When I was in graduate school at Cornell from 1964 until 1968, and for some time after that, American philosophy was dominated by two Harvard philosophers, W.V.O. Quine and John Rawls. Quine's books were required reading not only in the philosophy of language, but also in courses in metaphysics and ontology and epistemology, where his radical extensionalism seemed to be the starting point for rethinking everything.
After World War II, the big issues on the ethical and political sides of philosophy seemed to get little attention in American philosophy. That side of philosophy too was dominated by the inheritance of logical positivism. It was almost as if American philosophers were somewhat paralyzed in thinking about the big issues of justice and political philosophy. In Europe these were live questions, as the dominance of communism in eastern Europe set the agenda. In America, there was McCarthyism and perhaps also a certain self-satisfaction with our institutions.
Rawls changed all that with A Theory of Justice. The importance of this book in starting a new era of political thought and re-invigorating the whole ethical side of philosophy in America cannot be overestimated. I had thought of trying to explain this, when I found a passage in an article by our guest, Josh Cohen, that did it perfectly:
"In A Theory of Justice (1971, 1999), John Rawls proposed a striking and original marriage of liberty and equality, animated by a tolerant and democratic faith in human possibilities. For much of the past century, the idea of a politcal philosophy devoted to both liberty and equality seemed to many people a contradiction in terms. Outraged by vast differences between the lives of rich and poor, egalitarians condemned the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith for giving undue attention to legal
rights and liberties, while remaining in different to the fate of ordinary people. Traditional liberalism, they complained, prized equality before the law, but showed complacency in the face of profound and grim inequalities of fortune on earth. Classical liberals, in contrast, embraced personal liberty, and condemned egalitarians for their paternalism and willingness to sacrifice human freedom in the name of some possible future utopia. Practically speaking, democratic welfare states tried, with more or less success, to ensure personal and political liberties while protecting indviduals from unforgiving markets. But the philosophical options seemed starkly opposed. In between Friedrich von Hayek's classical liberalism and Karl Marx's egalitarianism, every thing was an unstable political compromise, or an ad hoc balancing of competing values.
"A Theory of Justice changed all this. Rawls proposed a conception of justice – he called it “justice as fairness” – that was commit ed to both the individual rights we associate with classical liberalism, and to an egalitarian ideal of fair distribution conventionally associated with socialist and radical democratic traditions. Justice as fairness, Rawls said, aims to effect a “reconciliation of liberty and equality.” His work prompted a remarable renaissance of political philosophy in the United States and elsewhere (A Theory of Justice has been translated into more than 20 languages), and has provided the foundation for all subsequent discussion about fundametal questions of social justice."
From "The Importance of Philosophy: Reflections on John Rawls
S. Afr. J, Philos. 2004, 23(2)