Kwame Anthony Appiah has a fascinating essay in the December 9 edition of The New York Review of Books. In it, he reviews A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, a Harvard philosophy student’s senior thesis, written in 1942, that would never have merited publication if that student, John Rawls, had not gone on to write, in Appiah’s estimation, “the most influential work of liberal political philosophy of the twentieth century.”
We discover that the great liberal philosopher began the life of a mind as a religious thinker who self-consciously molded his theories on the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. According to Appiah, A Brief Inquiry “is a polemic against any view in which human life is directed at some impersonal end.” Meaning is found in human relationships, which are expressions of God’s love. Although the young Rawls was interested in a categorical imperative of a much different sort, the young Rawls also sought to begin from a position of undeniable fact. But as opposed to the “original position” imperative found in A Theory of Justice (1971), the categorical imperative in the young Rawls was God: “there is a being whom Christians call God and who has revealed himself as Christ Jesus.”
Appiah goes on to discuss the variants of the later Rawls with clarity and depth. He analyzes the shift from the young neo-orthodox Rawls, who had an explicit conception of the good—God—to the Rawls of 1971, who had a Kantian conception of universal truth rooted in reason. In an ideal world, Rawls famously contended in A Theory of Justice, those who devised the rules of society would have no conception of the good, sheltered as they would be by the “veil of ignorance,” a device of universal reason. Appiah then analyzes the late Rawls of Political Liberalism (1993). Appiah writes:
“In Political Liberalism, however, the story has changed. Now, the ideals to which Rawls appeals are supposed to be derived from the shared consensus of democratic citizens with differing conceptions of the good as they are held in their own time and place. In this respect, both A Theory of Justice and the Brief Inquiry—one appealing to the universal truths of reason, the other to the eternal claims of Christianity—stand apart from Political Liberalism.”
Of note to USIH readers, Appiah invokes James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama to describe how the shift in Rawls tracked alongside “a broader shift in philosophy away from appeals to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals.” Perhaps as a reflection of his surveying the land of America circa the culture wars, in Political Liberalism Rawls argued that citizens ought to avoid appeals to religion. Perhaps this is the Rawls that Appiah is thinking about when he introduces him in the introduction of the essay. Appiah writes:
“A defining presupposition of his mature work is that, in modern multireligious societies, there are bound to be distinct and competing conceptions of what it is to live well. As a result, if our political system is to attract the reflective support of all reasonable citizens, it cannot depend on one such overall conception.”
With this, Appiah’s interest in and admiration for Rawls comes into focus. Appiah, famous in his own right for his work, among others, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, sees Rawls as a leading theorist of cosmopolitanism. I had never understood Rawls as such. I was more inclined to think of Rawls as my colleague Mike O’Connor does in his manuscript-in-progress on democratic capitalism—as perhaps the last leading Cold War liberal thinker.
By way of conclusion, I would like to pose questions. Does it make sense to think of Rawls as a cosmopolitan thinker? If so, what other American thinkers qualify as such—at any point in the twentieth century? The reason I ask is because I have been asked to write an intellectual history of U.S. cosmopolitanism for the Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitan Studies. Tentatively titled, “Americans and Others: Historical Identity Formation in the United States,” I am framing it as an intellectual history of those who thought about identity in relation to nation, ethnicity, and religion. I’ve recently been impressed by all of the bibliographies engendered by our blog discussions, and am hoping this post generates another such discussion. I am interested in both primary and secondary readings on this topic. Thanks for any help. Cheers.