Joseph Raz

by Harry on May 4, 2022

I got a text from one of my graduate students yesterday:

You must have heard that Joseph Raz has died. Very sad. I don’t remember if I told you but I corresponded with him in December. I couldn’t believe he responded to me (a nobody) and he was very kind.

Here’s another story. There used to be two bus routes between Oxford and London, the X90, and the Oxford Tube (run by Stagecoach, in turn owned by Brian Souter, a prominent funder of the campaign for Section 28). During the period 2000-2002 I lived in Oxford but taught in London; one of my PhD students was a politically conservative, and gay, man, who also lived in Oxford and with whom, I think he’d agree, I had a rather prickly relationship at first. Like me, he used whichever bus was more convenient until, one day, he told me that he wasn’t using the Tube any more. I asked why and he said that he was standing at a bustop with Joseph Raz the previous day, and he noticed that Raz (who he recognized from having seen him give a lecture once) let the Oxford Tube go past. My student asked him why, and Raz, who didn’t know my student at all, said, simply, that he always used the X90, however inconvenient, because he wouldn’t let Souter get hold of his money. It made a deep impression on my student, and Raz’s comment inadvertently underpinned a welcome rapprochement between us. Neither of us used the Oxford Tube after that.

I didn’t know Raz at all well though I am sure some of our readers here did. But I did have the gift of taking a class from him shortly after I became interested in political philosophy. He was visiting USC’s Law school, and held the class, which was attended by exactly 4 people, in his office. We read The Morality of Freedom, which was maybe 2 years old at the time. It is not written in a reader-friendly way (to understated the facts), and its a real struggle to read, but working through it with the author, chapter by chapter, repaid the effort many times over. His unfriendly prose was at odds with his clear, and insightful, communication in the our discussions, in which he would patiently correct our misunderstandings, and respectfully, and kindly, listen to and think through our own ideas. I, in particular, must have seemed very naive, having only just encountered the field, but he never gave any sign of being irritated by that. That experience influenced my intellectual development greatly, and whenever I am irritated by naive questions or comments, I remind myself how kindly, and encouragingly, Raz treated me (a nobody).



Phil E 05.04.22 at 8:05 pm

I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time of the Soutar controversy, and I remember one letter printed in one of the student mags saying that the letter-writer was a gay male undergraduate, and he always used the Tube rather than the X90 because the Tube’s seats were far enough apart that you could perform oral sex on someone during the journey.


Matt 05.04.22 at 11:48 pm

I met Raz only twice (I think) – at a law and philosophy workshop at Penn Law, and when he kindly visited a class I was a student in, taught by Ulrike Heuer, where we were reading one of his books in a pre-publication form. I’m not sure if there’s a single topic I fully agree with Raz on, but he was very kind, friendly, and helpful in the discussion and in conversation before and afterwards. (I’m a bit surprised by the common experience of him being aggressive, or at least very direct, in seminars that many people have reported, as that wasn’t the experience I had at all. My experience was limited, but perhaps it was also context dependent, and maybe he mellowed with time.) I remember in particular talking with him about his ideas on incommensurable values, and being dissatisfied with the account. I could agree that it was not very easy to know if, say, Beethoven’s 9th was a “better” or “greater” work of art than the Mona Lisa, but it seemed like his account also implied that it was impossible to say that the 9th Symphony was better or greater than the painting of Jon McNaughton, or the Mona Lisa better or greater than say, Kylie Minougue’s cover of “The Loco-Motion”, and that didn’t seem very plausible to me. It made me think that something more complex was going on. If I recall correctly, Raz seemed willing to bite the bullet on this, though perhaps I’m miss-remembering. If not, it seems to me to suggest some serious difficulties for the theory as it was presented. But in any case, it was very nice to get the chance to discuss the issues with him.


Alan White 05.05.22 at 2:42 am

Wonderful story Harry.

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