In 1971 a reclusive American academic revived liberal political philosophy with "A Theory of Justice." Why did he write it? And why was it applauded and then ignored by the left?by Ben Rogers / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
I have before me a copy of a new book called Collected Papers, by John Rawls. It does not have the feel of an important book. Its language is often blunt and lifeless; certain phrases—”a well-ordered constitutional democracy,” “the fact of reasonable pluralism,” “the criterion of reciprocity”—seem to crop up again and again, as if part of a strangely unpoetic mantra. For the most part its headings are dry and academic: Chapter 12: “Reply to Alexander and Musgrave”; Chapter 13: “A Kantian Conception of Equality.” Its arguments seem remote; they are certainly difficult.
Yet the publication of this book is an important event. Since the appearance of Rawls’s epoch-making A Theory of Justice in 1971, he has been acknowledged as America’s—perhaps the world’s—leading political philosopher. On a conservative estimate, there are now about 5,000 books or articles that deal with it, at least in part. Where once the foundations of western civilisation went from Plato to Freud, nowadays it is from Plato to Rawls. Most American and British, and ever more European students of politics or philosophy study his ideas. The story of “How John Rawls Revived Political Philosophy and Rejuvenated Liberalism” is part of academic legend.
Given all this, you might think that Rawls would be a familiar figure—that his reputation would have seeped beyond the academic world. Yet nearly 30 years after the publication of A Theory of Justice, almost nothing is known about him. Nor is it obvious that his ideas have had any great impact on the “real” world. His influence was greatest on the centre left during the neo-liberal ascendancy in the 1980s. But as the centre left has returned to power so Rawlsian ideas seem to have been left behind.
Rawls is a sophisticated and ambitious thinker. His arguments are informed by a deep sense of history and draw on an array of different disciplines. Still, as Isaiah Berlin was fond of saying, underlying most great philosophical systems there lies a fairly simple set of ideas. This is true of Rawls. Almost everything he has written is animated by an urgent concern with reviving and extending a neglected liberal tradition—the tradition of rights-based social contract thinking.