Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

The concept of 'public reason': A reading of Rawls through Kant, Rousseau and Smith

Igersheim Herrade, CNRS and University of Strasbourg
Ege Ragip, University of Strasbourg
Walraevens Benoît , University of Caen

The purpose of this paper is to attempt to identify the kind of process which gives rise to public reason through the analysis of the works of four great authors: Smith, Rousseau, Hegel and Rawls. Kant and Rawls have put into light the concept of public reason. We claim that the analyses of Hegel, Smith, and Rousseau allow us a better understanding of this concept. First we refer to the Hegelian opposition between State and Civil society. Second we refer to the twofold aspect of the Smithian impartial spectator and show that the interactions put forth by Smith between the “man within the breast” and the “real spectator” are indeed able to explain how and why public reason can emerge. Third the concept of general will developed by Rousseau will be also very helpful to understand the specific status of the impartial spectator. The first occurrence of “public reason” is to be found in the famous article of Kant, What is Enlightenment (1784). Rawls says that Kant’s afore-mentioned text was a source of inspiration for him in his analyses on the formation of the concept of public reason. On the one hand, public reason is a logic which transcends particular or private rationalities. On the other hand, public reason is the means, the cognitive instrument of which individuals make use in order to define the fundamental liberties and rights citizens are supposed to share in a democratic society. At the same time public reason is a result and an instrument. This apparent paradox constitutes all the complexity of the question of public reason and blurs the conditions of its emergence. We believe that resorting to Hegel's, Smith's and Rousseau's major concepts may help us to analyse the mentioned paradox the concept of public reason harbors.


Keywords: Economics and Philosophy, impartial spectator, public reason

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