The Central Questions
- A Life of H.L.A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream by Nicola Lacey
Oxford, 422 pp, £25.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 19 927497 5
When I finished this book I was left wondering why H.L.A. Hart hadn’t destroyed his diaries before he died. Perhaps modesty made him think that no one would want to write about him – he was not, in spite of his great distinction, world-famous like his friend Isaiah Berlin. But he certainly could have predicted that his widow Jenifer, whose indiscretion was well established, would do nothing to protect his privacy or her own.
Perhaps he didn’t care. One never knows how people will feel about what happens after their death. But having been acquainted with Hart for years and having known many of his friends, I felt I was learning too much that was none of my business. Hart was a figure notable, and admirable, for his discretion, reserve and unpretentious dignity. The turmoil that went on beneath that surface was his affair, but Nicola Lacey has made its exposure the unifying thread of her book. She says in explanation:
My rule of thumb was to use only the personal material which sheds light on the development of his ideas and the course of his career. But this, it turned out, was usually the case, because Herbert Hart himself moved seamlessly back and forth in his diaries between personal and professional preoccupations, and sought increasingly to draw links between them. Though some readers may feel that I have been too generous in my use of the personal material – particularly that relating to his feelings about his sexuality and his marriage – my judgment was that it was essential to any interpretation of him as a whole person.
Lacey slides here from ‘ideas and career’ to ‘whole person’, without acknowledging the difference; her claim that the personal material is needed to write an intellectual biography is a pretence. But something else is going on as well. Revealingly, the book is dedicated to Jenifer Hart, and Lacey describes herself as being much closer to Jenifer than to Herbert Hart (whom she also knew personally). Since she says, ‘When Jenifer Hart offered me the opportunity to write this biography …’ it would appear that the suggestion came from Mrs Hart. Having read her own candid and immensely appealing autobiography, published a few years ago,[*] I can’t help feeling that this book is really a continuation of it, an account of Herbert Hart’s life that reflects her desire to see the mask of respectability and self-possession torn off, so that people will know what she had to cope with.
Hart seems to have used the diaries partly as a substitute for intimacy, but perhaps he left them for Jenifer on purpose. These days, unfortunately, a biographer presented with such materials can hardly resist publishing even the most private of them. But apart from this, as someone interested in Hart’s contributions to political and legal philosophy, I am grateful for the detailed facts of his life and career so carefully presented here. Lacey has done a superb job of assembling the data from documents and interviews and turning them into a highly readable narrative. The book has defects both of taste and of substance, but it is on balance a valuable achievement.
Hart was born in 1907 to a well-off Jewish family with a clothing business in Harrogate, and he acquired a strong sense of himself as Jewish without acquiring the religion. At Oxford he read Greats and got a brilliant first, but was unsuccessful in his two attempts at the All Souls fellowship examination. He was thought of as a candidate for appointment as a philosophy don, but he had formed the intention before arriving at Oxford to become a lawyer, and in 1932 he was called to the Bar. On the advice of a colleague he took elocution lessons to get rid of his Yorkshire accent, and soon he had a flourishing Chancery practice. There were occasional approaches from Oxford about returning to teach, but although he maintained an amateur interest in philosophy, he declined them. He made money, rode, hunted, read widely, and led an active and successful social life, marred only by the shock of being turned down for membership of the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London because he was Jewish. In those days your friends didn’t resign over such a thing.
He met Jenifer Williams, the beautiful, outspoken, politically and sexually radical daughter of a diplomat, and amid the tangle of her relations with other men – jealousy being strictly forbidden – they gradually became engaged, and were married in 1941. Before their marriage Jenifer was a Communist, but was asked to conceal her Party membership so that she might be of use to the Soviets. She entered the Home Office in 1936, having achieved the highest rank to that date for a woman in the Civil Service exam – third out of 493. Soviet agents made contact with her occasionally, evidently intending to use her as a mole, but they never got around to asking her for information, and by the time the war started she had drifted away from the Party. Around the same time Hart joined the war effort by going to work (hired on Jenifer’s recommendation) for MI5, where he was regarded as invaluable.
[*] Ask Me No More (1998). Anyone interested in Herbert Hart’s life should read this book as well – though its interest is of course far wider.
[†] Two examples are Hart’s Postscript: Essays on the Postscript to ‘The Concept of Law’, edited by Jules Coleman (2001), and Ronald Dworkin’s essay ‘Hart’s Postscript and the Character of Political Philosophy’ in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies (Vol. 24, No. 1).
