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Professor wins Spitz prize for philosophy book

Christian Myers | Sunday, November 18, 2012

Philosophy professor Paul Weithman recently received the 2012 David and Elaine Spitz Prize for his 2010 book, “Why Political Liberalism? On John Rawls’ Political Turn”.

The Spitz Prize is issued by the International Conference for the Study of Political Thought (CSTP) and was first awarded in 1988. According to the Conference’s website, the prize is awarded to the best book in liberal or democratic theory published two years prior.

Past recipients of the prize include Joseph Raz, Martha Nussbaum, Sheldon Wolin and John Rawls.

Weithman said that seeing names like Rawls and Raz on the list of past recipients made him feel a bit out of his league.

“I feel like some guy who wins a golf tournament and gets his name put on the same trophy as Jack Nicklaus,” he said. “It’s a great honor that, of the eligible books, mine was the one they wanted to pick out.”

Weithman said he was surprised to receive the award because his book is focused on a historical figure rather than on contributing to liberal or democratic theory.

“The committee must have thought I succeeded in using Rawls’ work to get at the big theoretical questions of the discipline, and it’s very gratifying that they thought that,” he said.

According to the CSTP website, Weithman’s book “provides careful and rigorous exegesis of Rawls’ work as a way of drilling deeply into some of the central questions in modern political theory.”

Weithman said he owes much of his understanding of Rawls’ work to a course he teaches each year that covers Rawls’ theories.

“The book is about John Rawls; I teach his work to PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics Minor] students every fall in the Justice Seminar, and I’m quite sure that I would not understand it to the extent I do were it not for the annual exercise of teaching it,” he said. “We University professors often say that teaching and research go hand-in-hand and each enhances the other. This is one case in which they really did.”

Weithman said he admires Rawls and his book “A Theory of Justice,” which is a famous work of political and moral philosophy.

“John Rawls was, I think, the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century,” he said. “[‘A Theory of Justice’] really is a great work of political philosophy and it is truly a theory. It’s a big and systematic theory for modern liberal democracies.”

Fifteen years after publishing “A Theory of Justice,” Weithman said Rawls began to publish a series of papers that took his work in a different direction. This new direction eventually resulted in the book “Political Liberalism,” he said.

Weithman wrote his book as a means of understanding the changes Rawls made in his theories between the two books, he said.

“I wanted to understand the changes Rawls made in his own theory, both because of the intrinsic interest and value of coming to understand a great thinker’s work, and also because I thought that understanding those changes would shed light on some of the deep issues political philosophy confronts,” he said. “I wrote the book to work through and understand those changes.”

Politics has always been an area of interest for Weithman and he enjoys keeping up with current political events, he said.

“I’ve always been something of a political junkie,” Weithman said. “I love following politics and reading about it. I’m now experiencing a painful withdrawal after the election with so much less to read about and so much less news to follow.”

Weithman said that he was drawn to the field of political philosophy as a means of bringing his love of philosophy and love of politics together while a Notre Dame undergraduate.

“I realized when I came to see the deep philosophical questions politics raises that pursuing them seems natural,” he said. “I just wish I had more answers.”

He does not know if winning the Spitz Prize will lead more people to read his book, Weithman said, but he values the recognition either way.

“It’s tremendously gratifying to have a book singled out from the many good ones as worthy of recognition with the Spitz Prize, but whether it will come to the attention of more people, and many more people will pick it up and read it, is just hard to know,” he said. “I know philosophy books aren’t best-sellers. I don’t expect to see it on the kiosks at airports, though it would be nice.”

Ultimately, Weithman said he wrote the book because it furthered his own learning and progress as an academic.

“I think the books professors write, like the research projects graduate and undergraduate students do, are undertaken for what we learn by doing them,” he said. “When we can’t possibly read all that’s worth reading, we have to be satisfied with the progress we ourselves have made in undertaking projects like these.”

Weithman is not currently working on another book, but he said he might begin working on one in the future.

“I’m working on a couple of papers right now and maybe one of them will provide the seed for a book project, but I can’t see that far ahead right now. I hope one of them will,” he said. “I admire people who finish a book project and immediately know of several more they want to write. When I finished this one, I felt like I’d written everything I know.”