard plot.

A difficulty occurs when Symbolism is introduced. Something that seems haphazard on the surface may possibly reach out to a second-logic of expression, as it were. The Old Man and the Sea is the story about a giant fish, but has various analogues to Christ and it ties in with the themes of struggle and all that.

Frequently people have oriented themselves around the idea that Art expresses originality. This is quite untrue in the same way that Political Philosophy orients itself around originality. Rawls outlines that although every citizen is subject to his own rationality, there are core texts to peruse, and one finds himself quite crippled when lacking this foothold. Likewise, the entire history of the human race has experimented with what works, in terms of Art, and its quite arrogant to presume that a person does not need that. But lets return to the concept of originality. Does Art require novelty? I would like to believe that, with anything a man does, if he were to do it forever he would find himself utterly soul-less. Since Aesthetics is not subject to routine necessity that permeates in the banality of the everyday, we must presume that a person would want a luxury to contain within it a certain aspect of interestingness or entertainment.

But when dealing with affectation and aesthetics, which is about what a person is susceptible to, rather than what is the best course of decision in running a state, there is not really any referents other than the self. A person who has an empty childhood will be overwhelmingly drawn to works of nostalgia. A person who has a bitter life will be drawn to comedies. Even with the logical sequencing I described above, some people may prefer Realism, and others, Symbolism, depending on circumstance.

Yet, if we were to find an objective marker for Aesthetic Criticism, then clearly it would have to be endurance through differing circumstances. If the polity of aesthetics is as fickle as we presume, then a work of robustness must, like an Immortal Emperor, waddle through the streets proclaiming its own Eternal Glory. Yet this also raises a number of questions. Then why Critique? Why not just silently let time decide all? And certain works have proven to be robust despite only working for certain scenarios. People read old Gothic Novels and Detective Novels despite these works only working to a fixed kind of sensibility. After a person discovers the mystery, you’d think that they’d condemn the book forever, and such novelty can be gleaned of a Wikipedia page, so why are certain books, like And Then There Were None, still quite read to this day?

Do we come to the conclusion, because of the amazing lack of coherence, that there is no authority? So contrary to the democratic equal, we have the anarchistic equal, which is less one of public equality, than one of sniveling selfishness. What, then, shall come of this?

The answer is this: As varied as the affectations may be, there is still a baseline universality within human psychology. Furthermore, although the tastes are separated, we can still logically come up with an explanation for such tastes (A re-iteration of events. But the problem is to really convey that, one has to write it like Literature itself. This is where Criticism and Art intersect: when the Criticism also doubles as an artistic platform itself). To me, such a criticism is possible, that attacks the logical premises a work is based on, and postulates the certain pathways leading up to the affect.

Two examples of reviewers who diverge in both matters are Dan Schneider, and Sarah Horrocks. The former is a critic who believes in an absolute objectivity of Art. He even uses a numerical scoring system. The latter is a critic that uses art as an exploration for her own self-biases and psychoses, and uses it to commentate on this strange phenomena of ‘Trash-Art’, that is, works of Art that seem to deviate from any normal human sensibility.

The best critic would consider both. In the context of universal human psychology, and in the context of particular human biases. Thus aesthetic criticism is an exercise of universality.

Reply 3. The third idea is this. Is Art or Beauty Platonic? Is there a definite form to it that exists in transcendent space? If there is then would not the polity of Aesthetic criticism have to be ruled by the Artist-King?

As I have commented above. Aesthetics is this strange combination of logical structure, symbolic communication, and personal affectation. Furthermore these three aspects tend to be entwined in such a way as to disallow for any properly objective enquiry to be adopted. Dan Schneider believes that Aesthetics is Communication. And although the arrows are divergent, there is still better and worse ways to communicate. So he believes that objectively, the Art that communicates to the most universal values in the most resonant ways is the objectively highest art. And, as a corollary, he separates personal affectation from his criticism.

Yet I believe this to be inadequate. I use his framework in terms of objectivity, but I don’t see why the other portion must be expunged. We value the things that are personal to ourselves, no matter how small the view is. Rather than cutting these out, a critic, in my idea, should be completely inclusive of all possibilities of reading a work. Now I am not advocating for a kind of absolute subjectivity that dissipates all meaning and thematic interest into empty air, but at the very least we must acknowledge the divergences that occur within the range of possibilities.


In his Lectures on Political Philosophy. Rawls looks at all the philosophies outlined in the best possible light. He views a Pessimistic Monarchist like Hobbes in the historical context, and as a precursor to setting up the ‘rational man’ that would later characterize the rational agent in Economics.

Likewise, my ideal criticism must be dual-fold, in that it looks at the work in the best possible light, before subjecting the work to a higher reference, the tribunal of universality and objectivity.

Yet writing in such a style always, is quite boring, so these are just one of many various tricks up my sleeve. Criticism as Art itself. Criticism as Self-Discovery. Criticism as Objective Approach. All these are possibilities. Mixed-Media Literature and Criticism in the form of illustrative short stories, or satires, is also a possibility. I am afraid I cannot always be a tight-necked critic. I am primarily a writer. I think creation is sacrosanct to criticism. As such. Well. This blog is a blog for various stupid shit that comes to my head at times.

Yea. Let’s go with that.