Preposterous Universe

Monday, June 21, 2004

Brian Leiter points at a memorial notice for the late John Rawls, one of the leading (probably the leading) American political philosopher of the twentieth century. I got to know Rawls just a little bit, when as a graduate student I sat in on one of his classes. He was both one of the warmest and one of the most intelligent people I have ever had the privilege to meet.

The class I took was offered both to undergraduates and graduate students; there were twice-weekly lectures, plus weekly discussion sections. The sections for undergrads were led by philosophy grad students, while Rawls himself led the session for grad students. I asked whether I could sit in on the grad-student section, given that I was an astronomy grad student who was merely auditing the class; being the paragon of fairness that he was, he said that since I was a grad student, I should go to the section for grad students, simple as that.

Unfortunately, I almost never got to talk with him about philosophy; once he found out that I was interested in cosmology and the early universe, he was always asking me questions about that. He had wide-ranging interests in math and science, and would often use metaphors in the lectures that I'm sure nobody but me could appreciate. The best was when he said that deriving his two principles of justice should be like proving Stokes' theorem in differential geometry on an arbitrary manifold: it required a large investment to set up the definitions and axioms, but then the proof was almost immediate. He also had a standing offer of $100 to anyone who could find a "mistake" in his theory of justice as fairness, in the sense of an incorrect conclusion drawn from his premises. He believed that good philosophy should be like good mathematics; it need not be "right" (if you didn't believe in the premises), but it could be free of mistakes.

He influenced my own views a great deal, moving me from a confused utilitarianism to a fervent social-contractarianism. A rare combination of genius and genuine humanity.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

Preposterous Home
Atom Site Feed (xml)
RSS Feed
Technorati Profile
Bloglines Citations
Blogroll Me

About Last Night
Alas, a Blog
The American Sector
Asymmetrical Information
Big Brass Blog
Bitch, Ph.D.
Body and Soul
Brad DeLong
Chris C Mooney
Collision Detection
Creek Running North
Crescat Sententia
Crooked Timber
Daily Kos
Daniel Drezner
Deepen the Mystery
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
Dynamics of Cats
Electron Blue
Ezra Klein
The Fulcrum
Girls Are Pretty
Jacques Distler
James Wolcott
John and Belle
Julie Saltman
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Leiter Reports
The Loom
Matt McIrvin
Matthew Yglesias
Michael Bérubé
Michael Nielsen
Mixing Memory
Mr. Sun
Not Even Wrong
Obsidian Wings
Orange Quark
Paige's Page
Panda's Thumb
Playing School, Irreverently
Political Animal
The Poor Man
Quantum Diaries
Quark Soup
Real Climate
Roger Ailes
Rox Populi
Shakespeare's Sister
Simple Stories
Sisyphus Shrugged
Smijer & Buck
TPM Cafe
Uncertain Principles
Volokh Conspiracy

Powered by Blogger
Comments by Haloscan
RSS Feed by 2RSS.com

February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005