Reflective Equilibrium from a Wittgensteinian Perspective


The lingering mystery of John Rawls’s reflective equilibrium is that its nature is unclear. Rawls at times suggests he is merely describing people’s conceptions of justice, whereas at other times he implies that his reflective equilibrium is a way to justify his conception of justice. Faced with seemingly conflictual passages, most scholars privilege the justificatory ones. However, I argue that this is not an effective strategy because understanding how the descriptive and justificatory aspects of reflective equilibrium fit together is the key to unlocking its nature and actual force. This paper compares Rawls’s method to the philosophical method of later Wittgenstein in his so-called private language argument to argue how the descriptive and justificatory aspects of Rawls’s reflective equilibrium fit together. In my view, both philosophers’ methods are descriptive clarifications of our unclear conceptions. However, their clarification is not just descriptive; they also aim at their readers achieving enlightenment. Importantly, I argue, that enlightenment offers us justification of the conception resulting from their clarification. Hence, their methods are justificatory as well. Finally, I claim that this way of understanding reflective equilibrium makes us realise how Rawls could respond to a prominent objection to it.

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  1. 1.

    See Stern (2011) for an excellent survey.

  2. 2.

    References to Wittgenstein (2009) are made using section numbers.

  3. 3.

    I use the words “metaphysical” and “metaphysician” only to refer to Wittgenstein’s targets, and I do not assume that they have substantive characteristics beyond that application.

  4. 4.

    See Kanterian (2017) for more on the root metaphysical ideas that are targets of the private language argument.

  5. 5.

    This example is from Travis (1989, pp.18–19), but my point differs from Travis’s.

  6. 6.

    See Ohtani (2016) for further discussion.

  7. 7.

    See also, Wittgenstein (2009, 268), where he argues that a private explanation of a word lacks practical consequences.

  8. 8.

    Walden (2013) bites the bullet and claims that the point of RE lies in that it has no essence.

  9. 9.

    Note that my interpretation of RE is different from a non-standard view of it, according to which the justificatory force of RE comes from initial warrant of the considered judgments (DePaul 2006; Holmgren 1987). As is pointed out, this view is a version of moderate foundationalism on justification (Brun 2014, pp.248–249; Cath 2016, p.219; de Maagt 2017, p.454). As a version of foundationalism, it traces RE’s justificatory force in initial input to the belief system, i.e., in the considered judgments, whereas my view does not admit any special epistemic status to them.

  10. 10.

    Burton Dreben says that Rawls’s philosophy has a close connection with Wittgenstein’s philosophy (Dreben 2003, p.316). However, he says nothing at all about what the connection is.


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I presented some of the ideas of this essay at the 45th International Meeting of Hongo Metaphysics Club (March 2017, The University of Tokyo), in the 3rd edition of Wittgensteinian Approaches to Moral Philosophy (September 2017, KU Leuven) and at the Ryukoku Tetsugaku Kouenkai (December 2018, Ryukoku University). I express my appreciation for the audiences on these occasions for their helpful comments and discussion. I also appreciate Kengo Miyazono for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. This work was supported by Gakuin Tokubetsu Kenkyuhi grant of Musashino University (academic year 2016–17).

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Ohtani, H. Reflective Equilibrium from a Wittgensteinian Perspective. Philosophia (2021).

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  • Reflective equilibrium
  • Wittgenstein
  • Rawls
  • Private language argument
  • Clarification