Ronald Dworkin's life celebrated by legal and philosophical luminaries

A memorial celebration of the life of Ronald Dworkinone of the most revered and influential legal philosophers of the past half-century, drew a full house to Tishman Auditorium on October 2. Dworkin came to NYU Law in 1975 and was Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law at the time of his death in February 2013. Among the guests honoring him were Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer; T. M. Scanlon and other leading theorists in the world of legal philosophy; Dean Trevor Morrison and former deans John Sexton and Richard Reveszas well as Law School faculty colleagues; his former students at NYU Law, the University of Oxford, and Yale Law School; and his family.

Trevor Morrison, Lewis Kornhauser, Robert Silvers, Liam Murphy, Justice Stephen Breyer, Thomas Nagel, Rebecca Brown, T. M. Scanlon, and Jeremy WaldronUniversity Professor Jeremy Waldron, who had been Dworkin’s student at the University of Oxford in the 1970s and later became his colleague, served as master of ceremonies. Calling Dworkin’s passing “a massive loss,” Waldron added, “He was the heart of the distinguished community here devoted to the study of moral, political, and legal philosophy, and many of the greatest achievements of his jurisprudence and his moral philosophy first saw the light of day here in the mother of all legal colloquiums, which he organized with Thomas Nagel.”

Many of the memorial speakers described Dworkin and Nagel’s Colloquium on Legal, Political and Social Philosophy, which has run for 25 years and will continue with different professors at the helm, as a highlight of their intellectual lives. Lewis Kornhauser, now Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law and one of Dworkin’s longest-serving colleagues, called the rigorous colloquium “the centerpiece and poster child of the intellectual renaissance at NYU” and a model for colloquia at other law schools.

“Law schools like to describe their pedagogic method, I think a little questionably, as Socratic,” said Kornhauser. “But here, when Ronnie was walking the halls, we had the real thing, the true Socratic interlocutor, pushing us to address the original Socratic question, which was Ronnie’s question, too: ‘How should we live?’”

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who has acknowledged the importance of Dworkin’s work in his own adjudication, recalled his long conversational walks with Dworkin. “Ronnie loved ideas,” said Breyer. “He loved discussion, conversation, reading, teaching, and writing…. He wanted to expose his own ideas to criticism. He loved the back and forth, the intellectual exchange of a good argument. In fact, Ronnie once praised Learned Hand by describing him as ‘a wonderful person to argue with.’ That’s Ronnie’s high praise. But still, the whole time Ronnie was putting the arguments, interchange, discussion, thought to a more general and valuable use. He was building, bit by bit, a highly influential, coherent, detailed philosophical approach to the law.”

Renowned philosopher T. M. Scanlon spoke of Dworkin’s boldness in addressing some of life’s deepest quandaries. “Ronnie’s confidence involved no attitude of superiority, no suggestion that he knew better and could do better than the rest of us,” said Scanlon. “Rather, his confident enthusiasm invited us to join him in taking on these difficult and interesting questions.”

Constitutional law theorist Rebecca Brown cited Dworkin as a major influence on her. “The most precious legacy I can identify of Ronald Dworkin’s work is the way that he helped constitutional theory reclaim its commitment to justice,” she said, recalling how, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, “an identity crisis in constitutional theory” had arisen as the new term “countermajoritarian difficulty” articulated the notion that judicial enforcement of rights was contrary to democracy. “Dworkin challenged that understanding of democracy head-on,” said Brown. “For him, democracy was not in opposition to justice. It was a means to attain justice through the according of equal concern and respect.”

Liam Murphy, Herbert Peterfreund Professor of Law and Philosophy, met Dworkin when Murphy was a philosophy graduate student at Columbia University. Although the two came from different schools of thought, Murphy found much to admire in Dworkin’s lecturing: “The sheer intellectual virtuosity of it was breathtaking. It was like watching a great musician conducting a master class, cheerfully correcting the students and demonstrating with a flourish the right way to play the piece, leaving the audience with the sense that only a fraction of the available energy and talent had been called upon.”

He also recalled crashing Dworkin and Nagel’s colloquium before coming to NYU: “It was the hottest thing in town, and we all wanted to go…. The discussion that followed had a sustained intellectual intensity and fertility that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.” Murphy was a colloquium regular for 25 years, and first presented his own work there in 1993. While Murphy braced himself for Dworkin’s withering attack on his arguments, the opposite occurred: “I had the most unexpected feeling that Ronnie was on my side, that he understood better than I did what I was about and that he was going to do his best to help me make the best of my ideas.”

Dean Trevor Morrison with former deans John Sexton and Richard ReveszRobert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, touched on some of the more than 100 pieces Dworkin wrote for his publication, beginning in 1968. “He once told me, ‘My life would have been very different had it not been for this paper,’” Silvers recalled, “and while I doubted this, it’s certainly true that the life of the Review would have been very different if we had not, again and again, had Ronnie’s essays on central moral, legal, philosophical, and political questions facing the country for nearly 50 years.” Those questions involved how the Vietnam-era government should deal with conscientious objectors to the draft, the criminality of the Nixon administration, affirmative action, health care reform, and the controversial Citizens United opinion. “In each case," said Silvers, “the articles he wrote, as I saw them, left behind a lesson in how to think about the underlying values that deserve support.”

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Law Thomas Nagel, Dworkin’s colloquium teaching partner for a quarter-century, remembered how they had met in the 1960s, when both belonged to a monthly discussion group whose members would become leading moral, political, and legal philosophers in the ensuing decades.

“Ronnie was a consummate performer whatever he was doing, whether animating a dinner party as host or guest, giving a public lecture, teaching, or writing,” said Nagel. “He always wrote and spoke beautifully, with enviable command and clarity of organization. Above all, he carried it off with an air of complete effortlessness, made possible, of course, only by ferociously hard work and a terrific memory.”

Dworkin did not have to choose between intellectual endeavors and earthly enjoyments, Nagel said. “Ronnie managed to combine creative intellectual achievement at the highest level, motivated by powerful moral and political convictions, with a life filled with pleasure, brilliant society, and aesthetic style, and he seemed to be able to give equal attention to them all…. The brilliant life is now over, and the brilliant work remains.”

Posted on October 4, 2013

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