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…