Jonathan Sumption

In the course of an otherwise generous review (The Spectator, March 19, 2011) Jonathan Sumption, who is a Justice of the UK Supreme Court, made a damning observation:

[Dworkin] has taken pleasure in throwing rocks into the placid ponds of academic discourse; to such an extent that the life-cycle of a Dworkinian argument is by now quite well-known. It starts with a brutal forensic demolition of some conventional truth, accompanied by a radical alternative theory. Critics then gather round with their objections. Some of them hit the mark with distressing accuracy. Dworkin responds by reducing the size of the target. He jettisons the more striking and vulnerable parts of the argument one after the other, in order to preserve the persuasive force of the rest, rather like the crew of an early steamer cutting timber out of the superstructure to feed the boilers. Gradually, the theory becomes more acceptable but less radical, until the point is reached when Dworkin is no longer saying anything remarkable after all.

I recently asked him for an example of my regrettable but recurring practice. He confessed that he had “somewhat” overstated his position. He didn’t really mean that it was “well-known” that I water down earlier bold claims. On the contrary he meant only that he now remembers having that impression – in the 1970’s – based on his understanding of my first book. Could he remember which bold statements he had the impression that I later retracted? Or any other details about the impression he now remembers? No, it was much too long ago. Justice Sumption will, of course, take much more care on the bench.

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