Ken Gewertz ®

Harvard Gazette Staff

John Rawls, the James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus, whose 1971 book, "A Theory of Justice" argued persuasively for a political philosophy based on equality and individual rights, died Sunday (Nov. 24) at the age of 81.

Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the second half of the 20th century and a powerful advocate of the liberal perspective. His work continues to be a major influence in the fields of ethics, law, political science, and economics, and has been translated into 27 languages.

Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers said, "I am deeply saddened by the death of John Rawls. He combined profound wisdom with equally profound humanity. Few if any modern philosophers have had as decisive an impact on how we think about justice. Scholars in many different fields will continue to learn from him for generations to come."

Charles Fried, the Beneficial Professor of Law at Harvard, said of Rawls, "He was the dominant figure in political and moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th century. He developed an approach to the questions of moral and political philosophy which was substantive and analytic at the same time, proposing concrete answers to many questions."

In "A Theory of Justice," Rawls sets forth the proposition that "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests."

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Rawls attended the Kent School in Kent, Conn., and earned a B.A. degree from Princeton in 1943. From 1943 to 1945 he served in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan as an enlisted man in the U.S. infantry, later describing his military career as "singularly undistinguished." He returned to Princeton in 1946 to take up graduate studies, receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1950.

Before joining the Harvard Philosophy Department in 1962, he was an instructor at Princeton (1950-52), assistant and associate professor of philosophy at Cornell (1953-59), and professor of philosophy at M.I.T. (1960-62). He was appointed the Conant University Professor at Harvard in 1979.

University professors hold Harvard's highest professorial posts. These special endowed positions were established in 1935 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for "individuals of distinction ... working on the frontiers of knowledge, and in such a way as to cross the conventional boundaries of the specialties."

In addition to "A Theory of Justice" (nominated for a National Book Award), his publications include "Political Liberalism" (1993), "The Law of Peoples" (1999), "Collected Papers" (1999), "Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy" (2000), and "Justice as Fairness: A Restatement" (2001).

He was a member of the American Philosophical Association (president, 1974), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association of Political and Legal Philosophy (president, 1970-72), the American Philosophical Society, the British Academy, and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. In 1999, he received the National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Rawls died of heart failure at his home in Lexington, Mass. He had suffered a series of debilitating strokes that eventually left him unable to work. He leaves his wife, Margaret Warfield Fox Rawls, four children – Anne Warfield, Robert Lee, Alexander Emory, and Elizabeth Fox – and four grandchildren.

John Rawls

John Rawls (Staff photo by Jane Reed)

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