The Great Philosophers

by Harry on May 15, 2007

Via Larry Solum, a piece in the New York Sun by Steven Smith, about Rawls, occasioned by the publication of Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. (It’s sitting on my shelf, waiting for the summer: one friend commented that the paper is cheap, but in fact I like that for some reason).

One comment struck me as odd:

His very modesty and lack of speculative curiosity are what exclude him from the ranks of the great philosophers. Rawls is not an Isaiah Berlin with his anguished sense of the conflict of goods which besets human life; nor is he a Leo Strauss with his vivid awareness of the forces of persecution with which philosophy has always to contend; nor is he a Michael Oakeshott with his diagnosis of the dangers posed by excessive rationalism to the goals of a free society.

All true (except the not-great bit, in my opinion). But doesn’t this carry the implicature that, unlike Rawls, Berlin, Strauss and Oakeshott were great philosophers? Interesting thinkers, all of them, but great philosophers? Maybe I’m misreading it.



Matt 05.15.07 at 1:54 pm

The author of the piece is a sort of semi-Straussian so there’s no accounting for his own tastes but really, does _anyone_ think that Berlin is a better philosopher than Rawls? I can see how some might like Berlin’s writing style more (I personally find it obnoxious) or Berlin’s approach to the history of philosophy (though I think it has its own serious problems) but it’s just stupid to claim or imply that Berlin was a better philosopher. (I strongly suspect the same of Oakeshott and Strauss but having read less of them then Berlin I’m not _quite_ as prepared to give the categorical statement.)

(The paper in the Rawls lectures seems fine to me but the dust jacket is crazy and annoying.)


Chris Bertram 05.15.07 at 2:05 pm


“Despite his best efforts to teach the great political philosophers in their own terms, Rawls’s readings often view their texts through the lenses of his own moral preoccupations.”

Of course, that wouldn’t be true of Berlin, Strauss or Oakeshott!


Bob Talisse 05.15.07 at 2:10 pm

For what it’s worth, I read the same implicature in the piece, and it also struck me as odd to mention Berlin, Strauss, and Oakeshott in this context.

I also do not see why immodesty and “speculative curiosity” are necessary conditions for entry into the ranks of the great philosophers.


Alex 05.15.07 at 2:26 pm

great s/b “agrees with me”?


Thom Brooks 05.15.07 at 2:51 pm

I agree entirely with Bob, and press a stronger point than Matt—does anyone think either Berlin, Oakeshott, or Strauss is a better philosopher than Rawls? Surely not.


josh 05.15.07 at 3:08 pm

In response to Chris: touche. But I think it helps to read on to the next sentence — which suggests that what really bugs Smith (a former teacher of mine, I should note) is what he takes to be Rawls’s tendency to view the history of political philosophy in progressive, even ‘Whig’ (or Whig-ish), terms, with his own work as the culmination — not something that one can accuse the other three of (however fanciful their narratives of the development of Western political thought were). It’s also worth noting that Smith doesn’t compare Rawls, favourably or unfavourably, to the other three in this respect — they aren’t mentioned until later in the piece. I take this comment to be a criticism of Rawls as a historian of ideas, not as a philosopher.
As for that latter criticism: again, I think it helps to read on past the quoted passage. Smith’s beef seems to be that Rawls was a ‘philosopher for his times, that he went with the current rather than against it — which is what Smith, I think it fair to say, thinks philosophers ought to do. (My own view is that Rawls’s theory of distributive justice goes strongly against the political currents of the present, and so is genuinely challenging and worthwhile, even apart from its intellectual merits; but that’s another matter).


Jacob T. Levy 05.15.07 at 3:14 pm

I had the same thought– but there’s a reading of it that’s a little less strange. “Speculative curiosity and a sense of anguish are necessary though not sufficient to be a great philosopher, and Rawls lacked them; for a feeling for what he lacked, see Berlin, Strauss, Oakeshott…” That doesn’t assert that the latter group were great philosophers, because speculation and anguish aren’t sufficient, only that they’re exemplary of the piece Rawls lacked.

