In my Autobiography and elsewhere I have written a good deal about my personal relationship with Jack Rawls. As some of you may recall, he and I were colleagues for a year [1959-60, I believe] when I was an Instructor in the Harvard Philosophy Department and he was a Visiting Professor [he returned in 1961-62, as I recall, as a regular member of that department where he then taught until his retirement.] Jack published his hauptwerk, A Theory of Justice, in 1971 and six years later I published the first book-length critique, Reading Rawls. Since Rawls is widely viewed as one of the most important 20th century philosophers to write in English, and is perhaps world-wide the most important political philosopher of the past 150 years, there is some value in adding to the public record any information about his views of the philosophical response to his work.
This morning I was cleaning up my office and throwing out various things that have accumulated when I came across a letter Jack wrote to me in 1977. I am going to reproduce it here verbatim, for such interest as it may hold to students of his work. A few words of explanation are called for.
Stephen Strasnick was a Harvard doctoral student who wrote a dissertation on Rawls’ theories under the directorship of a committee consisting of Rawls himself, his philosophy colleague Robert Nozick, and the great economist Kenneth Arrow. In his dissertation, Strasnick undertook to produce a formal proof of Rawls’ so-called Difference Principle. He published the proof as an article in the Journal of Philosophy in 1976. I read the article while I was sitting in an airplane, returning from giving a talk somewhere in Ohio. Something seemed wrong to me about the proof, and when I got home I took a close look at it. In December of that year, I published a refutation. Strasnick’s error was actually rather interesting [at least if you like that sort of thing!] His idea was to adapt the logical framework of Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem and use it to try to prove the Difference Principle, but he failed to note that Arrow assumes ordinal preference whereas Rawls implicitly assumes cardinal utility functions. The result was that Strasnick’s premises, when correctly interpreted, reduced to tautologies entailing nothing significant and certainly not the Difference Principle. I sent a copy of my refutation to Jack when it appeared, and what follows is his handwritten response, dated Mar(ch) 27 (1977). By the way, Jack’s reference to Bob is to his son, who majored at UMass in an undergraduate interdisciplinary program called Social Thought and Political Economy which I created and was then running.
DEPARTMENT OF PHILOSOPHY
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
Many thanks for your piece on Strasnick, just received. I find myself at the moment in a tangle trying to collect myself for a brief trip abroad, and don’t know when I shall be able to look at it. But hope to, once I get myself in one piece when I get back. I was away last year and didn’t see S’s final thesis draft until after the oral exam (Arrow & Nozick were the committee), though I knew of the theorems. I think they are correct, but heavens knows, they are not well presented. Your essay interests me; because I am puzzled by these formal proofs; and other proofs that have been formal [or possibly, “that have been found”] There are 4 or 5 proofs of the DP floating around now – all more or less the same, I think. Strasnick’s were as early as any. It’s hard to know what their real significance is. Anyway
Thanks for your paper -- & keep flourishing.
PS Bob is enjoying UMass, for which I’m grateful, and to you for a big part of that.
That was the last I heard from Jack about Strasnick and my article.