Monday, March 02, 2009

There's bibliophilia, and then there's...

I'm as guilty as anyone of buying all the Berlinalia that anyone slapped between two covers and marketed (e.g.). But I can recognize that an as excess, not to be repeated.

On the other hand, Berlin was an inspires-intense-loyalty charismatic thinker, not an inspires-serious-thought rigorous philosopher. It seems to me that publishing Berlin's juvenilia is a bit more in his spirit than publishing Rawls' senior thesis on religion from the days when he was religious is in Rawls' spirit.
John Rawls never published anything about his own religious beliefs, but after his death two texts were discovered which shed extraordinary light on the subject. A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith is Rawls’s undergraduate senior thesis, submitted in December 1942, just before he entered the army. At that time Rawls was deeply religious; the thesis is a significant work of theological ethics, of interest both in itself and because of its relation to his mature writings. “On My Religion,” a short statement drafted in 1997, describes the history of his religious beliefs and attitudes toward religion, including his abandonment of orthodoxy during World War II.

The present volume includes these two texts, together with an Introduction by Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel, which discusses their relation to Rawls’s published work, and an essay by Robert Merrihew Adams, which places the thesis in its theological context.

The texts display the profound engagement with religion that forms the background of Rawls’s later views on the importance of separating religion and politics. Moreover, the moral and social convictions that the thesis expresses in religious form are related in illuminating ways to the central ideas of Rawls’s later writings. His notions of sin, faith, and community are simultaneously moral and theological, and prefigure the moral outlook found in Theory of Justice.

I'm sure I'll read the Cohen and Nagel pieces at some point, as well as "On My Religion." Ordinarily wanting to read three essays in a book would be more than enough for me to buy it-- and my book-buying habit dovetails with a certain collectors' completism. (Why else is J.S. Mill's System of Logic on my shelves?) But I'm determined to be strong and not buy A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith , as the act of publishing it seems to me to indicate something unhealthy.


David Watkins said...

Yeah. If becoming an academic superstar means someone will go dig up and publish my undergrad thesis after my death, I don't think it'd be worth it.

Anonymous said...

If he was still behind the veil of ignorance when he wrote this, shouldn't it be closer to the truth?

Anonymous said...

I will not be able to resist myself. I am a Rawlsian with religious interests, though I understand your reservations.

For now, I have comps in two weeks. I will keep my focus of those and then my dissertation. This will likely be Christmas reading.

Josh said...

Jacob: Fully understand your concerns. But if you read the Rawls thesis, you will see why we decided to publish it. It is a very serious piece of work.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Josh, I believe you! I believe you both because I trust that you and the others involved wouldn't have done it lightly, and because I believe of Rawls the man that he might have achieved real depth and sophistication at a very young age. And seeing Rawls' mind at work in a believer's mode does seem like a fascinating prospect.

And yet, and yet. By contemporary standards Rawls published little and slowly; he worked and reworked details of his arguments for years before putting them into print.

Now we've got, I think, three posthumous books compared with five published in his lifetime. I'm glad we have them! But I'm aware in reading the Lectures that I'm doing so more to learn about Rawls than I am to learn about the thinkers he's discussing, and even that seems a little unhealthy to me-- like reading a Christopher Tolkien Lost Tales volume instead of finding a new book by a new author to read.

The new volume would teach me still more about Rawls-- but time is short, and I think I should spend that time and money learning about something rather than someone. And the "something" I would pick wouldn't be "theological ethics" if anyone other than Rawls were the author.

Anonymous said...

Now we've got, I think, three posthumous books compared with five published in his lifetime.

Out of curiosity, Jacob, I'm interested about your count. During Rawls's lifetime I count 1)Theory, 2) Political Liberalism, 3) Collected papers, 3) Justice as Fairness, 4) The Law of Peoples, and 5) Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. (The revised edition of TJ also came out while he was alive and was mostly done even long before he died- mostly in the later 70's, for various translations.) Posthumously I count only 1) Lectures on the history of Political Philosophy, and 2) This new book. Is there one I'm missing? (I don't count the 3rd edition of PL because that, as far as I can tell, really just is a marketing ploy w/o substantial change and just a new edition by Nussbaum.) I don't think this much matters, but I can't get my count to match yours so am curious. (My understanding is that there was a fair amount of discussion back and forth between Mardy Rawls, Samuel Freeman, Tom Nagel, Josh Cohen, and some others about whether to publish this or not, too. What difference that makes I don't know.)

Anonymous said...

Also, on the Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, that was started before Rawls died and had his (somewhat half-hearted, I think, like the lectures on moral philosophy) approval. My impression is that Rawls would have been rather more skeptical about having this published, but to some degree I tend to think that that sort of thing ought not control all decisions on what to publish after one's death.

Jacob T. Levy said...

The explanation is "I was wrong." Was counting LHMP as posthumous when it was not.