Professor Marcus Arvan of the University of Tampa Philosophy Department, who originally posted under the webname One Philosopher's Musings, offers a quite interesting response to the rather pugnacious series of questions I posed as a response to his original comment. His response is too long to reproduce here -- I urge you to read it -- but one paragraph raises a question that I find quite interesting, and to which I have given a good deal of thought. Let me explain. Here is the paragraph:
"First, I want to suggest that one should [not ed.] interpret all of a person's work in terms of the very first thing they published. Authors change their minds and revise their views (heaven knows I have!), and one should respect that in interpretation. Since, at every point after "Justice as Fairness", in all of his subsequent work, [Rawls] uses the veil, appeals to a sense of justice, etc., he should be interpreted as such. It's only fair to interpret authors according to their considered views, not their earliest ones that they have come to refine or reject."
This immediately strikes one as measured, sensible, and, to use a word that Rawls favored, fair. It is also completely antithetical to the way in which I read a philosophical work, and I should like to explain why.
I never conceive myself as awarding prizes or rankings when I read a philosophical work. I am not weighing a candidate's chances for tenure, or determining who should get published, or choosing which thinkers deserve to join the Pantheon of the Immortals. I read a philosophical work for only one reason: because I have an intuition, a feeling, perhaps even a hope that I will find in it something powerful, suggestive, even important for my own philosophical concerns. I do not actually read very much, but what I do read, I read with great intensity. As the Good Book says of Jacob, I wrestle with the text and will not let it go except it bless me.
Now whether a text seizes one, and what in it seizes one, is an entirely subjective matter. For example, I find Jean-Jacques Rousseau's great work, Of The Social Contract, a powerful and provocative text, and I have wrestled mightily with it, but there are long stretches of it that interest me not at all, even though I imagine they were quite important to Rousseau. I do not think of myself as being unfair to Rousseau when I ignore them. Good Lord! He does not need my approbation to secure his place in the Heaven of our discipline.
Professor Arvan says that we ought not to interpret all of a person's work in terms of the very first thing he or she published, and that is certainly good advice on occasion. To cite just one famous example, it would never occur to me to insist that the Inaugural Dissertation of 1770 was Kant's most important statement of his philosophical views, and that we should ignore the First Critique where it deviates from the Dissertation position. But I would not describe such a view as unfair, simply as philosophically uninteresting, and as I readily agree, even insist, interestingness is in the eye of the beholder. I can still recall the uproarious arguments the late Samuel Todes and I had in our Kant Discussion Group in 1955-56, in which I off-handedly rejected Kant's elaborate Architectonic as mere philosophical thumb-twiddling while Sam defended it as the key to understanding everything in the text. Neither of us was right, nor was either of us being unfair. We were just giving boisterous youthful expression to two totally different ways of finding inspiration in the greatest work of philosophy ever written.
When it comes to Rawls, as I have already explained, what I find dramatically interesting in his work is the brilliant attempt to derive substantive principles of distributive justice from barren quasi-formal premises grounded in Social Contract Theory and Game Theory. The rest of what he wrote -- which is of course most of it -- bores me. Is this unfair? Of course not. I am not handing out prizes, posthumously or otherwise. Could someone else read the same book and find something quite different to focus on and think about? Professor Arvan demonstrates that the answer is patently yes.
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