Vol. 27 No. 4 · 17 February 2005
From Joanna Ryan
Thomas Nagel’s review of Nicola Lacey’s biography of my father, H.L.A. Hart, is full of inconsistencies (LRB, 3 February). He makes gossipy and inaccurate personal insinuations about my mother, Jenifer Hart, whom he seems rather fascinated with, while at the same time criticising this very rich and full biography for being too personal. To bolster his position of academic noseholding he spins a story – ‘something else is going on as well’ – to the effect that Lacey wrote the book at my mother’s behest and was therefore doing her supposedly self-justifying work. In fact it was Lacey who suggested herself as the biographer, not the other way round, and if anything my father’s diaries do not portray my mother in a very good light but rather show him as suffering from her personality. My mother had no idea what was in the diaries when she handed them to Lacey.
Of course there are serious issues as to how much intimate material it is right to use in a biography, but their discussion is not advanced by Nagel’s contemptuous reduction of Lacey’s portrayal of my father’s inner turmoil to an instance of the general that he would rather not know about. Lacey has succeeded not only in giving an accessible account of my father’s work – which was a large part of my mother’s motivation in wanting a biography written – but also in showing something of the complex emotional structures that underpinned and sustained his pursuit of philosophical knowledge.
From Simon Blackburn & Jeremy Waldron
We were puzzled and depressed to read Thomas Nagel’s patronising review of Nicola Lacey’s biography of Herbert Hart. In particular, his sweeping claim that the author is ‘lost’ when it comes to philosophical issues is both ungenerous and unsupported. Nagel adduces two pieces of evidence, one of which is a glancing reference to the paradox of analysis, and the other some remarks to which he takes exception (calling them ‘absurd’) about the difference between J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein. On each point, Lacey is right and Nagel wrong.
It is a brave philosopher who would undertake to state exactly what the ‘paradox of analysis’ is, as is apparent from the fact that many philosophers deny that there is any such thing. Its core is the idea, attributed to Frege, for example, by Michael Dummett, that if two expressions have the same sense, and one understands each of them, then it should be transparent that they have the same sense. The practice of analysis has an uneasy relationship with that principle: it is constantly poised between saying only what is trivial but true, and saying things that may be exciting but false. Lacey states this as the problem that ‘if language speaks for itself, it is not clear that philosophical analysis is either necessary or capable of being applied to linguistic usage without doing violence to its meaning.’ This is a perfectly adequate account. It is not the last word in this problem area, but it is enough for her purpose and for the reader. It illuminates an important difficulty: how can Hart’s analysis tell us anything new about law or about the legal use of concepts like causation, if it promises to do nothing more than elucidate ordinary usage?
The other problem Nagel alludes to is Lacey’s discussion of the difference between J.L. Austin’s approach to meaning and that of Wittgenstein. Nagel can hardly deny that there is a difference: whereas Wittgenstein is always, clearly, doing something of great importance, every student of philosophy is puzzled by the point of Austin’s minute investigations of English usage. Many think that whatever point it purported to have was largely undermined by H.P. Grice, but nobody could say that about Wittgenstein. Lacey locates the difference between the two men as that between confining attention to evidence derived from language and the dictionary, on the one hand, and extending it to thoughts about the genealogy of social and institutional practices and their purpose – what Wittgenstein would have called ‘the form of life’ that gives rise to the language – on the other. This is again a perfectly serviceable diagnostic, explaining, for example, why Wittgenstein is still a force in the philosophy of social science in a way that Austin is not. It is certainly nearer the truth than Nagel’s own claim that Austin’s was a more empirical approach than Wittgenstein’s. Again, this is important for Lacey’s estimation of Hart’s jurisprudence: an account of the different verbal contexts in which we use terms like ‘rule’ and ‘obligation’ will tell us something about the law; an account of the different social contexts (including contexts of power) in which those terms are heard will tell us something else. Hart’s jurisprudence oscillates back and forth but comes to rest more on the Austinian side. Lacey offers a perfectly reasonable hypothesis to explain this.
There are already some excellent books devoted to close analysis of the published writings of this great legal philosopher: Neil MacCormick’s H.L.A. Hart (1981) is a fine example. Lacey’s book is philosophically illuminating, but it is also about philosophy and what it is like to do philosophy (as a particular form of life in a particular social context). It is a biography, not a textbook. Nagel wrinkles his nose at Lacey’s probing beneath the published surface to reveal the underlying preoccupations of Hart’s life. Well and good; opinions differ on this, as Lacey acknowledged. But is it then fair of him to respond with his own unkind speculations about the hidden agenda of the book (that Lacey cannot do philosophy, that she prefers sociology, and that that’s why she rebukes Hart for siding with Austin)?
