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WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011 - THE NEWCOMBE FELLOWS: 1981-2011
Law and Philosophy: For Brian Leiter CN ’92, a Natural Pair
“My favorite short description of philosophy,” says Brian Leiter CN ’92, “comes from John Campbell [at Berkeley]: ‘Philosophy is thinking in slow motion.’ Law school is often thinking in fast motion, but it’s the same kind of intellectual skill.”
Though Dr. Leiter knew early on that he wanted to study law, discovering Sartre in an advanced high school French class also piqued his interest in philosophy. “I went to college and started studying philosophy. Like everybody else who studies philosophy as an undergraduate, the question arises whether one could actually make a career out of that. My parents,” he recalls wryly, “raised that question as well.”
Financial aid made the decision for Dr. Leiter. After completing his law degree, he went on to the philosophy Ph.D, and eventually faced a tough, if enviable, decision between two tenure-track offers. “One involved going into a tenure-track position in philosophy with some teaching in law at the University of Arizona. The other was at the University of Texas—a tenure-track position in law with some teaching in philosophy. I had to weigh which direction to go and opted for the tenure home in law.” Dr. Leiter taught at the University of Texas for more than ten years and became the youngest chairholder in the history of the law school. “There’s been lots of happy accidents as it were. It’s worked out pretty well.”
Now John P. Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, Dr. Leiter is also founder and director of the university’s Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values. “At least part of the reason that Chicago had been interested in hiring me was they were trying to up the profile of philosophical work in the law school,” he says. “In that regard, I proposed that we create a center that would partly serve as a signaling device to indicate that ‘We’re here and we’re doing something in Chicago other than law and economics.’”
Dr. Leiter was also one of the early and prolific academics in the blogosphere. He founded the Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, and Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports, as well as blogs on Nietzsche and on legal philosophy. Perhaps best known is his Philosophical Gourmet Report, which ranks philosophy graduate programs. The rankings—“based on reputational surveys completed by philosophers throughout the English-speaking world and Continental Europe”—evaluate philosophy departments overall as well as in specialty areas. With recent funding cuts in the humanities, the rankings, he’s been told, have been an asset to philosophy departments seeking funding.
“Anecdotal evidence I’ve had over the years is that the rankings allow departments to make a case for themselves based on frequent external evaluation,” he explains. When deans are making funding decisions, philosophy departments can show progress. “Departments have used that very effectively with their administrations. It gives them a lot of clout because they can show that if you invest in them, they’ll give you a tangible result. They’ll show that they’re utilizing the resources in a way that enhances the stature of a particular program or specialty.”
Not surprisingly, the rankings have proven provocative, as have some of the other contents of Dr. Leiter’s philosophy blog. “It’s blocked in Iran now,” he says. “Some dictators you just can’t please. I was quite critical about the talk that perhaps the United States was going to invade Iran, so you’d think that might have cheered them up, but no! I think what might have did it in was that I covered the World Philosophy Day scandal where the United Nations was going to hold the World Philosophy Day in Tehran and then a lot of prominent philosophers started protesting. I published various statements by different Iranian philosophers who clearly had mixed feelings. That must be what caught the attention of the government censors. And actually it’s been blocked in China for quite a while”.
Dr. Leiter believes that the outlook for philosophy departments is good overall, simply by their nature. “The fortunate thing for philosophy is we were first. ‘In the beginning,’ as they say, the philosophers were doing everything. The philosophers were doing the physics, the math. It was sort of all encompassing. Everything is potentially an object of philosophical reflection because you can ask about any area of human endeavor: What is it? What’s distinctive of it? What are its foundations? What is its nature? Universities and colleges tend not to give up on philosophy too quickly because it is so central, certainly in the Western tradition, to the conception of what universities are and what the intellectual and cultural life of our civilization. That insulates philosophy a bit.”
Studying philosophy teaches how to think and analyze, he says, making it a particularly good pre-law major. “We talk about a liberal arts education teaching critical thinking. And sometimes it does—I think a lot of times it doesn’t. But philosophy always does. A legitimate department, engaged with the major figures of the history of Western philosophy as well as with contemporary work in philosophy, really does teach people to think, read and analyze at a very high level—and I’m inclined to think that’s a good intellectual skill. I think that philosophy teaches it more reliably than almost any other major.
“What we do in most law school classes is we read the judicial opinion and then have an extended argument with it. The students who come out of a philosophy major know how to do that because what you do in philosophy is you argue with everything you read—it’s just an ongoing argument. There’s no such thing as ‘Plato said, therefore.’ It’s rather ‘Plato said. Why did he say it? Does it make any sense? What were the reasons for saying it? Is it correct? How does it square with this other thing he says? Philosophy cultivates the intellectual skills that are very useful for legal analysis.”
Dr. Leiter is currently working on two books, one about Nietzsche’s moral philosophy; the other, Why Tolerate Religion?, examines the special status given to claims of religious conscience and the legal implications if other claims of conscience were given the same status. In addition, he will be visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University in the 2011-2012 academic year. “Oxford and NYU are probably the two best philosophy faculties in the world, at least according to a certain well-known ranking that I put certain stock in,” he says. “But the particular attraction in this instance was working with [noted Hume scholar] Peter Kail and the opportunity to work with some of the best graduate students in philosophy in the world.”