Rather unexpectedly, my remarks about Rawls have sparked a lively and interesting debate in the comments section of this blog. [I am never able to predict when this is going to happen, but it is fascinating to watch unfold.] Perhaps I might step in and say a few words about how I read a philosophy book. I do not wish to claim that this is the best way, or the only way. I do not even wish to urge it upon others. But a bit of explanation may be useful.
All of us try to write great philosophy, and only a handful of people in the last two and a half millennia have succeeded. [In this way, philosophy is rather like poetry. No one sets out to write mediocre poetry, but plenty of historians conceive of themselves as writing solid, useful, journeyman history.] I actually read very little, because I learn next to nothing from mediocre philosophy. But I have very sensitively attuned antennae that tell me when a book is one that I ought to read, because I may be changed by reading it.
The great works of philosophy, I believe, have been written by authors who -- if I may put it this way -- could sometimes see better than they could say. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Leibniz, Kant -- all of them had deep and powerful intuitions that they strove to articulate as clearly as they could. Quite often, the surfaces of their writings are filled with inconsistencies, contradictions, lacunae, unclarities. My job as a reader is to try to grasp the underlying idea, the intuition that drives them, and then to bring it to consciousness, spell it out, clarify it, until I can see it in all its beauty and power.
In a manner of speaking, I view reading a work of philosophy as a gamble. I gamble my time and energy on the bet that there is a powerful idea somewhere in it that I am willing to try to wrestle with until I can bring it into the open and examine it. Sometimes, of course, I lose the bet. I find that there is no powerful idea lurking in the text, and so I have wasted my time. But in struggling, as I have at one time or another in my life, with Hume's TREATISE, Kant's CRITIQUE, Marx's CAPITAL, or Kierkegaard's PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS, I have been rewarded again and again by what I have found. The implication of these remarks is that, as I conceive it, a reading of a philosophical text is a very personal and idiosyncratic undertaking. Many people have found great rewards in those parts of Kant's CRITIQUE that I consider so much boiler plate or filler, unworthy of serious attention. [When I was a graduate student, I and a small group of fellow students spent a year studying Kant together. I rejected Kant's architectonic as uninteresting and superficial, but the late and much missed Sam Todes found in it a source of great inspiration. We had wonderful arguments about the question, but I would never dream of suggesting that he had been wrong and I right.]
When I first read Rawls' early essay, "Justice as Fairness," it seemed to me that he had his hands on a fascinating and potentially powerful idea, so I engaged with it. What finally appeared in A THEORY OF JUSTICE was a much revised version of that idea, fleshed out with vast quantities of economics, moral psychology, and political science that I thought was outdated, uninspired, journeyman stuff. Therefore, in the book I wrote about his work, I ignored all those hundreds of pages, not because I thought they were unimportant to him -- quite the contrary -- but because I thought they had no spark of inspiration or interest at all.
The powerful idea was that one could use the techniques and modes of analysis of Game Theory to prove, or at least try to prove, a genuinely original and powerful theorem. Had Rawls succeeded, it would have been a triumph, in my judgment. But I concluded that he had failed. To my way of thinking, Reflective Equilibrium, the Strains of Commitment, and all the rest of it, was just so much filler, a kind of philosophical doodling not rooted in any powerful or interesting idea.
Many readers of A THEORY OF JUSTICE will disagree with me, of course. So be it. I have no urgent desire to argue with them. All I can do is extract from the text what looks tom me to be an original, powerful, and interesting idea, subject it to sufficient clarification that I can tell whether it succeeds, and then show the results of my efforts to my readers as clearly as I can.