Legal Philosopher Joseph Raz: An Engaging and Demanding Thinker

Columbia Law School Professor's New Book, From Normativity to Responsibility, Analyzes Moral, Legal, and Critical Norms

New York, Jan. 27, 2012—One of Columbia Law School’s treasures is the prolific scholar Joseph Raz, who recently published his 10th book, From Normativity to Responsibility. At 72, Raz, the Thomas M. Macioce Professor of Law, is considered one of the world’s most important legal philosophers. His groundbreaking ideas about norms, authority, and the theory of legal positivism have attracted a global following among his peers in academia.

“Joseph Raz is a very engaging thinker—lucid, careful, and very original,” says Anthony Appiah, who teaches Raz’s work in a freshman philosophy course at Princeton University, along with works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ronald Dworkin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the literary critic Lionel Trilling. “Raz sees our moral, legal, and critical norms as an intricate network of reasons, and he has great confidence in the capacity of careful reasoning to get to the deepest truths.”
Raz’s prize-winning book The Morality of Freedom was dubbed “as significant a new statement of liberal principles as anything since Mill’s On Liberty” by The Times Literary Supplement in 1986. His latest, From Normativity to Responsibility, was released in the United Kingdom by Oxford University Press in December and will be published in the U.S. in February. The book is based on nine previously published articles. It endeavors to analyze the nature of normativity, which Raz defines as people’s beliefs in certain types of behavior, the reasoning behind certain beliefs and emotions, and various basic features of decision-making. He also examines personal responsibility for actions and omissions, and offers a novel account of responsibility, investigating the consequences of justified or unjustified actions while arguing that responsibility attaches to people in a holistic way.
At Columbia Law School, Raz is best known for teaching the Problems in Legal Philosophy seminar, the content of which varies each year. He has developed a unique format for the course offering, choosing six contemporary scholars to appear as guests and devoting two weeks of intensive study to each individual. Prior to a guest’s visit, the students read a work in progress by the scholar, analyze the text, and discuss it in class. Working together, professor and students attempt to summarize the arguments put forth in the work and raise critical questions.
After the first class discussion, some students read the work again and submit further questions to the professor in writing, according to Felix Koch, a Ph.D. candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy who has audited several of Raz’s seminars. Raz then writes a long, detailed letter to the author, summarizing the arguments and questions.

“The letters he produces are very encompassing,” Koch said. “They engage with the pieces in a lot of detail, offering both tough challenges and constructive readings of the authors’ underlying concerns.”
The scholar is expected to respond in detail when he or she visits the class.
David Owens, who teaches philosophy at the University of Reading in the U.K., was the last visitor to Raz’s class this past fall. Owens was circulating for review an article called “The Possibility of Consent,” which was subsequently published by Ratio. In late November, Raz sent Owens a 4,000-word letter setting out class members’ insights on the basic argument of the article and raising questions about the argument’s logic and implications.
Raz’s letters give visiting scholars an unusual focus, according to Owens.
“The letter forces the visitor to address the class’ questions, objections, and need for clarification,” Owens wrote in an email. “The discussion gets much more quickly to the heart of the matter. For the students, it is an education in how to engage with an often-demanding piece of abstract thinking. For the visitor, it removes their rhetorical defenses and exposes their ideas to intense scrutiny. Painful but beneficial.”
Although Raz’s seminar is usually overenrolled, he tries to accommodate everyone. During the fall 2011 semester, for instance, he had 13 students taking the course for credit and eight auditors, which resulted in a mix of J.D. students, LL.M.s, and graduate students in philosophy. Auditors are required to attend every class and to participate in the discussion.
“Students may think they are there to learn about selected problems in jurisprudence,” Raz said, “but hopefully they are learning how to engage in the discipline, how to reason and write on any issue.”
On the days when a guest appears before the class, the class period is extended by 80 minutes. Raz makes a point to be very active at first, pressing the visitor for answers. After a break, the discussion continues, often with most people standing, or sitting in a different seat. Raz often takes a backseat to encourage a more free-flowing discussion.
“All this is meant to enable a new start, change the dynamics of the conversation,” Raz noted.
Visitors were receptive to the rigorous scrutiny of the students, according to Joe Avery ’13.
“Nobody got too defensive,” Avery said, “which would be easy when 20 students in their 20s are trying to tear your arguments apart. And Professor Raz seemed to like sitting back and watching students bounce ideas off each other.”
In addition to being a renowned scholar, Raz is deeply committed to passing on the skills of philosophical analysis and argument, students say.
“In contemporary legal philosophy and ethics and political philosophy, Professor Raz is one of the most renowned figures internationally,” Koch said. “But he is also a remarkable teacher. Students should be encouraged to take his classes.”
Michael Mathai ’12 also recommended the seminar.
“It’s great to watch someone of Joseph Raz’s stature interrogate a text closely,” Mathai said. “Much of the work is done close to the text, digging deeply into the arguments. If you’re ready for that and enjoy it, his class is an incredibly rewarding experience.”
Raz received a law degree from Hebrew University in 1963 and a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford in 1967. He has taught at Oxford since 1972 and at Columbia Law School since 2002, and he is also affiliated with King’s College in London. Raz was first recruited to teach at Columbia Law School by former dean Barbara Aronstein Black, who served from 1986 to 1991. He will return to lead his seminar at the Law School during the fall 2012 semester.
Many of Raz’s former students have gone on to distinguished careers in the academy, including, among others: Timothy Macklem, the dean of the law school of King’s College London; Timothy Endicott, the dean of the Oxford Law Faculty; Oxford law professors John Gardner and Leslie Green; and Andrei Marmor, who directs the Center for Law and Philosophy at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
In October 2011, Raz delivered a videotaped speech titled “Sovereignty & Legitimacy: On the Changing Face of Law, Questions, and Speculations” at the Law Library of Congress. The talk attracted more than 100 people, including members of Congress, legal scholars, lawyers, and the general public. He was the second speaker in a series known as the Frederic R. and Molly S. Kellogg Biennial Lecture in Jurisprudence, which aims to provide a forum for the world’s leading experts on international jurisprudence.
As it happens, philosophy is not Raz’s only love. He maintains a website that evidences an avid interest in photography, and his photos appear frequently on the jackets of Oxford University Press publications. He even shot the photograph that appears on the cover of his latest book. The picture, titled “New York Column,” depicts the brightly rusted patina of an unidentified expanse of metal—and seemingly reflects a mind that seeks answers in unexpected places.