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COLLECTION Identifier: HUM 48

Papers of John Rawls


John Rawls (1921-2002), James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, was one of the most significant political and moral philosophers of the twentieth century and is credited with reviving the social contract tradition in social and moral philosophy. Widely cited by scholars, Rawls's theories on justice and fairness in a modern society greatly influenced the fields of political science, economics, sociology, theology, and the law. The papers encompass lectures and teaching materials, writings, correspondence, offprints and manuscripts by other scholars, subject files, research notes, and a small amount of biographical material, offering insight into the evolution of Rawls's ideas.


  • Creation: 1942-2003 and undated.

Conditions on Use and Access

The Papers of John Rawls are open for research. Access to folders containing personal or personnel information is restricted for 80 years. These restrictions are noted in the collection folder list.


20 cubic feet (60 document boxes, 2 card boxes)

The papers of John Rawls document the origins and development of Rawls's theory of a just and liberal society known as justice as fairness. The papers encompass lecture and teaching materials, writings, correspondence, offprints and manuscripts by other scholars, subject files, research notes, and a small amount of biographical material.

These papers are a valuable resource that shed light on Rawls's development of his concept of a just and liberal society and reveal the progression of his philosophical viewpoints. They also illustrate the important philosophical and political discussions taking place between philosophers during the second half of the twentieth century about moral, social, and political philosophy. Moreover, Rawls's reaction to the critical analysis and evaluations by other scholars assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his theories demonstrate how these authors helped inform his own studies.

Present in these papers are Rawls's analyses of works by some of the major figures of economics, philosophy, and social theory such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Gottfried Leibniz, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx, as well as many other eighteenth-century philosophers.

These papers document Rawls's interaction with some of the most prominent individuals in the field of philosophy such as Thomas M. Scanlon, Ronald Dworkin, Philippa Foot, Robert Nozick, Thomas Pogge, and Amartaya Sen and highlight the influence Rawls had over the intellectual and professional development of a generation of philosophers.


John Rawls (1921-2002), James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, was one of the most significant political and moral philosophers of the twentieth century and is credited with reviving the social contract tradition in social and moral philosophy. Widely cited by scholars, Rawls's theories on justice and fairness in a modern society greatly influenced the fields of political science, economics, sociology, theology, and the law.

Early Life and Career

John Bordley Rawls was born on February 21, 1921 in Baltimore, Maryland, to William Lee Rawls (1883-1946) and Anna Abel (Stump) Rawls (1892-1954). The second of five sons, Rawls's interest in philosophy began at the Episcopalian Kent School in Connecticut and matured as an undergraduate at Princeton University. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1943, Rawls enlisted in the United States Army during World War II, trained as a radio operator, and served as an infantry platoon sergeant in the Pacific, in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan. Following his discharge from the military, Rawls attended the Princeton University Graduate School (1946-1950), spending the year 1947-1948 at Cornell University. From 1952 to 1953, Rawls studied at Christ Church College at Oxford University. After returning from England, Rawls was appointed an Assistant and then an Associate Professor at Cornell University.

Harvard University

Rawls first came to Harvard University in 1959 as a Visiting Professor. While at Harvard, Rawls accepted a full professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he helped to develop the Institute's Humanities Department. In 1962, Rawls left MIT to join the Harvard Philosophy Department, where he stayed until his retirement in 1991. Rawls taught moral, social, and political philosophy, focusing on discussions of justice as fairness in society, with examinations of earlier philosopher's works on the subject. He taught a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses at Harvard, but his most influential course was on ethics or moral philosophy in which he reviewed the works of some of the major philosophers of Western Civilization including Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, David Hume, John Locke, Henry Sidgwick, and W.D. Ross. In Rawls's view, studying the greatest minds of philosophy offered the best hope of understanding some of the important questions asked by individuals during their lifetimes, including what makes a human life worthwhile.

