Tuesday, November 13, 2007

It is distinctive of modernity to consider every normal adult as capable of reasoning about political matters

Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy
John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Samuel Freeman (ed.), Harvard University Press, 2007, 459pp., $35.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780674024922.
Reviewed by J. B. Schneewind, Johns Hopkins University
The "Introduction" to these lectures is an essay on the authority and social roles of political philosophy, and its audience. For Rawls political philosophy in modern society has no special authority. It is simply a continuation -- more intense and perhaps more coherent -- of what citizens are able to think concerning their own political institutions. Rawls insists that it is distinctive of modernity to consider every normal adult as capable of reasoning about political matters. To say that reason is to settle issues is just to say that we must "present our views with their supporting grounds in a reasonable and sound manner so that others may judge them intelligently. "(LHPP 2) This is a fine introduction to the lectures and -- beyond that -- an essay that should be read by anyone engaged in working on the subject.
Rawls says he follows Collingwood in taking it that political philosophy is "a series of answers to different questions" arising from various pressing problems in the societies in which the theories were produced. (LHPP xiii.) Though he qualifies this later, noting that there are "certain basic questions that we keep on asking", (LHPP 103) he does, as I have indicated above, orient his discussions by outlining the problem each of his subjects took as central. His main concern, however, is to get at the main arguments in the texts he teaches. He stands apart from the contextualizing work done by Quentin Skinner and John Pocock and the many historians who follow them. He nowhere mentions civic humanism and classical republicanism, though much of the literature about them was available while Rawls was lecturing. His approach is closer to that of the classical work of George H. Sabine than to the kind represented in the recent Cambridge University Press volumes on the history of political theory.
His agreement with Collingwood, moreover, does not take him as far as it might. He does not try to relate the works by his theorists to the common languages of political thought, as shaped by the politicians, historians, preachers, rhetoricians, journalists, party apologists, pamphleteers and essayists of their times. He says once or twice that it would be inappropriate to describe a given work in some way because the writer himself would not have used such language. (LHPP 82, 368) Yet he describes the main argument in each of his major philosophers in terms of what would be done or accepted by "rational and reasonable" agents in his own specific sense of those terms. His subjects do not use that vocabulary; and Rawls does not have a major interest in recovering the way the past looked to and was described by those who lived it. If this is not in any conventional sense a "Whig" history, it is a most Rawlsian one.

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