Vol. 27 No. 4 · 17 February 2005

Search by issue:

Central Questions

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.

Joanna Ryan
London N16

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.

What I heard about Iraq

I had missed Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about the vase removed from the National Museum in Iraq, quoted by Eliot Weinberger (LRB, 3 February). Last year I made a large collection of terracotta cuneiform tablets and copies of glazed and decorated bowls and jugs; fired, smoked and smashed them; and, during Somerset Arts Week, exhibited them next to a notice saying: ‘Iraqi war souvenirs. Please help yourself.’ About a third of the visitors got the point of the installation and came over to share their rage and despair, most of them having heard the same things as Weinberger. Another third were uncertain or curious in various ways: ‘What’s it about?’ ‘Have you visited Iraq recently?’ ‘These are real, aren’t they – are you sure you want to give them away?’ ‘Is this real writing?’ ‘It says to help myself but I don’t feel that’s right.’ And some walked off with a cheery ‘Thanks very much’ as they stuffed pieces of broken tablet into their pockets.

Judith Crosher
Brompton Ralph, Somerset

On the Mesopotamian Plain

David McDowall seeks to deny the role of oil in the British occupation of Iraq in 1918 (Letters, 20 January). Yet in 1924, the Admiralty informed the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, that ‘from a strategical point of view, the essential point is that Great Britain should control the territories on which the oilfields are situated.’ Five weeks later, Curzon lied to the Times: ‘Oil had not the remotest connection with my attitude, or with that of His Majesty’s Government, over Mosul.’

Will Podmore
London E12

Mind your DNA

If crooks want to avoid leaving fingerprints, all they have to do is wear gloves; it’s much harder to avoid leaving DNA. A better tactic would be to spoil the crime scene with DNA from someone else. It is easy to obtain other people’s DNA from the contents of their dustbin, and a crook could choose either to frame just one person, or to leave dozens of fake samples. If everyone’s DNA were to be on file as Stephen Sedley proposes (LRB, 20 January), it would lead to a considerable increase in wrongful convictions. Since fingerprints can be faked too, a fingerprint database does not solve the problem. All of which makes it important for identity cards, if they are to be introduced, to contain iris or retinal scans rather than DNA records or fingerprints.

Adrian Bowyer
University of Bath

Board and Lodging

Alan Bennett complains that the Court of Appeal had ordered that the wrongly imprisoned Vincent and Michael Hickey ‘effectively pay board and lodging for the years that they have spent in jail’ (LRB, 6 January). However, the issue before the Court of Appeal was whether it was lawful to deduct from the Hickeys’ awards for pecuniary damages sums that had been awarded to them for their living expenses during the period of their imprisonment. The Hickeys did not have expenses for board and lodging when imprisoned and hence there was no ground to grant them an award for those expenses.

Harold Reynolds
Scarsdale, New York

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences