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Monday, August 29, 2016


Gene Wilder has passed way.  He gave me some of my favorite cinematic moments, in Young Frankenstein, in The Producers, in Blazing Saddles, and in many other films.  He was  a year older than I am now.  He was a gem.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Tomorrow at one p.m. I shall give the first Kant lecture.  In a day or two thereafter, it will be posted on YouTube. There is no assigned reading for tomorrow's class, for those valiant souls planning to follow along.  We shall see whether anyone shows up.  I plan to do my best to register those who do show up to vote.  Waste not, want not.


The comments on my post about Rawls and reading a philosophical text indicates that I failed to make myself clear, so let me try one more time.  S. Wallerstein asks “Couldn't you say that Plato's Republic is one educated Greek's sense of justice?  Does that make it any less worth reading? If that is the case, why does the fact that Rawls’ Theory of Justice is one educated person's sense of justice make it any less worth reading?” 

Of course you can say, if you believe it, that Plato’s Republic is one educated Greek’s sense of justice.  And if that makes the Republic an interesting work for you, then by all means read it that way.  The same for A Theory of Justice [although no one is going to suggest that they are equally great works.]  My point was that powerful works of philosophy can sustain competing and even diametrically opposed readings because their authors are struggling with the articulation of insights that may not be entirely compatible with one another and which they may have difficulty bringing to the surface of their writing.  Inasmuch as “powerful” in this context is not descriptive but rather evaluative, serious readers will differ not only about how to interpret certain texts but even about which texts deserve the encomium “powerful.”

Why am I not interested in reading A Theory of Justice as “one (educated) person’s” sense of justice?  Because I do not find John Rawls to be in this regard an interesting person.  Jack was very smart and very widely educated, but his writing exhibits no influence of Freud, of Marx, of Mannheim, of Durkheim, no easy familiarity with the concepts of ideology, repression, projection, displacement, little or no evidence of having been powerfully influenced by great novelists or poets.  His perspective is transparently that of an upper middle class member of the privileged professoriate.  Indeed, as I show in my book [but cannot go into here as it involves some technical mathematics], his argument for maximin as the principle of choice in the Original Position makes sense only if one assumes that the person deliberating is just such an upper middle class professional pretty well satisfied with his place in the income pyramid.

BUT THAT IS JUST ME.  That is not intended as an argument that no one else should find Rawls’s book interesting as a meditation on one (educated) person’s reflection on his sense of justice.  It would be absurd to say to someone, “You ought not to find that interesting, even though you say you do.”

By the way, is there anyone out there sophisticated enough as a reader to understand the deep significance of the brackets around the word “educated?”  I say no more.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


LFC offered a long and very interesting comment in response to my post about the old Rawls letter.  Since I have written a book about this subject, my natural response would be simply to suggest that anyone wishing to pursue the subject simply read the book.  But the comment raises an issue that lies at the heart of my interpretation of the Critique of Pure Reason, about which I shall start lecturing on Monday.  So mas a kind of preparation for those lectures, I have decided to write a rather lengthy response to LFC.  Let me ask that you first read the comment, which I reproduce here.  Then I will begin my extended response.

LFC said...
“It seems to me that one way to think of the argument in A Theory of Justice might be as follows:

1) Most people want to act justly: they have a 'sense of justice' and at least some
desire to act in accordance w/ it.

2) But most people are too busy in their daily lives to have thought in a systematic way about what their largely intuitive sense of justice actually leads to or means for the way in which society should be set up.

3) The hypothetical contract situation of the original position, although presented in parts of the book as an exercise in bargaining theory, is actually a mechanism or a means for getting the reader to think more carefully about what his/her intuitions about justice (and desert) require or lead to.

4) So the argument assumes the reader starts w/ certain intuitions and that those intuitions can be clarified and systematized w/ the help of the thought experiment that is the original position. There is a passage toward the beginning (p.50, '71 edition) where Rawls says that "everyone has in himself the whole form of a moral conception." The suggestion perhaps is that, to put it metaphorically, there is a moral philosophy in embryo in everyone waiting to emerge w the help of the author-as-guide. Here's a bit more of the passage:

"...if we can describe one person's sense of grammar we shall surely know many things about the general structure of language. Similarly, if we should be able to characterize one (educated) person's sense of justice, we would have a good beginning toward a theory of justice. We may suppose that everyone has in himself the whole form of a moral conception. So for the purposes of this book, the views of the reader and the author are the only ones that count. The opinions of others are used only to clear our own heads."

One might wonder why, if R. were concerned to establish this direct, sort of intimate exchange with the reader, he proceeded to write 600 often dense pages. But perhaps this is one reason why he felt the need, much later, to publish the much shorter Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (which I haven't read).”

