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Rawls's Teaching and the “Tradition” of Political Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 March 2021

Teresa M. Bejan*
Affiliation:
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford
*
*Corresponding author. E-mail: teresa.bejan@politics.ox.ac.uk

Abstract

This article explores Rawls's evolving orientation to “the tradition of political philosophy” over the course of his academic career, culminating in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001). Drawing on archival material, it argues that Rawls's fascination with tradition arose out of his own pedagogical engagement with the debate around the “death of political philosophy” in the 1950s. Throughout, I highlight the significance of Rawls's teaching—beginning with his earliest lectures on social and political philosophy at Cornell, to his shifting views on “the tradition” in his published works, culminating in the increasingly contextually minded and irenic approach on display in Political Liberalism (1993) and Justice as Fairness. This neglected aspect of the “historical Rawls” offers insight into how Rawls himself might have read “John Rawls” as a figure in the history of political thought—and reveals that he spent a lot more time contemplating that question than one might think.

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

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References

1 Floyd, Jonathan and Stears, Marc, eds., Political Philosophy versus History? Contextualism and Real Politics in Contemporary Political Thought (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For the Frankfurt school see Wiggershaus, Rolf, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, MA, 1995)Google Scholar. For Cambridge see James, Samuel, “J. G. A. Pocock and the Idea of the ‘Cambridge School’ in the History of Political Thought,” History of European Ideas 45/1 (2018), 116Google Scholar. For analytic political philosophy see Cohen, G. A., “How to Do Political Philosophy,” in Otsuka, Michael, ed., On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy (Princeton, 2011), 225–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Straussians see Zuckert, Michael P. and Zuckert, Catherine H., Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy (Chicago, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Teresa M. Bejan, “Liberalism's Parish,” Syndicate Theology (2019), at https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/liberalisms-religion.

4 See, for example, Tuck, Richard, “History of Political Thought” in Burke, Peter, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2001), 218–32Google Scholar; Floyd and Stears, Political Philosophy versus History?; Leopold, David and Stears, Marc, eds., Political Theory: Methods and Approaches (Oxford, 2008)Google Scholar. For the charge of “ahistoricism” leveled against analytic political philosophy see Mark Philp, “Political Theory and History,” in ibid., 128–49.

5 See Forrester, Katrina, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton, 2019), 270Google Scholar. Andrew Sabl makes the case for a “Harvard school” of political theory associated with Rawls's colleague Judith Shklar as representing a “realist” reaction against Rawlsianism in “History and Reality: Idealist Pathologies and ‘Harvard School’ Remedies,” in Floyd and Stears, Political Philosophy versus History?, 151–76.

6 Reath, Andrews, Herman, Barbara and Korsgaard, Christine M., “Introduction,” in Reath, Herman and Korsgaard, eds., Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays for John Rawls (Cambridge, 1997), 17CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 3–4.

7 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA, 2005)Google Scholar, viii, 32, 52, 166. This edition reprints the original 1971 edition; Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA, 2009), 3. For discussion see Frazer, Michael, “The Modest Professor: Interpretive Charity and Interpretive Humility in John Rawls's Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy,” European Journal of Political Theory 9/2 (2010), 218–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See Mills, Charles, “Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy,” New Political Science 37/1 (2015), 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 3.

10 See Rawls, John, “Four Roles of Political Philosophy,” in Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 15Google Scholar, cf. 83, 95–6.

11 See, for example, Rawls's 1992 introduction to Political Liberalism (New York, 1996), xiii–xxxiv; and Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 3.

12 Cf. 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, at 258.

13 See Samuel Freeman, “Editor's Foreword,” in Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, ix–xvi.

14 Rawls first taught his long-running course Phil 171, “Modern Political Philosophy,” in the 1959–60 academic year as a visitor at Harvard.

