Friday, August 14, 2009

Rawls' religion, revisited

Paul Weithman, a Notre Dame philosopher who writes consistently engaging and important work on ethics, philosophy, and religion, ran across our discussion a while back about the publication of John Rawls' senior thesis on religion. (To be clear, I still haven't read that work.) He thought that blogreaders might be interested in his review of the volume. An excerpt:
As Adams notes, Rawls's reading of Augustine "is neither persuasive nor fair". (p. 43) This difficulty with the critical part of A Brief Inquiry raises a question that would be asked about this book anyway, the question of why Rawls's senior thesis is interesting enough to publish.

Though the ambition, systematicity and achievement of the thesis are extraordinary for someone in his early twenties, A Brief Inquiry would not have been worth publishing if Rawls had not later accomplished what he did. Nor would the thesis hold the interest that it does if the subject matter were not so surprising. Rawls's doctoral dissertation was on a philosophical rather than a religious subject. As far as I know, there are no plans to publish it; if the dissertation were published, it would be the object of far less fascination -- and would elicit far less comment -- than Rawls's undergraduate thesis.

Unlike Rawls's dissertation, A Brief Inquiry fascinates because it shows that someone whom many philosophers thought they knew well through his published work once had a very different intellectual and spiritual life. The thesis also extends a tantalizing invitation to engage in counterfactual history. Reading it in conjunction with "On My Religion" does not exactly convey the poignancy of a lost innocence that might have been kept, since there is very little innocence in A Brief Inquiry. Rawls was well aware of the war he was going off to fight after graduation and of the "demonic" character of the foe against whom it was being waged. (p. 197) But if innocence was not lost, deep religious conviction was. We cannot help but wonder how differently a great man's life would have gone had the events of mid-century affected him otherwise.

Not all readers are tantalized by counterfactual history. Even those who are not are bound to experience some pleasure in finding familiar Rawlsian ideas -- such as the natural lottery and the rejection of merit -- in unexpected places. (p. 240) Further, those who know Rawls's work well may be interested to learn that claims they find puzzling were present in Rawls's thought from the start, rather than accepted later on the basis of arguments that can eventually be recovered from his mature writings.


A Brief Inquiry may anticipate some of Rawls's later claims and arguments. But are we really going to read Rawls's later philosophical work differently in light of his undergraduate thesis?

The answer depends in part upon who "we" are. Among scholars of religious ethics, Rawls is often read as defending a thoroughly secular liberalism. That he defends secular liberalism, and does not systematically engage religion in his published works, is thought to show that he is dismissive of it or antagonistic toward it. Furthermore, his dismissal of or antagonism toward religion is assumed to be rooted in his ignorance of it. A Brief Inquiry definitively refutes the charges of ignorance and dismissal. "On My Religion" puts to rest the charge of antagonism. Acquittal of these charges clears the way for a much more sympathetic reception of Rawls's work by religious ethicists who were previously suspicious or hostile.[8]

What publication of the thesis offers all readers of Rawls -- and not just religious ethicists -- is a helpful corrective to some common interpretive errors. The Rawls of Theory of Justice is sometimes read as having ranged widely if not self-indulgently over problems in ethics that are only loosely connected to political philosophy, especially in Theory of Justice, Part III. Moreover, some readings of Rawls's move from Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism treat that move less as a transition than as a rupture caused by a fundamental shift of concern. Together, these two readings suggest that Rawls produced a body of work that, while hardly incoherent, lacks a unity of focus and underlying motivation. Those who read Rawls's work this way may find their reading reinforced by the addition of A Brief Inquiry to Rawls's corpus, since his political philosophy seems quite far removed from the self-described religious orthodoxy and evident piety of the senior thesis.

I believe, on the contrary, that Rawls maintained a disciplined focus on a few questions he took to be central. Continuities of concern and motivation tie his mature work together, and -- as Nagel and Cohen stress in their introduction and as Adams argues in his essay -- there are marked continuities between that work and A Brief Inquiry. Moreover, once we identify claims in Rawls's later work that are continuous with views he held very early on, we will be drawn to readings of justice as fairness that give those claims an importance or centrality they might not otherwise seem to have had. In this way, at least, A Brief Inquiry promises to change how Rawls is sometimes read and to blunt criticisms that are sometimes made.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

G.A. Cohen

I was on vacation and away from blogging access when I received the sad news of G.A. Cohen's sudden passing. I seem to be among the few practicing political theorists who had never met him-- he was twice away from Oxford when I happened to be coming through to give a paper, and his last visitorship at McGill was five years before my arrival, though we had been in intermittent touch about bringing him back for a semester in the next few years. Given the tremendous personal presence described by his friends, students, and colleagues, I'm sorry not to have had the chance. In any case, I have nothing of personal note to add to the touching remembrances many have already posted. (See Chris Bertram, his roundup of others' notes, this delightful one from Chris Brooke, Jo Wolff, etc.)

But the following paragraph seemed to me to warrant highlighting here:

Like his immediate predecessor as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford, Gerald Allan Cohen was born and educated in Montreal [indeed, both received BAs from McGill-- JTL]. There, the similarities end. Charles Taylor embodied the two founding cultures of his home city, French and Scottish, while Cohen recalled that he was 10 years old before he realised that there were some people who were neither Jews nor communists.