OK, got that?  Now, here we go.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Anglo-American moral philosophy was locked in a seemingly endless and fruitless debate between Utilitarianism and Intuitionism.  Each side was adept at mounting telling criticisms of the other, but was unsuccessful in responding to its opponent’s critique.  The principal defensive theoretical innovation of the Utilitarians was the distinction between Act and Rule Utilitarianism.  The principal defensive theoretical innovation of the Intuitionists was the concept of prima facie duties.

Into this stalemate stepped John Rawls with an idea for resolving the standoff.  Rawls’ idea, which was really quite brilliant, was to reach back in the history of modern philosophy to a tradition that antedated both modern Utilitarianism and Intuitionism, namely Social Contract Theory, and marry it to a hyper-modern branch of Economics then making a stir, Game Theory.  Social Contract Theory was the foundation of all the varieties of modern Democratic Theory, and dated from the seventeenth century writings of Thomas Hobbes and others.  Game Theory was the brainchild of the great Hungarian-American mathematician John Von Neumann [who was also one of the creators of the modern computer.]

Rawls’ idea was to prove a theorem in Bargaining Theory to the effect that a group of rationally self-interested individuals like those posited by Social Contract Theory would, in a bargaining session, coordinate unanimously on a pair of principles for the regulation of their social life that captured what was best in both Utilitarianism and Intuitionism.  Rawls announced his idea in a journal article, “Justice as Fairness,” published in 1958 when he was only thirty-seven.  In that article, Rawls sketched his theorem [explicitly labeled as such], and enunciated a first version of what would in subsequent iterations become his famous Two Principles of Justice.  Rawls acknowledged that the proof needed some more detail and development before it was nailed down, but any reader would have concluded that it was only a matter of time before the full theorem would be on view.  [I have always believed, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Rawls dreamed of producing a monograph as powerful as Kenneth Arrow’s brilliant Social Choice and Individual Values, a 1951 version of Arrow’s doctoral dissertation.]

The theorem as stated in the 1958 article was invalid, a fact that I demonstrated eight years later in a Journal of Philosophy article titled “A Refutation of Rawls’ Theorem on Justice.”  The next year [but not, I have reason to believe, in response to my refutation], Rawls published an essay called “Distributive Justice” in which he made major changes both to the bargaining game and to the Two Principles.  It was in this article that there appeared for the first time the Veil of Ignorance, Life Plans, the Index of Primary Goods, and the stipulation that social and economic inequalities were to work to the benefit not of all persons but only to the benefit of the Least Advantaged Representative Man [there are no women in Rawls’ theory, but then there are no women in In Defense of Anarchism either – we all had some consciousness raising to do in those days.]  The theorem implied in Rawls’ mature theory isn’t valid either, as I demonstrated at some length in Understanding Rawls.

As LFC demonstrates in his lengthy quotation from A Theory of Justice, Rawls markedly backs away from claims about theorems and proofs.  So why do I go on about them?  Why do I stubbornly, and seemingly ungenerously, refuse to take Rawls at his word regarding what he is doing in his philosophy?  That is indeed the question.  It brings me to the connection between Rawls and my upcoming lectures on Kant, which is the real point of this post.

The simple but actually very profound answer is that if we take Rawls at his original word and read his corpus of writings as an extended but ultimately unsuccessful effort to prove a very powerful theorem, then what he has to say is interesting, whereas if we take him at his mature word and read his interminable book as a characterization of  “one (educated) person's sense of justice,” then what he has to say is boring and not really worth bothering about.

Now that is a thoroughly subjective judgment, but it is, I think, the judgment each of us must make in deciding which pieces of philosophy to spend time reading, puzzling over, and thinking about.  Let me state flat out the conclusion I have come to after a lifetime spent with the writings of such immortal geniuses as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant.  Great philosophers think deeply and powerfully about important questions, seizing on an insight and refusing to let it  go, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of Lord, unless it bless them.  These thinkers are not overly concerned with surface consistency or neatness, concerning themselves instead with the ideas they can see lying beneath the surface, concealed from our eyes but not from theirs.  When we make the decision to commit our time and intelligence with their texts, we make a gamble that the struggle will be worthwhile.  And because the surface of the text is so often puzzling or ambiguous, we must make a decision which leads to follow, which ideas to take as central and which to set aside as distractions.  This choice is always subjective, interested, personal, and ultimately idiosyncratic.  That is why, even after two and a half millennia, modern scholars still find new threads to lead them into the depths of a Platonic or Aristotelian text.

This is a description of what I did, sixty years ago, when I grappled with the Transcendental Deduction of the Critique in my doctoral dissertation, and then, several years later, in my book Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity.  It is what I shall do in the lectures that begin on Monday.  And it is, in a lesser way, to be sure, what I do when I consider Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  It is for this reason that I persist in construing Rawls as searching unsuccessfully for a theorem rather than articulating “one (educated) person's sense of justice.”

