The Public Interest

The antipolitical philosophy of John Rawls

Brian C. Anderson

Spring 2003

AFTER the liberal philosopher John Rawls died of heart failure at the age of 81 last November, obituaries and remembrances in prominent places testified to the man’s greatness as a thinker. The New York Times led the way, publishing three notices of Rawls’s passing: an obituary declaring that he “gave new meaning and resonance to the concepts of justice and liberalism”; a “Week in Review” piece arguing that he provided “intellectual spine to liberals seeking tough-minded defense of their instinct to take from the rich and give to the poor”; and a lengthy op-ed by Martha Nussbaum, who called him “the most distinguished philosopher of the twentieth century.” The Times’s counterpart in England, the Guardian, asserted that Rawls “rejuvenated and transformed the study of political philosophy.” Rawls’s Harvard colleague (and critic) Michael Sandel, writing for the New Republic, bordered on the reverential. Sandel recalled the phone call he received from Rawls upon first arriving at Harvard as a young professor: “This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S.” For Sandel, “It was as if God himself had called to invite me to lunch and spelled his name just in case I didn’t know who he was.”

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