Judith N. Shklar  

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"Rousseau [...] is the Homer of the losers." --"Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Equality" in Daedalus (1978)

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Judith Nisse Shklar (September 24, 1928 – September 17, 1992) was a philosopher and political theorist and worked at Harvard University.

Shklar is best known for her essay "Putting Cruelty First" which proclaims cruelty as the worst evil.

She labeled Rousseau "the Homer of the losers" in Men and Citizens (1969).


Judith Shklar was born as Judita Nisse in Riga, Latvia to Jewish parents. Because of persecution during World War II, her family fled Europe over Japan to the US and finally to Canada in 1941, when she was thirteen. She graduated from McGill University, receiving bachelor of art and master of art degrees in 1949 and 1950, respectively. She received her PhD degree from Harvard University in 1955.

Shklar joined the Harvard faculty in 1956, becoming the first woman to receive tenure in Harvard's Government Department in 1971. In 1980, she was appointed to be the John Cowles Professor of Government. During her career, Shklar served in various academic and professional capacities. She became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1970. She served as president of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy (1982) and then as vice president of the American Political Science Association (1983). While serving as the vice president of the APSA, she was also the visiting Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University (1983–1984). In 1984, she received a MacArthur Fellowship for her work. She served as a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University, in 1983 and 1986. Following this, she was the Carlyle Lecturer at Oxford in 1986; Storrs Lecturer, Yale Law School, 1988; and Tanner Lecturer, University of Utah, 1989. Also in 1989, she was appointed the first female president of the APSA. Additionally, she was active in the committee that integrated the American Repertory Theater into the Harvard community.

A renowned teacher and advisor, many of Shklar's former students and colleagues contributed to a volume of essays, Liberalism without Illusions: Essays on Liberal Theory and the Political Vision of Judith N. Shklar (University of Chicago Press, 1996), edited by Bernard Yack. Contributors include her celebrated former students Amy Gutmann, Patrick T. Riley, Nancy Rosenblum, Bernard Yack, Rogers Smith, Melissa Williams, and Tracy Strong.

Throuhgout her life, Judith Shklar was known as "Dita." She and her husband, Gerald Shklar, had three children, David, Michael, and Ruth.


Shklar's thought centered on two main ideas: cruelty as the worst evil and the "liberalism of fear." She discusses the first idea in her essay "Putting Cruelty First," published in Daedalus (1982) and in Ordinary Vices (1984). Her second main idea, expounded in her essay "The Liberalism of Fear," is founded on the first idea and focuses on how governments are prone to abuse the "inevitable inequalities in power" that result from political organization.

Based on these core ideas, Shklar advocated for constitutional democracy, which she saw as flawed but still the best form of government possible. A constitutional democracy, in Shklar's view, protects people from the abuses of the more powerful by restricting government and by dispersing power among a "multiplicity of politically active groups".

Shklar believed that "the original and only defensible meaning of liberalism" is that "every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of his or her life as is compatible with the like freedom of every adult." Shklar described rights less as absolute moral liberties and more as licenses which citizens must have in order to protect themselves against abuse.

Shklar was deeply interested in injustice and political evils, claiming that "philosophy fails to give injustice its due"; that is, most past philosophers have ignored injustice and talked only about justice, likewise ignoring vice and talking only about virtue. Ordinary Vices and The Faces of Injustice articulate Shklar's attempts to fill this gap in philosophical thought, drawing heavily on literature as well as philosophy to argue that injustice and the "sense of injustice" are historically and culturally universal and are critical concepts for modern political and philosophical theory.


Professor Shklar wrote many influential books and articles on political science including the following:

Several of her essays, including the "classic" "The Liberalism of Fear," have been collected in two posthumous volumes edited by Stanley Hoffmann and published by the University of Chicago Press: Redeeming American Political Thought (1998) and Political Thought and Political Thinkers (1998).

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