John Rawls, RIP

John Rawls has died, peacefully, at 81.

As an undergraduate, I remember not enjoying Rawls’s work that much. We had to read A Theory of Justice, of course, and write about it, but it never especially grabbed my attention, and while I went on to concentrate on the history of political thought as a graduate student, though I continued to read widely in contemporary political philosophy, my interest was never especially focussed on the arguments that gripped the Rawlsians, about distributive justice, or the nature of political liberalism, or what we had to “bracket” when we entered the public sphere.

Everything changed in the 1999-2000 academic year. I was attached to Harvard’s Center for Ethics and the Professions, and that year I enjoyed a series of long conversations with people who had, over the years, got a lot more out of reading Rawls than I ever had managed to do — the remarkable quintet of Pratap Mehta, Alyssa Bernstein, Nancy Kokaz, Arthur Applbaum and Sharon Street — and they weaned me back onto the work of this odd, difficult writer. I wasn’t much interested in why he defended the particular conclusions that he did, but his books, especially Theory, were suddenly a lot more interesting as exemplifying a certain approach to doing political philosophy, and the more I learned about nineteenth-century economic thinking (mostly), the more I enjoyed going back to Rawls. And then the remarkable volume of his lectures on the history of philosophy were published, which delighted me no end.

So I have an unusual set of Rawls interests. But in the end I came to agree that he was as important as everyone said he was — if perhaps for different reasons — and, which is even odder, I came to find a certain joy in reading his prose.

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