Making Philosophy Matter to Politics

Martha Nussbaum,“Making Philosophy Matter to Politics,” New York Times, December 2, 2002


John Rawls, who died last week at the age of 82, was the most distinguished political philosopher of the 20th century. His is not a household name, in part because he disliked publicity. Yet, to a great degree, it is thanks to John Rawls that philosophy has continued to animate politics. He enters philosophy’s history alongside Locke, Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Kant. One of his characteristically generous contributions was to insist on the enduring significance of the writings of these historical figures: he constantly taught them in preference to his own.

When Mr. Rawls began his career, these figures and their themes — social justice, free speech, respect for human equality, religious pluralism — were neglected in philosophy. ”Logical positivism” had convinced people that there were only two things that it made sense to do: empirical research and conceptual analysis. Science did the first, philosophy the second. So moral and political philosophy became the analysis of moral and political concepts and how language conveyed them.

New York Times