15 Peter Laslett, “Introduction,” in Laslett, ed., Philosophy, Politics, and Society (Oxford, 1956), vii.

16 Ibid., ix.

17 Ibid., x.

18 Published as John Plamenatz, “The Use of Political Theory,” Political Studies 8/1 (1960), 37–47, at 37–40.

19 Ibid., 42.

20 John Plamenatz, Man and Society: A Critical Examination of Some Important Social and Political Theories from Machiavelli to Marx, 2 vols. (London, 1963), 1: xii.

21 Ibid., xiii, my emphasis.

22 Ibid.

23 See Nikhil Krishnan, this issue.

24 Plamenatz, Man and Society, 1: ix.

25 Ibid., my emphasis.

26 Skinner, Quentin, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8/1 (1969), 353CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 For this trend see Floyd and Stears, Political Philosophy versus History?.

28 See Tuck, “History of Political Thought.”

29 E.g. Daniel McDermott, “Analytical Political Philosophy,” in Leopold and Stears, Political Theory, 11–28.

30 Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Method,” interview conducted by Teresa M. Bejan, Art of Theory, 2011, at www.academia.edu/1073948/Quentin_Skinner_on_Meaning_and_Method.

31 Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding,” 52.

32 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 261.

33 Sophie Smith, this issue.

34 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 166, 11. According to Joshua Cohen, Rawls “once said … that his two principles of justice could be understood as an effort to spell out the content of the general will.” Joshua Cohen, Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals (Oxford, 2010), 2.

35 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 32.

36 Ibid., 424–8.

37 Ibid., 216.

38 John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice, chapter I, 1969 December,” Folder 1, Box 11, John Rawls Papers (HUM 48), Harvard University Archives (henceforth Rawls Papers).

39 John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice, final draft of manuscript prior to publication, chapter I, 1971,” Folder 11, Box 11, Rawls Papers.

40 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 11, my emphasis.

41 Rawls, “A Theory of Justice, chapter I, 1969 December.”

42 Gregory Vlastos, “Justice and Psychic Harmony in the Republic,” Journal of Philosophy 66/16 (1969), 505–21, at 507.

43 The published footnote cites the Nicomachean Ethics and credits the “interpretation” to Vlastos's reprinted essay in Gregory Vlastos, Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York, 1971), but cites the wrong page. In the first draft of A Theory of Justice, Rawls inserts a citation only to “Ethics Bk V, ch. 1,” but notes “cf. Vlastos, JPhil” on the reverse page. Rawls, “A Theory of Justice, chapter I, 1969 December.”

44 Allan Bloom, “Justice: John Rawls vs. The Tradition of Political Philosophy,” American Political Science Review 69/2 (1975), 648–62.

45 Ibid., 649.

46 Ibid., 648.

47 Ibid., 662.

48 A similar phenomenon shaped the American reception of Skinner's Foundations of Modern Political Thought. See, for example, Nathan Tarcov, “Review: Quentin Skinner's Method and Machiavelli's Prince,” Ethics 92/4 (1982), 692–709.

49 John Dunn, “The Identity of the History of Ideas,” Philosophy 43/164 (1968), 85–104, at 87.

50 John Rawls, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: With “On My Religion” (Cambridge, MA, 2009).

51 Ibid., 107.

52 He spent two years visiting at Cornell during the Ph.D. before returning to Princeton as a postdoctoral instructor in 1950.

53 John Rawls, “A Study in the Grounds of Ethical Knowledge: Considered with Reference to Judgments on the Moral Worth of Character” (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1950), 49–50.

54 I am grateful to Robert Cheah for his generous discussion and insights on this point. See Robert Cheah, “Moral Psychology and Reflective Equilibrium in the Work of John Rawls, 1950–1971” (M.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2019).

55 Rawls, “Study in the Grounds of Ethical Knowledge,” 52 n. 2, my emphasis. To Pollock's suggestion that philosophers simply “organize the common moral sense of good men,” Rawls added that they could “attempt to show wherein its dictates are justified, as well.” See Sir Frederick Pollock, Spinoza: His Life and Philosophy, 2nd edn (London, 1899), 266. Rawls also cited Pollock approvingly on “the capacity of the average man to be an expert on moral questions. He also held that unusual philosophical speculations about morals did not, and ought not, have much weight” (96).

