A proclivity for justice

Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy
April 20, 2007

John Dunn asks why a great mind left little imprint on the wider world

In the three and a half decades since it first appeared, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice and its author acquired an extraordinary reputation. The theory had been in preparation for some time by the stage of publication and some of its main components had been signalled in a set of widely noted articles over the two preceding decades. The impact of the book itself was immediate and massive. Despite substantial shifts in interest and strategy over the remainder of his life, Rawls continued to see himself primarily as custodian, defender and interpreter of this great achievement. One aspect of his legacy has been an insistent proliferation of ever more scholastic commentary on the character and limits of that achievement, the great bulk of it pious in tone and pretty deferential in attitude.

In studies of the history of political philosophy, it has become conventional to treat A Theory of Justice as a classic and exemplary work in a sequence that reaches back at least to Hobbes and for the present terminates with Rawls himself - which is how, as indicated by the outline appended to Rawls's Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy , he treated the work himself. With many philosophers, such self-perception would be at best disquieting and might well seem absurd, odious or both.

One of the pleasures of reading these lectures is to see what gave Rawls the nerve to run such a risk and the blend of sincerity and composure that equipped him to carry it off.

Some prominent philosophers win their ascendancy by dazzling - by the celerity, nerve, precision and fluency with which they think and write and speak (Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin come immediately to mind). Rawls thought with extraordinary patience and pertinacity and set out his conclusions with great care and at very considerable length. He never sought to force his conclusions on an audience by the way in which he spoke or wrote. For a teacher of philosophy with extremely strong moral and political opinions, he eschewed the forensic to a quite extraordinary degree.

There are two types of question about Rawls that it would be good to be able to answer, one properly philosophical in character and the other lying more within the sociology of knowledge or academic life. The first is about the force of the theory itself. How distinctive and how compelling is Rawls's theory of what justice is and what claims it has upon human beings? Is it or is it not both distinctive enough and compelling enough to merit its present standing? Should it (and will it) retain that stature 20 to 30 years from now? On that question, in any of its forms, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy , perhaps unsurprisingly, has little to offer. What is more surprising is how helpful it proves in relation to the second and quite different question of just how and why Rawls came to win the standing he holds.

For those with the requisite talents and inclinations, the lecture can be an opportunity to dazzle; but within an academic setting, its point and justification is to serve as a medium through which to teach. Rawls was a dedicated and remarkably winning teacher, deeply admired by generations of grateful Harvard University pupils. Reading Lectures you can see why. The tone throughout is unassuming but assured, the purpose consistently to make clear, to get into steady common view what he took to be the key issues in the grand texts that he chose to explore. There is something soothing and encouraging about being guided through the works of Hobbes and Locke, Hume and J. S. Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Bishop Butler - and even Karl Marx - in these calm and measured tones. Understanding seems on the whole a source of reassurance rather than an occasion for fear. It also seems for the most part comfortably within reach: not at all a matter of Fear and Trembling , still less of Sickness unto Death . You may disagree drastically with Rawls about many of his assumptions or conclusions, but it would be obtuse to miss the enviable authority he carried as a teacher, which came from the man himself. Lectures puts you in his company more directly and sometimes more illuminatingly than the systematic exposition of A Theory of Justice .

In it you can encounter for yourself a personal authority that does much to explain the scale of his impact, and encounter it in the setting from which that impact derived and within which it has largely been confined - the academic world as it was in Rawls's own lifetime and unmistakably remains today.

The first of the thinkers he discusses who chose to live out their life as a professional academic was Sidgwick, whose leading intellectual achievement ("the first truly academic work of moral philosophy") largely prefigures Rawls's own aspiration in the adjacent field of political philosophy: "Academic works are not seldom dull, even when of the first rank... How could it be otherwise?I You won't find it entertaining." Despite these admonitions, there is much quiet pleasure to be drawn from these pages, as well as a great deal of instruction about the terms in which Rawls came to frame his own ethical conceptions and the secular liberalism he believed them to imply. Anyone seriously interested in the development of Rawls's thinking and his sense of the relations between his approach and those of major predecessors in the history of Anglophone liberalism will find the insight it provides on numerous points indispensable.

Rawls did at one point make it clear that the impulse behind his work had come largely from exposure to the horrors and miseries of the Second World War. The claims of justice for him, as for some of his greatest predecessors, required a comprehensive remaking of the relations between human beings. They were fierce demands on politics, not idle fancies of a nicer world. As demands - whether on global politics or on the domestic politics of his country, over the long period since his book appeared - they have proved pretty forlorn. Politics, it seems, has little difficulty in turning a deaf ear. Why has his grand work won so much esteem but made so little dent in the world he so wished to change?

Part of the answer, of course, is just that the demands were so drastic. Critics to the left often rebuked him for the relative tameness of his proposals; but it can scarcely be claimed that their own more exigent requirements have fared any better. In addition to the demanding character of his agenda, there are two other factors to take into account in gauging why the political response to it has been so muted. Each can be seen clearly in the mirror of the Lectures. The first is his judgment about what political philosophy consists in and requires: the terms in which and the basis on which philosophy must meet politics. For Rawls, clearly and steadily, these were set by philosophy. They did not require the philosopher to make any sustained attempt to take in and master the substance of politics anywhere ever.

In face of the often tawdry and always confused realities of politics, A Theory of Justice readily seems both nebulous and ethereal: vague in content and almost wholly devoid of weight. It is a nice point how far this discredits politics, and how far it disqualifies or undercuts his thinking as philosophy, directed at politics, but also claiming a kind of authority over it. Rawls himself, as a good democrat, disavows any special privilege in dialogue with his fellow citizens. But the issue is scarcely whether such privilege accrues to how philosophers spend their time or earn their living, but whether the insights they reach themselves ever carry special force when they enter political conversation. Here a firm negative answer would be more dismaying. What (if anything) do political philosophers know that no one else knows so well?

The second source of this relative ineffectuality was Rawls's distinctive voice, almost as audible in his writing as in his own speech. (Remarkably, the cover of this volume shows that audibility almost extended to the handwriting in which he wrote the lectures out.) It was the sober voice of a born teacher, scrupulous, patient, considerate, incapable of bullying and hesitant to sneer at anyone's honestly entertained ideas even when he believed them grievously mistaken. It was a huge and very personal privilege to be taught by Rawls, and very many pupils and colleagues came to love that voice. For all its hesitations, it was the perfect voice for a teacher. It is hard, however, to imagine one less suited to enforce its message on the bedlam of politics.

John Dunn is fellow of King's College and professor of political theory, Cambridge University.

Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy

Author - John Rawls
Publisher - Belknap Press of Harvard University
Pages - 476
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 978 0 674 02492 2

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