A more far-reaching example concerns John Rawls…A new study of his thought has shown when his A Theory of Justice (1971) is read in conjunction with his later Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (2000), as well as an unpublished manuscript containing notes for eighteen lectures on Kant and Hegel, it becomes clear that important elements of his theory derive from an elaborate and profound engagement with the thought of Hegel. But while Rawls’s enormous debts to Kant are well-known because amply elaborated in A Theory of Justice, his similar debts to Hegel – was something of a pariah in most analytic philosophy departments of that time – are virtually unknown because completely suppressed. In the six-hundred odd pages of the original edition of A Theory of Justice, there are only two fleeting mentions of his name. It would seem that, fearing the disapproval or at least the noncomprehension of his primary audience, Rawls remained silent about an intellectual relationship that is ultimately crucial for the full understanding of his thought. Needless to say, this limited act of concealment does not rise to the level of full-blown esotericism. The point, however, is that this forceful and high-minded moral philosopher, who was already safely ensconced at Harvard, was nevertheless moved to take a real step in the direction of esotericism by conditions of “adversity” that fell very far short of genuine censorship or persecution. Once you open your eyes to it, in short, you discover that defensive esotericism is so natural a phenomenon that even in the extremely open and tolerant environments of modern liberal democracies you still come across traces of it with surprising frequency.-- Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, 135. [HT Norma Thompson]
While I was preparing a post on Transformative Experience and Rawls, Scholar.google alerted me to the citation of my first adult publication on Hume's and Smith's friendship in Arnhart's perceptive, critical review of Melzer's book; Arnhart is also critical of Straussianism more generally. (I have never met Arnhart, and I was very pleased by his use of my work in criticism of Straussianism (recall).) Alerted by Thompson's review, I checked Melzer's book online for the treatment of Rawls, which I copied out above. In his footnote to the quoted passage, Melzer cites a Columbia dissertation by Margaret Meek Lange and a German book by Schaub; I was unable to locate either (but will keep looking).+
What to make of Melzer's interpretation of Rawls?
First, liberal democracies can also generate circumstances of persecution; Rawls lived through wartime censorship during the Second World War and the McCarthy era. George Reisch's scholarship has revealed that the Cold War inhibited public engagement by analytic philosophers (in fact, he credits Rawls with re-starting analytical philosophy's renewed engagement). A Theory of Justice was written during the polarization of the Vietnam war which generated its own censorship practices and fault-lines even at Harvard (recall this post on Railton). Moreover, as Melzer correctly notes, analytical philosophy was (and is) not hospitable to some intellectual enterprises (although the targets can shift--recall this post on Priest). It is, therefore, not silly to explore to what degree such facts shaped Rawls's presentation.++ Having said that, Melzer, who writes in an age of Snowden and Wikileaks, seems a bit too eager to flatter ("extremely open and tolerant environments of modern liberal democracies") some of his intended readers.
Second, one important legacy of Rawls on analytical philosophy -- one pointed out to me by Charles Larmore -- is his citation practices (obviously Larmore shouldn't be held responsible for my other ways of approaching Rawls). Whereas Oxbridge (recall) had taught analytical philosophers to do away with most footnotes (if you didn't know whose positions were being discussed obliquely you didn't belong in the game anyway), Rawls created a sense of community by including sources and critics alike into the conversation from the generous Preface onward (with self-critical footnotes on omitted references). It does not follow, of course, from this fact that Rawls would cite everybody and everything that matters to his development or that he would not practice some forms of "suppression," but it is odd to overlook this feature of Rawls (I return to this below).
Third, as a general rule one should be cautious in reading Rawls's later Lectures back into A Theory of Justice; it should especially be avoided as a means toward discovering his "debts" to earlier sources. These Lectures have many aims (including one that Rawls does not mention: the formation of a remarkably cohesive and institutionally successful school), but the least of these is to help the student and scholars retrace Rawls's sources for A Theory of Justice. (Here's one bit of evidence: Rawls effaces his knowledge of the economists--Knight is deleted from the story, and economics is treated as an enterprise distinct from philosophy (recall).)
Fourth, on p. 314 note 16, of A Theory of Justice, Rawls tells the attentive reader (while discussing Arrow and Knight) to "see the footnotes" in Arrow and Knight on particular pages. So, Rawls's note is modest evidence that Rawls is not stating explicitly all that he thinks is relevant in the pages of A Theory of Justice. These notes do, in fact, call attention to further historical sources for Arrow and Knight, and, perhaps, too, Rawls, and help explain the way the intellectual landscape is understood. (Some other time I'll say something about Knight's notes.) In particular, in his notes, Arrow mentions Rousseau and Milton in the context of discussing the 'Idealist' tradition (which in Arrow's presentation also includes Kant and T.H. Green.)** (I return to this footnote in the sixth and final point below.)
Fifth, Hegel clearly matters to Rawls of the Lectures, and I have no doubt he wants his student-audience to understand A Theory of Justice alongside Hegel. We know that Rawls owned and read Hegel's Philosophy of Right in German in a 1955 edition.*** So it is not impossible that Hegel was a very important source to Rawls in the sixties (after all, he cites him in English translation in A Theory of Justice). Rawls is confident enough to insist in a footnote that Hegel, in turn, is indebted to Smith's Wealth of Nations. But A Theory of Justice also calls attention to sources heavily influenced by and engaging with Hegel: in addition to Knight, Marx and Bradley deserve mention. Moreover, we know that Rawls had carefully read Bosanquet, Kelsen, and Schumpeter, and he owned the great Christian Liberal Idealist, Green (with whom Rawls has considerable affinity).
Finally, already in the original preface to A Theory of Justice, Rawls had made it clear that he understood that not all readers could grapple with his "long book" in the same way. He provides several road-maps (which allow one to taste the "essentials of the theory" and the "basic parts of the book" (xviii-xix). Rawls distinguishes among his readers in virtue of them having different conceptions of freedom to follow their "preferences and to look at the problems which most concern" them (xix). This hint shows that Rawls thought himself capable of writing for a heterogeneous audience. In fact, and surprisingly enough, the hint entails that Rawls thought his most careful or patient reader(s) were those most willing and capable to suspend acting on their preferences (self-command). We learn from the part of the book that Rawls tells his reader is safe to skip that "the morality of self-command... becomes truly supererogatory when the individual displays its characteristic virtues of courage, magnanimity, and self-control in actions presupposing great discipline and training" in the service of "superior ends in a manner consistent with justice." (419)
+ I found Meek Lange's "Exploring the Theme of Reflective Stability: John Rawls' Hegelian Reading of David Hume." Public Reason 1 (2009): 75-90, fascinating reading (and hope to return to it before long).
++ In addition, Rawls's stutter undoubtedly helped shape how he presented himself as persona and author.
* The notes also engage with Knight and his student, Stigler, especially the 1943 essay that I have discussed regularly in these Impressions (recall).
** It is a bit surprising, in fact, that Green is not a bigger presence in Rawls.
*** I thank David Levy for providing me with a copy of the catalogue offering from Rawls's estate.