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Lectures on the History of Political PhilosophyReview - Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy
by John Rawls
Belknap Press, 2007
Review by Glen Pettigrove, Ph.D.
Aug 28th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 35)

From 1962 to 1991, John Rawls served as a professor of philosophy at Harvard University.  One of the courses he taught repeatedly over this 30 year period was Philosophy 171 -- Modern Political Philosophy.  Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy invites the reader into Rawls's classroom to explore with him themes from the history of political thought.  The invitation comes complete with lecture notes, syllabus, and even the handouts Rawls distributed to students in the course.  It is an invitation well worth accepting.

Two kinds of reader, in particular, will welcome this book.  The first is the reader with an interest in seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century political philosophy.  Rawls focuses on Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Butler, Mill, Sidgwick, and Marx.  Rawls's lectures would be an excellent companion text for a course that examined these figures.  However, one need not be enrolled in formal academic study to find the book rewarding.  As with most lectures, the person who has been reading the primary texts under discussion will get more out of Rawls's lectures than will the one who merely reads Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.  Nevertheless, one need not have read Hobbes, et. al. to find Rawls's lectures interesting and instructive.

The second kind of reader who will welcome this book is the person with an interest in Rawls's own political philosophy.  One need not be familiar with Rawls's other work to find the text engaging.  However, those who are familiar with his corpus will find the lectures that much more rewarding, insofar as they will be able to trace their connections with themes that he explores at length elsewhere.  The lectures included in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy made up about half of the material covered in Rawls's political philosophy class.  The other half dealt with themes from A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971 -- the book for which Rawls is best known) and was eventually incorporated into Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard, 2001).  Because Rawls would be introducing students to his own work later in the course, he frequently takes the opportunity in these lectures to draw attention to questions that these authors raise to which Rawls himself attempts to give an answer in A Theory of Justice and the Restatement.  He explores the ways in which Hobbes and company respond to these questions, noting both the strengths and potential weaknesses of their answers.  Consequently, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy offers a more explicit indication of the influence that various historical figures had on the development of Rawls's own thought than is found in many of his other works.

The fundamental aim of political philosophy, Rawls suggests in the opening lecture, is "by study and reflection" to "elaborate deeper and more instructive conceptions of basic political ideas that help us clarify our judgments about institutions and policies" (1).  It examines our notions of "justice and the common good" and assesses how well actual and/or possible institutional arrangements promote them (5).  These opening remarks in many ways set the stage for the rest of the book.  For, although Rawls seeks to allow each author to speak in that author's own voice and address that author's own distinct questions, in each case, Rawls will return to the question, 'What are the author's conceptions of justice and the common good and what institutional arrangements does he think will best promote them?' 

The most plausible approach to the fundamental questions of political philosophy, Rawls thinks, is the one developed in the social contract tradition, which is exemplified in the work of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.  A central commitment of that tradition is that "A legitimate regime is such that its political and social institutions are justifiable to all citizens -- to each and every one -- by addressing their reason, theoretical and practical"(13).  One way to ascertain whether a regime satisfies this condition is to ask whether it is an arrangement that free people would choose to adopt for themselves.  Would thinking people who had a choice in the matter agree to enter a contract that had these details?  If so, then according to the social contract tradition, the arrangement is legitimate.  However, not all members of the social contract tradition agree about which arrangements would in fact meet with the assent of thoughtful people.  So one of the focal concerns explored in the lectures is the distinction between different representatives of the social contract tradition, and the reasons for the differences in their views.  Rawls's second focal concern in the book is with various criticisms that might be raised against social contract theory from outside the tradition.  He looks at five theorists who are in one way or another critical of the social contract tradition.  He uses three -- Hume, Mill, and Sidgwick -- to articulate strands of the utilitarian critique of and alternative to social contract theory.  The other two, Marx and Butler, enable him to articulate Marxist and intuitionist objections to aspects of the social contract tradition.

Although the book is unified around the theme of the social contract and its critics and around the question of the nature of justice, the common good, and the kinds of institutions and policies that might promote them, it does not aim to defend a single thesis or to develop a sustained argument.  It is in many ways like a wander through a workman's tool shed, collecting instruments that Rawls will eventually use in the construction of Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.  I shall highlight just a few of the many tools Rawls finds useful.

Perhaps the most common way to understand Hobbes's social contract is as a way of explaining how a civil society could have come into existence in the first place.  Interpreted in this way, the idea of people coming together and agreeing to limit some of their actions in exchange for certain benefits addresses the question, 'How and why did civic life originate?'  However, a second interpretation is possible and, Rawls thinks, more promising.  According to the second interpretation, Hobbes is less concerned with the evolution of society than with its devolution.  He is more interested in how one can keep an already existing society from coming apart at the seams in the way it did during the English Civil War.  In the face of the disasters that accompany the breakdown of society, "Hobbes thinks that all have a sufficient reason based on their own self-preservation and fundamental interests to enter into a covenant with all to authorize the Sovereign to continue to exercise his powers in perpetuity"(32).  On this reading, the idea of the social contract is most useful not as a tool for understanding the origins of society but rather as an argument in favor of its preservation. 

The concern to identify the conditions under which a society may enjoy stability is one of the tools Rawls collects from Hobbes and carries forward into his own work, beginning in part III of A Theory of Justice and continuing through Political Liberalism (Columbia, 1993) and the Restatement.  However, Rawls argues, Hobbes's attempt to ground a stable society in an arrangement that appeals exclusively to the (narrowly defined) self-interest of its citizens is doomed to fail.  Hobbes may be able to explain why it is rational for someone to submit to an effective sovereign, but he cannot adequately explain why it is obligatory, because one cannot adequately capture the ideas of obligation, fairness, the honoring of promises, and the like, merely by appealing to an individual's self-interest.  A stable society, Rawls argues, will need to be attentive to reasons grounded in "being fair-minded, judicious, able to see other points of view" -- what Rawls call the reasonable -- as well as those grounded in "furthering the advantage of oneself" -- which Rawls calls the rational (54ff.).

