Thursday, June 30, 2005

Philosophers are people too.


A Philosopher's Humanity


The desire to portray great thinkers as disembodied argument machines remains a powerful force in analytic philosophy. Think of it as a slice of amour-propre, part of the arrogant wish to be seen as timelessly, noncontingently right about everything. It can move acolytes to depict thinker-heroes as dynamos of pure intellect rather than peers: mere featherless bipeds whose thoughts bear clear markings from their beliefs, fears, and weaknesses.

This distinctive distaste for a philosopher's humanity applies in analytic philosophy with extra force to homosexuality. In the standard canon, the editing began with the predilections of ancient Greek philosophers and continues right up to modern times.

Decades ago, for instance, W.W. Bartley published his maverick biography of Wittgenstein, arguing that the great Austrian philosopher also led an actively gay life that appeared to include cruising for rough trade. Analytic Wittgenstein scholars, who specialized in presenting their man as a kind of shoebox of epistemological propositions they thought he hadn't put in the right order, screamed bloody murder.

The most egregious recent effort to deny a great philosopher's inconvenient humanity, to attack its link to his work, targeted Nicola Lacey's A Life of H.L.A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream (Oxford University Press, 2004), a brilliant mix of tightly reported intimate biography and expert intellectual assessment.

In it, Lacey, a professor of legal theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science, accurately describes Hart (1907-92), holder of the Oxford Chair of Jurisprudence from 1952 to 1968, as "the preeminent English-speaking philosopher of law of the 20th century," the man who "more or less reinvented the philosophy of law, reviving the English positivist and utilitarian tradition."

Celebrated for The Concept of Law (1961), his classic articulation of his new jurisprudence, Hart drew on the ordinary-language philosophy of J.L. Austin and, to a lesser degree, on Wittgenstein's notion of "meaning as use."

Both influences led him to reject a conception of law as naturally or necessarily moral. Hart regarded a legal system as a social fact, identifiable by the internal relations of its rules, its habits of obedience, authority, and responsibility. More concretely, in Law, Liberty and Morality (1963), Hart wrote, in what many consider the 20th-century sequel text to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, an essay against excessive criminalization of morality that influenced English law reform in the 60s and 70s.

Like many of his colleagues, Hart largely avoided anecdotes, biography, and detailed sociological evidence because it didn't fit with proper Oxford philosophical method. Clear, precise, and commonsensical, he kept his personal life out of his books.

Lacey's study consequently hit the jurisprudence community like a Kitty Kelley exposé implanted in a Festschrift. Invited to write the biography by Hart's widow, Jenifer -- an accomplished figure who taught history at St. Anne's in Oxford -- Lacey received apparently unlimited access to Hart's papers from his wife of more than 50 years and mother of his four children.

Lacey doesn't let that access go to waste. In one startling, early example, we read that, in 1937, while considering a career shift from London barrister to Oxford philosophy fellow, Hart wrote to friend Christopher Cox, "I am or have been a suppressed homosexual (I see you wince) and would become more so (I mean more homosexual and less suppressed) in Oxford." Hart's concerns about his sexuality prove a leitmotif throughout his subsequent diaries and letters.

Hart also castigates himself as a recurrent depressive, an insecure thinker, a sloppy researcher, and a careerist concerned about "keeping up appearances." Described by one friend as "spiritually anglicized," Hart seesawed between playing down his working-class Jewish origins and expressing sudden pride in them. At times a snob with an Oxford brand of "insider's arrogance," he could ask an Indian grad student whether there was "a single interesting idea" in Indian philosophy. Late in life, after a newspaper story falsely claimed that Jenifer had been a Russian spy in the 1930s, Hart suffered a nervous breakdown that required shock treatment.

