John Rawls

National Humanities Medal


John Rawls is one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. But from his colleagues' descriptions, he doesn't give it away in his demeanor.

"He's famously modest as a person," says Professor T. M. Scanlon, a former student of Rawls who now teaches in the Harvard University philosophy department. "He's never expected any special treatment for his accomplishments and eminence in the field."

Rawls's eminence is indisputable. Says Scanlon: "He was instrumental in reviving political philosophy, raising it to a new level in the English-speaking community."

Rawls, 78, grew up in Baltimore. His father was a prominent lawyer. The example of his mother, at one time president of the League of Women Voters' Baltimore chapter, helped inspire his long-standing interest in women's rights.

After attending private school in western Connecticut, Rawls enrolled at Princeton University in 1939. "I don't think we know really how we become interested in something, or why," he told The Harvard Review of Philosophy in 1991. "We can only say what happened when. I went to Princeton and eventually became a philosophy major."

Following graduation, Rawls served army stints in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II. He returned to Princeton in 1946. During the final years of his doctoral studies, he met and married his wife, Margaret. Since their marriage in 1949, they have raised four children.

In 1950, he joined the Princeton faculty as an instructor. Drawing from his own work in moral theory and from close readings of economists like J. R. Hicks and Frank Knight, Rawls turned to the question of how people can arrive at reasonable principles of justice.

Rawls eventually conceived of a hypothetical state of equality, the original position, in which people did not know their own gender, race, religion, and other personal particulars. Rawls believed that, ignorant of such information about themselves, they would shape principles of justice that accommodated a broad range of individual rights.

As he developed his theory, Rawls held teaching posts at Cornell University and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1962. After his official retirement in 1991, he continued teaching until 1995.

Harvard law professor Charles Fried taught a course based on Rawls's research just before it was published as A Theory of Justice. Fried says he was compelled by "the fact that rigorous philosophical theory was being deployed in a way that led to quite determinate concrete applications, that it wasn't analysis of concepts merely but really that philosophy somehow had answers."

During the 1969-1970 academic year, Rawls intended to finish his book at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The year almost ended in disaster when the Rawlses received an early morning phone call informing them that the Center had been bombed.

"Jack's first reaction," says Margaret Rawls, "was to turn pale and say, 'I can't do it again.'" But the manuscript, while soaked, was still legible.

Since its publication in 1971, A Theory of Justice has been translated into two dozen languages and sold more than two hundred thousand copies. Last April, the Modern Library named it one of this century's one hundred best nonfiction books in English.

Rawls has continued to expand on the theory explored in his first work. In Political Liberalism (1993), he tackled the question of how a society could be both stable and comprised of members with reasonable yet contradictory beliefs.

This year saw the publication of a new edition of Theory and a volume of collected papers. The Law of Peoples, in which Rawls applies his theory to questions of international relations, appears this month, and a book of lectures on moral philosophy is slated for 2000.

The attention paid to his 1971 debut belies an ongoing preoccupation with how to shape a just society. In his preface to the Collected Papers, editor Samuel Freeman, a past student of Rawls who is currently associate professor of philosophy and law at the University of Pennsylvania, says Rawls's career is "guided by a reasonable faith that a just society is realistically possible."

By Pedro Ponce

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.