Thus my response to LFC.

Friday, August 26, 2016


My son points out to me that my book on Rawls was called Understanding Rawls, not Reading Rawls, which was actually the title of a collection of essays [to which I did not contribute.]  It is really bad when you cannot even remember the titles of your own books!


In my Autobiography and elsewhere I have written a good deal about my personal relationship with Jack Rawls.  As some of you may recall, he and I were colleagues for a year [1959-60, I believe] when I was an Instructor in the Harvard Philosophy Department and he was a Visiting Professor [he returned in 1961-62, as I recall, as a regular member of that department where he then taught until his retirement.]  Jack published his hauptwerk, A Theory of Justice, in 1971 and six years later I published the first book-length critique, Reading Rawls.  Since Rawls is widely viewed as one of the most important 20th century philosophers to write in English, and is perhaps world-wide the most important political philosopher of the past 150 years, there is some value in adding to the public record any information about his views of the philosophical response to his work.

This morning I was cleaning up my office and throwing out various things that have accumulated when I came across a letter Jack wrote to me in 1977.  I am going to reproduce it here verbatim, for such interest as it may hold to students of his work.  A few words of explanation are called for.

Stephen Strasnick was a Harvard doctoral student who wrote a dissertation on Rawls’ theories under the directorship of a committee consisting of Rawls himself, his philosophy colleague Robert Nozick, and the great economist Kenneth Arrow.  In his dissertation, Strasnick undertook to produce a formal proof of Rawls’ so-called Difference Principle.  He published the proof as an article in the Journal of Philosophy in 1976.  I read the article while I was sitting in an airplane, returning from giving a talk somewhere in Ohio.  Something seemed wrong to me about the proof, and when I got home I took a close look at it.  In December of that year, I published a refutation.  Strasnick’s error was actually rather interesting [at least if you like that sort of thing!]  His idea was to adapt the logical framework of Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem and use it to try to prove the Difference Principle, but he failed to note that Arrow assumes ordinal preference whereas Rawls implicitly assumes cardinal utility functions.  The result was that Strasnick’s premises, when correctly interpreted, reduced to tautologies entailing nothing significant and certainly not the Difference Principle.  I sent a copy of my refutation to Jack when it appeared, and what follows is his handwritten response, dated Mar(ch) 27 (1977).  By the way, Jack’s reference to Bob is to his son, who majored at UMass in an undergraduate interdisciplinary program called Social Thought and Political Economy which I created and was then running.

                                                                                                            Emerson Hall
                                                                                            Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
                                                                                                                    (617) 495

Dear Bob

            Many thanks for your piece on Strasnick, just received.  I find myself at the moment in a tangle trying to collect myself for a brief trip abroad, and don’t know when I shall be able to look at it.  But hope to, once I get myself in one piece when I get back.  I was away last year and didn’t see S’s final thesis draft until after the oral exam (Arrow & Nozick were the committee), though I knew of the theorems.  I think they are correct, but heavens knows, they are not well presented.  Your essay interests me;   because I am puzzled by these formal proofs; and other proofs that have been formal [or possibly, “that have been found”]  There are 4 or 5 proofs of the DP floating around now – all more or less the same, I think.  Strasnick’s were as early as any.  It’s hard to know what their real significance is.  Anyway

            Thanks for your paper -- & keep flourishing.


PS  Bob is enjoying UMass, for which I’m grateful, and to you for a big part of that.

That was the last I heard from Jack about Strasnick and my article.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


It is my understanding that “blog” is a contraction of “web log,” which carries with it the implication that a blog will be someone’s account of matters personal.  This blog, for the most part, has failed at that effort, including instead extended discussions of intellectual and political topics that can only by the loosest construction be called “personal.”  Still and all, I feel a certain residual obligation to adopt the confessional voice, so I am happy to announce that today Susie and I mark our twenty-ninth anniversary.  We shall celebrate by trying out a restaurant called St. Jacques in Raleigh that bills itself as offering authentic French cuisine.  Inasmuch as it is located in a mall, I am perhaps understandably a trifle skeptical, but the on-line menu does list frogs’ legs, which Susie particularly likes, so perhaps the evening will go well.

Twenty-nine years is a good run, but hardly remarkable.  Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that later on in the fall, we shall reach the sixty-eighth anniversary of our first date.  I was fourteen and smitten with the pretty girl sitting at the desk in front of me in home room in Forest Hills High School.  I got up the courage to ask her out on a date [a revival of Marcel Pagnol’s pre-war film C├ęsar], and we went steady for five years.  It then took me another thirty-two years to marry her. 

Nobody ever accused me of being a fast worker.