The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Passing of a Philosopher

I am sorry to read of the passing, from leukemia, of Ronald Dworkin. Professor Dworkin was a tremendous scholar, dividing his time between NYU and University College, London. His early work critiquing and debating the brilliant legal positivist H.L.A. Hart is some of the best writing I have encountered in legal philosophy--as are Hart's original writing and his response, as contained in the second edition of The Concept of Law. As the Times describes:
Professor Dworkin’s academic work was in many ways a reaction to that of H. L. A. Hart, the British legal philosopher whose 1961 masterwork “The Concept of Law” set out his theory of positivism, which held that law is a system of rules similar in structure to those of games like chess. Legal reasoning, positivism says, is merely descriptive and need not take account of morality.

The two men first met when Professor Hart was by happenstance assigned to evaluate Mr. Dworkin’s final examination at Oxford. The American student excited and scared Professor Hart, his biographer, Nicola Lacey, wrote in 2004, referring to Professor Hart by his first name.

“Herbert went on to express considerable anxiety about this student’s views for the arguments of ‘The Concept of Law,’ ” she wrote. Professor Dworkin’s later work, she added, amounted to “a devastating critical onslaught” on Professor Hart’s “overschematic account of adjudication.”

Years later, when Professor Dworkin succeeded Professor Hart in the Oxford chair of jurisprudence, the older man gave an after-dinner speech quoting from the student paper, which he had saved.
Dworkin's defense of the role of moral thought in constitutional jurisprudence is celebrated by Stephen Griffin here.

Dworkin was an admirable disputant; elegant, polite, giving his opponent his due, but not papering over real differences. He brought a depth of knowledge and a quick, nimble style of argumentation to academic debate that is most rare these days. From the above-linked obit:
In 2011, he published “Justice for Hedgehogs,” an overview and summation. “I am trying,” he said in 2005, as he was working on the book, “to bring together my work in law and my work in political philosophy and moral philosophy and the theory of interpretation and the kitchen sink.”

That ability to synthesize and improvise served Professor Dworkin well, Professor Nagel said, recalling seeing his friend give a “beautifully constructed 50-minute lecture” at Stanford, having been introduced by the university’s president.

“After it was over,” Professor Nagel said, “the president got up again and explained that he had inadvertently picked up Dworkin’s detailed lecture notes from the lectern after introducing him but discovered this only after Dworkin was launched.”
See, now I can believe that. Let me tell you why. Back in 1997, I attended--with the woman who *AHEM* some years later did me the honor of becoming my much beloved wife--a symposium on constitutional law where Dworkin delivered the main paper, entitled "The Arduous Virtue of Fidelity: Originalism, Scalia, Tribe and Nerve," and, afterward watched a small constellation of some of the biggest names in constitutional theory--from Jack Balkin, Dorothy Roberts, Sanford Levinson, Bruce Ackerman and Catharine A. MacKinnon (fair dos, I made my scholarly bones critiquing MacKinnon's First Amendment paradigm, and stand by that critique by and large, but her paper was outstanding in matter and manner of delivery) tear into Dworkin.

Now here's the good part. Dworkin then got up and replied to almost everybody. You can get a sense of the content of what he said from the polished version that was published in the Fordham Law Review, which mostly preserves his conversational style, but to have been in the room while he did it--well, it was one of the most impressive intellectual feats I've witnessed.

On a break before he was due to reply, I ran into Dworkin coming into the men's room as I exited. He asked if I were enjoying the symposium, and I said yes, and then asked if he was looking forward to replying. "Oh, yes," he said, quite calmly, but the smile he shot me was one of pure diablerie.

Rest in peace, Professor. The world of ideas is richer for your presence.

No comments: