An unpublished piece by the creative economists, David Levy and Sandra Peart, called my attention to the following observations by Rawls, when he is about to introduce David Hume:
Utilitarianism was, and still is perhaps, the most influential longest continuing tradition in English speaking moral philosophy. While it perhaps can claim no writer of the stature of Aristotle and Kant (their ethical works being in a class of themselves), taking the tradition as a whole, and viewing its extent and continuity and ever increasing refinement in certain parts of the view, utilitarianism is perhaps unique in its collective brilliance. One must remember that utilitarianism is historically part of a doctrine of society, and is not simply a detached philosophical doctrine. The utilitarians were also political theorists and had a psychological theory. Also, utilitarianism has had considerable influence in certain parts of Economics. Part of the explanation for this is that if we look at the more important economists in the English tradition before 1900 and the well-known utilitarian philosophers, we‘ll find that they‘re the same people; only Ricardo is missing. Hume and Smith were both utilitarian philosophers and economists....Sidgwick and the great economist Marshall were both in the same department at Cambridge, when they decided to found a separate department of economics around 1896. Since that time there has been a split, although utilitarianism still influences economics, and welfare economics has a close connection to the utilitarian tradition. Still, since 1900 the tradition has divided into two more or less mutually-ignoring groups, the economists and the philosophers, to the reciprocal disadvantage of both...The division is not easy to rectify given the pressures of specialization, and much else. It is also very difficult nowadays to get a sufficient grasp of topics in both subjects for one person to intelligently discuss them. (Lectures on History of Political Philosophy, 162-3)
Let's grant -- for the sake of argument -- the characterization of Hume and Smith as belonging to the utilitarian tradition. (It's not wholly silly when we think about their political philosophy, especially, but it is also misleading.) As I have remarked, it suits Rawls' purposes to accept Sidgwick's invention of a continuous tradition, so that he both has a stable (and worthy--"long line of brilliant writers that learned from each other") target for criticism as well as to invent retrospectively and simultaneously extend (as Cris Brooke reminded me) an opposing, alternative (social contract) tradition.
Rawls is not merely echoing Sidgwick. Rawls does not make any claims about the lack of foreign influence. More important, Rawls contrasts the collective brilliance of the utilitarians with the more historically isolated (that is, not belonging to a continuous tradition) geniuses. As I have remarked before (in the context of remarking on a more recent, close reader of Sidgwick) the self-image of what became analytic philosophy was self-consciously founded a) against the great man approach to philosophy [let's call that "the magisterial approach"], and accepting, by contrast, b) the division of intellectual labor, such that c) philosophy is a collective enterprise. So, what Rawls is praising here (without disparaging Aristotle or Kant, of course) is the kind of thing Rawls's teachers had wanted to instantiate. I believe we do not understand Rawls' Histories and their impact on his students (many of our intellectual leaders) if we fail to discern that Rawls has thought through collective tradition-formation. This is not to deny that Rawls' writings also instantiates the many virtues of philosophy as a collective enterprise (something I learned to appreciate from Charles Larmore, himself a great student of Sidgwick).
Notice, however, in the long quote the slide in Rawls' narrative from a split ca 1900 within the utilitarian tradition to a split between economists (Marshall) and philosophers (people like, say, Aristotle and Kant) more generally. The slide is only legitimate if a) we accept that post 1900 all possible philosopher-economists are utilitarian, and b) it is true that all philosophers and economists (that mattered) really ignored each other after 1900. Before I return to why I think Rawls knows he is myth-making here, I take a brief detour through Sidgwick.