56 Ibid., 69, my emphasis. I thank Robert Cheah for discussion on this point.

57 Eric Schliesser, “On Rawls and Esotericism,” Digressions&Impressions, at https://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2015/07/on-rawls-and-esotericism.html. Cf. Arthur Melzer, Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago, 2014), 135. Cheah sees this shift rather as a return to form in the Ph.D. thesis.

58 John Rawls, “Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical Review 64/1 (1955), 3–32.

59 John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” Philosophical Review 67/2 (1958), 164–94. In his later Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Rawls presents these not as separate traditions, but as two strands within a single tradition of “democratic constitutionalism.” Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, xvii.

60 John Rawls, “Oxford 1952–1953,” Folder 2, Box 7, Rawls Papers.

61 John Plamenatz, Mill's Utilitarianism: Reprinted with a Study of the English Utilitarians (Oxford, 1949).

62 John Rawls, “Outline of a Constitution of Discussion,” in “Oxford, 1953 Spring,” Folder 10, Box 7, Rawls Papers, 4.

63 Rawls, “Outline of a Constitution of Discussion,” 13.

64 I am grateful to Robert Cheah for this formulation.

65 Rawls, “Comments on Last Time,” in “Justice as Fairness Cornell Seminar, 1953 Fall,” Folder 11, Box 7, Rawls Papers, 5–6, original underlining.

66 Ibid., 1, my italics, original underlining.

67 John Rawls, “Two Concepts of Rules,” 19–21; Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” 174, 176; John Rawls, “The Sense of Justice,” Philosophical Review 72/3 (1963), 281–305. Citations are of John Austin, Lectures on Jurisprudence, or, The Philosophy of Positive Law (London, 1873); Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, 1950); J. W. Gough, The Social Contract: A Critical Study of Its Development (Oxford, 1957).

68 Rawls, “The Sense of Justice,” 2, 8.

69 Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” 168 n. 6, my emphasis.

70 Ibid., 181 n. 15, my emphasis.

71 Ibid., 193 n. 23, my emphasis.

72 Rawls, “1958: Philosophy 326: Political and Social Philosophy, First Remarks,” in “[Philosophy 171] Locke lectures, 1958, 1965–1966,” Folder 12, Box 52, Rawls Papers (henceforth 12/52). The lecture appears to have been misfiled.

73 Ibid., 1. Locke's inclusion among the utilitarians is further testament to Plamenatz's influence. Cf. Plamenatz, “The English Utilitarians,” 17.

74 John Rawls, “Locke XI: The Theory of the Social Contract,” 12/52, 1. This lecture is undated, but the paper and ink suggest the late 1950s.

75 Rawls, “Political and Social Philosophy, First Remarks,” 2.

76 Ibid., 2.

77 Rawls, “The Theory of the Social Contract,” 1, original underlining.

78 John Rawls, “Phil 171, Topics and Readings, 1959–60,” in “Nature of Political and Social Thought and Methodology [1960–64],” Folder 10, Box 35, Rawls Papers (henceforth 10/35), 1.

79 John Rawls, “Is Political Philosophy Dead?” (handwritten outline, dated 1964), 10/35. The priority of “the tradition of democratic thought” within which utilitarianism and social-contract theory were competing strands remained consistent thereafter. See Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 95–6, original underlining.

80 John Rawls, “Lecture 1: The Nature of Political and Social Philosophy (1960)” 10/35.

81 John Rawls, “[Notes on] J. Plamenatz. The Use of Political Theory, Political Studies February 1960 February Vol VIII,” 10/35; “Lecture 1: The Nature of Political and Social Philosophy (1960).”

82 Brandon Terry, this issue.

83 John Rawls, “Some Notes on the Use of Political Philosophy (undated)” 10/35.

84 John Rawls, “Lecture 2: The Nature of Political & Social Philosophy and Outline (1960),” 10/35, 3, my italics, original underlining.