Simon Blackburn & Jeremy Waldron
Trinity College, Cambridge & Columbia University, New York
Thomas Nagel writes: I agree with the writers of both these letters that the use of intimate material presents difficult issues, and that reasonable people can differ. My review expressed a personal view, that their use should be more restricted than is now customary, without the subject’s express or implied consent, until a substantial time after his death.
I am moved by Joanna Ryan’s strongly felt letter. In reply let me say that Nicola Lacey has already corrected my misinterpretation of her statement that Jenifer Hart ‘offered me the opportunity’ to write a biography. I regret the mistake, and recognise that it undermines my opening speculation. But I don’t know what to make of Ryan’s statement that her mother had no idea what was in the diaries when she handed them to Lacey. Lacey says that Jenifer ‘was shocked by the depth of anxiety and despair recorded in the diaries when she read them after his death’. This refers to one particular period; perhaps Ryan has personal knowledge that her mother didn’t read most of them. Ryan says I seem rather fascinated with Jenifer Hart. How could I not be? She is a force of nature, as her autobiography and Lacey’s book reveal.
Simon Blackburn and Jeremy Waldron explain the paradox of analysis as I would understand it, and then quote a sentence from Lacey that they think encapsulates it. What seems to me to make that interpretation impossible are the next two sentences: ‘For philosophical analysis is itself a (distinctive) form of usage. How, then, can linguistic philosophy criticise the incoherence of the linguistic practice which it takes as its material?’ Perhaps it’s a problem of obscure writing, but I don’t see what this has to do with the paradox of analysis.
I was a student of J.L. Austin, and cannot help having a different view of his philosophical temperament and a different understanding of his influence on his contemporaries from what one could gather from his meagre published writings. (He died at the age of 48.) He was not a deep philosopher like Wittgenstein, indeed he distrusted depth; but he had a large intellectual appetite and interest in the world which is not adequately reflected in the refined studies of linguistic usage and the theory of speech acts for which he is best known. He had none of the flavour of philosophical purity characteristic of Wittgenstein. When I was beginning to write on altruism he was very helpful in directing me to the literature in motivational psychology. I also remember his class on excuses, which used legal case material to great effect, with no sense of dry verbal nitpicking. Hart was influenced by both Wittgenstein and Austin, and both were important, but I still think there is nothing in the idea that Wittgenstein would have moved him in a more empirical direction, and that this frightened him off.
Blackburn and Waldron refer to my ‘unkind speculations about the hidden agenda of the book’, but my response to Lacey’s repeated complaints about Hart’s neglect of sociology refers to nothing hidden. She looks for unacknowledged reasons for his neglect, and I simply say this shows that she undervalues the philosophical approach which was the source of his contributions.
Vol. 27 No. 6 · 17 March 2005
From W.G. Runciman
May I add two comments to the correspondence about Nicola Lacey’s biography of H.L.A. Hart (Letters, 17 February)? Although Hart called The Concept of Law an essay in descriptive sociology, it is, as he seems subsequently to have accepted, not strictly descriptive nor very much of a sociology. But in arguing that judicial decisions involve the application to second-order rules of primary rules, he was making a case, by which many of his readers were persuaded, to the effect that judicial decisions, whatever exactly they may be, are neither the execution of sovereign commands nor exercises in moral philosophy. The puzzle is that, as Nicola Lacey documents, he owned a heavily annotated copy of the English translation of Max Weber’s sociology of law, but claimed that it was by Peter Winch’s book The Idea of a Social Science that he was influenced in his account of the ‘internal aspect of rules’. His references to Winch, however, are not to either of the two places where Winch cites what he calls Weber’s ‘important’ paper on Rudolf Stammler in which the concept of ‘following a rule’ is discussed in detail.
On Hart’s own view of the book, I offer a reminiscence which may be of marginal relevance. I attended one of the Oxford seminars to which Nicola Lacey refers, on John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, of which I had been the then anonymous front-page reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement. I was too much in awe of Hart to open my mouth in the discussion, which he conducted with the combination of courtesy and lucidity for which he was celebrated. But at dinner after the seminar, where he seated me next to him, he surprised me by saying that he admired the second part of Rawls’s book more than the first. He meant, as I understood him, that Rawls’s device of the ‘original position’ doesn’t quite work, but Rawls’s vision of the kind of society he would himself choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ is intuitively appealing. Might there be a parallel to what was by then his own attitude to The Concept of Law?
Trinity College, Cambridge