Cover: Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, from Harvard University PressCover: Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy in PAPERBACK

Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy

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$27.00 • £21.95 • €24.50

ISBN 9780674030633

Publication: September 2008


496 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

3 line illustrations, 7 tables

Belknap Press


A definitive and magnificent version of Rawls’s teachings on the history of political philosophy… The distinction between the rational and the reasonable runs through these lectures, and through all of Rawls’s writings. Its importance signals one essential task that political philosophy should assume even in a democratic age: democracies cannot long endure, however high-sounding the principles they profess, unless their citizens learn to love and to practice the civic virtues of fairness and open discussion that alone can make these principles a reality… Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy shows us a Rawls keenly aware of the historical underpinnings of his own theoretical constructions… His Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy complement more systematic works such as A Theory of Justice. They make plain how the careful analysis of the insights and the limitations of his predecessors helped him to fashion many of the elements of his own political thought… Rawls’s writing is at its most powerful when he thus casts aside his contractual scaffolding and speaks directly to our political conscience. Then he impels us to see more clearly than before the moral substance of the democratic ideal. He shows us in an exemplary way how philosophy can be democratic.—Charles Larmore, The New Republic

Rawls was a dedicated and remarkably winning teacher, deeply admired by generations of grateful Harvard University pupils. Reading Lectures you can see why. The tone throughout is unassuming but assured, the purpose consistently to make clear, to get into steady common view what he took to be the key issues in the grand texts that he chose to explore. There is something soothing and encouraging about being guided through the works of Hobbes and Locke, Hume and J. S. Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Bishop Butler—and even Karl Marx—in these calm and measured tones… There is much quiet pleasure to be drawn from these pages, as well as a great deal of instruction about the terms in which Rawls came to frame his own ethical conceptions and the secular liberalism he believed them to imply. Anyone seriously interested in the development of Rawls’s thinking and his sense of the relations between his approach and those of major predecessors in the history of Anglophone liberalism will find the insight it provides on numerous points indispensable.—John Dunn, The Times Higher Education Supplement

While many contemporary philosophers have deliberately shunned the history of political philosophy as irrelevant to ‘doing’ philosophy, Rawls shows himself to be a conscientious and painstaking reader of the great works of the philosophical tradition of which he was a part. He regarded his own work as both indebted to and as culminating the great tradition that he interprets for his readers.—Steven B. Smith, The New York Sun

Rawls has an enormously authoritative and interesting way of thinking and writing about the history of philosophy. His approach and tone is that of a world-class athlete watching old films to analyze the technique of his great predecessors. It is a pleasure to listen in.—Matthew Simpson, Journal of the History of Philosophy

John Rawls is perhaps the most influential Western political philosopher of the twentieth century. The late Harvard philosopher’s 1971 A Theory of Justice is often credited with bestowing that title upon him. In that book he drew on the works of John Locke and Immanuel Kant, among others, to criticize utilitarian theory and defend an egalitarian version of political liberalism. This volume draws together his Harvard lectures on political philosophy and liberalism, providing his insights and interpretations of Locke and Kant, as well as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others. In these lectures Rawls reveals how he interpreted these philosophers both in light of their historical circumstances and problems they were trying to address, and also in light of contemporary political debates.—D. Schultz, Choice

After the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, Rawls (1921–2002) became the most influential moral and political philosopher in the Western world. As such, the issuing of this posthumous volume, carefully edited by Freeman, a former student and teaching assistant from Rawls’s courses at Harvard University, is a major event.—David Gordon, Library Journal