Lacey's book, however, is not pathography. She admires Hart, whom she knew, and interweaves the story of his career and thought with sharp set pieces about his work in MI5 intelligence during World War II, as a London barrister, and as a teacher at several Oxford colleges. Packed with exquisitely acerbic quotations and stark snapshots of the elbows thrown by academic figures like Isaiah Berlin, A Life of H.L.A. Hart reveals an internationally renowned yet troubled thinker who preferred to present himself as imperturbable.

But Lacey's achievement triggered an attack on her this year by New York University philosophy professor Thomas Nagel, author of -- unsurprisingly -- The View From Nowhere. Complained Nagel in the London Review of Books, "I felt that 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."

Nagel never tells the reader exactly what disturbs him. As Ben Rogers commented in a subsequent review of the book in the British magazine Prospect, "homosexuality doesn't carry the stigmas it once did -- Nagel's refusal even to mention it is odd."

More troubling, Nagel tries to delegitimize Lacey's intellectual project while praising her for a "superb job of assembling the data."

First he asserts that Lacey's "claim that the personal material is needed to write an intellectual biography is a pretense." But he offers no support for the charge. Were Hart's homosexual proclivities and left-wing politics irrelevant to his famous 1960s debate with conservative judge Patrick Devlin, which Lacey says provided "the nearest thing to a manifesto for the homosexual-law-reform movement"? Was Hart's uncomfortable involvement in the World War II execution of a man for treason irrelevant to his death-penalty views?

Nagel also maintains that despite Lacey's distinguished academic position, she is "not equipped ... to deal with the philosophical background. When she talks about the 'paradox of analysis' or about the differences between J.L. Austin and Wittgenstein, she is lost." Upping the insult quotient, Nagel maintains that Lacey "seems to have a weak grasp of what philosophy is," a claim he repeats several times.

False in every respect. Lacey, far more industriously than Nagel, backs her statements throughout. She even nails Hart's glosses in the margins of a Max Weber volume from which he denied drawing ideas. Indeed, she quotes Hart as acknowledging the very links Nagel denies. In his diary, Hart expressed his belief in "a connection between my deficiencies as a husband and the whole sexual and emotional immaturity on the one hand and this gross incapacity for the organization and care of detail: this lack of care, this obsession with frontal attacks on major positions."

Why the distortion? Lacey simply doesn't share Nagel's typical analyst view that ahistorical, nonsociological, fact-free reasoning is the end-all and be-all of philosophy. While expressing great respect and affection for Hart, she indicates early on that her feminist and Foucauldian appreciation of power's role in shaping institutions makes her more critical of Hart and his facts-lite analytic jurisprudence than she once was.

Indeed, Lacey utterly foresees Nagel's line of insult. She specifically anticipates his assertion that Wittgenstein thought understanding "has to be pursued primarily by reasoning rather than by empirical observation," noting "Wittgenstein's emphasis on the embeddedness of language games within social practices." In her view, Hart, like Nagel, never adopted an approach to reality as reportorial as Wittgenstein's because it "undermines the pretensions of philosophy as the 'master discipline' which illuminates our access to knowledge about the world."

And those are precisely the pretensions Nagel promotes. When his would-be demolition job sputters, Nagel simply starts hectoring Lacey with the P-word. He insists that Hart's greatness "was the result of a specifically philosophical talent applied to this material. It was philosophical reasoning and philosophical clarity that enabled him to formulate and test hypotheses ... and he could not have made his great contributions by any other method."

But is logical reasoning the exclusive gift of tenure-stamped philosophy professors? Just as dictatorial regimes dubbed "People's Republics" don't fool anyone, philosophers who insist on an imperial conception of their subject persuade no one but themselves.

Lacey, whose wealth of information and textual references suggest a far more broadly educated intellectual than Nagel, thanks psychologist Adam Phillips for helping her resist "the impulse to make a life story neater than life itself." The sad upshot of this latest sighting of the disembodied thinker is that a champion of "philosophy" thinks truth matters less than keeping up appearances.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, is a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities, at New York University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 40, Page B10


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