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  • Ori Herstein

Joseph Raz (1939-2022): A Student's Tribute

Joseph Raz passed-away earlier today. A giant in the fields of legal, political, and moral philosophy, his immense intellectual legacy will surely continue to sustain and shape the field for many years to come.

In the summer of 2018 on the occasion of Raz's 80th birthday, a two-day conference titled "Value in Practice" was held in London. Co-sponsored by King's College London and Columbia University, the conference comprised presentations by a handful of former students of Raz, engaging with his work. Joseph was in attendance, as were many of his other former students. Among them was Timothy Macklem, who made the introductory remarks. Familiar to those fortunate to have known Raz, Macklem's remarks focused on Raz's academic contribution less from the familiar perspective of what he wrote or who he taught, but more in terms of how he approached the academic mission. I have reason to believe that Joseph appreciated Tim's moving and insightful words, and am grateful to Tim for allowing me to post his remarks here, as a tribute Joseph.

Value in Practice / Timothy Macklem

My name is Timothy Macklem, and like most of the rest of you, I am one of Joseph’s students. I have also and more immediately found myself in the position of stepping into Ori Herstein’s shoes as an organizer of this conference, and so it falls to me to say a few words about the project, that is, about Joseph Raz and what he has brought into the world through his scholarship. May I begin by thanking the other organizers, Amanda, Daniel, Ulrike, David, and of course Ori; by paying tribute to Madeleine for her exemplary professional assistance; by expressing our collective gratitude to Columbia and to King’s for their very generous material support; by extending the warmest of welcomes to all of you, for being here and contributing your ideas and voices to the occasion; and most profoundly, by expressing our common gratitude to Joseph, for making it all possible.

It is conventional on these occasions to say something about the achievements of the person whom one would like to pay tribute to, about the trajectory of their career, the work they have produced, the recognition they have received, the impact they have made. All too often, on listening to such recitations, one begins to have an uneasy feeling that one has begun to recognize the content of the honoree’s web page. The ritual starts to feel a little empty. We know all these things already. Yet it seems to me that the issue is not simply one of over-familiarity. CVs have their place, and it is good to be reminded of their content from time to time. The worry is more with what they do not convey, and I would like to try to say a little something about that, something that ties in with the theme of this conference, something that speaks as much to your place here as to that of Joseph, something that addresses the distinctive value of the social practice in which all of us, separately and together, have come to play our interdependent parts. As exemplified in Joseph’s life as a scholar, that practice has, at least it seems to me, three prominent and familiar aspects. I wouldn’t want to be so unconventional as to suggest that there might be four, though I’m sure that minds rather bolder than my own could readily prolong the list.


The first, of course, is the legendary rigour of his thought, that which causes students to reel back, that which is said to have led Hart to wrap hot towels around his head, and that which gives pause to even seasoned professionals. I remember thinking, when I was a doctoral student, that I had been looking for a challenge but not this kind of a challenge. Yet what other kind could there be in the academic setting? What other warrant could there be for the claims of one mind upon the attention of others than the quality of the thought to be conveyed? Given the ambitions of philosophy and the depth of its history the demands of quality are inevitably severe, and meeting them is almost always painful. We all not only bear the scars of this, but renew them whenever we do, as we always aspire to do, something fresh, unfamiliar, as challenging to ourselves as to others.

Yet to say this much and no further is a bit pat, a bit too quick. There is rather more to it than that. I remember many years ago when I was a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada, in my early days in the role, thinking that something that I had produced ‘would do’, only to discover that it would not do at all. Cases reach that court because they are very difficult. Beware of underestimating them. Give them everything you have to give. That is a kind of rigour, and yet it exposes the fact that rigour is not simply a matter of degree. What was wrong in my preparation was not that I asked what ‘would do’, but that I gave the wrong, too easy, too self-preserving, answer to the question. In academic life it is the question that is wrong, not the answer that one gives to it. To recognize this is to begin to comprehend the underpinnings of Joseph’s rigour.