I’m not at all sure that that’s how Smith meant it, but I find it a plausible thing to think. No one thinks Berlin, to take the easy case, was a great philosopher– Berlin himself didn’t think it and didn’t aspire to be. But he did aspire to express a sense of what the human condition was like that was more tragic and less mundane than Rawls’, however much he shared Rawls’ politics. There’s incomparably greater philosophical power in Rawls– but I think that many readers are more likely to think that they’ve gained new insight or understanding by reading Berlin. Oakeshott’s not easy and accessible the way Berlin is, but again, there’s a richness there that is missing in Rawls– and one can recognize that without thinking that it’s a sufficient difference to make Oakeshott a “better” philosopger than Rawls.

(I talked about the contrast between Rawls as philosopher and the Arendt/ Berlin/ Strauss/ Hayek political thinkers a bit way back in my post on Rawls’ death.)

The dust jacket to the Lectures really is extremely annoying. Someone at the press was much, much too clever for their own good.


Ben Alpers 05.15.07 at 3:24 pm

Teaching “the great political philosophers in their own terms” is a Straussian term of art.

I’ve always considered Smith to be a Straussian (not a semi-Straussian), though, as always, this depends on one’s definition of a Straussian. He did appear on the now-defunct list of “Teachers in the Straussian Tradition,” which was a self-consciously Straussian take on who counts as a Straussian. There he was listed as “one of the leading Straussian scholars on Spinoza.”


arbitrista 05.15.07 at 4:12 pm

What a ridiculous argument. Rawls revived the Anglo-American tradition in political philosophy after it had been essentially dormant for 70 years. His work defined the discussion to this day. If that’s not greatness, what is?


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.15.07 at 4:36 pm

Everything Matt said. I finally took the jacket cover off.

Berlin, Strauss and Oakeshott are not in the same league as Rawls, not even close.

‘Implicature’ or implication? I prefer the latter.


Paul 05.15.07 at 4:53 pm

Perhaps his concern with them is not (presented as) *anguished*, but Rawls’s attempts to “reconcile us to our social world” in light of the Fact of Reasonable Pluralism, the Fact of Oppression, and the pressing need to settle the problems of political order and political legitimacy all the while honoring political philosophy’s role as a “realistically utopian” attempt to “probe the limits of the limts of the politically practicable,” limits which are “not given by the actual,” all seem to put him in the Author’s category of “Great Philosopher.” While I agree that he’s a great philosopher, I also think that his inability to reconcile all these themes into a unified and coherent conception of public justification is his greatest limitation. My sense is that the Author’s preferred philosophers have their own failings that tend, more than Rawls’s, to keep them from ranks of Greatness.


aretino 05.15.07 at 5:14 pm

Rawls — not great. His scope was too narrow, and his work has never really travelled outside of the receding fashion of soi-disant analytic philosophy.

Strauss — not great for the much the same reason, albeit with reference to a different intellectual milieu.

Berlin — not great, and not even in the same league as Rawls or Strauss.

Oakeshott — if not great, then a near miss. Aside from the the pragmatists, his was the richest English-language philosophical perspective from the 20th century.

And. 70 years of dormancy? What was John Dewey — chopped liver?


matt w. 05.15.07 at 5:28 pm

Like Bob, I find it odd that modesty would exclude someone from the ranks of greatness. If modesty is meant as a personality trait, that can’t be right: why should one’s personality affect the greatness of one’s output? Further, from what I’ve read of some of the Great philosophers, at least some of them were quite humble (I’ve read that about Kant and others).

If what is meant is a type of “intellectual modesty,” that seems wrong also, since clearly Rawls had a very ambitious project. I don’t see how you could describe what he was trying to do as a “modest”.

