Monday, April 18, 2011

Review of Rawls's "Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy"

Review article by Michael L. Frazer (Harvard):

The Modest Professor: Interpretive Charity and Interpretive Humility in John Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy [pdf]
(Published in "The European Journal of Political Theory" vol. 9. no. 2, 2010).

"Given the extraordinary level of his philosophical achievements, John Rawls was by all accounts a remarkably modest man. Those who knew him personally recall Rawls’s humil­ity as perhaps his most characteristic trait. [....] Steven B. Smith has even argued that Rawls’s "very modesty and lack of speculative curiosity are what exclude him from the ranks of the great philosophers". [....] This essay will focus, not on the role that Rawls’s modesty played in the presentation of his own ideas, but on the role it plays in his interpretations of the other canonical texts under examination in his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. It argues that the personal virtue of humility stands in a complicated relationship with the preeminent hermeneutic virtue of interpretive charity: the principle (which Rawls repeatedly, explicitly endorses throughout his Lectures) that a text must always be read in its intellectually strongest form. Sometimes, interpretive charity is taken to imply that a text ought merely to be read in its most consistent form. Yet while this approach has the benefit of charitably reconstructing a text’s meaning without appeal to any standards outside the work itself, mere consistency is neither necessary nor sufficient for philosophical excellence."

Michael L. Frazer is Assistant Professor at the Department of Government, Harvard University. He is the author of "The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today" (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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