John Rawls dead.
November 26, 2002 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Philosopher John Rawls dead at 81. Highly regarded philosopher and Harvard professor John Rawls passed away Sunday at age 81. He is perhaps best known for his work on the Concept of Justice. You can also see his bibliography.
posted by xmutex (15 comments total)
As great a philosopher as he was, it seemed to me that Rawls' seminal work in "A Theory of Justice" came out in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the West of 1971, things were headed downhill for the modern welfare state, and so what could have been the basis of a philosophically sound, robust liberal movement in the States never quite took hold. Instead, we got Thatcherism and Reaganism. Wee-hoo.
posted by risenc at 8:56 AM on November 26, 2002

sad times - chile is currently in mourning for the painter matta (he's perhaps most famous here for his big machine-like pictures, but covered quite a range).
posted by andrew cooke at 9:03 AM on November 26, 2002

He's dead? It's not fair. It's not just. Or is it? Now we'll never know.
posted by stonerose at 9:05 AM on November 26, 2002

risenc - I think the problem w/"A Theory of Justice" in its time was that when it came out the left/liberals thought it was merely a justification for the state as it was. Fanon, Marcuse, et. al., held far more sway. I mean, can you imagine a bunch of Weatherman or Panthers sitting around talking about Justice as Fairness?

Still, I think of Rawls' book and Arrow's "Social Choice and Individual Values" as the two 20th C. works that most reinforce the genius of our Constitution. (And their debate-time book-ends are Nozick's "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" and Walzer's "Spheres of Justice.")

Finally, Rawls' "The Law of Peoples" is a wonderful, short book encapsulating his reflections on the possibility of sustaining a liberal public in a world where many people's faith in God (or family - whatever, just capital "F" faith) takes precedence for them over any laws of their country. That he answers "yes," and the deep thought he brings to the question, should send many of us out to look for this book -- it may turn out to be more important than "Theory of Justice."
posted by minnesotaj at 9:34 AM on November 26, 2002

Rawls may have been influential amongst the philosophising classes, but amongst actual, functioning politicians his most famous adherent is probably Roy Hattersley, who has had no influence at all on actual policy, which is the problem.
Nevertheless, it was fun setting his ideas against Nozicks as a student.
There are links to several obits and articles discussing Rawls philosophy at Arts and Letters Daily.
posted by Fat Buddha at 9:56 AM on November 26, 2002

So political philosophy must have fairly immediate effects, or recognizable effects in the relatively short term, to be of any use to the world?
posted by raysmj at 10:07 AM on November 26, 2002

My point was more that within mainstream American politics, Rawls could have had a much more concrete, immediate impact on liberal policymaking - a la Keynes in the 20s/30s - if the welfare state weren't cracking, beset by internal contradictions, left-wing radicalism and Nixonian conservatism. The failure of the US government to prevent the oil shocks and the breakup of the Bretton Woods system in the mid-70s guaranteed that a new, Rawls-inspired approach to liberal governance was impossible. My point is simply that it's too bad, because Rawls is one of those philosophers whose thinking could have changed the policymaking world in a dramatic way. As is, raysmj, of course his work is still of "use to the world," but in a much different way.
posted by risenc at 10:34 AM on November 26, 2002

Finally, we get to lump all the great philosophers into the "dead" category. Rawls was always a troublemaker in the sense that he confused those of us who take a passing interest in philosophy by being both an influential thinker and alive. Now we can rest easily when we wave our hand in the same vague direction when talking about Rawls as we do with the various other Western philosophers. The dead direction, that is.
posted by Hammerikaner at 11:07 AM on November 26, 2002

Rawls was the 20th century's greatest political philosopher and A Theory of Justice was its greatest work. It's far too early to determine his influence on political philosophy, but it will be at least significant and last for centuries. It's as timeless as Spinoza's or Kant's. The real world (never mind bloody politicians) doesn't really come into it.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:33 AM on November 26, 2002

While I don't agree with very much of his political philosophy, I do mourn the passing of a great mind. I met Professor Rawls a few times and was surprised how much his thinking had changed later in his life from the ideas he presented in A Theory of Justice. He really didn't end up being as much of a cheerleader of the welfare state as he was in his early days.

