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Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy [Paperback]

John Rawls , Samuel Freeman
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Book Description

Oct. 15 2008

This last book by the late John Rawls, derived from written lectures and notes for his long-running course on modern political philosophy, offers readers an account of the liberal political tradition from a scholar viewed by many as the greatest contemporary exponent of the philosophy behind that tradition.

Rawls's goal in the lectures was, he wrote, "to identify the more central features of liberalism as expressing a political conception of justice when liberalism is viewed from within the tradition of democratic constitutionalism." He does this by looking at several strands that make up the liberal and democratic constitutional traditions, and at the historical figures who best represent these strands--among them the contractarians Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; the utilitarians Hume, Sidgwick, and J. S. Mill; and Marx regarded as a critic of liberalism. Rawls's lectures on Bishop Joseph Butler also are included in an appendix. Constantly revised and refined over three decades, Rawls's lectures on these figures reflect his developing and changing views on the history of liberalism and democracy--as well as how he saw his own work in relation to those traditions.

With its clear and careful analyses of the doctrine of the social contract, utilitarianism, and socialism--and of their most influential proponents--this volume has a critical place in the traditions it expounds. Marked by Rawls's characteristic patience and curiosity, and scrupulously edited by his student and teaching assistant, Samuel Freeman, these lectures are a fitting final addition to his oeuvre, and to the history of political philosophy as well.

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After the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, Rawls (1921-2002) became the most influential moral and political philosopher in the Western world. As such, the issuing of this posthumous volume, carefully edited by [Samuel] Freeman, a former student and teaching assistant from Rawls's courses at Harvard University, is a major event. (David Gordon Library Journal 2007-02-01)

Rawls was a dedicated and remarkably winning teacher, deeply admired by generations of grateful Harvard University pupils. Reading Lectures you can see why. The tone throughout is unassuming but assured, the purpose consistently to make clear, to get into steady common view what he took to be the key issues in the grand texts that he chose to explore. There is something soothing and encouraging about being guided through the works of Hobbes and Locke, Hume and J. S. Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Bishop Butler--and even Karl Marx--in these calm and measured tones...There is much quiet pleasure to be drawn from these pages, as well as a great deal of instruction about the terms in which Rawls came to frame his own ethical conceptions and the secular liberalism he believed them to imply. Anyone seriously interested in the development of Rawls's thinking and his sense of the relations between his approach and those of major predecessors in the history of Anglophone liberalism will find the insight it provides on numerous points indispensable. (John Dunn Times Higher Education Supplement 2007-04-20)

While many contemporary philosophers have deliberately shunned the history of political philosophy as irrelevant to "doing" philosophy, Rawls shows himself to be a conscientious and painstaking reader of the great works of the philosophical tradition of which he was a part. He regarded his own work as both indebted to and as culminating the great tradition that he interprets for his readers. (Steven B. Smith New York Sun 2007-05-11)

John Rawls is perhaps the most influential Western political philosopher of the twentieth century. The late Harvard philosopher's 1971 A Theory of Justice is often credited with bestowing that title upon him. In that book he drew on the works of John Locke and Immanuel Kant, among others, to criticize utilitarian theory and defend an egalitarian version of political liberalism. This volume draws together his Harvard lectures on political philosophy and liberalism, providing his insights and interpretations of Locke and Kant, as well as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others. In these lectures Rawls reveals how he interpreted these philosophers both in light of their historical circumstances and problems they were trying to address, and also in light of contemporary political debates. (D. Schultz Choice 2007-07-01)

A definitive and magnificent version of Rawls's teachings on the history of political philosophy...The distinction between the rational and the reasonable runs through these lectures, and through all of Rawls's writings. Its importance signals one essential task that political philosophy should assume even in a democratic age: democracies cannot long endure, however high-sounding the principles they profess, unless their citizens learn to love and to practice the civic virtues of fairness and open discussion that alone can make these principles a reality...Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy shows us a Rawls keenly aware of the historical underpinnings of his own theoretical constructions...His Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy complement more systematic works such as A Theory of Justice. They make plain how the careful analysis of the insights and the limitations of his predecessors helped him to fashion many of the elements of his own political thought...Rawls's writing is at its most powerful when he thus casts aside his contractual scaffolding and speaks directly to our political conscience. Then he impels us to see more clearly than before the moral substance of the democratic ideal. He shows us in an exemplary way how philosophy can be democratic. (Charles Larmore The New Republic 2008-02-27)

Rawls has an enormously authoritative and interesting way of thinking and writing about the history of philosophy. His approach and tone is that of a world-class athlete watching old films to analyze the technique of his great predecessors. It is a pleasure to listen in. (Matthew Simpson Journal of the History of Philosophy 2008-04-01)

About the Author

John Rawls was James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University. He was recipient of the 1999 National Humanities Medal.

Samuel Freeman is Professor of Philosophy and Law, University of Pennsylvania.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Really enjoyed reading this! June 15 2011
This is an excellent overview of the political philosophers who have most influenced the forms and directions of liberalism over the centuries. (The chapters are edited from Rawls' lectures and class notes on political philosophy from the mid-60s until he retired in 1995.) They're fun to read because the lectures read, in part, as a dialogue between these philsophers and the author of A Theory of Justice. It's also refreshing to see a non-Marxist writing even-handedly about socialist theory - e.g., Marx appears in neither the table of contents nor the index of Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? However, these two books actually provide a nice counterpoint - Sandel, for example, offers an outside opinion of Rawls' own work in his book. Between the two, Sandel is the "breezier" writer; Rawls' writing, while formal, is a model of clarity.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Here is Rawls' context according to Rawls March 25 2007
By Shaun King.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As the editor of this volume notes, "One great benefit of these lectures is that they reveal how Rawls conceived of the history of the social contract tradition, and suggest how he saw his own work in relation to that of Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, and to some degree Hobbes as well" (pg. x). Rawls was reluctant to publish these lectures: "It was only after he was prevailed upon to publish his 'Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy'...that he agreed to allow his lectures on the history of political philosophy to be published as well" (pg. xv).

