John Gardner at Home

Memories from Alex Sarch

Dear Jennifer,

I don't believe we've met before, but a colleague passed along your update about John's health and I wanted to send a note your way. I not only wanted to send my support and empathy (for what it's worth), but also to send over a few reflections on what John means to me and our field. If you think it appropriate to share this with him as well, please do!

While I didn't have the pleasure of working as closely with him as one might if one were a direct colleague or one of his graduate students, I've gotten to know him over the past few years and have always admired his one-in-a-million combination of a massive kindness that rivals his huge intellect. I'm a younger member of the legal philosopher's guild, and my interactions with John are for me connected with growing to feel more more and more a part of this field. Early on in reading legal theory as a law student, I read John's work and (unsurprisingly) found it stimulating and wonderfully readable. But at that stage, he was just a far off figure--a "big name" that one had to read to know what was going on in the area.

Then I finally got to meet the man himself at a conference for the first time. This was the Analytic Legal Philosophy Conference held at University of Southern California in 2015, where I was a postdoc in the philosophy department at the time. I remember John giving a paper ("The Way Things Used to Be"), and what stuck with me most was the Q&A afterwards--his warmth and wit in responding to questions, as well as his ability to really hear the question being asked, pick up on its import (even if the question was badly formulated) and respond with real thoughtfulness and humility about what it meant for his bigger project. I felt really drawn to him--I just kind of liked the guy--and I thought to myself at the time that given the tone he set at this conference, I'd finally arrived at the part of the academic world where I felt at home. When talking to John in person later in the conference, he was welcoming and open and kind (even to me, a nobody postdoc!) and I was caught, hook, line and sinker.

I was later told that John had gone to particular lengths in the run-up to this ALPC to improve the tenor and respectfulness of the conference in response to some particularly aggressive sessions from the ALPC held the year prior--which I had not attended (so I've heard this only second-hand). Apparently, some sessions there had become especially combative and displayed a kind of intellectual jousting that hadn't led to very productive or inclusive discussions, and I was told John set out to change that. The 2015 ALPC I attended was an absolute pleasure for all involved, and in my understanding of events, this was a testament to John's leadership in the field--not just when it comes the ideas we all discuss as scholars, but in the social fabric of the discipline itself, which determines how those ideas are explored, evaluated and debated. It is clear at least from where I'm sitting that he sets the tone not only for the content of the field, but also for its form.

About a year later, I had another wonderful little interaction with John--and even though the substance was pretty trivial in the grand scheme, I came away from it feeling validated and accepted as someone who was welcome in this little corner of the academy. John had been visiting Cornell University in the autumn of 2015 to teach a seminar on employment law, and he was put up in a nice little flat owned by the university. It was flat #712, 905 East State St, on a steep hill about halfway up the slope between Ithaca commons down in the valley and the Cornell campus up at the top of one of the big ridges in the area. I know this because in the spring I ended up staying in the same flat when I went to Cornell to teach two classes as an adjunct.

The best part was that a few weeks before moving to Ithaca to begin teaching, I got an unsolicited email from John with about 2 pages of really helpful practical information about the flat. Just little things like where to pick up the key, the lamp and other appliances he had purchased and left in the flat for its next occupant, and where he put the linens after he ran them through the laundry. He said he hoped I wouldn't find any weaknesses in his housekeeping standards. (I didn't--it was extremely tidy!!) Needless to say, getting this email out of the blue from such a big-shot was completely delightful.

John then ended his email with a tantalizing statement (which I looked up again just now): "Enjoy Cornell. I certainly did. The best extended visit I ever did by a long way. I can explain why, if you’re interested." I was interested, so I asked what he meant, and he replied with another lovely email about what a nice place Ithaca was to walk and think, and what good people there were to talk to, and how easily he became integrated into the life of the Law School there, and how much he enjoyed going to the Wegman's grocery store to get cooking supplies with a colleague from the Law School.

In the grand scheme, it was a small gesture to contact me about the flat and then go on to chat about life in Ithaca. But it meant a lot to me. It wasn't just the helpful tips, but it was more the fact of having the conversation at all. As he'd done earlier, he made me feel more accepted as a person, and the interaction helped to slightly lower the volume on the residue of imposter syndrome that lots of us younger academics remain stuck with especially early in our careers. That the interaction would have this effect probably never crossed his mind, as he was just being his regular friendly self. But having had some earlier experiences of academia as a pretty unforgiving place, to be shown these minor human kindnesses from one of the the leading names in the field actually did a quite a bit to help me move past the status-consciousness and coldness I'd seen lots of other places. In every interaction of his I witnessed, he dismantled the regular academic hierarchies and just was a nice person to those around him. It was an amazing example that I've consciously tried to emulate.

I've now been working at a Law School in the UK for three years since that spring in Ithaca, and it's been wonderful to be able to see John a bit more regularly. He even came down to visit us at University of Surrey for a workshop on his recent book From Personal Life to Private Law. The sessions were (unsurprisingly) terrific, insightful and exciting, and throughout the day he was tremendously supportive of our burgeoning group of legal philosophers at Surrey. If I could hope for one thing for our School, it's that we would strive to be like John in all ways: not just in working tirelessly to tackle the big questions about morality and law, but in being kind to each other and being human to everyone--the way John always was to me even in our smallest interactions.

For me, that kindness and that humanity is an essential part of who he is--a powerful legacy that is visible in all the lives he's touched.

Sending lots of love and my warmest wishes for a beautiful spring.

Kind regards,