In practical life there are practical benchmarks for performance, and questions of what ‘will do’ are entirely appropriate. They are ways of asking what the benchmark looks like. What kind of chair is the buyer looking for? Something simple, or something refined? Would this one over here do? Academic life, however, is not a practical life in that sense. We didn’t enter upon scholarly careers to make sure that we earned at least a 3* in the REF and so satisfied our employers, although that is of course the entirely correct answer to what ‘will do’ in our case. In academic life the quest is for understanding, and the claims of understanding have no limits in that setting, just because they are not in the service of any end other than the quality of the enquiry that they prompt and the quality of the answers that they give rise to. An understanding can frequently be ‘good enough’ for daily life, but it can never be ‘good enough’ for a scholar. When my father took his driving test as a teenager he passed first time, but the examiner noted on his report, ‘cuts corners’. The notation could have been applied more or less accurately to the conduct of much of my father’s subsequent life. Yet there is nothing very wrong in that. Knowing just when to cut a corner can be a valuable trait. In the life of an academic, however, cutting a corner amounts to a betrayal of the academic mission. In the setting in which we work rigour is a necessity, not an option. It is not that the standards are high ones, as at the Supreme Court. Rather it is that our goal is to make them ever higher, and that the mark of our achievement is that we have extended rather than met them. In that project we all need to learn to be self-flagellating, to know that we will always fall short, by virtue of the very mission that inspires us, and one of the sterling things that Joseph has done for us is to teach us that lesson well by his own example.


The second striking aspect of Joseph’s scholarship is its startling distinctiveness. Time and again one finds that familiar ways of thinking about things have been turned on their head. The effect is liberating. Suddenly there are all kinds of new possibilities for one’s thought, very often in relation to topics that seemed to be inescapably settled in their ways. This is not a matter of being original. It would be less distinctive if it were. Originality exists in contrast to what is familiar and expected. It is everywhere to be found and seldom very interesting in itself. Little, if any, academic work is not original, modestly so though it may be. Nor is it a matter of being iconoclastic, of toppling yesterday’s statues. Both those endeavours take their cues from the conventional. Joseph’s distinctiveness, it seems to me, stems from the fact that he takes almost nothing for granted. In this he is as unsparing of his own ideas as he is of the ideas of others. Everything is open to question.

As scholars we are bound to look in two directions in the course of our reflections, backwards and forwards, to those to whom we are bound to attend and to those whom we hope will attend to us in the future. Each of us makes a choice in those respects, in our careers in general and in particular projects in those careers. How little should we presume? How abstemious should we be? How much should we take as read? How engaged should we be? Each broad course, and the many forms of balance that can be struck between them, has value to offer and cost to exact. Much fine scholarship, and many an admirable career, has succeeded by embodying some such balance.

In communities of scholarship these balances soon form patterns, patterns of abstention as much as of engagement. In observing those patterns one has company as a scholar. Joseph’s restlessness, skepticism, commitment to deep questioning, his considered independence of tradition or prospect, leads him to challenge such patterns as much as anything else. It is an intellectual course that is liable to be just as lonely as it is productive. Yet it has none of the vanity of isolationism, for solitude is its possible price, not its point. The contrast here is between the solitary’s unwillingness to negotiate and the radical scholar’s willingness to negotiate just about everything. Some people set up shop on the high street, as a restaurant let us suppose, take note of their competitors, have a view as to what will engage hungry passers-by. Other people set up destination restaurants, almost certainly not on the high street, and try there to confront expectations, not for the sake of confounding them, but for the sake of probing them, challenging them, extending them, re-shaping them. When this works well, those who are interested in good food bit by bit learn to find their way there, to share in the possibilities that independence of thought and practice has brought into being. In doing this they themselves become elements in that practice, contributors to its development, participants in its flourishing and in its failures. It is a kind of liberation, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

So Joseph does not tell his students what to read, let alone what to address. He never seeks to replicate himself in his followers. Indeed he never attempts to proselytize his ideas to anyone. It’s a bit like a good parent, who knows enough to raise children and send them out into the world without expectations, without an agenda, without seeing them in any way as reflections of oneself. Here again Joseph teaches by example. If from time to time we his pupils seem rather Razian, and we all do, it is not because we think it appropriate to carry his message on, to be his disciples and missionaries. We have long since, and under his stern discipline, learned better. It is our burden to find our own sources, our own direction, our own voice, our own audience, without taking anything much for granted. This we have done, if I may say so, and without reference to myself, remarkably successfully in my view. There is no finer scholarship out there than that of Joseph’s students, except of course, that of Joseph himself, though some of his students some of the time have learned to give even him a run for his money. If we are Razian it is only because and to the extent that, searching as we have been, we have not in that particular respect found a better source, a better direction, a better sense of audience. That is but the legacy of his achievement.


