In his own voice: H.L.A. Hart in conversation with David Sugarman
By David Sugarman
This recording of my lengthy interview with H.L.A. Hart (1907–1992) has been resurrected from my audio tapes and given new life. Dusted and digitalized, the result is something quite beautiful. Here is Hart in his own words recorded in 1988, reviewing his life, his work, and his significance. The interview presents Hart as three individuals: legal philosopher, interviewee, and critic. The recording adds another dimension to our understanding of Hart that must be incorporated into our collective memory.
Within the English-speaking world, Hart is frequently regarded as the twentieth century’s foremost legal philosopher. He revived the moribund discipline of jurisprudence, re-orientating it so that the qualities associated with analytical philosophy in the second half of the 20th century — rigorous standards of rational argument, clarity and lucidity, a preoccupation with subtle conceptual distinctions, and a sensitivity to language and its logic — were applied to the investigation of the most fundamental concepts of law and to major public issues, notably, the complex relation between law and morality. As a colleague, teacher, mentor and author, Hart exercised a profound influence, an influence that extended to the “real world” and “real issues”. From the late 1950’s onwards, he championed a new humaneness in punishment, speaking and writing for a right to abortion and against both the death penalty and the prosecution of people because of their sexual preferences. His exploration of the balance between the modern welfare state and individual liberty — in particular, the legitimate use of state power to impose standards of private morality — produced an eloquent and highly influential manifesto for modern political liberalism. As Tony Honoré, his close colleague at Oxford, put it, “He was the most widely read British legal philosopher of the twentieth century and his work will continue to be a focus of discussion.”
The present interview with Hart took place in his rooms at University College, Oxford, on 9 November 1988. The interview delineates the particulars of Hart’s life and work: his background, early education, and undergraduate studies; learning law, practising at the Bar, and journalism; working in military intelligence; the early years as a philosophy don and the principal philosophical influences that shaped his work; and the state of Oxford jurisprudence in the 1940s and 1950s. It then addresses Hart’s work and ideas between 1945 and the 1980’s: his appointment to the Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford; the Hart-Fuller Debate and his year at Harvard; the writing of Causation in the Law and The Concept of Law ; the 1950’s, the Cold War, and the 1960’s; “The Hart-Devlin Debate”; and what Hart called, “the Thatcher world”. The interview also illuminates Hart’s work beyond legal and political philosophy — the seminars to Labour Party groups on closing loopholes in the tax law; and the duties he undertook for the Monopolies Commission (1967-73) and the Oxford University Committee on Staff-Student Relations (the “Hart Report”, 1968-69). The interview includes Hart’s assessment of Bentham, Nozick and Dworkin, a general discussion of the virtues and limitations of sociology, sociological jurisprudence and analytical jurisprudence, of legal education, and the relationship between university legal education and the legal profession. A succinct summary of Hart’s contribution to legal philosophy brings the interview to a close. The interview is published verbatim — save for one brief comment by Hart that he asked me not to reproduce. Whilst the ordering of the interview was broadly chronological, the too-and-fro of conversation meant that subjects were returned to or introduced out of sequence.
The interview was one of a series that I have undertaken since 1986 with leading British legal scholars as part of an on-going research project mapping the history of modern English legal education and scholarship. Nicola Lacey’s illuminating biography of Hart used this interview as one of its main sources, and an edited version of the interview, excluding the material on legal education at Oxford, was published in 2005. Since its publication, the interview has been frequently cited. It was one of the main sources used by Brian Simpson in his Reflections on ‘The Concept of Law’. Simpson told me that he listened to the audio tape of the interview again and again as he was writing the book, and that hearing Hart’s voice inspired him in his struggle to complete it during his final battle with cancer.
At the time of the interview, Hart was 81 and physically frail. But he was one of the cleverest people I have ever met. His mind was sharp, and he tended to respond quickly and very clearly. Once the interview was under way, we both started to relax and enjoyed what became a friendly but challenging exchange. The interview reveals an unpretentious, reserved man, concise, diffident, and with a wry sense of humour. He talks of the enormous intellectual stimulus afforded by his visit to the United States in 1967-7 at the invitation of Harvard University, the pleasure he derived from his membership of the Monopolies Commission, and his outrage at the policies of the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher. The intellectual, moral, and political underpinnings of his work are apparent. Likewise, his limited intellectual interest in law and legal education, his elevation of the value of a philosophical approach to legal material, and his suspicion of sociology and the sociology of law are evident, as is his preoccupation with challenges to his work, in particular, by his successor in the Oxford chair, Ronald Dworkin. Also apparent is a poignant tension between intellectual confidence and self-doubt about his legacy.
At the end of the interview, and with the tape recorder switched off, Hart continued to talk about a variety of topics. He encouraged me to learn Italian, so that I could read the work of the Italian legal and political philosopher, Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004). Hart said that he knew, and corresponded with, Bobbio; and that Bobbio was the contemporary legal and political philosopher he most admired and related to. There was also more talk that evinced Hart’s sensitivity to criticism; and his preoccupation with writing an “Answer to Dworkin”, as Hart called it. Hart concluded by saying that I was free to publish the interview, and that he had no wish to review or revise it.
H.L.A. Hart on Childhood and Early Career
H.L.A. Hart on Major Philosophical Influences
H.L.A. Hart on his Early Philosophical Work
H.L.A. Hart on his Harvard visit and Fuller Exchange
H.L.A. Hart on the Major Works
H.L.A. Hart on Dworkin and the Nature of Legal Philosophy
H.L.A. Hart on Public Work
H.L.A. Hart on Analytic Philosophy and Legal Scholarship
H.L.A. Hart on his Political Views, Legal Education, and Legacy
I feel sure that the importance of the interview rests primarily in the fact that you hear Hart’s voice, both his vivid cadences and also aspects of his character that other work on Hart tends not to evoke. Part of Hart was confused and diffident. Part of him was confident, acerbic and somewhat intolerant of anything beyond his own approach. Yet he was always open to argument and persuasion. These contradictions are the essence of his complexity.
It is in listening to Hart’s voice that we can get closer to Hart. There has been much critical analysis of his ideas — most recently in the context of commemorating the 50th anniversary of his landmark work, The Concept of Law. The images of Hart derived from his scholarship, diaries and other sources, including photographs, and from his personal relations, as a teacher, mentor, colleague, husband and friend, have generated multiple discourses in which commentators have appraised Hart the jurist and Hart the person. In the interview we hear Hart in conversation. As he and I speak about Hart’s ideas and the evolution of his life, there are interruptions, hesitations, and awkward silences which, like a work of scholarship or a diary entry, can be interpreted in many ways. One can imagine the conversation, the glances back and forth between the legal philosopher and his interviewer. Nervousness and unease are apparent; but so are authority and certainty.
The wider availability of this recording will generate new opportunities to understand and assess Hart’s personality and scholarly reputation. The poet, Sylvia Plath, wrote in her journal, “Recreate life lived: that is renewed life.” In bringing Herbert Hart’s voice to us now, this interview will do just that.
Professor David Sugarman, FRHistS, is the Director of the Centre for Law and Society at Lancaster University Law School. HLA Hart was Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University and the Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford. He authored The Concept of Law, one of the seminal works of English-language jurisprudence. He passed away in 1992.