Pre-Early Rawls

by Jon Mandle on May 25, 2007

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Religious Ethics, Eric Gregory (a Religion professor at Princeton) has an article (abstract here) discussing John Rawls’s senior undergraduate thesis. Gregory is properly cautious, pointing out: “Few people, I suspect, would welcome the thought of being held accountable to claims made in graduate seminar papers, let alone undergraduate theses.” True enough. And it’s worth remembering what Sam Freeman writes in the preface to Rawls’s Collected Papers: “Rawls has often said that he sees these papers as experimental works, opportunities to try out ideas that later may be developed, revised, or abandoned in his books. For this reason he has long been reluctant to permit the publication of his collected papers in book form.” One can only imagine what he would have thought about a published analysis of his undergraduate thesis.

Still, as I said, Gregory shows the appropriate care in dealing with this material, and there are a few observations worth making. The first concerns not Rawls himself but the philosophical climate in 1942, when he submitted the thesis to the Princeton Philosophy Department. The thesis was entitled “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community,” and Gregory points out that it reflects “the Protestant culture then dominant at places such as Princeton.” More: it “shows the extent to which a once regnant version of Protestantism, intent on critically defending the virtues of Western liberalism, has retreated into seminary and divinity school circles where it now also meets resistance.”

In 169 pages of text, “the primary classical references are to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas…. Rawls more extensively discusses Luther and Kierkegaard as well as Hobbes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. There is one reference to Kant…. By far, the source most frequently cited is the Bible….” The reference to Kant is a very small one, made only in passing – Rawls refers to “the sin of using people as means only, as Kant would say.” But it takes on much greater significance when we learn from Gregory that it “is the one positive reference to a philosopher in the thesis.”

I need to be doubly cautious in making observations about the substance of the thesis, since I know very little about theology. Still I’ll venture to make a couple of points about the relationship between the view Rawls presents in the thesis and his later work. Rawls states two main aims of the thesis, the first of which is:

To enter a strong protest against a certain scheme of thought which I have called naturalism …. Naturalism is the universe in which all relations are natural and in which spiritual life is reduced to the level of desire and appetition. I believe that naturalism leads inevitably to individualism, that it cannot explain community and personality, and that it loses the inner core of the universe.

(The second is “to attack a specific Christian problem (like that of sin and faith) using the concepts which are derived from Biblical thought.”)

Rawls finds this “naturalism” more-or-less ubiquitous in Western philosophy from the Greeks on. He rejects this approach – hence, the negative assessment of the philosophers – finding an alternative in a certain theology. If we take the core of this “naturalism” to be a kind of reductive moral psychology aligned with psychological egoism, we can see it as something that Rawls rejected throughout his published work. (Think about the distinction in Political Liberalism between “object-dependent” desires, “principle-dependent” desires, and “conception-dependent” desires: “Note here the obvious non-Humean character of this account of motivation and how it runs counter to attempts to limit the kinds of motives people may have. Once we grant – what seems plainly true – that there exist principle-dependent and conception-dependent desires, along with desires to realize various political and moral ideals, then the class of possible motives is wide open.” (PL, 84-85))

But – to repeat – in his undergraduate thesis he doesn’t see the possibility of rejecting this “naturalism” within a philosophical framework. In particular, he finds it in social contract theory:

The idea of justice in the political theories of Hobbes and Locke, the view of Adam Smith that we serve our fellow-men by enlightened self-interest, are all false views of community. Any society which explains itself in terms of mutual egoism is heading for certain destruction. All ‘contract’ theories of society suffer from this fundamental defect.

Even as Rawls came to believe that not all contract theories suffered from this fundamental defect, he was acutely aware of this criticism. In both A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, he took pains to emphasize that his social contract doctrine was not based on mutual egoism – see the rejection of the model of “private society” in section 79 of TJ (“The Idea of Social Union”) and the “Reply to Hegel’s Criticism”, VIII.10 of PL.

In the thesis, the rejection of this naturalism is made in terms of its inability to recognize that “individuals become persons insofar as they live in community.” It “fail[s] to see that a person is not a person apart from community and also that true community does not absorb the individual but rather makes his personality possible.” Obviously, there is more than a passing resemblance to the criticisms that communitarians would level against Rawls beginning in the 1980s, and Gregory observes: “In short, Rawls’s early personalism has no room for an ‘unencumbered self’.” But the interesting point is not simply that Rawls changed his mind about the force of these criticisms against (all forms of) liberalism. Rather, it’s that he was familiar with them some four decades before they gained widespread currency in academic philosophical circles.