85 See Smith, this issue.

86 Rawls, “Lecture 2,” 5.

87 John Rawls, “Bib[liography]: Nature of Political & Social Philosophy,” 10/35.

88 “First part attacks conventionalism of Max Weber, good chapter on origin idea of natural right, good discussion of Burke's philosophy. Rest not so good (so [says?] Plamenatz).” Ibid. Cf. John Plamenatz, “Book Review: Natural Right and History,” Philosophical Review 64/2 (1955), 300–2.

89 Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston, 1960), 1–2. Rawls's copy is available in Box 13, Personal Library of John Rawls (HUM 48.1), Harvard University Archives. It is difficult to date Rawls's notes on the text precisely. They are made in red ink similar to other notes made in the 1980s, suggesting that he may have returned to Wolin's text long after it was published.

90 Rawls, “Lecture 2,” 3.

91 John Rawls, undated typed lecture, c.1961–4, 10/35, 6.

92 Rawls, “Lecture 2,” original underlining.

93 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, xvii. One student in Rawls's final series of 171 lectures was Bryan Garsten, who has been generous in sharing his recollections.

94 John Rawls, “The Basic Liberties and Their Priority,” in John Rawls and Sterling M. McMurrin, eds., Liberty, Equality, and Law: Selected Tanner Lectures on Moral Philosophy (Salt Lake City, 1987), 3–87, at 17. This claim would become most closely associated with Political Liberalism, but it appears with almost identical phrasing in Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14/3 (1985), 223–51; Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA, 1999); and the original article in Critical Inquiry 20/1 (1993), 36–68; and Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, as well as in his collected lectures on moral and political philosophy.

95 Rawls, Political Liberalism, xxviii–xxix.

96 See Jeffrey Bercuson, John Rawls and the History of Political Thought: The Rousseauvian and Hegelian Heritage of Justice as Fairness (London, 2014).

97 John Rawls, “On My Religion,” in Rawls, A Brief Inquiry, 261–9, at 264.

98 John Rawls, “Tolerance and Its Justifications,” typed lecture in “Essays and Notes on Toleration, 1950–1955,” Folder 16, Box 7, Rawls Papers.

99 Rawls, “Lecture 2,” original underlining.

100 John Rawls, “Fundamental Principles of Locke's 2nd Treatise (undated),” 12/52, 1.

101 See John Rawls, “Compromise Theory of Tolerance: Agreement on Essentials,” “Jurieu's Refutation of Compromise Theory,” and “Preconditions of Persecution,” undated handwritten notes, in “Essays and Notes on Toleration, 1950–1955.” See also Rawls's 1959–60 Phil 171 syllabus, which included Leo's encyclicals Libertas Praestantissimum (1888) and Immortale Dei (1865), 10/35.

102 For example, Rawls took extensive notes in the 1960s on J. W. Allen's A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (1928). See 12/52.

103 See John Rawls, “Religious Liberty Arg[ument]s for,” Folder 16, Box 7, Rawls Papers.

104 John Rawls, “Filmer against Locke”, 12/52, 1.

105 Some Straussians have been tempted to credit Bloom's review for the increasing openness to historical insight in Rawls's later works. E.g. Jerome C. Foss, Constitutional Democracy and Judicial Supremacy: John Rawls and the Transformation of American Politics (Amherst, 2016). Rawls's treatment of nineteenth-century American abolitionists has also been taken as evidence of an increasing openness to the importance of history for theory. See Melissa Lane, “History and Theory without Teleology,” in Floyd and Stears, Political Philosophy versus History?, 128–50, at 150. cf. Müller, Jan-Werner, “Rawls, Historian: Remarks on Political Liberalism's ‘Historicism’,” Revue internationale de philosophie 237/3 (2006), 327–39Google Scholar; and Ronald Beiner, “John Rawls's Genealogy of Liberalism,” in Shaun Young, ed., Reflections on Rawls: An Assessment of His Legacy (Farnham, 2009), 73–90. A likely influence in his turn to the problem of religious toleration, as Seyla Benhabib notes, was Rawls's friendship with his long-term Harvard colleague and occasional early modernist Judith Shklar.

