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John Rawls – The virtue of charity in lecturing

September 3, 2014

“When lecturing, say, on Locke, Rousseau, Kant, or J. S. Mill, I always tried to do two things especially. One was to pose their problems as they themselves saw them, given what their understanding of these problems was in their own time. I often cited the remark of Collingwood that ‘the history of political theory is not the history of different answers to one and the same question, but the history of a problem more or less constantly changing, whose solution was changing with it.’ … The second thing I tried to do was to present each writer’s thought in what I took to be its strongest form. I took to heart Mill’s remark in his review of [Alfred] Sedgwick: ‘A doctrine is not judged until it is judged in its best form.’ I didn’t say, not intentionally anyway, what I myself thought a writer should have said, but rather what the writer did say, supported by what I viewed as the most reasonable interpretation of the text. The text had to be known and respected, and its doctrine presented in its best form. … I always took for granted that the writers we were studying were much smarter than I was. If they were not, why was I wasting my time and the students’ time by studying them? If I saw a mistake in their arguments, I supposed those writers saw it too and must have dealt with it. But where? I looked for their way out, not mine. Sometimes their way out was historical; in their day the question need not be raised, or wouldn’t arise and so couldn’t then be fruitfully discussed. Or there was a part of the text I had overlooked, or had not read. I assumed there were never plain mistakes, not ones that mattered anyway…

Like great composers and great artists – Mozart and Beethoven, Poussin and Turner – they are beyond envy. It is vital in lecturing to try to exhibit to students in one’s speech and conduct a sense of this, and why it is so. That can only be done by taking the thought of the text seriously, as worthy of honor and respect. This may at times be a kind of reverence, yet it is sharply distinct from adulation or uncritical acceptance of the text or author as authoritative. All true philosophy seeks fair criticism and depends on continuing reflective public judgment.”

(from ‘Afterword: A Reminiscence,’ in Juliet Floyd and Sanford Shieh, eds., Future Pasts: Perspectives on the Place of the Analytic Tradition in Twentieth-Century Philosophy [New York: Oxford University Press] 2001)


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