For half a century, Anglophone political philosophy has been dominated by the figure of John Rawls. This influence extends even to the conception of what political philosophy is or should be. Many contemporary philosophers simply take for granted that their task is to interrogate the concept of ‘justice’, to clarify it and discern its requirements, and to formulate the results in terms of the general principles by which the ‘basic structure’ of a liberal society should be ordered. It seems natural to many to conceive this as a project of determining the ‘fair’ distribution of the ‘benefits and burdens of social cooperation’, and to approach any given question or topic—from abortion to international relations—by asking what would be chosen by imaginary self-interested deliberators, separated by a ‘veil of ignorance’ from knowledge of crucial facts about themselves, such as their gender, race or ‘conception of the good’. Not only self-identifying Rawlsians are effortlessly fluent in this language which, close to twenty years after Rawls’s death, continues to crowd out other vocabularies and sets of questions—about history, the nature and manifestations of power, revolution, agency and solidarity.

Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice approaches Rawls’s work from the perspective of an intellectual historian. Her central thesis is that Rawls should be seen not as a philosopher of the 1960s—the era of Vietnam and of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’—but rather as a thinker of the America of the 1940s and 50s. In those years, liberals sceptical of the interventionism of the administrative state saw their task as that of ‘securing the values of freedom and equality without the state intervention and political control that decades of state expansion had made a new norm’. On his return to Princeton in 1946 after three years’ combat in the Pacific War, the young Rawls embraced a ‘barebones’ anti-statism, close to that of Hayek or Walter Lippmann. In particular, Forrester demonstrates the importance for him of Frank Knight’s Ethics of Competition (1935): Rawls underlined his personal copy in three different pens and drew from the work of Knight and others the key idea of the game and its consensual rules as a social model. From Lippmann’s The Good Society (1937) he borrowed the analogy of the highway code—consensual regulation of the flow of traffic benefited all drivers, regardless of where they were going—widely used by early ordo- and neo-liberals. The heuristic device of the discussion between ‘reasonable men’—‘average, rational, right-thinking and fair’ heads of households—was already present in his 1949 doctoral thesis on ethical knowledge.

Two spells in Oxford (1947, 1952–3) provided a complementary set of influences. Close ties between Oxford philosophers and the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the British Labour Party—who aimed to replace the party’s official goal of common ownership with a more market-friendly project of egalitarian ‘social justice’—meant that Oxford at the time was ‘not only the crucible of language philosophy but also aflame with debates about inequality’. Rawls participated in the political philosophy seminar run by H. L. A. Hart, Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, while from his reading of Wittgenstein he drew the idea that the rules of the game exist to protect ‘forms of life’. These currents flowed into Rawls’s 1957 ‘Justice as Fairness’ paper, in which much of what would eventually make up A Theory of Justice was already in place.

When it finally appeared in 1971, A Theory of Justice was, Forrester writes, ‘an encyclopaedia of postwar Anglophone thought’; the ideas and techniques that Rawls encountered during its long gestation—public choice theory, analytic jurisprudence, ethical economics, Kantian, Humean and neoclassical—were ‘deployed and tamed’, made to cohere. In the intervening years, Vietnam and the crises of the 1960s and 70s had called into question the theories of growth and consensus that underpinned his work—and yet:

Rawls’s theory survived this turbulence unscathed. That meant that a particular variety of postwar liberalism was preserved in philosophical amber for the duration of the 1960s. Moreover, during this decade, a different set of conditions that made for the enthusiastic reception of Rawls’s book also developed.