Justice as Fairness

Rawls's research and teaching focused on justice in society, a topic which he studied for over fifty years. He began researching and collecting notes on justice and fairness as a graduate student at Princeton University. In 1971, he published his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, which proposed an alternative to utilitarianism, which in Rawls's view led to injustice. For Rawls, the utilitarian doctrine lacked any principle of justice and could quite easily be turned into a system where the welfare of the few was sacrificed for the welfare of the many. Rawls revived the seventeenth century idea of the social contract, a doctrine popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rawls postulated that a just and fair society was one in which each person had equal opportunities and freedom and that government had a responsibility to address economic and social disparities in order to assist and uplift the disadvantaged. Rawls's theory of justice was received favorably by philosophers, lawyers, economists, political scientists, sociologists, students, and other academicians, and led to an outpouring of journal literature and papers.

After the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls spent the next several years developing and expanding his ideas of justice and fairness by exploring ways in which different approaches to morality could co-exist in a democratic society holding diverse world views. In Political Liberalism (1993), he addressed how a concept of justice influences the lives of citizens in a democracy, specifically addressing the relationship and compatibility between religion and democracy. In The Law of Peoples (1999), Rawls extended his conception of justice to foreign affairs, describing what a peaceful and tolerant international order would look like. Finally, Rawls summarized his conceptions of justice in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), providing revisions to his original ideas on justice and fairness, reworked over a period of almost thirty years. Rawls's writings had a profound effect on philosophical discussion and discourse in the second half of the twentieth century and greatly influenced a generation of moral and social philosophers.


In 1949 John Rawls married Margaret (Warfield Fox) Rawls. They had four children: Anne Warefield (b. 1950), Robert Lee (b. 1954), Alexander Emory (b. 1955), and Elizabeth Fox (b. 1957).

John Rawls died on November 24, 2002.


  1. Ethics.Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2010
  2. Freeman, Samuel. Preface to Collected Papers by John Rawls. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  3. Herman, Barbara. Foreword to Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy by John Rawls. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  4. Hoffman, Ella A. Distinguished Philosopher, Professor Dies, The Harvard Crimson, 26 November 2002.
  5. Papers of John Rawls. Biographical materials, 1995, 2002-2003. Autobiographical Notes, John Rawls, [ca. 2002], Box 42, Folder 12, HUM 48. Harvard University Archives.
  6. Pogge, Thomas Winfried Menko. John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice. Translated by Michelle Kosch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  7. Political philosophy. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2010
  8. John Rawls. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2010
  9. Social contract. OED online Oxford University Press. 30 August 2010
  10. Utilitarianism. OED online Oxford University Press. 30 August 2010


