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John Rawls: the Path to A Theory of Justice


This dissertation is an intellectual biography of American political philosopher John Rawls [1921-2002] from his early years to the publication of his classic work, A Theory of Justice [1971]. I focus the historical narrative on Rawls's changing conceptions of philosophy: his ways of raising ethical and political questions and justifying answers to them. I pay particular attention to two aspects of the conception of philosophy found in A Theory of Justice: its claim that ethical and political positions are defended by showing that all reasonable persons endorse them in their political judgments, and its aspiration to explicate all of these political judgments in terms of principles of justice.

This conception of philosophy was very influential for Anglophone political thought, contributing to the resurgence of analytic political theory in the 1950s and 1960s. I aim to understand the intellectual origins of this influential philosophical approach and thereby shed light on A Theory of Justice and contemporary political thought. Taking this historical approach, I follow the development of Rawls's thought, contextualizing him in contemporary traditions and analyzing his numerous private papers recently deposited in the Harvard University Archives.

I argue that, much to our surprise, Rawls's conception of philosophy originated in logical positivism, the very tradition that is thought to have foreclosed the possibility of political thought in the 1940s. Inspired by logical positivists, Rawls modeled ethics on the "method of science," and, taking ethical judgment as "data," tried to formulate principles, or laws, to explicate them. This analogy between reasoning in ethics and reasoning in science provided Rawls with a conception of objectivity: principles of justice were objective if they explicated the considered political judgments of all reasonable persons. This notion of objectivity made possible reasoned discussion on ethical and political issues and required attention to actual political questions. Yet it also committed Rawls to a contestable view that all reasonable persons agree on a sufficient number of political judgments to yield a conception of justice.

This conception of philosophy changed over the following two decades, but, I argue, it remained positivist. In the early 1950s, Rawls drew on linguistic philosophy's conception of ethical reasoning as a practice, and in the late 1950s he was led on the Wittgensteinian path of considering political questions against the background of seeing morality as a form of life. Nevertheless, the influence of his Harvard colleague W.V.O. Quine in the 1960s brought to light Rawls's positivist conception of philosophy. Rawls continued to justify political principles by the fact that all reasonable persons endorse them in their political judgments.

My historical narrative contests and supplements the traditional interpretations of Rawls as a Kantian or a theorist in the social contract and rational choice theory traditions. It therefore paints a different picture of 20th century Anglophone political thought. But, as I argue in Epilogue, my narrative also helps to illuminate Rawls's shift to Political Liberalism. Doing so, I hope it opens new questions about contemporary attempts to define shared political reasons.

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