Thursday, February 14, 2013

R.I.P. Ronald Dworkin, 1931-2013

Extremely sad news today that Ronald Dworkin has died.  (I assume the Times will supplement this notice with a more extensive obituary soon.)  Dworkin was one of the most influential legal philosophers of the past century, notable for the importance of his views to central debates in jurisprudence, for his influence on constitutional theory, and for his dissemination of ideas in legal theory to a broader audience through his books and outlets such as the New York Review of Books.  Larry Solum's entry on Dworkin's death is here; I'm sure many will follow.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to the Times's full obituary of Dworkin.

News of his death prompted me to look back through my files -- the few remaining ones that consist of paper documents -- in an attempt to locate a letter I remembered receiving from Dworkin following the publication of my first law review article.  I found the letter, dated July 16, 1996.  (Almost seventeen years ago, which seems a very long time, though perhaps not that long when you consider that we were still communicating almost exclusively by "snail mail" back then.)

I had sent Dworkin a copy of the article -- published in the Yale Law Journal, an incredibly lucky strike for a first article and one I'm still trying to live up to -- in part because a large section of it was devoted to critiquing an aspect of Dworkin's well-known "law as integrity" concept.  Dworkin's reply was short and polite, though not entirely sweet:

Dear Professor Peters,

I appreciate your sending me a copy of your article Foolish Consistency, and I look forward to reading it.  Just glancing at it I found the remark that I think integrity distinct from both justice and equality.  I do think it is distinct from justice, as I defined that term, rather specially.  But not from equality:  on the contrary I think of integrity as a mode or aspect of equality, deriving from the requirements of a community of equals.  I just mention this, though I will probably discover, when reading the article, that the verbal point makes no difference to your argument.

Thanks again.


Ronald Dworkin

That is the entirety of the letter, and it is the only time I can be said to have "communicated with" Ronald Dworkin.  I was utterly thrilled by it, despite the nit he picked with my characterization of his arguments and not least of which because he referred to me as "Professor Peters" in the salutation.  (At the time I was a mere Fellow.)  Dworkin was one of my intellectual heroes -- still is, I suppose.

I don't know whether Dworkin did in fact discover that his "verbal point" made no difference to my arguments, or even if he ever read the article at all.  I responded to his letter with a more extensive letter of my own, explaining my interpretation of "integrity" and inviting him (if that's the word) to comment further on my paper.  I didn't hear back from him.  But that one brief missive remains, in its own way, a highlight of my career.

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