Illustration of a woman with outstretched arms that are holding the scales of justice

A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

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Literary Style

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The results of an ongoing revision process are an important element of Rawls’s writing style. Critics frequently comment on A Theory of Justice as the representation of an ongoing process of philosophical theorizing on the part of Rawls, which has taken place over the course of some forty years. A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971, is actually made up primarily of revised articles Rawls had previously published in academic journals, some going back as early as 1958. Thus, it has been observed that the development and refinement of his ideas between 1958–1971 can be traced within the text of a single book. Furthermore, Rawls significantly revised A Theory of Justice in 1975, to prepare it for translation into other languages; however, these revisions were not incorporated into the English-language version of the text until 1999. Rawls points out that, until the 1999 edition, ‘‘the translated editions . . . have been superior to the original.’’ Rawls continued, over the course of some twenty-eight years after the publication of A Theory of Justice, to respond to the questions and complaints of many of his critics; thus, the 1999 revised edition incorporates the culmination of these developments into the original 1971 book, in addition to the revisions made for the 1975 translation.

Voice: First Person

Rawls puts forth his argument in the narrative voice of both the first person singular—meaning that he uses the pronoun ‘‘I’’ to indicate the source of his ideas—and the first person plural—meaning that he also uses the pronoun ‘‘we’’ to express his ideas. This choice may be contrasted with an approach that assumes an objective, or third-person voice by which to put forth a philosophical argument. Rawls appropriately chooses the first person singular narrative voice, which allows him to articulate his ideas in the style of an individual working out a complex, admittedly imperfect, sometimes provisional, philosophy—rather than the definitive, objective conclusions of a third person omniscient (all-knowing) narrator. Although Rawls argues in philosophical abstractions, his use of the first person ‘‘I’’ is a means of presenting his ideas as the result of an ongoing thought process.

Rawls also uses the first person plural, the pronoun ‘‘we’’ in such phrases as: ‘‘We should do what we can to formulate explicit principles.’’ In using the first person plural, Rawls draws the reader into his thought processes, inviting the reader to actively participate in thinking through the problems with which Rawls himself is grappling. His use of both singular and plural first person narrative voice represents Rawls’s works as an ongoing process of developing and refining his theories in dialogue with both himself and his readers.


Rawls admits to the reader a certain degree of self-doubt as to whether or not he has succeeded in developing his theory; this is not a weakness in Rawls’s writing style but an honest and realistic admission that he, like the reader, is merely one man attempting to make sense of the world—he does not pretend to be putting forth the answer to the timeless questions that he is addressing. Thus, he allows himself the opportunity to express doubts about his own ideas, or to admit that some of his ideas have not yet been fully developed. He indicates this in a tone of tentativeness, or self-doubt, throughout the book, using such phrases as: ‘‘I shall try to show’’; ‘‘I wish to develop’’; and ‘‘It seems desirable at this point . . . to discuss.’’


Rawls opens each of the three main parts of A Theory of Justice with an abstract—a condensed description, or summary, of the ideas put forth in that section of the book. Abstracts are frequently included in the opening of academic articles and allow the reader to quickly assess the central argument that follows.

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Historical and Social Context