As with everyone else, ditch the dustjacket…


Jack 05.15.07 at 5:46 pm

Switching subjects slightly, as a recent law school graduate I was struck by Steven Smith’s statement that Rawls has had a profound influence in “political science, economics, and especially law.” I actually heard Ronald Dworkin make more or less the same assertion about Rawls’s influence on adjacent disciplines at a talk Dworkin gave a few years back. Although I can’t speak to what goes on in political science or economics, for a while now it has seemed to me that rumors of Rawls’s influence on law are vastly exaggerated by philosophers. While Rawls may be cited in the occasional law review article, I have great difficulty recalling a single successful legal argument that appeals to his work for a crucial premise. And whatever influence Rawls might have among legal academics, no one would deny that his influence in non-academic legal settings is even more limited. Given that Smith’s only other reference to law is disparaging (Smith writes: “Rawls typically wrote in a gray bureaucratic prose — the style only a lawyer could love.”), I wonder why he is apparently eager to overstate the degree to which law has been influenced by the work of a philosopher.


Maurice Meilleur 05.15.07 at 6:06 pm

@12, I agree: how can one overlook Dewey? But without wanting necessarily to wade into an argument over what should count as ‘greatness’ in political philosophy, I do have to ask: after thinkers like Madison and Jefferson — and assuming that we’re willing to let them on the list — who were America’s political philosophers before Dewey? We had lots of political writers and activists, some of them brilliant intellects and very wise, but who were our political philosophers — great or otherwise?

My problem is that (pace for example George Kateb) I can’t read Thoreau or Emerson as political philosophers — or DuBois (sociologist and commentator/activist), or Jane Addams (writer and social worker), or Elizabeth Cady Stanton (commentator and activist), or George Fitzhugh (apologist for slavery). I’m not sure they even count as ‘social’ philosophers, except, perhaps, for DuBois.


Jacob T. Levy 05.15.07 at 6:14 pm

Why not Thoreau? Emerson was an important philosopher who had some nice insights about politics, but it was left to other people to take his more important philosophical insights in a political direction. So, fair enough, not a full-on political philosopher. But I’m not sure why one would omit Thoreau.


aaron_m 05.15.07 at 6:23 pm

“Rawls—not great. His scope was too narrow”

Comment not great – false premise. Hobbes had a theory of language, Aristotle had a theory on crabs, and their breadth of analysis is not what made them great. Clearly if you can make a major contribution to any field of philosophy on the order of Rawls’ contribution to political philosophy your greatness cannot be questioned because of the fact that you failed to dabble in other areas.

I am willing to bet that Rawls day dreamed about theories on why the existence of God fails on logic or on the connection between the obsession with fashion and man’s fear of death, but maybe it is a virtue in a world that is crammed full of philosophers, comparatively speaking, not to publish such stuff.


Kieran Healy 05.15.07 at 6:26 pm

I like the jacket. But it would have been better if they had ditched the apostrophes and instead integrated the author and title into the flow of background text, picking it out with a brighter color.


zdenek v 05.15.07 at 6:45 pm

This is a small point but right at the beginning of his piece Smith writes “A Theory of Justice” (1971), “Political Liberalism” (1993), and “The Law of Peoples” (2001) — are large and forbidding books that remain principally within the purview of professional philosophers.”

I dont know about forbidding but ‘The Law of the Peoples’ large ? The guy hasn’t read the book. To see this vividly consider what he says further on about Rawls’ view of the nature and importance of political philosophy.( the background point ).


harry b 05.15.07 at 6:46 pm

Well (#17) I, for one, wish he’d published on the connection between the obsession with fashion and man’s fear of death. But, I agree, that unless it had really been extraordinary, it wouldn’t have made him any greater.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.15.07 at 6:46 pm


You must be kidding. Have you tried to open the book and close it again? It’s impossible for the jacket to stay in place without devoting obsessive-neurotic-like attention to it. I’ve never handled a book with anything remotely like such annoyance. Aesthetic form was wholly divorced from proper function in this case.


harry b 05.15.07 at 6:55 pm

Law of Peoples is, indeed, not large (though it is forbidding, I actually find it very hard to read). There’s another annoying thing at the end — this thing about him trying to legitimise the redistributive practices of rich western democracies — as josh points out, if he was trying to defend those practices that puts him at odds with his era, but in fact its not at clear that he’s trying to do that. The piece makes im out to be an apologist for moderate social democracy which, while that would be a fine thing to be, is…misleading at best.


zdenek v 05.15.07 at 7:03 pm

#22 Yes and that idea that Rawls is ‘just an apologist for the status quo’ may be what underwrites Smith’s assessment of Rawls , seeing him as ‘not deep enough’, not a real philosopher.


