No postwar thinker has had a greater impact on liberal political philosophy than John Raws. In her book In the Shadow of Justice, intellectual historian Katrina Forrester accounts for how Rawls’s theory of justice took form and transformed liberal philosophy throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
The book is an extraordinary scholarly achievement. It is chronologically structured and split into eight chapters that tell the story of how liberal philosophy developed in light of both theoretical advances and real-world politics.
Thereby, Forrester accounts for both internal factors to this development, such as how Rawls’s conceptual apparatus influenced abstract political thinking, and external factors, such as how the civil rights movement shaped the philosophical conversation on obligations.
Forrester is far from uncritical. For instance, while acknowledging the incomparable significance of Rawls’s political philosophy, she also argues that it ”came to act as a constraint on what kind of theorizing could be done and what kind of politics could be imagined” (p. 275). Rawls’s theory is thus an intellectual prison, in one sense.
What is more, in the epilogue, Forrester writes that it is perhaps time ”to see the dominant philosophical liberalism of the late twentieth century not as the primary resource for political philosophers but as one doctrine among many” (p. 279).
Of course it is one doctrine among many. But as with liberal democracy as a political system, philosophical liberalism is the best among the alternatives (that we know of). It should be continuously fine-tuned to account for new challenges, not replaced with something else.
In the Shadow of Justice is a must-read for Rawls scholars and historians of postwar philosophy, and a should-read for all political theorists. To others, the book may be a bit too heavy to be enjoyable.
Forrester, K. (2019). In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy. Princeton University Press.