Abstract: What should be the relationship between normative and historical reasoning in political theory? This question is often addressed in terms of the idea of a “normative payoff” hidden in the depts of past political thought, waiting to be teased out by incisive commentary. Yet this approach too often results in a counter-productive combination of bad philosophy and bad history, in effect corrupting both endeavours. However, assuming that these pitfalls can be avoided, and also that it is possible to settle on ideal arrangements, it would then be necessary to match the ideal with practical circumstances. In Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, John Rawls asks “What would a just society be like under reasonably favourable but still possible historical conditions, conditions allowed by the laws and tendencies of the social world?” There are, clearly, two parts to this question. Political philosophy since the 1970s has for the most part been concerned with the first part – with the nature of a just order. But the second part, depending on the precise historical character of our social world, is no less essential. I propose to take a look at how modern society was conceptualised by the leading American political philosopher since the Second World War, namely John Rawls, as a precondition for evaluating his moral vision.
Bio: Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought and a Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge. He has published widely in intellectual history and the history of political ideas, above all on enlightenment political theory. His most recent monograph, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke, appeared with Princeton University Press in 2015. He is currently working on the philosophy of history since Rousseau and Kant, and on the history of democratic thought in the ancient and modern worlds.