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Scenes from a Bookstore

March 31st, 2008 · 5 Comments

This weekend, I wandered into a local bookstore to browse a bit and ended up grabbing a copy of John Rawls’ posthumously-published Lectures in the History of Political Philosophy. (I note with some satisfaction that this volume boasts a nicely-designed cover, a feature normally reserved for trendy texts consumed by Comp Lit majors and ignored by actual philosophy departments.) As I was checking out, the clerk picked it up and scanned the jacket with some interest as he was ringing up my total.

“You studied philosophy?” I ask, just making conversation.

“A little… but you wouldn’t find me spending $35 on this,” he scoffs. (Well, that much is right: It would’ve been cheaper on Amazon even after shipping.)

“Oh?” I reply, “What do you have against Rawls?” He says something to the effect that it’s necessary to move beyond “utopian liberalism” propped up by “fantasy scenarios” and develop more “pragmatic” theories. This strikes me as rather unfair: Whatever his faults, Rawls—especially later Rawls—is not justly characterized as a “utopian,” and to dismiss the Original Position as a “fantasy scenario” rather seems to miss the point—pace Dworkin’s clever quip about hypothetical contracts not being worth the paper they aren’t printed on. Still, I’m intrigued by the unlikely prospect that this Dupont Circle bookshop is employing a conservative or libertarian of some sort. What political philosopher would he suggest we look to for a non-utopian, pragmatic vision?

“Karl Marx.”

Ah. Of course.

Tags: General Philosophy · Washington, DC


       

 

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Franklin Harris // Mar 31, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Why didn’t I see that punchline coming? Must be getting senile. Well, at least it wasn’t some trendy wannabe Chomskyite.

  • 2 Jacob T. Levy // Mar 31, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    “(I note with some satisfaction that this volume boasts a nicely-designed cover, a feature normally reserved for trendy texts consumed by Comp Lit majors and ignored by actual philosophy departments.)”

    No; it boasts a nice-*looking* cover that was catastrophically badly *designed*. The cellophane thing that’s a necessary part of the look is totally non-functional.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Mar 31, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    Nitpicker. But yes, the cellophane jacket is a bitch. Nanobots will resolve this soon enough.

  • 4 Franklin Harris // Apr 1, 2008 at 2:08 am

    Hrm. I like the cellophane jacket on the last Japanese horror novel I bought.

  • 5 Jeet Heer // Apr 1, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Well, there are ways in which Marx can be seen as part of the pragmatic tradition — see the early books of Sidney Hook, which are all about the overlap between Marx and Dewey. Particularly pertinent are Hook’s “Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx” and “From Hegal to Marx” (Christopher Phelps’ fine intellectual biography of Hook deals in depth with this issue of Marxism as a form of pragmatism.)

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