The twilight of the Liberal Social Contract? On the Reception of Rawlsian Political Liberalism

In Kelly Becker & Iain Thomson (eds.), The Cambridge History of Philosophy, 1945–2015. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (forthcoming)
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This chapter discusses the Rawlsian project of public reason, or public justification-based 'political' liberalism, and its reception. After a brief philosophical rather than philological reconstruction of the project, the chapter revolves around a distinction between idealist and realist responses to it. Focusing on political liberalism’s critical reception illuminates an overarching question: was Rawls’s revival of a contractualist approach to liberal legitimacy a fruitful move for liberalism and/or the social contract tradition? The last section contains a largely negative answer to that question. Nonetheless the chapter's conclusion shows that the research programme of political liberalism provided and continues to provide illuminating insights into the limitations of liberal contractualism, especially under conditions of persistent and radical diversity. The programme is, however, less receptive to challenges to do with the relative decline of the power of modern states.
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