Kieran Healy 05.15.07 at 7:04 pm

You must be kidding. Have you tried to open the book and close it again? It’s impossible for the jacket to stay in place without devoting obsessive-neurotic-like attention to it.

I don’t own the book. I was just looking at the graphic design. Is it also made of teflon or something?


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.15.07 at 7:19 pm

The graphic design is pleasing, it’s the peculiar form of plastic that it’s stamped on which is the problem.


Jacob Christensen 05.15.07 at 7:26 pm

Another great one:

Rawls typically wrote in a gray bureaucratic prose

Well, Kant and Hegel weren’t the most elegant writers in the world, either. Obviously, Mr. Kant must have been a mediocre philosopher.

I find this statement interesting but also an indication of a complete misunderstanding of the role many academics can play today:

Rawls is a philosopher for our time.

Two comments:

a) With the increasing professionalisation and specialisation in academica, most reseachers’ field of study tend to narrow. Over a period a couple of millenia we have seen a movement from “science” over “philosophy” to “political philosophy” – and then again perhaps subdivisions of political philosophy.

b) With the increasing professionalisation, philosophers’ and other academics’ incentives are to write for their immediate colleagues, not the general academic audience and definitively not the general public. In this part of the world, politicians and bureaucrats encourage such behaviour.

The irony is of cause that we (i.e. citizens of the world) in this age of professionalisation and specialisation got the neo-cons.


zdenek v 05.15.07 at 7:48 pm

Is this ‘grey and bureacratic’ I wonder : ” The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world , nor a point of view of a transcenedent being ; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling a rational persons can adopt within the world…purity of heart , if one could attain it , would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view. ” ?


Anderson 05.15.07 at 8:29 pm

does anyone think either Berlin, Oakeshott, or Strauss is a better philosopher than Rawls? Surely not.

You’re kidding, right? Or you mean “anyone” in the “anyone who’s not a Straussian” sense? Because they think he hung the moon.


John Emerson 05.15.07 at 8:34 pm

Although John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), as well as what many consider to be its ideological and philosophical counterpart, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), could be construed as alluding to or reflecting, or in some way speaking to or about, politics, they were distinctly contextless works written by professional philosophers which lifted the perennial debates about liberalism and the ground of values to a new level of abstraction while apparently allowing academic commentators to believe that they were actually saying something about politics.

John Gunnell, “The Descent of Political Theory”, Chicago, 1993, pp. 272-3.


Maurice Meilleur 05.15.07 at 8:46 pm

Jacob (@16), I guess I would say that Thoreau, like Emerson, was an essayist and critic whose topics touched on politics, and who wrote one essay in particular to make a political argument about the obligations of the citizen to the state. I am thinking of ‘political philosophers’ as those who make critical interpretive and normative arguments about politics and government regularly enough that one can say it is/was of primary concern to them. That Thoreau did it occasionally, albeit in lucid and forceful prose, no more makes him a political philosopher than the fact that Bernard Williams sometimes wrote essays about Verdi, Mozart, and Wagner made him an ‘opera critic’.

Note this has nothing to do with the substance or quality of Thoreau’s ideas (or those of any of the authors I mentioned), just his vocation. And I think that discussing the label is only significant insofar as it helps us to see that the US has had fewer ‘political philosophers’ than other nations with similar or related cultural inheritances, which in turn leads (and has led) to some interesting research questions for social and intellectual historians.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.15.07 at 9:39 pm

