Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls are perhaps the two most renowned and influential figures in social and political philosophy of the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, they had a famous exchange in the Journal of Philosophy
. Quarreling over the merits of each other’s accounts of the shape and meaning of democracy and legitimacy in a contemporary society, they also revealed how great thinkers working in different traditions read—and misread—one another’s work.
James Gordon Finlayson
, reader in philosophy and director of the Centre for Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex, examines and contextualizes The Habermas-Rawls Debate
(Columbia University Press, 2019). He traces their dispute from its inception in their earliest works to the 1995 exchange and its aftermath, as well as its legacy in contemporary debates. Finlayson discusses Rawls’s Political Liberalism
and Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms
, considering them as the essential background to the dispute and using them to lay out their different conceptions of justice, politics, democratic legitimacy, individual rights, and the normative authority of law. He gives a detailed analysis and assessment of their contributions, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their different approaches to political theory, conceptions of democracy, and accounts of religion and public reason, and he reflects on the ongoing significance of the debate. The Habermas-Rawls Debate is an authoritative account of the crucial intersection of two major political theorists and an explication of why their dispute continues to matter.
Ryan Tripp is part-time and full-time adjunct history faculty for Los Medanos Community College as well as the College of Online and Continuing Education at Southern New Hampshire University