John Rawls died yesterday at age 81. One of the twentieth century's most important philosophers of any sort, and the thinker who revitalized political philosophy as an academic study in the English speaking world, Rawls' intellectual contributions to the study of justice were all but unmatched.
By setting the agenda for a discipline to an almost-unheardof degree, Rawls of course invited inevitable backlash after backlash, and these have followe din due course. So has much very serious and thoughtful criticism, some of which I agree with. But the sheer accomplishment of Rawls' work is-- as one of his sharpest critics, the late Robert Nozick, said quite forcefully-- tremendous. Within Anglo-American philosophy it renewed the sense that it was possible to engage in rigorous, serious, meaningful debate about moral and political questions. And it serves to this day as the most influential, most important critique of both aggregative-utilitarian substitutes for a theory of justice and radically-egalitarian versions of such a theory. He was, in addition, a famously effective teacher who shaped two generations of Harvard philosophers, and a gracious gentleman who sought conversation and shared intellectual progress.
Rawls spent a semester at Princeton, while I was there at grad school; he was developing his Amnesty Lecture on The Law of Peoples into the (I think underappreciated) book-length version of that project. He presented it in several parts at University Center for Human Values seminars, and-- shy though he was-- also spent some time socializing with graduate students afterward. (At Princeton's Nassau Inn, where pictures of the school's athletic teams over the years are hung, he showed us a picture of himself with his crew teammates from the 40s.) I certainly can't claim to have known him well, but I was much impressed by his eagerness to reach an understanding with those who criticized him. Sometimes, I think, this was a weakness; he spent a disproportionate amount of time in his written work responding to mild criticisms from immediate friends and colleagues. But it made watching him act as a presenter and seminar leader a real pleasure.
A few words about the traditional-but-contested claim that Rawls recreated and revitalized a field that had been moribund since Mill. I think that this is much overtstaed-- and that the overstating obscures what is true about it. The mid-20th century saw a great deal of fruitful and important work done in political theory. The (roughly) two generations of theorists before Rawls-- Berlin, Oakeshott, Popper, Hayek, Arendt, Strauss -- had done work of towering importance. Some of Rawls' contemporaries-- Shklar, Kateb, Wolin, Buchanan-- had also done work of great import in the decades before 1971.
But none of these was a practicing Anglo-American analytic philosopher (Berlin had been trained as one but had given it up for the history of ideas), and few of them were read in English-language philosophy departments. Economics, political theory-not-philosophy, philosophy of science, and history of political thought were their idioms. Within analytic philosphy, normative work was considered more-or-less dead, because merely emotive and non-rigorous.
Much of what some people dislike about Rawls-- the aridness, the detachment from history and psychology, the characteristic Americanness of his uninterest in plumbing the depths of the soul-- is precisely what made his work a success in the way that it was. Leo Strauss and F.A. Hayek (both, in different ways, understanding themselves to be restating old truths) were already there for the reading, if that's what one wanted. They were not what analytic philosophers wanted-- not because of their politics but because of their method. To this day they are not what many philosophers want; a philosopher is much more likely to read Nozick than to read Hayek, Finnis than Strauss, late-Habermas than Arendt. This is in part because Rawls created a common disciplinary discourse within which arguments could be had-- so unlike the sense that one had to be an initiate into the mysteries in order to engage in the argument, and that disagreeing with the normative conclusions was proof that one wasn't an initiate. (Rawls, Nozick, and Sandel understood one another and argued with one another. Berlin, Strauss, Arendt, and Hayek scarcely acknowledged one another's existence-- despite the fact that the latter three were all on the same faculty (at the University of Chicago) and that two of them had been students together.) And it was in part because Rawls' discipline was analytic philosophy.
