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Lots of "great" reviews!

Hare's comment about a Theory of Justice, that "The book is extremely repetitious, and it is seldom clear whether the repetitions really are repetitions, or modifications of previously expressed views" seems exactly right to me, even if the rest of the review is unfair!

I also have some sympathy with Frege's reaction to the Tractatus!


The review of a Theory of Justice seems totally accurate to me.


I was going to say I agree with the Rawls review too lol.

One more

Not to pile on Rawls, but clearly the book is poorly written and poorly structured. Its value is a function of the many thought-provoking ideas in it. But it is a great example of what we would not want our students to do. A good editor would have thinned it down, and straigthened it out.

I'll Pile On

In my opinion, TOJ contains the most important philosophical ideas of the 20th century. I also believe that Rawls is the most important philosopher of the 20th century.

But I agree that TOJ is dreadfully written--so much of it is boring and unnecessary. As "One more" aptly notes, a good editor would have helped a lot.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for chiming in, everyone. Funny thing, this conversation actually seems to me to underscore the concerns that animate the OP.

Yes, TOJ has very real flaws. Still, the problem (at least as I see it) is that time and again throughout history we see peer and post-reviewers dismiss or reject important works--works that end up having lasting fame and influence--on grounds rather like these.

More often than not, whenever I google a work of lasting influence (whether it is art, music, literature, or philosophy), I seem to read roughly the same thing: the work was roundly rejected by reviewers/publishers, then released to "initially mixed reviews", only then to finally enjoy fame and influence years or decades later.

My thought is: perhaps this should lead us to wonder whether our very training as experts--our learning to pick out and fixate on flaws--biases our traditional model of peer-review in an overly conservative direction. For, as I think we all know, peer-reviewers in our current system seem to be "looking for reasons to reject" rather than reasons to accept the works they review. I then wonder again whether a more open, public system of peer review (like that in math and physics) might have less of such a conservative bias, since in a more open system people get to argue with each other about the merits and deficiencies of a given work (which is usually how great works come to be recognized as great works after early mixed reviews).

Steven French

I wonder if we should distinguish 'work that advances the field' (whatever that is) from 'work that transforms the field'. So many of the examples you give seem to refer to the latter (Here's another, Charles Shaar Murray's famous comment on The Clash: "The Clash are the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running") and its not clear that a public system of review would actually be any less 'conservative' or more open to such work. So, on a personal and still musical note, I remember seeing The Sex Pistols in 1976 and thought they were pretty bad (they were bottled off stage by some local bikers). Then I bought The Damned's first album more or less by accident (with the Eddy and the Hot Rods cover!), followed by The Clash, by which time I was primed for Never Mind the Bollocks ... Sometimes the context needs to be laid down before the significance of a work can be recognised. And switching back to philosophy, maybe that involves publishing in less prestigious journals, hammering away at the same themes in various conferences ... and generally shaping the context incrementally. In music, that all can happen 'overnight' (not really); in academia, not so much ... In the end the job of the editor or referee is not to recognise The Great Work ahead of everybody else, its to establish whether the work makes some advance, and although increasing the number of effective referees may help with the latter (at some cost of course) I'm not convinced it will help with the former.


In 1923, Bertil Ohlin submitted to the Economic Journal a paper that introduced the factor proportions theorem to international economics. The theorem eventually earned Ohlin a Nobel Prize. [Editor John Maynard] Keynes returned the manuscript with a blunt rejection note: ‘This amounts to nothing and should be refused’" (Gans and Shepherd, 1994, pp. 174-175).

This passage comes from a delightful essay "Prose, psychopaths and persistence: Personal perspectives on publishing" available here:


Ingrid Robeyns

perhaps this is of use?

Marcus Arvan

Thanks Ingrid - that paper is a wonderful compendium of absurd reviews!

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