It's also worth noting that the man had a great sense of character and humility. Long after he retired from teaching, he sat in on a philosophy lecture in which students spent thr first hour passionately debating "What Rawls would say" about this topic or that. After listening patiently, he got up, strode to the microphone, and said something to the effect of "I'm John Rawls, and you're taking yourself too seriously." Great guy.
posted by madreblu at 1:17 PM on November 26, 2002

Though I'm loathe to admit it, it's somewhat more likely that the Frankfurt School and its intellectual heirs will go down in history as the most influential political movement of the 20th century, unfortunately, rather than what you might call 'the great liberal revitalisation' of the 70's when writers such as Nozick and Rawls really gave a second wind to a political philosophy that had supposedly been dying since 1848.

Still, while I disagree with Rawls (I'm one of those terrible Nozickian types ;D), the man was a much needed centrist viewpoint at a time when the entire field was becoming radicalised and narrowed into neo-conservatives versus socialists. It's a shame to lose him and Nozick within the space of a year or so. Though it's strangely appropriate that the two perish so close to one another.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:34 PM on November 26, 2002

With the sad departure of Rawls, perhaps the standard bearer for a contemporary notion of justice will be the much overshadowed Ronald Dworkin. I'd put "Law's Empire" on the shelf somewhere between the tough guy libertarianism of Nozick and the communitarian wishful thinking of Walzer. Tough slogging sometimes but, like lingerie, it keeps on giving.
posted by hobocode at 5:09 PM on November 26, 2002

I think I found a way to incorporate Rawls into every paper I wrote as a philosophy undergrad. As consolation, I think I'll take ToJ off the shelf for another spin.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:36 PM on November 26, 2002

Funny you should mention Ronald Dworkin. He came to talk at Berkeley just yesterday and packed an auditorium. I went, but, sleep-deprived student that I was, I nodded off. Why did the lights have to be so dim?

I studied Rawls's Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism last spring. So far as the real world is concerned, I'll be a happier citizen if the United States moves in the direction of his vision. Except for what I suspect is my own misreading of the "public reason" proviso, his just state sounds like home to me. And even with public reason, Rawls was getting at an ingenious and necessary idea: if you're going to have a participatory, deliberative democracy, you have to meet freedom of speech halfway with a voluntarily held notion of responsible a nd productive speech. It's never too early to ask ourselves what is and isn't worth doing with the powers of self-determination; if we raise the question too late, we will follow false prophets.


There is something heartless about Rawls's justifications. Not the man himself -- he's at his most interesting (and, in my opinion, his most valuable) when he lets his hair down and demands some controversial premises. John Stuart Mill was much the same. When Rawls gets into his Theory of Justice, he pulls his punches and tries to factor everything human out of moral philosophy, except egoism, since that's the one thing that Nozickian thinkers are likely to grant him. Hence the "original position." But how is it original, besides logically? Rawls says that we would or ought to behave as if we were out to gratify ourselves, but with the tempering proviso that we can't distinguish ourselves from others. The problem is that neither states nor people are born in this condition. By the time we're two years old, the ego is too sophisticated to ignore social context -- and we are also already capable of developing the beginnings of compassion, attachment, love, and a sense of fairness. We know more at that stage about good and bad (not to say evil) than men in the original position would; and from then on those senses must be cultivated. That's where I want sincere liberalism to come from. It's almost as if Rawls, the author of A Theory of Justice, is a straw man for Rawls's own beliefs.

Those who feel the need to establish a controversy-free moral philosophy should not delude themselves that Rawls will prove a bigger man that Rousseau for having fewer enemies..
posted by aws17576 at 10:02 PM on November 26, 2002

On a number of occasions, with both friends and not-friends, I've gotten well and gently drunk vaticinating through the 'veil of ignorance' - thanks for the brainjuice John -
posted by Opus Dark at 3:13 AM on November 27, 2002

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