Thursday, October 18, 2007

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

"John Rawls's Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, edited by Barbara Herman, was published in 2000 by Harvard University Press. Rawls there discusses the moral philosophies of Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel. In the Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (hereafter: LHPP) he covers Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Marx, Sidgwick and Butler. Although Hume's view of justice is treated in both volumes, there is otherwise no significant overlap; and the discussion of it in LHPP has a different focus than that in the moral philosophy lectures. (Kant's political philosophy is covered briefly in the latter, pp. 362-6.)

Discussing Sidgwick, Rawls makes a remark that gives us a good way of understanding one of the things he is doing in all these lectures. "Sidgwick's originality . . . ," Rawls says, "lies in his view that a reasoned and satisfactory justification of any particular moral conception must proceed from a full knowledge and systematic comparison of the more significant moral conceptions in the philosophical tradition." (LHPP 379) In A Theory of Justice and his other systematic works Rawls touches on moral conceptions other than his own, but gives no full treatment of them. His historical lectures richly provide such comparisons. Rawls says that he is "trying to think through a few political conceptions, all the way through, if possible." (LHPP 139) He concentrates on political theories that he sees as the ancestors of various forms of liberal thought. He starts with social contract theories; discusses Hume's objections to such theories; presents a detailed discussion of Mill's non-contractual version of liberalism; and then considers Marx's criticisms of liberal capitalism. The lectures on Sidgwick clarify essential points of utilitarianism. Those on Butler elaborate on moral psychology and emphasize the importance of a thinker's background beliefs -- in this case deistic. They also contain significant remarks on method in ethical theory. But they do not directly address the political questions that are the focus of most of the lectures."

full here