Thursday 12 March 2009

Brian Barry has died

The political philosophy/theory community has been deeply saddened in the past few days to hear of the death of Brian Barry. There is a collection of very insightful thoughts on Brian's work and legacy at Crooked Timber.

Brian Barry was one of the leading Anglo-American political theorists of his generation. He helped stimulate the renaissance of analytical political theory in the 1960s with his book Political Argument. He wrote two superb books on the philosophy of social justice, responding to and developing John Rawls's work, Theories of Justice and Justice as Impartiality (as well as an influential early critique of Rawls, The Liberal Theory of Justice). In recent years, he wrote two fantastic works of applied political theory. Culture and Equality, published in 2000, is a scintillating critique of multiculturalist political theory. Why Social Justice Matters, published in 2005, is unique in the way it brings together the findings of post-Rawlsian philosophizing about social justice with the findings of empirical social science to give the reader a clear account both of what social justice is and just how radically society will have to change to achieve it.

The perspective he defended in these works is that of a strongly egalitarian liberalism. This put him, philosophically, well to the left of the present Labour party, and I think it fair to say that he regarded New Labour with disgust - both for its intellectual superficiality and, related to this, for its unwarranted abandonment of egalitarian positions. It is perhaps not an accident that he left the LSE, for Columbia University, soon after Anthony Giddens took over at the LSE.

He was infamously robust in discussion, never afraid to tell someone - whether in print or in person - that he thought their argument was rubbish if that is what he thought. At times, his lack of sympathy for a position could make his comments unfairly harsh or rude. He was also enormously supportive of his students, however, and, as you will see in the Comments on the Crooked Timber appreciation, many people have tales of his kindness and thoughtfulness.

Personally, I am deeply grateful for the encouragement he gave to me as a young political theorist. On one occasion, I somehow failed to turn up to give a paper at the LSE, criticising his work (I got dates mixed up). In my absence, Brian read the paper out on my behalf and led a discussion of it. When I next met him, deeply embarassed and apologetic, he laughed it off and immediately started in on a discussion of a point in political theory.

At this time, when the confidence of the neo-liberal project is at a low ebb, and moral and political imaginations are opening up again, Barry's work has the potential to speak to a wider audience than for many years.

So: go out now and buy Why Social Justice Matters. Read it. And the next time you hear any politician or public intellectual waffle about social justice, put the Brian Barry bullshit detector to work.

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