Rigour and distinctiveness. What is left? Something more evanescent, more interstitial, that I will call sharing. We his students are not an accidental or contingent feature of Joseph’s intellectual life. On the contrary, we are central to it, and that fact tells us something about the very shape and significance of academic life, and the essential but qualified role of research and teaching there. As the title of this conference suggests, ambitious intellectual life, whether in or out of the academy, constitutes a social practice, many of the richest aspects of which typically go unrecorded, as is of course the way with social practices generally, and with all else that lives and dies. Yes, there are artefacts, and those may with time and fortune turn into a legacy: books and articles produced, a world better informed, more comprehending of itself than it would otherwise be, students readied for fruitful employment, not to speak of roofs put over heads, and food put on the table. Important as these are, however, their significance is always a function of the part they play in something that is larger and less concrete, an artefact that includes those artefacts as subsidiaries. The presence of a flourishing intellectual life, flourishing in all the ways that Joseph’s scholarship has embodied and inspired, is a vital element in a certain species of cultural achievement, and its vitality is just that, vitality: a way of living and being the value of which arises in the round, is informed by the interdependency of its elements, and is not always or entirely susceptible to ready division, not liable to detachment.

I am not religious and in the course of my upbringing I don’t suppose that I attended a church service more times than I have fingers on my hands, but I do remember a slightly cheesy hymn called something like God Sees the Little Sparrow Fall. That is wrong, and not because there is no God. It is wrong because it represents something unremarkable as something to be remarked upon, as if value went hand in hand with the remarkable. If God knew his business, as I understand he does by definition, then he would not remark upon the fall of the sparrow, for he would know that the value of the sparrow’s life, and the loss that came of its ending, turns only in part on what is susceptible to notice.

In our professional lives, no less than in our personal ones, we are all sparrows, and our flights, no less than our falls, matter in all kinds of ways that are not susceptible to being remarked upon, no less so than in the traces that they leave. It is the quality of our life, qua life, that matters, and nearly everything that we do contributes to that quality, though we tend, for reasons good and bad, to parse our existences, so as to emphasize, for example, what is most impressive, even when we know that it is not what is most important. So when we are good academics we play our parts in a social practice that is shifting, evanescent, amorphous, always more than the sum of its parts, crucial though they are to its worth. So Joseph teaches in part with regard to outcomes, but in part too because of the intellectual culture that is brought into being thereby and that is worthy in itself, comes to workshops and events like this one in part for what he and others have to learn there, but in part for the very occasion, for the fact of being there. This is something that one can do only in collaboration, and only by being rather than making.

My mother has an odd way of putting things sometimes. A very brief illustration, to set up the story to follow. She said to me one day, speaking of herself: ‘I’m tired of this face. I’ve been looking at it for a long time.’ It was hard to think of a constructive way to respond. Now the story. My best friend as a child was killed in a car crash when he was 19. My memories of him remain vivid: the shape of his wet footprint on a wooden dock; the way the hairs on his forearm sprang up as they dried off after a swim, as we lay on hot rock to recover from cold water, heads on arms, nothing to look at but the arm next to one, nothing to register except water drying. I take those memories seriously. They hold his death at bay. I told my mother these things not long ago and when we met the next day she said, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept thinking of that poor boy, trapped inside someone’s head.’

Trapped inside one’s head. That is the fate of everything we are or can be, until we bring it out into the world and engage it with others and what they have brought out. In that engagement lies the worth of our lives, some of which, like my memories, has a semi-independent existence as an artefact in its own right, but much of which is to be appreciated as it happens, without notice. My mother was right. What mattered was not the memory but the having been there. It is a terrible fate, one to lose some sleep over, to be reduced to a repeating flicker in somebody’s brain. We are not what is memorable about us; we are not our legacies.

Academic achievement is something more than could ever be captured in a CV. It exists in moments like the present one, in all the spaces between ourselves, as we pursue and embody a certain kind of life of the mind. That is not a charter for saying that we are worthy even though we fail to produce anything worthy. It is simply to say that the value of what we produce is in service to the worth of the lives that produced it and to the worth of the lives of those who appreciate it. Just to have been at this conference is a good in itself, an artefact to be placed alongside the articles we write and the classes we give, assuming, of course, that all goes well. That sharing too is part of what Joseph has helped to bring into the world, and it is something that he could not have done without us, any more than we could have done it without him.

So rigour, independence, and a climate of sharing. Subject to what others might add, that is the story that a CV can reflect but cannot speak of. In paying tribute to Joseph, as inadequately as I have, I want to be sure to speak of such things, even as I know that they are not entirely susceptible to being spoken of, for they are the bones of what he has given to us, around which we have built intellectual lives of our own, the bones of which will help in turn to structure yet further intellectual lives, at least if we are lucky. I am very much looking forward to the next two days. May I once again extend a very warm welcome to you all on behalf of Columbia and of King’s.

July 2018, London

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