The comments attendant upon my remarks about Rawls’ work incline me to say something of a systematic nature about how I read a work of philosophy. The first major works with which I engaged seriously were Hume’s Treatise and Kant’s First Critique, which together were the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Both works are long, extremely complex, and filled with seemingly endless detail, all of which is, as one might expect, elegantly and intelligently presented. But despite the fact that I became deeply steeped in both works and knew that detail intimately, when it came time for me to write about them, I ignored the detail, the elaborations and fine work, as it were, and instead approached both works in a quite different fashion. I saw Hume and Kant, and then by extension other great philosophers as well, as engaged in trying to bring to the surface and articulate deep conceptual insights into complex core arguments. My job as a commentator, I decided, was to try to dive as deeply as they had, to follow them like Gandalf wrestling with the Borlag in the caves of Moria, and to grasp those central ideas, shaking them loose from the accompanying detailed elaborations as though they were barnacles growing on the hull of a sunken ship. Very early in my philosophical work, I realized that I experience philosophical arguments as stories, which it is my job to re-tell as simply and clearly as I can.
The greatest philosophers, I found, sometimes could see more deeply into certain ideas than they could say clearly the core of those ideas. So it was that in my struggle with the Treatise, I concluded that to understand Hume’s most powerful arguments, it was necessary to set aside his claim that every idea is a copy of a preceding impression, and instead bring to the surface the fact that at the critical turning points in his arguments, he appealed not to ideas copied from impressions but to acts of the mind. Hence my phrase “theory of mental activity” which I used both to describe Hume’s argument and as part of the title of my book on the Critique.
Kant posed a problem of the highest order. On the one hand, Kant presented a theory of almost unmanageable detail and complexity, in which the detailed elaboration was said by him to be central to his argument. On the other hand, as I plunged deeper and deeper into the central portions of the Critique, it seemed clear to me that one could only articulate Kant’s enormously powerful argument by simply ignoring almost all of that fretwork and taking seriously in my reading of him certain passages that he himself said were unimportant or needed even to be omitted from the Second Edition.
Is this the right way to read a great work of philosophy? Of course not. Countless commentators on a great text have grappled successfully and valuably with portions of that text that I have chosen simply to ignore. Is it a right way to read a great work of philosophy. I believe that it is, but there is no point in arguing that as a general proposition. In each individual case, readers must judge for themselves whether my monomaniacally focused reading of the text is valuable to them. If it is, then in that case I have been successful.
It is in this way that I approached A Theory of Justice. The fretwork and elaboration interested me not at all, but I saw in the book a central argument worth extracting from the text and engaging with. Those who do not find this approach illuminating ought simply to move on. For those whose minds work as mine does, my analysis may be enlightening.