It is difficult to overstate the importance of John Rawls to political and moral philosophy. Yet Rawls’s work is commonly read as fundamentally divided between “early” and “late” periods, which are marked mainly by the publication of his two major books, A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993). The most common account of Rawls’s intellectual trajectory has it that the later Rawls came to regard the project of A Theory of Justice as deeply flawed. That is, Political Liberalism is often read as an attempt to dial back or even renounce the project of A Theory of Justice. In fact, Political Liberalism is commonly taken to represent a drastic lowering of the ambitions for political philosophy as such.
In his book, Why Political Liberalism? On John Rawls’s Political Turn (Oxford University Press, 2010), Paul Weithman meticulously develops and defends a non-standard account of Rawls’s turn from the view proposed in A Theory of Justice to that of Political Liberalism. According to Weithman, both works are centrally focused on the very same problem, namely, how a stably just society is possible among creatures like us. Weithman argues that Rawls’s “turn” involves not a change of topic, or a lowering of ambition, but a change in how Rawls understood the nature of social stability. If Weithman is correct, the standard understanding of Rawls’s philosophy must change significantly. Perhaps more importantly, if Weithman is right, many of the most common criticisms of Rawls more obviously miss their mark.
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