Distinguished Philosopher, Professor Dies at 81

John Rawls, who served as the Conant professor emeritus and was one of the most notable political and moral philosophers of the 20th century, died at his home in Lexington on Sunday. He was 81.

Rawls is credited with reviving the social contract tradition in social and moral philosophy. He devoted his life to the study of the subject of justice, refining and working on his theory for 50 years.

“His achievement in moral and political philosophy is certainly the largest achievement in the English-speaking world since John Stuart Mill’s,” said MIT Professor of Social and Political Philosophy Joshua Cohen.

“He wouldn’t have gone in for rankings, but his work has a place among the greatest tradition of moral and political philosophy and that would include Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau. I expect his work to continue to be studied for the indefinite future,” said Cohen, whose dissertation was advised by Rawls.

Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel recalled his first encounter with Rawls, whom he called “a quiet but towering voice for a more tolerant and generous way of organizing modern democratic societies.”

“In my first year as a young assistant professor at Harvard, the phone in my office rang,” Sandel wrote in an e-mail. “The voice on the other end said, ‘This is John Rawls, R-A-W-L-S.’ It was as if God himself had phoned to invite me to lunch, and spelled his name just in case I didn’t know who he was.”

Rawls’ magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, is regarded as a staple of undergraduate curriculums and is studied by economists, political scientists and legal academics alike.

It argues persuasively for a political philosophy based on equality and individual rights. It describes the reconciliation of liberty and equality, concepts that were viewed as fundamentally at odds for much of the 20th century. Rawls was more egalitarian than any major political party in this country.

“Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice and it was a truly extraordinary achievement both for its intrinsic merit and because it was written against a kind of backdrop of a kind of wasteland in the field,” Cohen said.

Rawls was also an influential teacher for the next two generations of important moral and political philosophers.

“There was nothing sparkling about his teaching. It was not somber, but serious. He taught how to take the history seriously and consider yourself in a kind of conversation with the great thinkers,” Cohen said.

In 1997 Harvard awarded Rawls an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

In 1999 Rawls was honored in a special ceremony at the White House where President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presented him with the National Humanities Medal.

Four weeks ago, Rawls became the second living philosopher to have a Cambridge Companion volume published on him. His wife painted the portrait of him that appears on the cover.

“It is a fitting tribute,” said Samuel R. Freeman, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Pennsylvania who edited Rawls’ papers and is editing for publication his lectures on political philosophy.

Rawls was born in Baltimore, Md. He attended the Kent School in Kent, Conn. before heading off to Princeton where he earned his bachelors in 1943.

From 1943 to 1945 Rawls served as a soldier in the Pacific. Upon his return to U.S. soil, he went back to Princeton to pursue graduate work. He received his doctorate in 1950.

He studied at Oxford University on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1952.

Rawls bounced from one prestigious university to another, holding the post of assistant and associate professor of philosophy at Cornell from 1953 to 1959 and professor of philosophy at MIT from 1960 to 1962.

Rawls, who first joined the Harvard philosophy department in 1962, taught until 1995, when he suffered the first of several major strokes.

“He had a very hard time the last seven years,” said his widow Margaret Rawls.

He continued to work for three years after his first stroke. Since that time, Margaret Rawls and other colleagues have continued to compile and edit his partially competed works.

Margaret Rawls, who met John Rawls on a blind date on New Years Eve, 1948 has been his sole caretaker. They have lived in the same Lexington home since 1960.

Rawls was a member of the American Philosophical Association and Phi Beta Kappa.

His impressive dossier of honors and appointments includes serving as president of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy and of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

“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,” said University President Lawrence H. Summers in a statement. “Scholars in many different fields will continue to learn from him for generations to come.”

Friends and colleagues describe Rawls as a gentle man who lived what he taught.

“He was a kind, quiet person, very self effacing, who never thought of himself as anyone important,” Margaret Rawls said.

“He wasn’t just a moral philosopher, but a person of transcendent goodness, so good that he made you feel it was a privilege to be a contemporary of his,” said Thomas Nagel, university professor at New York University.

He was also a talented athlete—he placed on Princeton’s varsity football team as a first-year before deciding to focus on academics—and is remembered as a home-run baseball player and an avid sailor. The Rawls family vacations often involved skiing, mountain climbing or backpacking.

Rawls is survived by his wife and his four children, Anne, Robert, Alexander and Elizabeth.

A memorial service is planned for family and friends for next Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at the First Unitarian Church in Lexington. A memorial service at Harvard will be planned sometime in the future.