Finally, Gregory notes the change in Rawls’s (personal) attitude toward religion, and he speculates (with good reason*) that the decisive events occurred when Rawls served in WWII. “Rawls graduated from Princeton, and served in the Pacific for three years – New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan. He rode on a train through the ruins of Hiroshima after learning of Auschwitz. He lost many friends during the war. By June of 1945, Rawls abandoned his thoughts of entering seminary (Virginia Theological Seminary) and renounced his early religious faith.” Gregory laments the loss of Rawls’s early faith: “In the end, this word of which the young Rawls so eloquently spoke was no longer present to him…. One of the many losses brought about by the evils of the twentieth century was John Rawls, the philosophical theologian.” This seems correct – and I don’t mean to sound cavalier about the horrors that triggered his change – but this could also be called maturity.

  • In a brief unpublished essay from the early 1990s, Rawls reflects on “why my religious belief changed, particularly during the war. I started as a believing orthodox Episcopalian Christian, and abandoned it entirely by June of 1945.” He cites two specific incidents and then the Holocaust itself, before writing:
    When Lincoln interprets the Civil War as God’s punishment for the sin of slavery, deserved equally by North and South, God is seen as acting justly. But the Holocaust can’t be interpreted in that way, and all attempts to do so that I have read are hideous and evil. To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be? Thus, I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil. (quoted in Pogge, John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice, pp.13-14)

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05.26.07 at 7:16 pm



Rasselas 05.25.07 at 3:04 pm

I wonder what, if any, traces of the influence of Walter Faith of a Heretic Kaufmann could be turned up under the allusions to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard by the diligent excavator, considering that Rawls is thanked for his assistance in the acknowledgments of a couple of Kaufmann’s Nietzsche translations.


harry b 05.25.07 at 3:21 pm

Thanks for this, Jon, fascinating and I’ll read the article. Worth noting, though, that Rawls is insistent on the reasonableness of religion, and clearly finds the anti-clericalism of much Enlightenment thought both mistaken and destructive. (I once overheard him chatting with people at an APA, shortly before Political Liberalism was published, lamenting the anti-clericalism in enlightenment thought, and it took me several years both to see the point and to embrace it).


josh 05.25.07 at 3:23 pm

“these criticisms against (all forms of) liberalism. Rather, it’s that he was familiar with them some four decades before they gained widespread currency in academic philosophical circles.”
I may be missing the point here, but this doesn’t seem quite right — something very like the communitarian critique of liberalism already had widespread currency in the early and early-mid twentieth century (and, indeed, in the later 19th century), including in the academic philosophical circles of the time (though not so much among the progenitors of ‘analytic philosophy’); so of course Rawls would have been familiar with it.
Also, comment #1: I think Kaufmann’s influence would be negligible — he was only 21 at the time, and had yet to publish on Nietzsche; he only came to Princeton, where he would have encountered Rawls, in 1947.


Jon Mandle 05.25.07 at 3:30 pm

Harry is right, of course – which is why I referred to the change in his “personal” attitude toward religion.

According to Pogge, Rawls and his wife “were married in June 1949 and spent the summer in Princeton, producing the index to Walter Kaufmann’s book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist and Anti-Christ in exchange for the then princely sum of $500.” (p.15)


dsquared 05.25.07 at 3:33 pm

Few people, I suspect, would welcome the thought of being held accountable to claims made in graduate seminar papers, let alone undergraduate theses

One of the notable exceptions to this general rule being, of course, Prof. John Quiggin, who invented the Rank-Dependent Expected Utility model of choice theory in his undergraduate thesis (although the published version that appeared three years later is more often cited).


Rasselas 05.25.07 at 3:35 pm

#3: Thanks, I was wondering about the timing.


seth edenbaum 05.25.07 at 4:42 pm

“God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them. For what else can the most basic justice be?”
He’s religious (and christian) even in his loss of faith: to assume god must be what we want.
That’s not what I would call maturity.


Rasselas 05.25.07 at 5:02 pm

#7: Good point. A historian of theology could probably provide a few interesting comments about pre-WWII Episcopalianism and the post-WII, post-Bonhoeffer trends in Protestant Christology.


Matt 05.25.07 at 5:18 pm

Seth- I don’t think that’s actually a very _Christian_ view of God. My take would be that what Rawls is saying is that if God isn’t like this then he is a monster and not worth serving or considering. But the Christian God (let alone the God of the Old Testament!) is mysterious and ineffable to our understanding. So it doesn’t seem like much of a Christian view (especially one that would be accepted by, say Kierkegaard) at all.