Cohen wrote of his "Montreal Communist Jewish childhood" in If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?, a partly-autobiographical work from 2006 that explores the roots of his own egalitarian commitments. In it he noted the complex place of McGill in the social world of his childhood: an object of "widespread hope and expectation," but also one to which Jewish children were taught "we would gain admission[...] only if we scored rather better than the minimum required for non-Jews," even years after McGill's "delicate discrimination" against Jews had ceased.

That reminds me to link again to Judith Shklar's autobiographical essay, and her remarks about her own undergraduate days at McGill-- when the discrimination was still in full force.

I do not look back fondly to my college days at McGill University either. That may have something to do with the then-prevailing entrance rules: 750 points for Jews and 600 for everyone else. Nor was it an intellectually exciting institution, but at least when I arrived there, just before my 17th birthday, I was lucky to be in the same class as many ex-servicemen, whose presence made for an unusually mature and serious student body. And compared to school it was heaven. Moreover, it all worked out surprisingly well for me. I met my future husband and was married at the end of my junior year, by far the smartest thing I ever did. And I found my vocation.

Originally I had planned to major in a mixture of philosophy and economics, the rigor of which attracted me instantly. But when I was required to take a course in money and banking it became absolutely obvious to me that I was not going to be a professional economist. Philosophy was, moreover, mainly taught by a dim gentleman who took to it because he had lost his religious faith. I have known many confused people since I encountered this poor man, but nobody quite as utterly unfit to teach Plato or Descartes. Fortunately for me I was also obliged to take a course in the history of political theory taught by an American, Frederick Watkins. After two weeks of listening to this truly gifted teacher I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. If there was any way of making sense of my experiences and that of my particular world, this was it.

Watkins was a remarkable man, as the many students whom he was to teach at Yale can testify. He was an exceptionally versatile and cultivated man and a more than talented teacher. He not only made the history of ideas fascinating in his lectures, but he also somehow conveyed the sense that nothing could be more important. I also found him very reassuring. For in many ways, direct and indirect, he let me know that the things I had been brought up to care for, classical music, pictures, literature, were indeed worthwhile, and not my personal eccentricities. His example, more than anything overtly said, gave me a great deal of self-confidence, and I would have remembered him gratefully, even if he had not encouraged me to go on to graduate school, to apply to Harvard, and then to continue to take a friendly interest in my education and career. It is a great stroke of luck to discover one’s calling in one’s late teens, and not everyone has the good fortune to meet the right teacher at the right time in her life, but I did, and I have continued to be thankful for the education that he offered me so many years ago.
University of Toronto Centre for Ethics fellowships

Centre for Ethics

University of Toronto

Visiting Faculty Fellowships 2010-11

The University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics invites applications for its Visiting Faculty Fellowships. For the academic year 2010-11, two fellowships will be awarded to outstanding scholars and teachers interested in writing and conducting research about ethics during a year in residence at the University of Toronto.

Fellows will participate in a bi-weekly seminar at the Centre, together with local faculty as well as the Centre’s graduate and post-doctoral fellows. Fellows are also expected to participate regularly in the Centre’s other activities, including seminars, colloquia, and public lectures; and to be in residence in Toronto for the term of their appointments, which will run from September 1, 2010 to May 15, 2011. Although regular teaching obligations are not attached to the Fellowships, one of the goals of the Centre for Ethics is to enhance the undergraduate student experience at the University of Toronto. We strongly encourage Fellows to participate in informal events in the Ethics, Society and Law program and in Trinity College, and to consider teaching a one-term course at the upper level.

Faculty fellows will receive stipends intended to help maintain their salary during the fellowship year at its usual level. Stipends will normally amount to up to one half of the fellow’s academic year salary, up to a maximum of C$ 50, 000. In addition, fellows will receive a research allowance; an office in the Centre, equipped with a computer; and access to library and other University facilities. Their home institution is expected to provide at least half of their salaries, in addition to all benefits. Fellows between regular academic appointments are eligible for funding to be determined on an individual basis.

Fellows are selected by an interdisciplinary faculty committee in the Centre for Ethics. Applicants are judged on the quality of their achievements in their field of specialization and their ability to benefit from work in the Centre; the contributions they are likely to make in the future in higher education through teaching and writing about ethics; and the probable significance of their proposed research and its relevance to the purposes of the Centre. Applicants must hold a university faculty appointment at the time of application. There is no restriction on discipline or citizenship.

For fellowships beginning in September 2010, applicants must submit hard copies of:

1. A curriculum vitae;
2. A scholarly paper in English written or published in the past three years (no more than 10,000 words; on longer papers, applicants must indicate their own excerpt);
3. A statement (no more than 1,500 words) describing the proposed research project;
4. Three letters of reference (at least one from someone who was not a dissertation supervisor) sent directly to the Director, Centre for Ethics at the address below.

All materials, including letters of reference, must be received by November 16, 2009. Successful applicants will be asked to provide salary information on a confidential basis to the Centre’s Director.

Please send applications to: Professor Melissa Williams (Director), Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto, 6 Hoskin Avenue, Toronto, Ontario Canada M5S 1H8.