Re: ‘lifted the perennial debates about liberalism and the ground of values to a new level of abstraction’ –indeed, lifting to a new level of abstraction is often what philosophy does and there’s nothing wrong with that. As to the rest of Gunnell’s comment, the following from Ian Shapiro is apropos:
‘The explanation I offer for their influence is that, Kantian arguments notwithstanding, their two theories lock into, make use of, and function to legitimate the two dominant socioeconomic views of our time. Nozick falls squarely into the tradition of neo-classical economics, which is tracebale, via Adam Smith, to the English political and economic writers of the seventeenth century, but which takes on its modern form with the rise of marginalism and in particular Pareto’s Manual of Political Economy. Nozick’s ideological impact, I will argue, derives mainly from the fact that it appeals to, and offers what appears to be a cogent philosophical justification for, this tradition. The situation with Rawls is more complex and can be summed up by saying that his is the natural response of a liberal who has read Pigou and Keynes seriously. He appeals to those who believe in the desirability, efficiency, and justice of capitalist markets, recognize they may not always function well and may generate serious inequities for some, and want to find efficient ways of addressing these inequities without altering the essential nature of the system. The ambiguous moral status of Keynesianism and welfare economics has always inhered in the fact that they appeal to the short-term interests of the disadvantaged (such and unemployed workers and firms on the verge of bankruptcy during recessions) by ensuring subsistence, creating employment, and expanding credit, yet these policies are geared in the medium term to sustaining the system which generates those very disadvantages–hence the ironic force of Joan Robininson’s quip that the one thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited at all.’ From The Evolution of Rights in Liberal Theory (1986), 152-153.

As for Jack in No. 14, Shapiro notes the fact that ‘Rawls’s theory is frequently invoked in jurisprudential argument,’ citing in a note a reference to an annotated bibliography documenting an enormous amount of literature…and this was in 1986! I likewise have a fairly large number of papers I’ve saved (as ‘my documents’) that testify (for better and worse) to Rawls’s enormous impact on jurisprudence. I might conclude that perhaps you are not well read or attended a lousy law school or have an unduly constricted notion of what the law encompasses.


Jack 05.16.07 at 3:18 am

In response to Patrick S. O’Donnell, I am well aware that many academics claim that Rawls has had an enormous impact on jurisprudence – I simply think that it is not the case. Since I don’t know which papers Shapiro cites and haven’t read the documents in O’Donnell’s “my documents” folder, I can’t say whether any of them contain a successful legal argument appealing to Rawls for an essential premise. O’Donnell might conclude that I am not well read or that I attended a lousy law school, but he’d be wrong. I studied Rawls (and the associated secondary lit) extensively as an undergrad and am graduating from Harvard Law, where I had classes with Mark Tushnet, Frank Michelman, Amartya Sen, etc. As for the suggestion that my conception of law is unduly constricted, it reflects a much narrower conception of law than I have to conflate it with what goes on in a few self-selecting seminars at a handful of elite law schools.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.16.07 at 4:31 am


I have no idea what your criteria are for a ‘successful legal argument’ that relies on Rawls for ‘an essential premise,’ but it’s an objectively determinable fact as to the influence of Rawls on legal theory and philosophy of law, and the consensus among those who are in a position to ascertain such things have, as you note, concluded that Rawls has had an enormous impact on legal theory and philosophy of law. The evidence, in other words, would suggest your idiosyncratic assessment is simply wrong (And I won’t hold Tushnet, Michelman or Sen accountable for your blind spot: Michelman himself concludes his essay in the Cambridge Companion to Rawls as follows: ‘What we know already is that Rawls has contributed richly to the fund of ideas we have available for debating and appraising our judiciary’s performances in hard constitutional cases.’ Perhaps you weren’t paying attention in class.). Incidentally, you can look up the Shapiro reference easily enough, and if you’re ever out this way, I’ll let you browse through all my documents related to philosophy and law and legal theory, as well as look through all the books here that reference Rawls’s thoughts on this or that so you can see for yourself how deeply mistaken your judgment is in this matter. By the way, who conflated law “with what goes on in a few self-selecting seminars at a handful of elite law schools?”–(I didn’t go to that most elite of law schools, you did.)


gr 05.16.07 at 9:36 am

Rawl’s lectures on the history of moral philosophy contain one of the very best short accounts of Leibniz’s metaphysics I’ve come across (admittedly, I haven’t come across many). It wouldn’t be possible for someone who lacks speculative curiosity to explain a topic like that in 20pp.


enzo rossi 05.16.07 at 10:57 am

Smith writes:

Rawls’s idea that philosophy forms part of a “background culture” is like saying its goal is hanging the wallpaper in Plato’s cave. None of the thinkers who Rawls surveys (with the possible exception of Hume) ever thought of philosophy in these terms. They were all “untimely” philosophers in Nietzsche’s sense of the term, setting out not to rationalize but to challenge the dogmas and preconceptions of their age.

