A "tell-all" biography of the liberal reformer and legal theorist HLA Hart sheds light on the flowering of Oxford philosophy from the 1930s to the 1970sby Ben Rogers / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
A life of HLA Hart by Nicola Lacey
(Oxford University Press, £25)
I only saw the philosopher of law HLA Hart once. It must have been in 1990 or 1991, in the gardens of University College Oxford, a year or two before his death. Moving forward slowly, on swollen legs and walking sticks, stooped and scruffy, his image stayed with me. I realised, when I embarked on this book, that it had become associated in my mind with Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed remains on display at UCL. This might seem rather grotesque, but it is not unfitting. There are many ways of capturing Hart’s standing. Lacey describes him here as “the pre-eminent English-speaking philosopher of law of the 20th century.” He was the philosopher who applied linguistic philosophy to jurisprudence—”the Wittgenstein of legal philosophy.” But he is also generally counted the greatest British legal theorist since Bentham; the man who triumphantly revived the latter’s positivism.
Despite his achievements, however, and despite a life at the centre of things—he was close to public figures such as Isaiah Berlin and Douglas Jay and involved in public causes—Hart remained a private figure. The Concept of Law established legal positivism—the position that laws and morality are independent of each other—as the dominant legal philosophy of our times. Arguing that identifying law with morality only makes it harder to criticise unjust laws, Hart developed the idea of laws as a special class of social rules. Not anything could be a law, but what marked out laws from other rules was not any moral property but their issuing from a source recognised as authoritative. Causation and the Law—an exploration of what it means, in a legal context, to say that one thing caused another—set new standards of jurisprudential acuity. Law, Liberty and Morality has been perhaps the most influential English defence of liberal freedoms since Mill’s On Liberty, and something of a manifesto for the liberal reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. But while hundreds of thousands of these books have been sold, very few of their readers would be able to say what the initial “H” in HLA Hart stood for. “Herbert” was never on first-name terms with the larger world.
The octogenarian I saw that day in University College gardens appeared to have every reason to be satisfied with his life. He had risen from quite humble beginnings to great heights. He had married a beautiful and talented woman, Jenifer Williams, a successful academic in her own right, and between them they had produced a large family. Hart turned down a knighthood, but he was showered with academic honours. And while shying away from publicity, he helped, through his work, to move society in the direction he thought it should be moved. A cultured man, he was loved and admired by students and colleagues for his interest in almost everything, his donnish absent-mindedness, his gentle manner and his determination to think things through.
But the accomplishments and outward confidence masked deep insecurities. These were closely bound up, Lacey suggests, with Hart’s background—a prosperous but provincial Jewish family, with parents from the Harrogate tailoring business—and his being predominantly homosexual (Hart never seems to have had sexual relations with men, though his desire to do so placed a strain on his marriage with Jenifer, who had numerous affairs, including a long drawn-out one with Isaiah Berlin, Hart’s dearest friend). Whatever their source, Hart’s worries tended to revolve around his work. Hart came to philosophy late; he did not start teaching the subject until he was almost 40, after a successful career at the bar and, during the war, in counter-espionage. And then he worried that he was no good at it. When it came, however, the success that he so desperately wanted merely fuelled his fear of self-exposure.
Anxiety and insecurity are often profitless. They certainly cost Hart himself and those close to him dear. Hart could be cold and distant, especially towards his family, but sometimes towards colleagues and competitors—most notably his successor at Oxford, Ronald Dworkin. (Having secured Dworkin’s appointment, against considerable odds, Hart then nursed a long, largely hidden sense of injury as Dworkin developed his critique of positivism.) And his self-doubt could undermine his work: he wanted to write books but mainly wrote essays. Accusations in the Sun-day papers, in 1983, that Jenifer and he had spied for the Soviet Union during the war, though immediately quashed, led him into a mental breakdown and a period in hospital.
Yet these very insecurities also drove him on as a man and a philosopher. Hart did not fear to look himself in the face. His notebooks abound with touching attempts at self-analysis and self-castigating undertakings to do better—to attain the high standards, intellectual and moral, to which he held himself, and by which he largely lived. Hart, his family and friends and the larger world might all have been better off if he had been a little less insecure, but a good degree of self-doubt was an essential part of the man.
There is good reason why Jenifer Hart, so central a figure in his life, remains shadowy: she is still alive. But Lacey, while mining Hart’s notebooks to great effect, tells us little about Hart’s marriage or friendships or what they reveal about him. By contrast, there is perhaps too much philosophy. We expect some philosophy in the biography of a philosopher. It is the penance we pay for our enjoyment of the good bits. But Lacey could have spared us some of the rigours.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and moving life. I picked it up doubting that I would want to read it, and was soon gulping it down. You have to go back some time—the 13th century, say—to find the last time that Oxford philosophy really made an international mark. But from the 1930s to the 1970s, it underwent what now looks like a brilliant flowering, as ideas and personalities alchemised in unpredictable ways. Lacey’s book sheds a fascinating light on one of this moment’s leading figures.
Tell-all biography is a peculiarly British genre—it is unlikely that we will be seeing a book like this about, say, Quine, or John Rawls— and many critics view it with suspicion. Writing in the London Review of Books, the philosopher Thomas Nagel criticised this one for revealing things that should not have been revealed. Nagel knew Hart and I did not, but I wonder if this is true. Hart felt the urge of self-disclosure— diaries are rarely written just for the writer, and Hart, rather than destroying his, left them with Jenifer. Anyway, homosexuality doesn’t carry the stigma it once did—Nagel’s refusal even to mention it in his review is odd. This is a frank but admiring book, and no one is going to be sniggering about Hart because of it.