I don’t know with whom Rawls worked as an undergrad on this, but his dissertation adviser was Stace, a British (or Irish?) Hegelian so I would expect that Rawls would have been aware of the line of communitarian thought that ran through Hegel to Bradly and the like long before Sandel and wrote on it, for example.


tom hurka 05.25.07 at 5:28 pm

I know you Rawls guys are hero-worshippers, but isn’t this getting a bit ridiculous? Next it will be Rawls’s grade-school essays on how he spent his summer vacations. (‘Some scholars have posited a radical break between Rawls’s early (grade 4) and late (grade 6) views on vacations, but a careful reading …’)


Matt 05.25.07 at 5:46 pm

I suppose that might be a bit of a joke, Tom, (I can’t tell) but don’t we find this sort of stuff of interest about most all great philosophers? We are often interested in it for Hobbes and Rousseau and Kant and others. Why not Rawls?


Joel Turnipseed 05.25.07 at 6:23 pm

I don’t know, Tom–completely apart from your sarcasm, I’d like to see the senior thesis: sounds interesting on its face. And is it really necessary that it be bad? A curious student soaks up an awful lot of philosophy in four (or, in my case, six or seven) years of undergraduate study…

Meantime, isn’t Kripke a good example of someone whose high school work is probably worth reading?


harry b 05.25.07 at 6:44 pm

tom — that would be ridiculous. But I wouldn’t mind seeing David Lewis’s grade school work. Or, for that matter, Judith Thomson’s.


Dan Karreman 05.25.07 at 7:16 pm

Or Bataille. Just imagine the amount of pr0n.


seth edenbaum 05.25.07 at 7:22 pm

“My take would be that what Rawls is saying is that if God isn’t like this then he is a monster and not worth serving or considering.”
Of course the notion of a religion of choice undermines the logic of religion itself.

I take your point about christianity. But I have even less paitience for a just god than I do for the gods themselves. I grew up reading children’s versions of the greeks. And Rawls is still using that language apparently in the 90’s


Matt 05.25.07 at 7:32 pm

We know that you and your mom don’t like Rawls, Seth. I’ve not seen any evidence of understanding him from you, though, so maybe you should let off.


tom hurka 05.25.07 at 7:56 pm

The target of my sarcasm was the Rawls industry’s totally uncritical attitude to their guru. That’s hardly shown to be inapt by a post (#11) which takes it for granted, as if no one would disagree, that Rawls belongs in a group with Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant.

(To clarify: Rawls’s substantive political view, the liberal-egalitarianism, is just fine. But the arguments for it, especially in the later works — all the stuff about higher-order interests, overlapping consensus, etc. — are horrible.)

And Harry: yes it might be interesting to read various philosophers’ childhood works. But what’s going on here isn’t just reading: it’s *writing a scholarly article on Rawls’s thesis* and then producing a *lengthy blog commentary* on the article. And I’m sorry but I think that’s going too far.


harry b 05.25.07 at 8:19 pm

tom — so, I’d want to see the undergraduate thesis before actually commenting on whether it was worth writing an article about it, but, that article having been written, it doesn’t seem unhealthy or obsessive to write a blogpost about the article, especially one that is informative about what is there. If someone had similarly written an article about Nozick’s or Putnam’s or Lewis’s undergraduate thesis I’d like to know about it.

And, for the record, because I think you think I’m one of the Rawlsians, I don’t think I am (but I’m not sure). I think I’m a pretty thoroughgoing perfectionist (in the Raz sense), so very distant from his approach in especially the later works. I do, nevertheless, look to Rawls first when trying to think about pretty much anything, so in that sense I do treat him like a guru, but end up thinking quite different things from him. I just say that because I sometimes think you assume that I have a very different take on things than I actually do (and your assumption is probably supported by most of what I’ve published if anyone cares to read it!). Can’t speak for anyone else here, of course.


Matt 05.25.07 at 8:49 pm

Well, Tom, I don’t think I take it for granted that Rawls is as important as Rousseau or Kant or Hobbes or that no one could disagree. I certainly didn’t say that and it would take a strange rule of inference to imply it from what I did say. So, you might try some more charity. But beyond that, to the extent we can determine greatness of those close to us (a pretty dangerous game, I’m well aware) it _does_ seem that Rawls is a pretty good bet, no? Does it seem likely to you that he’s less likely than, say, Fichte, to deserve reading over time? I’d be surprised if not. And even Fichte’s intelectual devleopment is of some interest and may well prove worth looking at.

And if you think having a blog post and a whole 19 comments devoted to one’s early life is a sign of too much attention or hero worship then you either set the standard awfully low or else don’t well understand the medium!


tom hurka 05.25.07 at 9:48 pm

Harry — no, I’ve gathered that you’re now more a recovering Rawlsian. (Earlier articles, e.g. about government support of the arts, were, if I remember correctly, more orthodox school-of-Jack.) But Jon and Chris are pretty much true believers, and their kind of view is all over the place — it has a stranglehold on American political philosophy, doesn’t it?

Matt: You don’t think your post linked Rawls with Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant under the heading ‘great philosophers’? You could have fooled me. And sure, let’s study intellectual development, but let’s not get all excited because Rawls appears to say something like Sandel. As you say in another of your posts, that kind of idea was thoroughly familiar in 1940. Nor is it of interest that Rawls rejected psychological egoism: any philosopher with half a brain in 1940 rejected psychological egoism. Remember Broad’s 1930 remark that Butler ‘killed the theory so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses. Still, all good fallacies go to America when they die, and arise again as the discoveries of the local professors.’


Matt 05.25.07 at 10:08 pm

I would hesitate to call Chris a ‘true believe’ in Rawls. His view seems closer to Cohen’s to me, though of course he can say better than I. And it’s a bit insulting to people, your professional colleagues, to suggest they are victims of a fad rather than, say, having thought of about it and decided they more or less agree with Rawls. That said, there are not that many well known (or less well known) political philosophers who don’t have a fair number of serious disagreements with Rawls so I think you’re pretty clearly over-stating things.

And _I_ tend to think Rawls _is_ a great political philosopher, nearly on the level of Rousseau and Hobbes in this area, I can see that others would disagree. We will have to see how his views age, I guess. But nothing in my remark implied that I think Rawls is _as great_ as those three (and others, I’d said). Merely that if we do think someone is great it’s reasonable to be interested in their development. (It’s hardly an unusual thing to think Rawls great, as well, nor merely a Harvard thing. G.A. Cohen has said that Rawls was the greatest political philosopher since Plato. Even I’d not go that far!)

And it’s again uncharitable (and a bit unpleasent) to say people are “all excited” because of something Rawls said in the 40’s as opposed to interested or surprised. It _is_ somewhat interesting, especially since many people thought, and some still think, that Sandel had made objections that Rawls clearly hadn’t thought of and could not deal with. If this work helps show that this isn’t right that is pretty interesting.


sara 05.26.07 at 3:00 am

Many graduate programs encourage students to publish too early, while they are still getting their legs or under the influence of whatever author they’re reading a lot of. I don’t study philosophy, but I assume that a student writing in the style of Wittgenstein or Heidegger would need to grow out of it.


Patrick 05.26.07 at 7:53 am

I am not sure that the way the 20th century created philosophers is conducive to genius, but if I had to nominate anyone for the canon from the 20th century, I would nominate Rawls.


Mike Otsuka 05.26.07 at 8:43 am

G.A. Cohen has said that Rawls was the greatest political philosopher since Plato.

What Cohen said, rather, is: “I believe that there are at most two books in the history of Western political philosophy that are greater than A Theory of Justice, and they [would be] Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’s Leviathan.”

(This is from the introduction to his forthcoming Rescuing Justice and Equality.)


Matt 05.26.07 at 10:18 am

Thanks for the quote, Mike. I was taking his remark from something he’d said at Penn when he was giving some talks here. I might have recalled what he said slightly incorrectly or he might have said something slightly different but I’ll take your quote as Cohen’s actual position.


aeon j. skoble 05.26.07 at 2:38 pm

Hey Jon- Yes, interesting stuff, but IMO more in terms of the intrinsic appeal of seeing the development of a person’s thought. But the material from one’s early years aren’t likely to be stand-alone great stuff. (In my case, they’d probably not even be interesting, let alone great.) I’m trying to think of analogies to music, say, recordings of Hamburg-era Beatles. A serious Beatles fan will want to hear them, and those interested in the development of rock will want to hear them, but they aren’t likely to be “great stuff” on the same level as Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. Hope that analogy works…


djw 05.26.07 at 6:50 pm

I think the notion that the Rawls industry is entirely uncritical of their guru can’t be squared with much of the reception to Law of Peoples. Granted, much of the criticism is quite Rawlsian, in an old Rawls vs. new Rawls way, but such an approach takes old Rawls in a place Rawls himself said it has no business going.