February 21. John Bordley Rawls born in Baltimore, Maryland.
Graduates from Kent School, Kent, Connecticut; enters Princeton University.
Serves in the United States Army during World War II.
Attends Princeton University Graduate School; receives Ph.D. in moral philosophy, June 1950.
June 18. Marries Margaret Warfield Fox; the marriage produces four children: Anne Warfield, Robert Lee, Alexander Emory, and Elizabeth Fox.
Earns post-doctoral Fellowship at Princeton University.
Becomes Instructor at Princeton University.
Studies at Oxford University on a post-doctoral Fulbright Fellowship.
Becomes Assistant, then Associate Professor, at Cornell University.
Introduces an early version of his two principles of justice, Justice as Fairness.
Serves as Visiting Professor at Harvard University.
Appointment as Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Appointment as Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University; chairman of Harvard Philosophy Department, 1970-1974.
Receives Guggenheim Fellowship.
September. Attended conference on Herbert Hart's Philosophy in Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy.
Summer. Taught six weeks at teaching institute at Boulder, Colorado.
Spends sabbatical year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.
Elected President of the American Association of Legal and Political Philosophy.
Publishes A Theory of Justice.
Receives the Phi Beta Kappa Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for A Theory of Justice.
Appointment as John Cowles Professor, Harvard University.
Taught at the Philosophy Department and Law School at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Elected President of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division.
Attends Bad Homburg conference on A Theory of Justice.
Fall term. Attends the Institute for Advance Study at Princeton University on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
May. Participates at the Tanner Lectures at Oxford University.
Lectures on Immanuel Kant at Stanford University.
Appointment as James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University.
April. Gives three Dewey Lectures on Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory at Columbia University.
Gives Tanner Lecture and a seminar on The Basic Liberties and Their Priorities at the University of Michigan.
June. Receives honorary degree, Doctor of Civil Laws, from Oxford University.
September. Receives Ames Prize from Harvard Law School.
May 16. Lectures at the annual Hart Lecture at Oxford University, On the Idea of Overlapping Consensus.
May. Lectures at University College, London.
June. Lectures at Goethe-Universitat, Frankfurt am Main.
June. Lectures at George-August-Universitat, Gottingen.
Lecturer at the Colloquium on Law, Philosophy and Political Theory at New York University; about a week in November for three years.
March 20-21. Participates in the Paris International Symposium on A Theory of Justice at the École Polytechnique.
June. Receives honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Princeton University.
June. Speaks on the Difference Principle at the Naples Conference on Public Reason.
September 3. Awarded the Benjamin Lippincott Award by the American Political Science Association.
November. Gives public lecture and seminar at Department of Political Science at University of Chicago.
February. Gives the first of two Abe Meldon Lectures at the University of California at Irvine.
May. Lectures on the Overlapping Consensus at Democracy Conference at the University of California at Davis.
November 15. Gives Griffin Lecture at University of California, Los Angeles. Also speaks to Philosophy Department Colloquium on November 16 on Political Constructivism.
June. Retires from the Philosophy Department at Harvard University. Rawls teaches three more years as Emeritus.
May 4. Elected member of the Norwegian Academy of Arts and Science and Letters.
Publishes Political Liberalism.
February 12. Gives the Oxford Amnesty Lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University.
April 30-May 1. Lectures on the nature of political liberalism at the University of California Riverside Conference.
May. Speaks on Political Liberalism at a conference at Tel Aviv University.
November 4. Delivered Dewey Lecture in Jurisprudence at University of Chicago Law School.
November 30. Gives the Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Law School on The Idea of Public Reason: Further Considerations.
March. Speaks briefly at the Eighth International Kant Conference at Memphis State University.
October. Attends a two day conference in honor of A Theory of Justice's twenty-fifth anniversary at Santa Clara College in California.
October. Suffers first two of several strokes.
Publishes a revised and expanded edition of Political Liberalism.
Receives Honorary Degree from Harvard University.
October. Suffers a stroke in connection with an operation from a broken hip.
September 28. Receives National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
November. Awarded the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy from the Royal Swedish Academy.
Publishes Collected Papers.
Publishes The Law of Peoples with The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.
Publishes Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.
Publishes Justice as Fairness, A Restatement.
November 24. John Rawls dies at the age of 81.

