Legal Philosophy in Oxford

 

 

About us > some history

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Professorship of Jurisprudence was established in 1869 to attract to Oxford Sir Henry Maine, already famous for his Ancient Law and his work in India. So talk of 'jurisprudence' in Oxford was not always associated with a philosophical approach to law, but once evoked any study of law applicable across different places and times. That broader usage remains in the name of Oxford's main undergraduate law degree today, the Honour School of Jurisprudence. The five holders of the chair after Maine - notable legal historians, comparativists, and exegesists - were jurisprudents in that sense.

Today's worldwide association of Oxford jurisprudence with a philosophical approach to law stems mainly from the appointment of HLA Hart to the chair in 1952. Hart had been a philosophy tutor at New College, Oxford since the war. Before the war he had been a practising Chancery barrister. (During the war he worked for MI5.) This career path represented a mixture rather than a compound of law and philosophy. It was not universally seen as enough of a qualification for the job. So Hart 'was elected to the chair by a slender majority and on what was by any standards a thin contribution to jurisprudence: one article and one book review' (says Tony Honoré).

His new position forced Hart to throw himself into the task of bringing his legal and philosophical skills together. The effects on the future of the subject turned out to be dramatic.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The times were ripe for Hart's venture. The leading philosophical approach of the 1950s - 'ordinary language philosophy' - allowed for easy exchange between lawyers and philosophers. A year before Hart's election, Queen's College law tutor Tony Honoré and his philosophy tutor colleague Tony Woozley had already spotted the potential for collaboration by running Oxford's first recorded law-and-philosophy seminars, in which Hart had participated, giving a talk on intention. We still have the original reading list for that seminar series.

What was to be Hart's most celebrated and influential book, The Concept of Law, began life in this period as a series of undergraduate lectures covering various past attempts to define the word 'law'. Hart thought that these attempts were futile. The Concept of Law gradually took shape as an explanation of his 'elucidatory' alternative to definition. That the book would succeed in doing so much else of philosophical importance appears not to have struck Hart in writing it: he regarded it as a student book about jurisprudence, rather than as a pioneering work of jurisprudence.

Like most important scholars, Hart's contribution to his subject was only partly a direct contribution made by his own prolific writings. No less important was the indirect contribution he made through the personal example he set for his colleagues and students. His protegés included several of the figures who were later to develop and enrich his legacy - notably Ronald Dworkin, Neil MacCormick, Joseph Raz, and John Finnis. For MacCormick, Raz and Finnis, Hart's work started various lines of enquiry that called for further exploration, involving abandonment of excess baggage that Hart had occasionally carried from his 'ordinary language' roots, and requiring some backtracking from blind alleys that Hart had turned down. For Dworkin, by contrast, Hart's work presented itself mainly as a challenge or provocation, thus ultimately triggering a quite different, but no less sensationally influential way of marrying law and philosophy for the next generation.

Hart resigned the Professorship of Jurisprudence in 1968, and (supported by the Nuffield Foundation) turned his attention full-time to editorial work on Bentham's manuscripts, a longstanding fascination. Dworkin, then a Law Professor at Yale, was promptly elected to succeed him, once again on the strength of just a couple of publications in the field. But while Hart's first ventures into legal philosophy had only hinted at what was to follow, Dworkin's had started as boldly as he meant to go on. These essays, which later reappeared as the first few chapters of Taking Rights Seriously, already ventured a distinctive and highly original way of thinking about law and politics that was to provide the basis of Dworkin's wide-ranging work over the next thirty years, and was taken up by many scholars, lawyers, judges, commentators, and policy-makers, and inspired countless students.

While Hart - who died in 1992 - had been something of a public philosopher on the UK stage, Dworkin went much further both in the extent to which he integrated his most abstract work with his public philosophy, and in the global reach of his evangelism for the subject. During the 1970s, Oxford's association with the philosophy of law entered the international academic consciousness, and the flow of overseas graduate students that had already started in Hart's time turned into a flood. The combined draw of Dworkin, Raz and Finnis, especially during the 1980s when all three had risen to great international prominence, made Oxford the obvious choice for anyone interested in the subject. Among research students of this period we can count Jeremy Waldron, Leslie Green, Stephen Perry, David Dyzenhaus, Andrei Marmor, John Gardner, Brian Bix, Andrew Simester, Nicos Stavropoulos, Timothy Macklem and (entering the 1990s) Grant Lamond, Julie Dickson, Dori Kimel, and Scott Hershovitz.

Raz's and Finnis's international distinction was recognised during the 1980s with the award of personal chairs to each, a recognition also extended to fellow legal philosopher Jim Harris in 1996. Jim Harris sadly died in 2004. Raz and Finnis have both now retired from their University positions but continue to be active scholars. Tony Honoré, officially retired since 1988, also remains very active in the subject and continues to teach on our graduate programmes.

Since the mid-1990s, with Dworkin's retirement on the horizon, Oxford has made an unprecedented new investment in the subject, recruiting half a dozen younger legal philosophers of emerging reputation to permanent positions. Dworkin's successor as Professor of Jurisprudence, John Gardner, took up his post in 2000. A Scot, and a former student of Honoré and Raz, his interests and philosophical approach are closer to those of Hart than those of Dworkin.

In 2002 Dworkin and Gardner co-convened the first peripatetic Oxford-London graduate jurisprudence seminars, Dworkin being based part-time at University College London and part-time at New York University. Similar Oxford-London seminars are now convened by Nicos Stavropoulos, in collboration with colleagues at UCL. Meanwhile theOxford graduate programme in philosophy of law has continued to grow both in numbers and in activities, attracting a new generation of research students from around the world. Recent DPhils include Michelle Dempsey, François Tanguay-Renaud, and Maris Köpcke Tinturé.

In anticipation of Raz's retirement, the decision was made in 2006 to transform his personal chair into a second statutory chair, the Professorship of the Philosophy of Law. Leslie Green, another Scot and another Raz student, was elected to the chair in 2006 and took up his post in July 2007, moving to Oxford from York University (Osgoode Hall Law School) in Toronto. At the same time a personal chair was created for leading Oxford philosopher of law Timothy Endicott, who has since become the first Dean of the Oxford Law Faculty. This is a notable example of life imitating art. Asked in the early 1960s by a visiting American professor 'Who's the Dean of this law school?', John Morris, law tutor at Magdalen College, had to think on his feet. 'Hart,' he concluded. 'Hart is the Dean.'

Sources: Lawson, The Oxford Law School 1850-1965 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1968); Honoré, 'Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart 1907-1992' in Proc Brit Acad 84 (1993), 295.