Locke takes a considerable step beyond Hobbes, Rawls suggests, by attending to both kinds of reasons, i.e., to both the reasonable and the rational.  He also appreciates the important difference "between a supreme (or final) e.g. legislative power and an unlimited one," which Hobbes overlooks (86).  As a result of overlooking these differences Hobbes mistakenly tried to ground political authority in the power of the sovereign to arrange society in such a way that it was in the rational self-interest of everyone to obey.  Locke, by contrast, argues that, "legitimate political power can only be founded on consent" (124).  This consent must be grounded in what is both "reasonable and rational from everyone's point of view" (129).

Rousseau adds two further ideas to the social contract tradition that Rawls considers particularly insightful.  The first is the idea that there is "a distinct form of self-concern that arises only in society."  It is a concern "which directs us to secure for ourselves equal standing along with others and a position among our associates in which we are accepted as having needs and aspirations which must be taken into account on the same basis as those of everyone else" (198).  In a well organized society, this social form of self-concern readies us to accept a principle of reciprocity, whereby we give to others the kind of attention and respect that we ask from them and they treat us in the same fashion.  In a badly organized society, the social form of self-concern may be perverted into arrogance, vanity, and the desire to dominate (199). 

The second of Rousseau's ideas that Rawls appropriates is the notion that legitimate political authority is grounded in what Rawls calls "public reason"(231).  When we engage in deliberation about a particular policy, we might do so from the point of view of narrow self-interest, a la Hobbes.  Or we may do so with an eye to the common good, i.e., to "social conditions that make possible, or assist, citizens' attaining their common interests"(225).  Legitimate political arrangements will be formed with an eye toward pursuing the common interest and promoting the common good, rather than on the basis of merely individual interests.  One reason we have for giving this sort or priority to our common interests is because doing so, Rousseau thinks, enables us to "realize the conditions of our capacity for free will and for our perfectibility without personal dependence"(243).  The lectures in which Rawls attempts to explain why Rousseau thinks our free will depends on being governed by laws that give priority to our common interests are among the richest in the book and are well worth more than one reading.

Having devoted 220 of the opening 250 pages to the development of the social contract tradition, Rawls then turns his attention to some of its historic critics.  Within the 'critics' section, the best-developed lectures are those devoted to Mill and Marx.  One of the ideas he explores in the Mill lectures is the way in which a utilitarian and a social contract theorist could come to agree on the fundamental principles of social and political life in spite of the fact that they disagree on what kinds of things have moral weight and why.  It provides a kind of case study in how people who adopt different moral viewpoints could nonetheless come to what Rawls calls "an overlapping consensus" (267).  That is, they can agree on basic principles for governing political life (the 'consensus' part of 'overlapping consensus'), even though there reasons for agreeing to these principles might be quite different (which is why he describes the consensus as 'overlapping' rather than, say, uniform).

The central question Rawls explores in his discussion of Marx is whether justice is merely a notion rooted in features of the economic and productive life of a society at a given period in time.  If it is, then it might be replaced and/or surpassed when society is organized around a different economic system.  Our notions of justice, even our clearest and most reflective ones, might not be relevant to a different society, especially a better one.  Having marched out a number of reasons for thinking notions of justice are inextricably tied to particular modes of production, Rawls then provides textual reasons for thinking this was not Marx's own view.  Rawls argues that Marx employs a conception of justice in his critique of the capitalist mode of production, a conception whose legitimacy does not appear to be inseparably bound to a particular mode of production.  If this argument is correct, then it calls into question the extent to which the ideal society should be thought of as existing "beyond justice" (371).

The lectures on Hume, Butler, and Sidgwick are less well developed than the other lectures in the volume.  These figures were not a regular feature of Rawls's Modern Political Philosophy course, so the notes did not get filled in and reworked as thoroughly as did those dealing with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and Marx.  Nevertheless, the lectures on Hume, Butler, and Sidgwick, like the lectures on Mill, will come as a welcome addition to Rawls's previously published Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (Harvard, 2000).  However, readers would be advised to supplement the two Hume lectures in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, with the four, much more polished, lectures on Hume that appeared in the earlier collection of lectures on moral philosophy. 

The conversation that unfolds in the course of these lectures is a wonderful illustration of the principle of charity in interpretation (see pages 52 and 268 for two of the many articulations of this principle that occur throughout the book).  Each lecture attempts to see what the author under review gets right, to lay out his arguments in the clearest and most persuasive way, and to bolster those arguments where needed in order to give them the firmest possible footing.  It also illustrates one of the challenges of charitable interpretation, which is that there is a fine line between making a position sound as persuasive as possible and making it sound as much like one's own position as possible.  Rawls, of course, is aware of this challenge and attempts to navigate it with care and integrity.  However, there are moments where the distinctions between, for example, 1) Hobbes's view, and 2) Rawls on Hobbes's view, and 3) Rawls's own view can be difficult to trace.  

On the whole, the Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy are a welcome addition to Rawls's corpus.  Both students with a general interest in the history of political thought and those with a more specific interest in Rawls's own political philosophy will find them well worth reading.



© 2007 Glen Pettigrove


Glen Pettigrove, Ph.D., School of History, Philosophy and Classics, Massey University, New Zealand.



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