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. Biographical materials, 1995, 2002-2003
  2. Lectures, 1950-1997 and undated
  3. ___Class lectures in Moral Philosophy, Group I, 1971-1991 and undated
  4. ___Class lectures in Moral Philosophy, Group II, 1950-1994 and undated
  5. ___Kant lectures, 1975-1977 and undated
  6. ___Lectures, chiefly outside of Harvard, 1959-1989
  7. ___Dewey Lectures and Political Liberalism, 1975-1998
  8. ___Class lectures, Group I, 1958-1996 and undated
  9. ___Class lectures, Group II, 1978-1996 and undated
  10. ___Two non-Harvard lectures, 1995, 1997
  11. Writings, 1942-1998 and undated
  12. ___Undergraduate thesis and early papers, 1942-1962 and undated
  13. ___Early articles and drafts of portions of A Theory of Justice, 1964-1965
  14. ___A Theory of Justice, 1965-1990
  15. ___Reviews of A Theory of Justice, 1972-1973
  16. ___Correspondence on Justice, 1957-1977
  17. ___The Law of Peoples with The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, 1975-1978
  18. ___Justice as Fairness, A Restatement, 1987-1994
  19. ___Articles, essays and publications in journals, 1950-1977
  20. ___Books written by John Rawls, 1971-1993
  21. ___Reviews and commentaries on Rawls's work, 1973-1997
  22. Letter box files, 1958-1994 and undated
  23. ___Letter box file 1. Notes from Philosophy 171, 1979, 1984-1989 and undated
  24. ___Letter box file 2. Notes on revisions to A Theory of Justice and lectures on a Theory of Justice,1973-1984 and undated
  25. ___Letter box file 3. The Basic Structure as Subject and The Basic Liberties and Their Priority,1980-1985 and undated
  26. ___Letter box file 4. Lectures on the Law of Nations, 1967-1969 and undated
  27. ___Letter box file 5. Moral Psychology, 1958-1968 and undated
  28. ___Letter box file 6. Lectures on Political Philosophy, 1959-1965 and undated
  29. ___Letter box file 7. Notes and lectures on Equality and Justice, 1959-1967 and undated
  30. ___Letter box file 8. Lectures on John Stuart Mill, 1979-1994
  31. ___Letter box file 9. Moral Philosophy Lectures, 1972-1977
  32. ___Letter box file 10. Lectures on Justice as Fairness, 1984-1988 and undated
  33. ___Letter box file 11. Contemporary Moral Philosophy, 1983-1992
  34. ___Letter box file 12. Contemporary Moral Philosophy, 1983, 1985
  35. Correspondence files, 1973-2003 and undated
  36. ___Personal name correspondence, 1973-2001 and undated
  37. ___Notes and letters regarding the Overlapping Consensus, 1988-1992
  38. ___Unsorted correspondence, 1986-1998
  39. ___Alphabetically arranged correspondence, 1973-1998
  40. ___Topical correspondence, 1980-1997
  41. ___Unfiled letters, 1987-2001
  42. ___Condolence letters, 2002-2003
  43. Offprints and manuscripts by others, 1960-1998, 2000 and undated
  44. ___Offprints and manuscripts by others, Group I, 1971-1998 and undated
  45. ___Offprints and manuscripts by others, Group II, 1960-1977, 2000
  46. Subject files, 1970-1998 and undated
  47. ___Subject files, Group I, 1970-1998 and undated
  48. ___Subjects files, Group II, 1991 and undated
  49. Research notes on index cards, ca. 1950s-1990s

Acquisition Information

The Papers of John Rawls were acquired through donation from Professor Rawls and his family. Whenever possible the archivist noted the terms of acquisition in the descriptions and item lists.

The acquisitions are as follows:

  1. Accession number: 14990; 2004 March 4
  2. Accession number: 15085; 2004 July 14
  3. Accession number: 17313; 2006 March 21
  4. Accession number: 17818; 2008 June 29
  5. Accession number: 18116; 2010 March 12

Related Material in the Harvard University Archives

  1. Harvard University. Photographs: portrait files, includes photographs of John Rawls.
  2. Lelyveld, David. Notes and papers for course on political philosophy. This collection consists of handwritten notes and a paper entitled International Law and Extra-National Justice, with comments by John Rawls (HUC 8960.370).
  3. Books from the personal library of John Rawls: books from Rawls's personal library (some heavily annotated) pertaining to the history of moral and political philosophy (HUM 48.1).
  4. Rawls, John, Biographical File (HUG 300).
  5. Search HOLLIS (Harvard's online library system) for other works by and about John Rawls.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2019 October 18.

Processing Information

Processed August-September 2010 by Dominic P. Grandinetti.

This collection consists of several accessions which have been maintained in their original order as received by the Harvard University Archives. Much of the material in accession 14990 was arranged by John Rawls and by his wife, Margaret, subsequent to his death. Wherever possible, the archivist attempted to retain and preserve the original arrangement and existing relationships of the documents in these papers.

Notes written on the front flap of the original folders by John Rawls or by his wife, (i.e. lists of correspondents, lectures titles, or subjects considered within the folders) were transcribed by the archivist and incorporated into the folder lists below. Additions to these transcribed notes by the archivist appear in brackets.

In a few cases, series titles were changed and new ones assigned by the archivist in this finding aid. Changes are noted in the folder list below. Dates and titles assigned by the archivist appear in brackets.

Processing included rehousing materials in appropriate containers, establishment of series and subseries hierarchy, photocopying of news clippings and fragile documents, and the creation of this finding aid.

Rawls, John, 1921-2002. Papers of John Rawls, 1942-2003 and undated : an inventory
Harvard University Archives
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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