A forthcoming issue of "Modern Intellectual History" features essays on John Rawls:
* The Historical Rawls: Introduction, by Sophie Smith, Teresa M. Bejan & Annette Zimmermann
John Rawls (1921–2002) and his work are now squarely a subject for history. In the more than fifteen years since his death, a rich body of scholarship has emerged which attempts, in different ways, to understand the nature, development, and impact of Rawls's thought from a variety of historical perspectives. With 2021 marking fifty years since A Theory of Justice (1971) was first published, this special forum examines what we here call the “historical Rawls.”
* Historicizing Rawls, by Sophie Smith
The opening, in 2004, of John Rawls's personal archive prompted a new wave of Rawls scholarship. This work has deepened our understanding of the development and impact of Rawls's ideas and of the broader contours of twentieth-century analytical political philosophy. This article places these recent archival histories, for the first time, in the context of the longer history of attempts to historicize Rawls, beginning with the publication of A Theory of Justice fifty years ago. Doing so does three things. First, it shows that early readers were more interested in how to think historically about Rawls than is sometimes assumed. Second, it reveals that partisan accounts of Rawls's place in history, popularized by those close to him, have sometimes made their way into the archival studies. Third and finally, it offers an opportunity to rethink how the twentieth-century history of political philosophy and political theory is often told.
* John Rawls and Oxford Philosophy, by Nikhil Krishnan
Scholarship historicizing John Rawls has put paid to the view that his work was without precedent. This article sets out to find out why, then, A Theory of Justice stirred such philosophical excitement, even among British philosophers in a position to recognize its antecedents. I advance the view that his work is helpfully understood as fulfilling the promise of the “naturalist” revival in ethics begun at Oxford by Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe. After briefly surveying the development of analytic philosophy, I argue that Rawls's contribution was to reconceive ethics so that it was an investigation neither of an independent ethical reality nor of the logic of moral language. Rather, it was concerned with a class of facts about ourselves. Rawls's practice of ethics adopts as its central focus the ongoing human practice of justification. I place Rawls's turn from religious faith to justification between persons alongside similar shifts in Plato's Euthyphro and in the biographies of Kant and Sidgwick. I try to show the distinctiveness of Rawls's focus by contrasting his search for human self-understanding with the project of R. M. Hare, his most prominent non-naturalist critic, who charged Rawls with offering an inadequate account of the authority of ethics.
* Conscription and the Color Line: Rawls, Race and Vietnam, by Brandon M. Terry
This article revisits one of John Rawls's rare forays into activist politics, his proposal presented to the Harvard faculty, calling for a denunciation of the “2-S” system of student deferments from conscription. In little-studied archival papers, Rawls argued that the draft both exposed “background” structural racial injustice and constituted a burdening of black Americans that violated the norms of fair cooperation. Rather than obscuring racial injustice and focusing exclusively on economic inequality, as Charles Mills has claimed, Rawls rejected the ascendant conservative views that naturalized black poverty or else attributed it to cultural pathologies in black families. Thus Rawls found nothing illicit in taking the position of a disadvantaged racial group as a relevant comparison when applying his ideal theory to nonideal circumstances. However, I contend in this article that Rawls's account of political philosophy as an attempt to find a consensus may be similarly ideological, leading him to displace the reality of conflict through begging descriptions, expressivist formulations, and historical romanticism.
* The Theodicy of Growth: John Rawls, Political Economy, and Reasonable Faith, by Stefan Eich [Paper, PDF]
Rediscovery of John Rawls's early interest in theology has recently prompted readings of his philosophical project as a secularized response to earlier theological questions. Intellectual historians have meanwhile begun to historicize Rawls's use of contemporary philosophical resources and his engagement with economic theory. In this article I argue that what held together Rawls's evolving interest in postwar political economy and his commitment to philosophy as reconciliation was his understanding of the need for secular theodicy. In placing Rawls in the intellectual context of a postwar political economy of growth as well as in relation to the history of political thought, including his reading of that history, I defend two claims. First, I argue that Rawls's philosophical ambition is best understood as providing a secular reconciliatory theodicy. Second, I suggest that Rawls's theodicy was initially rendered plausible by the economic background conditions of economic growth that were fractured and fragmented just as Rawls's book was published in 1971. This divergence between text and context helps to account for Rawls's peculiar reception and his own subsequent attempt to insist on the applicability of his theory under radically altered circumstances.
* “A Quite Similar Enterprise … Interpreted Quite Differently”? James Buchanan, John Rawls and the Politics of the Social Contract, by Ben Jackson & Zofia Stemplowska
A striking aspect of the initial reception of John Rawls is that he was embraced by leading market-liberal theorists such as Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan. This article investigates the reasons for the free-market right's sympathetic interest in the early Rawls by providing a historical account of the dialogue between Rawls and his key neoliberal interlocutor, James Buchanan. We set out the common intellectual context, notably the influence of Frank Knight, that framed the initial work of both Buchanan and Rawls and brought them together as seeming allies during the early 1960s. We then analyze a significant theoretical divergence between the two in the 1970s related to their contrasting responses to the politics of those years and to differences over the importance of ideal theory in political thought. The exchanges between Buchanan and Rawls demonstrate that Rawlsian liberalism and neoliberalism initially emerged as entwined critiques of mid-twentieth-century political economy but could not sustain that alliance when faced by the new claims for civil and social rights that became a marked feature of politics after the 1960s.
* Islam, Rawls, and the Disciplinary Limits of Late Twentieth-Century Liberal Philosophy, by Murad Idris
This article tells the archival story of how Rawls invented a hypothetical Muslim state that he called “Kazanistan.” It examines drafts of The Law of Peoples from 1992 to 1998, Rawls's notes, his personal correspondence, and the sources preserved in his archives. I track Rawls's gradual interest in Islam, which resulted in his invention of Kazanistan during the final revisions, in March 1998. Contrary to the aesthetics of rigor and simplicity in ideal theory's methods, Rawls's actual method in his incursion into “comparative philosophy” and Islam was circuitous and contingent. And contrary to ideal theory's self-presentation as emerging from an ahistorical conceptual realm, the idealized abstraction of Islam emerges from Rawls's own history, or from an ideologically limited set of texts, conversations, and political debates about Islam. The genealogy of Kazanistan illustrates how liberal philosophy extracts data from other disciplines to construct other peoples, without regard for the surrounding disciplinary politics.
* Rawls's Teaching and the “Tradition” of Political Philosophy, by Teresa M. Bejan
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.