John Rawls
Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy

"I don't think for a moment that my interpretations are plainly correct; other interpretations are surely possible, and some are almost certainly better. It's just that I don't know what they are. Part of the wonderful character of the works we study is the depth and variety of ways they can speak to us. I don't want to do anything to interfere with their doing that. So if I present an interpretation, it is not only to try to illuminate the writer's background scheme of thought but also to encourage you to work out a better interpretation, one that is sensitive to more features of the text than mine, and makes better sense of the whole." (p. 18)
Not written with the intent of publication, these lecture notes that were distributed to Rawls's students, mostly in the 1980s, will not be of use to everyone. As the editor, Barbara Herman states on page xiii
About a week and a half into the lecture course, Rawls took pity on the graduate and undergraduate students frantically trying to take verbatim notes, and offered to make his lectures available to anyone who wanted them. Copies of the first batch of handwritten notes cost 40 cents. Rawls's unpublished work had often circulated among students and friends. Either he made it available himself or, as in the 1960s, graduate student teaching assistants prepared and distributed "dittos" of their course notes. Starting in 1978, Rawls took on the regular task of preparing and updating the Kant lectures as part of the materials for his course. These lecture notes acquired something of a life of their own, passed on from one generation of Rawls's students to their own students elsewhere. The lectures in this volume are from the last offering of the course, in 1991.
Apparently the lectures went through some major revisions in 1987 and 1991 so it is the people that are still referring to earlier versions that this book will probably hold the most interest. The commentary can be rather cryptic at times--especially if you aren't currently studying the works of the philosophers covered: David Hume, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, and Gottfried Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Rawls makes some interesting points (see page 17 for starters) with regard to studying the history of philosophy as opposed to studying the history of something else (like science for instance). While the learning of the history of a subject can be interesting and a worthwhile pursuit in and of itself, philosophy is a special case. Old ideas or questions aren't necessarily done with once someone comes up with an answer. Others may come up with different answers or opinions over time that carry a greater weight or popularity, but that doesn't necessarily invalidate the prior opinion. Such is not usually the case when it comes to, say, the history of science.

If you are looking for an introduction to philosophy or a general history of moral philosophy then this probably isn't the place to start unless you also plan to read the works of Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel along side it. But if you were in Rawls's class, want a glimpse at what they may have been like, or want another's in-depth overview of the above philosophers then you may want to pick up Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.

from the publisher:
The premier political philosopher of his day, John Rawls, in three decades of teaching at Harvard, has had a profound influence on the way philosophical ethics is approached and understood today. This book brings together the lectures that inspired a generation of students--and a regeneration of moral philosophy. It invites readers to learn from the most noted exemplars of modern moral philosophy with the inspired guidance of one of contemporary philosophy's most noteworthy practitioners and teachers.

Central to Rawls's approach is the idea that respectful attention to the great texts of our tradition can lead to a fruitful exchange of ideas across the centuries. In this spirit, his book engages thinkers such as Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and Hegel as they struggle in brilliant and instructive ways to define the role of a moral conception in human life. The lectures delineate four basic types of moral reasoning: perfectionism, utilitarianism, intuitionism, and--the ultimate focus of Rawls's course--Kantian constructivism. Comprising a superb course on the history of moral philosophy, they also afford unique insight into how John Rawls has transformed our view of this history.