Book Review: Review Essay: Rawls’s Untimely Meditations, or On the Use and Abuse of Rawlsianism for Life In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy, by Katrina Forrester

AuthorBenjamin McKean
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/00905917211052601
Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Political Theory
2023, Vol. 51(2) 436 –452
© The Author(s) 2021
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Book Reviews
Book Reviews
Review Essay: Rawls’s Untimely Meditations, or On the Use and Abuse
of Rawlsianism for Life
In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy, by
Katrina Forrester, Princeton University Press, 2019, 432 pp.
Reviewed by: Benjamin McKean, Department of Political Science, Ohio State
University, Columbus, OH, USA
DOI: 10.1177/00905917211052601
What on earth is there left to say about John Rawls? Now fifty years after the
publication of A Theory of Justice and approaching the twentieth anniversary
of his death, one could be forgiven for thinking political theorists and phi-
losophers might have exhausted the topic. Instead, the opening of Rawls’s
archives has provided the opportunity for a new phase of reflections on
Rawls’s life and thought. Not only do we now have thoughtful works that
historicize Rawls, but insightful research has already begun on the history of
historicizing Rawls.1
At the forefront of this new phase of Rawls studies is Katrina Forrester’s
impressive In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking
of Political Philosophy, which details the genesis and reception of A Theory
of Justice as well as the intellectual and political context of its publication and
impact. Forrester’s well-received book deservedly made a splash upon its
publication in 2019, prompting another round of reckoning about the political
legacy of Rawls and his egalitarian liberalism. This tradition of political
thought tries to combine individual freedom and equality into a coherent con-
ception of social justice that applies first and foremost to the institutions con-
stituting the basic structure of society; Rawls aimed to elicit support for this
view by using thought experiments like the original position to sharpen intu-
itions about equality we’re already assumed to have.
1052601PTXXXX10.1177/00905917211052601Political TheoryBook Reviews
book-review2021
1. Sophie Smith, “Historicizing Rawls,” Modern Intellectual History. FirstView,
March 9, 2021: 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1017/S147924432000044X
Book Reviews 437
Forrester takes as a starting point that “[t]he period of flux that followed
the crisis of 2008” made questions about the political efficacy of Rawlsianism
inescapable (277); the financial crisis made vivid the failure to limit the
growth of massive inequality whereas the election of Donald Trump seemed
to eviscerate Rawls’s conviction that his egalitarian liberalism represented a
widely (if implicitly) accepted American consensus. Of course, critics have
questioned egalitarian liberalism since its inception; as Forrester notes, the
identity of political theory as a subfield of political science—indeed, the
founding identity of this journal itself—has been shaped partly by defining
itself negatively “against Rawlsian political philosophy” (241). It might then
seem obvious that a book that traces influences on Rawls so carefully as to
note the specific sentences he read and underlined “with three different pens”
would have little to offer to the many theorists who understand themselves as
anti- or simply non-Rawlsians (13). Yet Forrester’s clear-eyed view of the
limits of Rawlsianism doesn’t keep her from asserting that there is still some-
thing to gain from this tradition because “at moments liberal egalitarianism
has provided the grounds for a radical indictment of injustices and inequali-
ties, and . . . always had the potential to do so” (276). In the service of real-
izing this potential, her book seeks to establish Rawls’s theory as “a par t of
our usable past” (279) and unshackle its condemnation of inequality from
the history of “moderate, reformist” uses to which it has been put (135).
Committed Rawlsians might bridle at relegating his theory to the past,
whereas skeptics might ask: Whose past? And usable for what?
In giving readers material with which to answer these questions,
Forrester’s book does not focus narrowly on Rawls himself but considers the
broader community of practitioners of liberal political philosophy, largely in
elite universities. Forrester charts how these egalitarian liberals extended
Rawlsianism to consider not just freedom and equality domestically but a
host of political issues, including international inequality, environmental
issues, and war crimes. As Forrester shows, Rawls didn’t invent Rawlsianism;
it was the product of a collective effort—one in which Rawls’s particular
views sometimes came to play second fiddle to the idea of “Rawls,” the
symbol and synecdoche for egalitarian liberalism. Rawls’s own ideas were
often stranger than his reputation as the twentieth century’s standard bearer
for liberalism would suggest; Forrester describes Theory as “something of
an encyclopedia of postwar Anglophone thought” (105), but it might also be
described as a highly idiosyncratic pastiche. Part of Forrester’s strategy to
“denaturalize and defamiliarize . . . the broader architecture of contemporary
liberal philosophy” is to mine the archives to reveal these surprising and
unexpected influences on Rawls that cut against the self-understanding of
contemporary liberalism (275).

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