Rawls’s work, for better or worse, is not inspired by this kind of epic ambition. His very modesty and lack of speculative curiosity are what exclude him from the ranks of the great philosophers.”

Now, certainly Smith wouldn’t want to say that Hume wasn’t a great philosopher. So lack of “modesty” cannnot be a necessary condition for “greatness”. Or at least we need an argument explaining why Hume is an exception to this rule and Rawls isn’t.


enzo rossi 05.16.07 at 10:59 am

Ooops, the third para in my comment (n. 35) should have been italicized, too, as it is of course the continuation of a quotation from Smith’s review. Apologies.


zdenek v 05.16.07 at 11:19 am

“Or at least we need an argument explaining why Hume is an exception to this rule and Rawls isn’t.”

The argument Smith would make is that unlike Hume Rawls is merely an apologist ( does not break philosophically new ground ). What about Rawls’ Kantian dimension ? That too Smith would say is nothing new . This too then just confirms the ‘R is merely an apologist’ criticism.


Stuart White 05.16.07 at 11:57 am

One thing that seems missing from Smith’s evaluation of Rawls is a recognition of the extent to which Rawls’s work is shaped by an abiding concern to try to render what one might call the ‘political philosophy of the moderns’ coherent. In THEORY he tries to integrate the insights of the liberal and socialist traditions in a coherent way (something which certainly points beyond a moderate welfare state capitalism, as Rawls himself stressed). POLITICAL LIBERALISM can be seen as an attempt to explore how one might integrate a liberal conception of the polity which emphasises ethical pluralism with a radical-democratic conception, akin to that of Rousseau, which emphasizes the unity of the people’s self-governing will (see Joshua Cohen’s review of POLITICAL LIBERALISM in the MICHIGAN LAW REVIEW, 1994). Perhaps the only other political philosopher comparable in terms of this ambition to integration – and it is surely not a lesser ambition than those which animated the works of Berlin, Strauss and Oakeshott – would be J.S. Mill.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.16.07 at 1:03 pm

In his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Rawls does speak (p. 323) of the ‘illuminating and worthwhile view’ of ‘liberal socialism,’ briefly outlining its four fundamental features and and citing a book by John Roemer titled, Liberal Socialism (1994). However (and assuming the book was indeed by Roemer but not this title by someone else), I know of no such book by Roemer, so perhaps this was supposed to be a reference to Roemer’s A Future for Socialism, also published in 1994 and also by Harvard University Press (and Verso).


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.16.07 at 1:09 pm

Rawls does refer (on p. 323) to the ‘illuminating and worthwhile view’ of ‘liberal socialism,’ outlining its four essential features. In the footnote he references a book by John Roemer titled Liberal Socialism (1994), but I know of no such book by him and suspect the reference was supposed to be to another title published that same year and also by Harvard University Press (and Verso), namely, A Future for Socialism.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.16.07 at 1:49 pm

Sorry about that folks. When it didn’t post the first time ’round I re-wrote it and used a different e-mail address, hence the redundancy.


