An Interview with T. M. Scanlon (Part VI)

By Yascha Mounk.



I: Free Will, Punishment and The Significance of Choice

II: What We Owe to Each Other

III: Imperfect Compliance in Political and Moral Philosophy

IV: Philosophical Method: Intricate Examples, the Status of Intuitions, and Reflective Equilibrium

V: Biography: Indianapolis, Princeton, Harvard – and the Purpose of Political Philosophy

VI: Intellectual Influences: John Rawls and a Semi-Secret Reading Group

VII: Adversaries: On Utilitarianism, Libertarianism and The Nature of Rights

VIII: Tolerance and The Future of Liberalism


VI: Intellectual Influences: John Rawls and a Semi-Secret Reading Group


The Utopian:

When did you first meet Rawls?


Tim Scanlon:

He came and gave a talk at Princeton invited by Gregory Vlastos, who had known Rawls when he was a junior faculty person at Cornell. Vlastos was a classical philosopher, one of my first teachers in political philosophy when I was a Senior at Princeton. At the end of the semester, he invited Rawls to come down and give a talk in the speakers’ series, and encouraged all of us from the class to go. And Rawls gave this paper called “Justice as Reciprocity,” a later re-working of “Justice as Fairness,” which had come out the year before. So I saw him, and heard him. But I didn’t really meet him until I came here as a graduate student in the fall of 1963.


The Utopian:

What was your first impression from Rawls’ talk – was it obvious to you that this was something very important?


Tim Scanlon:

Well, we’d read “Justice as Fairness” in class. It was a lecture class in political philosophy. And at the end, once we’d read Locke and various other things along the way, it did strike me as a really good article – although this was my first class in the subject, so I didn’t really know what was great. But it was impressive, and I was also impressed with the esteem that my teachers obviously held for Rawls. But I didn’t immediately have the sense that this person was going to change the subject.

Then, when I came here, I had fellow graduate students who knew him, and had a real sense of excitement that this was an important person. And so his lectures – one did have the sense, not quite of the magnitude of what happened, but one did have the sense that this wasn’t just somebody else giving a lecture on political philosophy. You got the feeling that his way of describing how one ought to go, and its relation to other possibilities, was very appealing and eye-opening.


The Utopian:

And you grew a little closer to John Rawls when you were a graduate student here?


Tim Scanlon:

Yes, yes. I was in awe of him, but he was a very modest and welcoming person, so I had very good conversations with him, and liked him a lot.

I left here in 1966, and didn’t come back until 1984 – when Rawls offered me a job. He came down to Princeton. He said that he was going down to Princeton to talk to me about some stuff we’d been talking about. But what he really wanted to do is offer me a job. That was pretty moving.


The Utopian:

Difficult to say no to that!


Tim Scanlon:

No, you couldn’t. But I found it very hard to leave Princeton because I had very, very good friends there, and it was a very hard place to leave – although I was feeling a little bit on the fringe of what was happening there by that time.

But in the meantime we saw each other pretty regularly since, at least for part of the time, we used to belong to the same discussion group that met in New York and Cambridge, that a lot of us went to. So I guess my friendship with him, or acquaintanceship with him, developed and was kept alive because we would see each other there.


The Utopian:

Who else was part of that discussion group?


Tim Scanlon:

Oh, it was a wonderful group!

Tom Nagel, Marshall Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Frank Michaelman, Owen Fiss, Charles Fried, Michael Walzer, Bob Nozick in the beginning, then later Judy Thompson, Susan Wolf, Michael Sandel, Frances Kamm, Chris Korsgaard and others. It lasted into the last years of the 1990s.

It was a shifting membership over those years – but never any larger than about ten or twelve people.


The Utopian:

And this would meet once a year?


Tim Scanlon:

Once a month. It was the most important thing in my philosophical development.


The Utopian:

It’s surprising that not more has been written about this group…


Tim Scanlon:

Well, because it was a private group, people knew about it, but you didn’t want to go on about it, or… it was a good thing.


The Utopian:

How was it decided who would be invited to join?


Tim Scanlon:

Well, you had to decide, and the question came up, and it was difficult. It was always awkward to decide about it. That’s a bad thing about a group like that. On the other hand, it only really worked because it was small – and all we did was talk about each other’s papers.

Every month somebody had to send out a paper and then we would read it in advance. We’d meet for lunch and gossip for an hour, or something, and then we’d start with the meeting at about 1.30 and the discussion would go solid until 5.30.

It used to be hard to get recognized. We debated about whether to have a chair who would recognize people, because it was such a hammer-and-tongs discussion. If it had been a larger group, it would have been impossible.


The Utopian:

The other group you belonged to, I suppose, was Philosophy and Public Affairs, which you co-founded?


Tim Scanlon:

That was an overlapping group of people, although a smaller group. There’d been a larger group who agreed to do it, but the three of us who really did all the work for the first ten years were Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel and I. And that was an important thing. It didn’t have such a big effect on what I was doing – although I was very glad to have done it, felt very privileged to have done it: it brought you in contact with what was happening, and enabled you to, you know, try and help certain things to happen. But I don’t think it had such a big effect on me, except that it was part of my association with these people, particularly Tom and Marshall. Tom and I are really close friends…


Click here to get to Part VII: Adversaries: On Utilitarianism, Libertarianism and The Nature of Rights

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