Utanför Rawls ramar

A brief incident from my own life may serve here as an introduction. A little more than two decades ago at Harvard University, the same institution Coicaud attended while writing his book, I took a course in political philosophy from Professor John Rawls, author of the celebrated volume ”A Theory of Justice”. To my disappointment ‘political philosophy’ turned out to mean not much more than ‘moral theory’ so that any political manifestations and issues could be viewed only upon a very distant, almost invisible or unrelated horizon. […]

As was already my habit by then, I engaged in a self-invented ‘education through opposition’: after having discerned the biases and preferences of the instructor, I proceeded to write a paper (in this case, one later reworked for publication) that sought systematically and savagely to contest his views. […]

Now, liberal thought prides itself, certainly, upon its willingness to entertain aplurality of viewpoints. In the response of Rawls, perhaps the pre-eminent liberal theorist at the time, I discovered with a certain perverse inward satisfaction the limits to such professions of openness and pluralism. He refused to grade the paper and instead scrawled a page of comments . . . to explain why he would not comment upon it. Initially mystified and yet also intrigued, I requested a meeting at his office.

We spoke, cordially, for about a half an hour, at the end of which time he asked me, point-blank, ‘What are you: a sociologist, a historian, or what?’, each term, perfectly articulated, falling from his lips with a distinct expression of disdain – as if the very idea of introducing social considerations or just historical context into philosophical thinking about the political world had only now occurred to him for the first time and was immediately experienced with utter revulsion. My explanation that I was a student in his very own philosophy department and not some alien discipline’s import only increased our mutual sense of bafflement, and the interview quickly ended.

When I pointed out to his teaching assistant a few days later, with mock innocence and shock, that I had still not received a grade for the paper, she told me that it was ‘too different’ (so much for liberal tolerance…) and that she and Rawls had decided that it ‘would not receive any grade at all: A, B, C, D, or F’, adding that I would receive a B of some sort for the course, as if that was what should be of paramount concern and might somehow placate me. She quickly fled, running off to watch a Red Sox-Yankees game – a response that greatly upset me at the time, but which I, now older, less serious about myself, and more serious about baseball, can fully appreciate in retrospect.

David Ames Curtis, 2002. ‘Translator’s foreword’, i Jean-Marc Coicaud, Legitimacy and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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