Because I am no scholar of the 19th century, I have no idea what all the personal, institutional, scientific, and sociological reasons were that led Marshall and Sidgwick to create a separate department of economics; we can discern one very important imperative -- one that has ongoing significance -- in the introduction to his Principles of Political Economics (I quote from the second, 1887 edition). Sidgwick is explicit that his aim is to salvage "the really sound and valuable results of previous thought" from "the waves of disputation;" in other words to "eliminate unnecessary controversy." (7; see pp. 5-6 for Sidgwick's analysis of the varied sources of polemics.) Sidgwick's project within economics is to create a technical apparatus that produces consensus among the experts. For, without this the political economist has no special standing as the expert worth listening to by policymakers. All existing further disagreement has either to be caused by conflicting facts (as Sidgwick acknowledges in context) or by fundamental differences in values (as Sidgwick describes in great detail in his discussion of the legacy of Adam Smith in the next chapter).Thus, it was necessary to create a (mathematical) body of positive doctrine (about economic causes) that economists could rally around, so it could be the most important policy science. [As an aside, Sidgwick is not an innocent author. His Principles of Political Economy has a suggestive epigraph taken from an Ode by Emerson. But about that some other time more.]
Sidgwick and Marshall were uncommonly successful. Thinkers as diverse as Milton Friedman and, as I learned from Peart and Levy's essay, Beveridge (the founder of the British Welfare state) adopted Sidgwick's position on the nature of positive economics and the unanimity subsequent to it. (As I have recounted elsewhere the trend was reinforced by the legacy of Max Weber via Talcott Parsons, who -- incidentally -- saw plenty of philosophy in Marshall, on Chicago Economics.) This is not the whole story, of course, economists also had to eliminate uncertainty from their midst, but I have pointed to that story before [here, here, and for the connection to Rawls here, among others.]
Let's return to Rawls. Now as I learned from Sandra Peart and David Levy (who now owns some of Rawls' holdings in the history of economics WITH RAWLS' MARGINALIA) Rawls was aware of the content and significance of Sidgwick's move. Astute readers can learn this, too, if they follow up on Rawls' footnotes. When discussing the values (in Rawls' terminology added "first principles") of utilitarians, Rawls cites page (141) from Lionel Robbins (1932) The Nature and Significance of Economic Science, where the issue is discussed with great clarity. [The pagination is off because I am linking to a different edition. Rawls' marginalia are to the second edition, revised and extended, 1949 printing. I thank David Levy for checking on my behalf!] There (with deep concern about the intellectual strife within economics), Robbins explains the conceptual (and, I am tempted to say, the moral) rationale for the division of labor between scientific economists (who deal in facts) and philosophers (who focus on propositions dealing with ought).
Now, I have remarked before on Rawls' knowledge of Robbins. Let's grant -- for the sake of argument -- that Robbins should exclusively be classified on the economics side of the split (despite the fact The Nature and Significance of Economic Science really belongs to the conceptual foundations of science). But this little episode reminds us that for an extended period, at least one philosopher, John Rawls, does not quite fit the post 1900 split between economists and philosophers. For anybody that reads the notes to TJ carefully, can see that Rawls is deeply knowledgeable of then-recent economics with sophisticated references to Pigou, Hicks, Arrow, Knight, Harsanyi, Koopmans, Samuelson among others (which include astounding number of future Nobel Laureates). Sonja Amadae, who introduced me to the history and philosophy of economics during a fortuitous meeting in an exit row of an American West flight between Indianapolis and Boston, has a very nice treatment of Rawls' personal engagement with rational choice theory (Riker, Olson, Arrow, etc) in her seminal book. And, of course, rational choice theory was a conceptual bridge between philosophy and economics. Not to mention that TJ shows that Rawls was very familiar with the philosophic-economic work by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. (In fact, Rawls' detailed readings in the history of economics suggests he knew much more of it than most living economists then and now.)
I hope that in the previous two paragraphs I have provide some evidence that Rawls' remarks on the split should not be taken at face value. Now, what I find interesting is that Rawls deplores the split ("mutual disadvantage"), yet in his narrative does a) nothing to hint that he once had tried (successfully) to overcome it, and b) claims that "the division is not easy to rectify given the pressures of specialization." But I have increasingly wondered if Rawls' oddly unspecified "and much else" isn't the briefest of hints that there are philosophic motives lurking behind the seemingly nonchalant acceptance of the division. Maybe a future scholar will treat Rawls with the kind of reverence he had for his intellectual masters, and help us see more clearly on these matters.