106 See Frazer, “The Modest Professor,” 220–21. Frazer notes that some Straussians were quick to claim Rawls for themselves against the Cambridge school on this basis, e.g. Zuckert, Michael, “John Rawls, Historian,” Claremont Review of Books 2/4 (2002)Google Scholar, at www.claremont.org/crb/article/john-rawls-historian. But see Steven B. Smith, “The Philosopher of Our Times,” New York Sun, 11 May 2007, at https://www.nysun.com/arts/philosopher-of-our-times/54265.

107 John Rawls, “Philosophy 171: Three Lectures on Locke, 1978–1979 Fall,” Folder 17, Box 52, Rawls Papers. This folder contains lectures dated as late as 1984.

108 Rawls, “Lecture: Locke II 1979,” in “Three Lectures on Locke,” 1.

109 Rawls, “Locke's Problem 1984,” in Folder 17, Box 52, Rawls Papers.

110 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 121.

111 Ibid., 138–40.

112 Ibid., 140.

113 Ibid., 108.

114 I am grateful to Sophie Smith for first bringing this correspondence to my attention.

115 Quentin Skinner to John Rawls, dated Tuesday [1978], Folder 16, Box 41, Rawls Papers. Cf. Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 25; and Rawls, “Hobbes as background to Locke, Fall 1979,” in Folder 17, Box 52, Rawls Papers.

116 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 103, xiii. This idea from Collingwood was central to Skinner's own methodological arguments, as well as to John Dunn's. See Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding,” 50–51; and Dunn, “The Identity of the History of Ideas,” 100 n. 6.

117 John Rawls, “Some Remarks about My Teaching,” quoted in Samuel Freeman, “Editor's Foreword” in Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, xii–xviii, at xiii.

118 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 103.

119 Ibid., 34.

120 Rawls, “Remarks about My Teaching,” xiv.

121 Martha Nussbaum at the Oxford Political Thought Seminar, Nov. 2018. See also Nussbaum, Martha C., “Conversing with the Tradition: John Rawls and the History of Ethics,’ Ethics 109/2 (1999), 424–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 425–6.

122 Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, 1988), 326–7, 345–6, defines a tradition as a “self-aware” and “coherent movement of thought,” “originally rooted in contingent circumstance.” He cites Rawls as a liberal thinker aware of liberalism's contingency as a tradition, with its own “set of authoritative texts and its disputes over their interpretation.”

123 The student, Bill Hart, recalls that Rawls also told him that “a person has no place outside of history [hence] the desire to lift [one]self up out of [it is] a wish for vacuity.” Quoted in Reidy, David A., “Rawls on Philosophy and Democracy: Lessons from the Archived Papers,” Journal of the History of Ideas 78/2(2017), 265–74CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, at 273.

124 Rawls, “Remarks about My Teaching,” xiii. For more on this teleology and the “romance of liberalism” see Brandon Terry's contribution to this forum.

125 See Cheah, “Moral Psychology and Reflective Equilibrium.”

126 See “Commonweal Interview with John Rawls,” in John Rawls, Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 616–22, at 621. One is reminded here and elsewhere of Rawls's enthusiastic notes on Isaac d'Huisseau's “compromise theory of tolerance” as “an agreement on essentials” from the early 1950s.

127 Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 1–2.

128 Isaiah Berlin to John Rawls, dated 31 Aug. 1988, Folder 6, Box 39, Rawls Papers.

129 Cf. Brett, Annabel, “What Is Intellectual History Now?”, in Cannadine, D., ed., What Is History Now? (Basingstoke, 2002), 113–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 127.

130 Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 4 n. 5.

131 Smith's overview of the “memorializing” tendency in early historical treatments of Rawls suggests that his students were paying attention. Smith, this issue.

132 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 52, my emphasis.

133 Ibid., 104.

134 Ibid., 151. This is fully consistent with his presentation of political philosophy as a tool also of “reconciliation” in Justice as Fairness, published the following year.

135 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 2, my emphasis.

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