A Theory of Justice is a brilliant work in many ways, but it’s also—quite obviously—wrong in a number of ways and employs a variety of arguments that are pretty dubious. Any undergraduate can see this, and dozens—if not hundreds—do so every semester. Now it seems to me that a slightly more scrupulous philosopher might have looked at the manuscript and said to himself, “this is a very interesting argument I’m putting together here, but it doesn’t quite work. Better keep on revising.” But instead Rawls put his thought-provoking work out there in the press, attracting decades worth of criticisms, counter-criticisms, suggestions for improvement, and so forth, thus becoming the major figure in postwar political philosophy.
Someone who all accounts agree was a deeply serious, thinker who cared most of all about getting it right (“scrupulous”), is thus dismissed by a blogger as a careless promoter of his own reputation. Contrast John Rawls on reading the history of philosophy:
I always too for granted that the writers we were studying were much smarter than I was. If they were not, why was I wasting my time and the students’ time by studying them? If I saw a mistake in their arguments, I supposed those writers saw it too and must have dealt with it. But where? I looked for their way out, not mine. Sometimes their way out was historical: in their day the question need not be raised, or wouldn’t arise and so couldn’t then be fruitfully discussed. Or there was a part of the text I had overlooked, or had not read. I assumed there were never plain mistakes, not ones that mattered anyway. (Lectures on the History of Philosophy , p. xvi)
Since my own copy of the first edition of A Theory of Justice is peppered with silly undergraduate marginal sneers, I shouldn’t be too hard on Yglesias. What of Brad DeLong, though, who responds approvingly to Yglesias’s comments by suggesting that David Hume’s Of the Original Contract constitutes an avant la lettre refutation of Rawls? DeLong reveals nothing but his own catastropic misunderstanding (as a number of his commenters point out).