bethincary 05.26.07 at 9:00 pm

I have never read Randle-only Augustine, Kant and some Buddist teachings (and the Bible).
I, like others here, wonder about the usefullness of a college paper. I don’t think the maturity of philosophical wisdom can be apparent without learning the necessary lessons of life. A person should also be able to change thier mind as events influence thier lives daily. Lincolns’ speech on God’s will for abolishing slavery sounds rather like a Bushism. Playing the “God-card” for effect of justification for war and killing. After all, that’s about the only time you may hear it justified in the Bible or elsewhere-so it’s that Christian “carte-blanche war card” you could say.
Maybe Randle knew this-and knew God’s own words were being twisted. Or maybe like me, he believed that God-while not always being a good God-should not be a scapegoat for mans’ mistakes.


Laurie Shrage 05.27.07 at 7:42 pm

Jon, Thanks for this interesting commentary on Gregory’s article. David Hollinger’s and Bruce Kuklick’s work on the history of American philosophy discuss the Protestant cultural and religious influences that shaped academic Philosophy through the early 20th C. In response to the these influences (and after American universities began to follow the model of the German research universities), professional philosophers have attempted to re-invent Philosophy as a field concerned with science rather than religion. Rawls entered the profession when the “naturalization” of almost every field of philosophy had been attempted (with much success). Rawls’s concerns about naturalism in ethics and politics is relevant today, as evolutionary psychology gains ground in moral psychology and meta-ethics.

I find it odd that some posts above question the interests of scholars in the student work of important philosophical figures. Consideration of such work (or other biographical information) contributes to our understanding of the historical, cultural, and institutional context in which intellectual work takes place.


aaron_m 05.28.07 at 7:52 am

“We know that you and your mom don’t like Rawls, Seth. I’ve not seen any evidence of understanding him from you, though, so maybe you should let off.”

Finally somebody said it.


vivian 05.29.07 at 2:06 am

Um, sorry to admit ignorance, but I don’t get the reference, and Google didn’t help either. Is Seth’s mother some famous Rawls critic? Anyone want to share the joke with the folks in the cheap seats? (If it’s just a random insult or otherwise tasteless, please just say that.)


Matt 05.29.07 at 3:09 am

Seth quoted his mother’s opinion on Rawls to support his attack on Rawls in another recent thread. I was simply making fun of that. In Seth’s defense (I suppose) he was drunk.


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 2:07 pm

My mother was an expert on American constitutional law who worked in the justice system. She needs no defense and I neither do I.


David 05.29.07 at 4:05 pm

Rawls’s undergraduate thesis is being edited by Tom Nagel and will be published in due course by Harvard UP. It is a remarkable read (there are even passages that might have appeared in Levinas’s ‘Totality and Infinity’). Not only does it help to explain why JR never addressed certain so-called communitarian criticisms and draw attention to long-overlooked features of his thought (for example, in TJ he rejects utilitarianism in part b/c it doesn’t take account of the ways in which our desires and preferences are socially shaped), it raises very interesting questions about the unity of and continuities in Rawls’s thought, as well as about how he understood his own project and how well it has been understood by others.

Many of the most interesting thoughts worked out in the undergraduate thesis remained with Rawls after the War. He gave a talk sometime between 1950-55, likely while at Cornell after 53, on toleration. Toward the end he discusses religious arguments for toleration. He says that among the beliefs of which he is ‘certain’ — as certain as he is of anything else — are that IF there is a judgment (he is himself no longer a conventional believer at this point), then a) it will take the form of exclusion from community (he quotes Meister Eckhart: “what burns in hell is sin in the circle of its own self-centeredness”), but b) no person will be alienated from this community solely for religious beliefs or practices held in conscience and c) none will be alienated from it forever and d) there is no gap between coming to understand and desire this community and coming to at least partial participation in it. Thus, while Rawls has clearly moved any theistic affirmation into the antecedent of a conditional, much of what he develops in the undergraduate thesis carries over into his thinking after the War. And this raises an interesting question of intellectual biography about the role of these beliefs in his thought later on. And while points of intellectual biography do not settle issues of philosophical interpretation, they can to some degree open or limit interpretive possibilities.


Chris Bertram 05.29.07 at 4:30 pm

I’m not sure why Tom Hurka (above) thinks of me as a “true believer”. Not that it matters, especially, but I think Harry might be closer to Rawlsian orthodoxy than I am. (I rather think of people like Andrew Williams and Samuel Freeman as being the keepers of the flame and I find myself disagreeing with them all the time.)

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