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The Historical Rawls: Introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 March 2021

Sophie Smith*
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford
Teresa M. Bejan
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford E-mail:
Annette Zimmermann
Department of Philosophy, University of York E-mail:
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


John Rawls (1921–2002) and his work are now squarely a subject for history. In the more than fifteen years since his death, a rich body of scholarship has emerged which attempts, in different ways, to understand the nature, development, and impact of Rawls's thought from a variety of historical perspectives. With 2021 marking fifty years since A Theory of Justice (1971) was first published, this special forum examines what we here call the “historical Rawls.”

Forum: The Historical Rawls
Copyright © The Author(s) 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 For a bibliography of Rawls's published work between 1942 and 1971 see Gališanka, Andrius, “Appendix B,” in Gališanka, John Rawls: The Path to a Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA, 2019), 207–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for one that notes many of the subtle changes Rawls made between similarly titled pieces between 1951 and 1995 see Eddie Yeghiayan “John Rawls: A Selected Bibliography,” at For another partial bibliography that nonetheless extends the picture through to Rawls's death in 2002 see Freeman, Samuel, Rawls (New York, 2007), 515–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Some recent work reflecting on the project of historicizing postwar analytic philosophy includes Joel Isaac, Working Knowledge (Cambridge, MA, 2012); Bevir, Mark, “Histories of Analytic Philosophy,” History of European Ideas 37 (2011), 243–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Joel Isaac, “The Many Faces of Analytic Philosophy,” in Warren Breckman and Peter Gordon (eds.), The Cambridge History of Modern European Thought (Cambridge, 2019), 176–99.

3 For a useful overview of the contents of these archives see Bevir, Mark, “John Rawls in Light of the Archive: Introduction to the Symposium on the Rawls Papers,” Journal of the History of Ideas 78/2 (2017), 255–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 This characterization is not intended to be exhaustive, but see Bok, P. Mackenzie, “To the Mountaintop Again: The Early Rawls and Post-Protestant Ethics in Postwar America,” Modern Intellectual History 14/1 (2016), 153–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar; , Bok, “‘The Latest Invasion from Britain’: Young Rawls and His Community of American Ethical Theorists,” Journal of the History of Ideas 78/2 (2017), 275–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gregory, Eric, “Before the Original Position: The Neo-orthodox Theology of the Young John Rawls,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35/2 (2007), 179206CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Reidy, David, “Rawls's Religion and Justice as Fairness,” History of Political Thought 31/2 (2010), 309–43Google Scholar; Reidy, “From Philosophical Theology to Democratic Theory: Early Postcards from an Intellectual Journey,” in Jon Mandle and David Reidy, eds., A Companion to Rawls (Chichester, 2014), 9–30; Eric Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God (Cambridge MA, 2019), Ch. 3; Daniele Botti, John Rawls and American Pragmatism: Between Engagement and Avoidance (Lanham, 2019), esp. 85–138; and Gališanka, John Rawls. Katrina Forrester's recent In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton, 2019) considers the period after 1971, focusing primarily on the influence of TJ after its publication, rather than on the development of Rawls's later work.

5 Several essays on the historical Rawls have connected his early thought to his mature work, for instance Gregory, “Before the Original Position,” 197–202; and Habermas, Jürgen, “The ‘Good Life’—a ‘Detestable Phrase’: The Significance of the Young Rawls's Religious Ethics for His Political Theory,” European Journal of Philosophy 18/3 (2010), 443–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Bok, however, has noted that such connections have often been speculative, and unsupported by archival evidence. See Bok, “To the Mountaintop Again,” 155.

6 Our thanks to Jacob Levy for discussion on this point. For examples of paths not taken see Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge MA, 2018); and Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice.

7 Jackson, Ben and Stemplowska, Zofia, “On Frank Knight's ‘Freedom as Fact and Criterion’,” Ethics 125/2 (2015), 552–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Bevir, “John Rawls,” 258.

9 Katrina Forrester has called this growing literature the “newest sector” of an already existing “Rawls industry.” See her “Response” in H-Diplo Roundtable XXI-24, at

10 For the idea of intellectual-history-as-exorcism see Quentin Skinner, “Introduction: Seeing Things Their Way,” in Skinner, Visions of Politics: Regarding Method, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 2002), 1–7, at 6. Cf. Forrester's “ghost story” in Forrester, In the Shadow of Justice, xi.