Rawls says his goal in these lectures is to "try to identify the more central features of liberalism as expressing a political conception of justice when liberalism is viewed from within the tradition of democratic constitutionalism. One strand in this tradition, the doctrine of the social contract, is represented by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; another strand, that of utilitarianism, is represented by Hume and J.S. Mill; whereas the socialist, or social democratic strand, is represented by Marx, whom I consider largely as a critic of liberalism" (pg. xvii). Rawls goes on to admit that his approach "do[es] not present a balanced introduction to the political and social philosophy" (pg. xviii).

The "Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy" are, more specifically, a history of modern contractual political philosophy. These lectures will provide added clarity to the tensions between his book A Theory of Justice and his Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. For example, Michael Sandel's, whose appraisal of Rawls works mostly off of "A Theory of Justice" alone, wrote in his book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice that Rawls offers "deontology with a Humean face" which entails, according to Sandel, that Rawls doctrine "justice is the first virtue of social institutions" a teleology based an a metaphysical notion of the self which is the exact thing Rawls wanted to avoid; Sandel says, "teleology to the contrary, what is most essential to our personhood is not the ends we choose but our capacity to choose them. And this capacity is located in a self which must be prior to the ends it chooses." Thus Sandel takes offense against Rawls' Kantian style distinctions like "original position," behind a "veil of ignorance."

However, with "Justice as Fairness" and other writings (e.g. Kantian Constructivism) Rawls became more clear that there is no noncircular argument for democratic ideas; he says in "Justice as Fairness: A Restatement," that, "since justice as fairness is intended as a political conception of justice as a democratic society, it tries to draw solely upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a democratic society and the public traditions of their interpretation."

Rawls shows in these lectures on the history of philosophy how his philosophy is sufficiently historical and contingent to avoid much overworked metaphysics: "the same effect as that of a veil of ignorance may result from a combination of other elements. Thus, rather than exclude information, we can allow people to know whatever they now know and yet make the contract binding in perpetuity and suppose the parties to care about their descendants, indefinitely into the distant future. In protecting their descendent's as well as themselves, they face a situation of great uncertainty. Thus, roughly the same arguments, somewhat modified, pertain as with a thick veil of ignorance" (pg. 19; see also footnote 7 pg, 269).

These lectures, however, are not so much about Rawls' theory of justice. Rawls writes charitably about others throughout, when he does criticize it is insightful. These lecture notes are surprisingly detailed at times, with footnotes and full citations. A benefit for researchers will be the generous index at the book's end.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful Nov. 9 2007
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
This very good book is a well edited transcript of Rawls' lecture notes from his political philosophy course. The heart of the book is a series of lectures on major contributors to social contract theory - Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau. These are clear, insightful, and sympathetic discussions of these thinkers with Rawls emphasizing the role of each philosopher's response to his contemporary problems in formulating their ideas. Rawls discusses as well some other thinkers not part of this tradition, Hume and JS Mill for utilitarianism, and Marx as representing a view completely outside the liberal tradition. Not surprisingly, aspects of each writer that Rawls found particularly interesting and important in formuation of his own distinguished contribution to the social contract tradition emerge from these discussions. This is particularly clear of his sympathetic discussions of Rousseau and particularly JS Mill. In Rawls presentation, Mill, not strictly a member of the social contract tradition, provides a progenitor of Rawls concept of public reason in the formulation of social institutions. As a plus, there are also transcripts of lectures on the important but lesser known Henry Sidgwick and Joseph Butler.
In his primary work, Rawls is not always easy to read. These lectures, however, are generally lucid.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Easier and More Useful than Rawls's Lectures on Moral Philosphy May 1 2014
By John R. Holmes, Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In his seminal work "A Theory of Justice," philosopher John Rawls developed a "Veil of Ignorance" theory. He postulated that a person can't participate in drawing up a fair social contract unless he or she has no idea what their place will be in the resulting society. This is an elegant barrier to the double standard. For example, a person that believes in having slaves but not in being one might argue for legitimizing slavery in the social contract, but putting him behind a veil of ignorance (where he doesn't know whether he's going to end up being the slave or the slave owner) is a great leveler.

Impressed by his thinking, I wanted to read more of his work so I started with his "Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy." Whoa! As my published review explains, Moral Philosophy was much too deep for me. Not only was it abstract and etherial, I didn't find it useful or interesting.

In contrast, Rawls's "Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy," turn out to be much more interesting, much easier to follow, and more relevant in everyday context. The odds of hearing Hobbes, Locke or Hume mentioned are a lot higher than the odds of hearing anyone mention Leibnitz or Kant.

That said, for many people buying this book could turn out to be like buying a treadmill. You have fantasies of how you'll use it when you walk out the door, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. If nothing else, it's a lot easier to store and it makes a great research tool.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Nov. 20 2007
By AdamZach - Published on Amazon.com
This is an excellent set of lectures that give a fresh and
fascinating insight into the ideas of various political
philosophers. But what's important here is that the context for
Rawls's own ideas become more apparent, and this heritage from
these thinkers makes the enterprise of his own work appear deeper and
more meaningful. Don't miss this one.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect Jan. 4 2013
By utahmnts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Exactly what I wanted. I buy books for instructors who forgot to order on time or ones that are out of print.
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