John Gardner at Home

Anonymous memories (3)

Dear John,

I hope the end of the chemo will offer some relief, and that you can spend quality time now, surrounded by family and loved ones. I wanted to write to say thank you for everything—to convey to you the profound influence you have had on me over the years through your writing and teaching and mentorship.

My earliest encounter with your work came in the first weeks of my time as an undergraduate. I was in the unusual position of having taken a proper Philosophy course at A Level and my Philosophy teacher had urged me to read Philosophy instead of Law. I decided to do Law anyway, partly having convinced myself that I could look at legal problems from a philosophical angle. I was unsure whether that judgement was right—until, that is, I came across some of your classic papers while studying Criminal Law. The ones I remember best are ‘Rationality and the Rule of Law in Offences Against the Person’ and ‘The Wrongness of Rape’. These were so engaging, not only because of what they argued, but also because they exemplified a style of legal-philosophical thinking and writing that was immediately attractive to me, and made me feel that I could still do philosophy, more or less, within my Law degree.

When I came to study Jurisprudence, your papers effectively became my guide through the subject. I vividly recall sitting in the library, reading ‘Legal Positivism: 5 ½ Myths’, and feeling the clouds of obscurity around that particular topic lift. Even when no Gardner paper appeared on my reading list, I often scoured your website for what seemed like the most relevant article and added it anyway.

I took Moral and Political Philosophy as a third-year option, and your seminars again had a big influence on me. I had worried when I started reading contemporary work in ethics that the subject was just a battle of competing ‘intuitions’. But your seminars showed how the subject could be much deeper. A note from one of them, which I obviously made with delight, reads: ‘We’re here to expose the indeterminacy of morality, not to answer barking mad questions like whether you should kill the 1 person or the 5.’ (My note is unclear on whether this was your view, or your report of Aristotle’s view; I sense it may have been both.)

By the time I was in my third year, it was obvious that I had to try to get onto the BCL, and in particular that I should study Jurisprudence and Political Theory. Luckily, things panned out. I was encouraged by your taster lecture, which warned that, whereas Philosophical Foundations was a course for everyone with interest in the subject-matter, JPT was a serious philosophy course, albeit one in part about law. I was glad of it. Going to the Gardner/Honoré seminar meant partaking in a great tradition in Oxford legal and political theory—one which, because of its format, took the students seriously as budding philosophers in their own right. The Gardner/Green ‘Recent Works in Philosophy of Law’ seminar, meanwhile, was electrifying. It remains the most philosophically high-powered seminar I have been to—but never at the expense of being friendly and collaborative and constructive. I learned to present and critique philosophical work in these seminars. Over the years, I have also been fortunate to attend some of your other seminars, on private law and discrimination. A constant in these seminars has been that you elevate and transform a discussion into much more than the sum of its parts. You see the best in a student’s comment or objection, not in the sense of inflating its force, but in revealing how it is the expression of some deep-seated philosophical concern or theme, how it connects to other premises or argumentative moves—all this, often in ways the questioner has not themselves appreciated. My BCL tutorials with you had a similar quality. They showed how all the parts of the jigsaw fitted together.

Since then it has been such a pleasure being colleagues, friends, mentor and mentee. I am so grateful for all your kindness and support and advice over these years. I have learned so many things, large and small, from you. I have learned that stylish writing is worth bothering with; so is beautiful typesetting. Your work and your teaching combine exacting philosophical analysis and searing insight with a warm, funny, literary, humane approach to the subject. It is something for the rest of us to aim at, even if none of us can ever quite emulate it.

Thank you for everything.