Jack 05.16.07 at 2:59 pm


Defining influence is a little bit tricky, but what I meant to suggest was that if Rawls has had a major impact on law, it would be because he has made a substantial contribution to important legal arguments. Unfortunately, I simply found no evidence of any such contribution during the three years that I spent in law school. I’m not sure what O’Donnell thinks there is consensus about – the vast majority of law professors, lawyers, and judges would probably say that Rawls influences their work to a very limited degree. Even the quote from Michelman doesn’t really appear to make the point O’Donnell wants; for all I know, the idea of the quote is that Rawls helps us to criticize SCOTUS opinions from a moral (not legal!) point of view. Although this might not be obvious to all, “law” differs from “legal theory” and “philosophy of law” as much as “science” differs from the “philosophy of science”: what I deny is that Rawls had much impact on law; I’d have to think about it some more before I could say what his impact has been on the meta disciplines. (Compare: While Thomas Kuhn had a major impact on the philosophy of science, I don’t think that anyone would claim that he influenced physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) In the last line of my previous post, the suggestion was that the idea that Rawls is very influential in law seems to me to stem in part from the fact that his work is discussed and appealed to in a few seminars at elite law schools. But to infer from that fact the further proposition that Rawls is influential generally, you’d have to conflate those seminars with the legal world as a whole, i.e. have a very narrow conception of law.

O’Donnell mentions that he did not attend HLS. I wonder: does O’Donnell have any legal training at all or is everything he thinks he knows about the law got at second hand? If the former, why doesn’t he just remind me of a salient legal argument with a Rawlsian premise? If the latter, how can he be so confident about the state of a discipline of which he is not a member?


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.16.07 at 5:01 pm

It’s rather tedious for me to continue this discussion, as it is going nowhere.

I have no formal legal training whatsoever. I’m rather well read in philosophy of law and legal theory however. You can look up my contributions to the PrawfsBlawg research canons project here: or earlier drafts of some of the material at Larry Solum’s Legal Theory blog. If you want evidence of my knowledge in this area you can write to Professor Dennis Patterson at Rutgers School of Law, Camden, and Dept. of Philosophy, New Brunswick, or to Professor Frank Pasquale at Seton Hall Law School, or to Professor Jeff Lipshaw at Suffolk Law School. The latter did an embarrassing profile of me here:

I have a contract for a dictionary of terms in philosophy of law and legal theory, have published a piece on stare decisis and have a forthcoming essay on social norms and law. I have other things forthcoming but will make them known a bit closer to publication if anyone is interested. My formal training is in Religious Studies and most of what I’ve published is in ‘Islamic Studies.’ Many of my academic interests are well-covered in an essay I wrote examining ‘critical thinking’ pedagogy for the online journal, Radical Pedagogy. With all due modesty and respect for those in the profession, experience has taught me that I know as much or more about the ‘state of the discipline’ (with regard to legal theory and philosophy of law) from the outside looking in than those who are counted among its members.

Professor Freeman has written and informed me that the reference in the Rawls volume should have been to the book edited by Pranab Bardhan and John E. Roemer: Market Socialism: The Current Debate (1993).


SeanD 05.16.07 at 5:55 pm


The claim you were responding to in your original comment above was Dworkin’s claim that Rawls has been enormously influential in, among other *disciplines*, the *discipline* of law. I take it that the ‘discipline of law’ includes, broadly speaking, everything legitimately done by law professors (‘disciplines’, after all, are sociological entities). That, I take it, includes at least legal theory, if not also philosophy of law and normative jurisprudence. Thus, even if you’re correct that Rawls has not been influential in ‘law’ construed narrowly as ‘legal argument’ (by which, I take it, you mean something like ‘the kind of argument that could be made in court’); this doesn’t support your original claim that Rawls has not been influential in law conceived more broadly as an intellecutal discipline. It is, I think, in this latter sense that Rawls’s importance to law is widely regarded as obvious.


Jack 05.16.07 at 6:55 pm


Thanks for your comment. Since I made my original post, it has occurred to me that it’s extremely difficult to define the contours of law, just as it’s difficult to define the bounds of philosophy. A possible set of problems with the definition you offer is that it is underinclusive – because there is a lot of law that law professors don’t do – as well as overinclusive – because some law professors legitimately venture off into other areas in which they are interested. Thus, I am not sure whether legal theory or normative jurisprudence are best thought of as parts of law proper or rather as separate disciplines unto themselves. Even if you do think that legal theory/normative jurisprudence are parts of law proper, they are relatively small parts of the legal curriculum at even elite law schools like Harvard and Yale. As a result, the fact that Rawls is highly influential in l.t./n.j. would not warrant the stronger conclusion that he is highly influential in law more generally speaking. At the risk of repeating myself, in my experience the vast majority of law professors, lawyers, and judges are influenced by Rawls in an extremely limited way. That is about all that I ever meant to convey when I said that rumors of Rawls’s influence in law are overstated.