For my own part, despite the tremendous importance that Hayek, Berlin, and Shklar have had on my thought, the subdiscipline that Rawls created has been, more-or-less, my intellectual home since freshman year of college (though perhaps less so lately, as I turn increasingly toward the history of political thought). The Rawls-Nozick argument, the communitarian critique and Kymlicka's Rawlsian rejoinder to it, and the field of liberal normative studies of multiculturalism begun by Kymlicka are what have excited me, what have motivated me to become a political theorist. Without the publication of Theory of Justice, and the intellectual energy it infused into liberal normative political thought, I wouldn't be doing what I am now doing.
See Thomas Nagel's review essay in TNR ; Martha Nussbaum's appreciation in The Chronicle of Higher Education; and Richard Epstein's on NRO. (Charles Larmore's excellent TNR review of the Lectures in the History of Moral Philosophy doesn't seem to be online.) See Kieran Healey's remembrance, Matthew Yglesias', and Chris Bertram's. See also The Harvard Crimson's obituary, The Washington Post's , The New York Times', [which both calls Nozick a conservative and claims that Nozick saw Rawls' work as "egalitarian nonsense," patently untrue statements], The Boston Globe's. Via Chris Bertram: and this one by the political philosopher Phillipe van Parjis in Le Monde, the Times' (UK) (by far the best of the bunch), The Daily Telegraph's, The Guardian's.
The Crimson's has the most wonderful quotation from Michael Sandel: ' "In my first year as a young assistant professor at Harvard, the phone in my office rang,” Sandel wrote in an e-mail. “The voice on the other end said, ‘This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S.’ It was as if God himself had phoned to invite me to lunch, and spelled his name just in case I didn’t know who he was.” '
On the NYT's claim that Nozick viewed Theory of Justice as nonsense, I quote from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 183:
"A Theory of Justice is a powerful, deep, subtle, wide-ranging, systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stuart Mill, if then. It is a fountain of illuminating ideas, integrated together into a lovely whole. Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls' theory or explain why not... Even those who remain unconvinced after wrestling with Rawls' systematic vision will learn much from closely studying it. I do not speak only of the Millian sharpening of one's views in combating (what one takes to be) error. It is impossible to read Rawls' book without incorporating much, perhaps transmuted, into one's own deepened view. And it is impossible to finish his book without a new and inspiring vision of what amoral theory may attempt to do and unite; of how beautiful a whole theory can be. I permit myself to concentrate here on disagreements with Rawls only because I am confident that my readers will have discovered for themselves its many virtues."
UPDATE: The 11-27 NYT carries the following notice:
"RAWLS - John Bordley, James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus, Harvard,
died at his home November 24 in Lexington MA. Survived by wife Margaret Fox Rawls,
children Anne Warfield Rawls of Beverly Hills, MI, Robert Lee Rawls of Woodinville, WA,
Alexander Emory Rawls of Palo Alto, CA and Elizabeth Fox Rawls of Cambridge, MA and
grandchildren Tyhib, Martin, Nadia and Desmond. A memorial service will be held Tuesday,
December 3, at 9:30am in the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Harrington Rd, on
the Battlegreen, Lexington. Interment at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. There will be a
memorial celebration at Harvard University of John Rawls' life and work to be arranged and
announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in John Rawls' name
to Amnesty International, attn: Memorial Gifts, 322 8th Ave, New York, NY 10001; or to the
John Rawls Memorial Fund at the Cary Memorial Library Foundation, 1605 Mass Ave, Lexington, MA. 02420.
Also new: Alan Ryan's piece in The Independent, Brian Barry's in the FT. Joshua Cohen's in the Boston Globe. The LA Times. Matthew Miller. A really quite poor piece in the NYT Week in Review.
Update, 12-2: The NYT finally ran a piece about which I have no complaints, by my colleague Martha Nussbaum.
Update, 12-7:From the NPR show Odyssey (based at Chicago's WBEZ), a special on the legacy of John Rawls.
Update, 1-31: From the Princeton Alumni Weekly, an essay by Amy Gutmann (disclaimer: my graduate advisor).