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John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.

John Rawis, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

John Rawls's latest book, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, completes his theoretical works and provides an interpretation of six classic authors: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J.S. Mill, David Hume and Karl Marx. The book represents a collection of lectures which Rawls delivered during his Harvard professorship, edited after his death by Samuel Freeman. In his classic works, Rawls expounded the principles of modern political liberalism. In this latest publication, he outlines the intellectual predecessors from whom he drew his inspiration. The volume adds to Rawls' work by offering the reader the possibility to glimpse the way Rawls understood classical philosophy.

In the book's introduction, Rawls sets out the principles of political liberalism, seen as a regime of free and politically equal citizens. Moreover, this regime has to be justifiable to those over whom it imposes binding regulations. The book looks at six attempts at such justification. Further, the collection is divided into six parts, each corresponding to several lectures delivered by Rawls on different occasions. Each of these lectures touches upon a certain feature in the conception of the classical authors. The book's first chapter is dedicated to Hobbes' doctrine of state and law of nature and to his justification of the absolute sovereign. Further, Locke's doctrine is related to his resistance to royal absolutism and features discussions of the social contract and the theory of property. The principle of utility, as understood by Hume and Mill and the latter's justification of rights in term of utility are the central features of the next two chapters. Then, Rawls comes to Rousseau and discusses the issues of general will and amour-propre. Finally, Marx is understood as criticizing liberalism and capitalism from the point of view of justice.

The most important goal of the book, as Rawls repeatedly explains, is to place classical philosophy in its own context, rather than interpreting it from the point of view of our times. Thus, we should first understand the questions which the respective author was trying to answer. When such an exercise is attempted, Rawls avers, the answers given, though shallow and outdated by our time, seem deep and intriguing.

The innovation brought by this book is the application of modern concepts of philosophy to the interpretation of classical authors. Rather than scholastically reading old texts and summarizing views, Rawls breaks down these texts and arguments and builds upon them using concepts invented in the last decades. Two such examples easily come to mind when Rawls sets out to interpret Hobbes and Locke.

Hobbes' theories are put in the context of the British civil war. Rawls sees Hobbes as arguing for the necessity of a sovereign to end civil strife. On Rawls' interpretation, the Hobbesian state of nature is assimilated to the prisoner's dilemma game which was invented by mathematicians in the fifties and which has long since passed into philosophical use. By this analogy, Rawls shows how people in the Hobbesian state of nature face the collective action dilemmas associated with the lack of an enforcement agency. Moreover, by this comparison, Rawls aims to show how for Hobbes' people, it is rational to obey an absolute sovereign, under whom life cannot be worse than in the state of nature. Furthermore, Rawls employs the distinction between reasonable and rational to present Hobbes' conception of the law of nature as reasonable and the way of enforcing it, the absolute sovereign, as rational, given the uncertain conditions of the state of nature. Reasonable action is taken to mean offering fair terms of cooperation, while rational is understood as maximizing one's own advantage.

Secondly, Rawls argues that Locke's doctrine is a way to justify resistance to royal absolutism under a mixed constitution. Rather than discussing whether a social contract ever took place in the form described by Locke, Rawls interprets Locke's social contract theory as a hypothetical contract under which only certain political regimes could arise He shows how, even if a meeting of primeval people never occurred, the social contract method could be understood as a test for the legitimacy of regimes. Rawls interprets Locke as asking "What regimes could and could not be instituted if a gathering of rational and politically equal and free individuals would have ever occurred?" This interrogation is valid regardless of how actual regimes actually came about. When viewed in this light, the only regime which is excluded, in Rawls's interpretation of Locke, is royal absolutism, which violates the natural rights individuals would have kept for themselves. Moreover, Rawls defends Locke's limitations of suffrage by showing how they are consistent with his approach, even if unjustifiable under modern standards. By interpreting Locke's social contract as an original position with a very thin veil of ignorance and by using game-theoretical approaches, Rawls maintains that a class state could have come about in Locke's conception.

Another clarification and innovation is brought by two interpretations of Rousseau which save the latter from charges of being a totalitarian political philosopher. Firstly, Rawls interprets Rousseau's concept of the general will very differently than others, for example Isaiah Berlin. Rawls refuses the holist and collectivist interpretation of the general will and maintains that Rousseau never envisioned it as the will of the supra-individual collectivity. Rousseau opposed the sacrifice of a single individual for the survival of the community. Rather, the general will is the aggregation of the reflections of each citizen when this citizen chooses to abstract from his thinking reasons pertaining to his own personal interests. When each citizen thinks in rational terms, detaching themselves from the issue at hand, and when these thoughts are aggregated by a vote, the general will is revealed. Moreover, Rawls' Kant-inspired interpretation of Rousseau's concept of amour-propre, as having both an equalitarian meaning, the desire to be recognized by others as an equal and a perverted meaning, the desire to dominate others, show Rousseau to not be inconsistent when arguing that in the society of the social contract, amour-propre is fully realized.

One weakness comes from the way it was conceived. A mix of tape-recorded lectures and handwritten notes make the book somewhat more difficult to read than the Rawlsian classics, which are known for their clear style. Rather than including complicated sentences and ambiguous philosophical utterances (see Karl Popper's denunciation of Hegel for such examples), Rawls set out his philosophy in clearly separated thrusts, each explaining and arguing for a certain principle. This fluency and readability is often encountered in the book under review. However, at other times, the writing is incongruent and the argument simply jumps from one idea to the other. Most probably, these passages have been compiled from different sources and the disparities are obvious.

Concluding, Rawls' Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, represents a new way to approach old sources. It allows the modern reader an interpretation more akin to the style of current writings in political philosophy. Moreover, the book is addressed not only to philosophers, but also to the general public, contributing thus to Rawls' goal of making political philosophy a part of democratic culture.

Valentin Stoian

Central European University
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Author:Stoian, Valentin
Publication:CEU Political Science Journal
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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