(In response to Patrick S. O’Donnell, I suspect I would not be alone in saying that I have no interest in looking up your other blog posts, writing to law professors to ascertain your qualifications, or reading any of your supposedly forthcoming publications. Ditto regarding your strange invitation to browse through your documents or look through your books “if I’m ever out [your] way.” Given that your formal training is in Islamic thought, I hope you’ll let me conclude this pathetic exchange by saying how impressive it is that you’ve also managed to master political philosophy and law.)


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.16.07 at 7:15 pm


You raised the question regarding my training, knowledge and/or expertise. I answered it as best I could. I’ve yet to master anything in the academic world, but I do a pretty good job of hanging a door, building a gate….


Jack 05.16.07 at 7:57 pm


Once again, not quite right. The posting to which you were responding was actually a little bit more complicated than you appear to have noticed the first time around. My question was, either you’ve had some legal training, in which case why not remind me of a salient argument with an important Rawlsian contribution?, or you haven’t had training, in which case how can you be so confident about the law? You apparently do consider yourself to have some sort of training/knowledge/expertise, so in that case I ask again, why not remind me of a salient legal argument that bears traces of Rawlsian influence? As for your comment about doors and gates, I suppose you are now trying to affect a kind of modesty that has been sorely lacking to this point. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who follows what you write could possibly be taken in by that sort of thing.


loren 05.16.07 at 10:25 pm

jack, patrick: you’re totally killing my blog comments buzz. not cool, dudes.


David 05.16.07 at 11:44 pm

How interesting to be sitting in Tim Scanlon’s office today and have him point me to this discussion. I’d just come over from Rawls’s archived papers in the basement of Pusey Library at Harvard. There I’d been reading among other things letters between Rawls and Berlin. Setting aside the substance, which was both speculative and philosophically rich, Rawls very evidently liked and intellectually admired Berlin immensely and felt he learned alot from him.


vivian 05.17.07 at 1:55 am

Loren – skip forward two articles, click on the Doctorow link, inhale deeply and pass to the left.


josh 05.17.07 at 4:28 pm

Re David at 49: How interesting. I’d like to see some of those Rawls/Berlin letters.
Rawls was also evidently respectful of Berlin in his published work; and attending a seminar on the moral foundations of liberalism, given by Berlin and Stuart Hampshire at Oxford in the early ’50s, had a profound impact on Rawls — though (according to Thomas Pogge’s recent book on Rawls)probably the most influential participant in the seminar, from Rawls’s perspective, was H.L.A. Hart. Oh to have been a fly on the wall there!


David 05.17.07 at 9:37 pm

Re Josh at 51. Unhappily I haven’t yet turned up letters from the 50s or 60s. Still even the later letters are of interest. A later exchange with HLA Hart confirms something N. Lacey says in her book — namely that Hart worried that he never really did account for the distinctive normativity of law qua law as assessed from the point of view of those subject to it. He and JR recognize the gap between showing that officials are acting in a rule-governed way and thus have their reasons for exacting X from those subject to their ‘authority’, on the one hand, and showing that those from whom X is being exacted have even a prima facie reason to deliver X. Berlin and JR worried about this too but in the context of the ‘clash of civilizations’ in the international context.


wildcrier 05.17.07 at 10:11 pm

I think Jack is confusing the great influence that John Rawls has had in the thought process of modern jurisprudence with citing Rawls as a precedence in a courtroom by a judge or a lawyer which is quite out of place.Quite regardless of what Steven Smith says in his article in the New York Sun about John Rawls vis a vis the Berlin trio, I will agree with Amartya Sen that John Rawls is the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century not excluding Isaiah Berlin, Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott (ref:The Argumentative Indian). Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” and “Justice as Fairness” remain the most monumental work to this day.

Jack should get a transcript of Amartya Sen’s forthcoming lecture on the theory of justice at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University on the 30 May 2007 at 5pm which I am attending.

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