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Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart
Full name Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart
Born 1907
Died 1992
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophers
School Analytic
Main interests Jurisprudence, legal positivism, linguistic philosophy, political philosophy, liberalism, utilitarianism

Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart (1907–1992) was an influential legal philosopher of the 20th century. He was Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University. He authored The Concept of Law and made major contributions to political philosophy.


Biographical sketch

Hart was born in 1907, the son of a prosperous Jewish tailor of German and Polish origin. Educated at Cheltenham College, Bradford Grammar School and at New College, Oxford, Hart took an outstanding First in Classical Greats in 1929.

He became a Barrister and practised successfully at the Chancery Bar from 1932 to 1940 and was good friends with Richard (later Lord) Wilberforce.

During World War II, Hart worked with MI5, a division of British military intelligence, where he renewed Oxford friendships. He did not return to his legal practice after the War, preferring instead to accept the offer of a teaching fellowship (in philosophy, not Law) at New College, Oxford.

In 1952, he was elected Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford. He retired from the Chair in 1969, and was succeeded by Ronald Dworkin. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1959 to 1960.

Hart married Jenifer Williams, a senior civil servant in the Home Office and, later, Oxford historian at St Anne's College (specializing in the history of the police). Jenifer Hart, a 'sleeper' member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, later came under suspicion of having passed information to the Soviets.[1] The Harts had four children, including a son who was disabled. The marriage contained "incompatible personalities", and Hart confessed to his daughter that "[t]he trouble with this marriage is that one of us doesn't like sex and the other doesn't like food."[2] Jenifer Hart was believed by her contemporaries to have had an affair of long duration with Isaiah Berlin, a close friend of Hart's. Jenifer published her memoirs under the title Ask Me No More in 1998.

There is a description of their household by the writer on religion Karen Armstrong, who lodged with them for a time, in her book The Spiral Staircase.

Hart's students

Many of Hart's former students became important legal, moral, and political philosophers, including Brian Barry, John Finnis, Kent Greenawalt, Neil MacCormick, Joseph Raz, Chin Liew Ten, W. J. Waluchow, and Ronald Dworkin. Hart also had a strong influence on the young John Rawls in the 1950s, when Rawls was a visiting scholar at Oxford shortly after finishing his PhD.

Philosophical method

Hart revolutionized the methods of jurisprudence and the philosophy of law in the English-speaking world. Influenced by J. L. Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hart brought the tools of analytic, and especially linguistic, philosophy to bear on the central problems of legal theory. Hart's method combined the careful analysis of twentieth-century analytic philosophy with the jurisprudential tradition of Jeremy Bentham, the great English legal, political, and moral philosopher. Hart was also influenced by Austrian legal philosopher Hans Kelsen, though Hart rejected two distinctive features of Kelsen's positivism: the idea that law necessarily requires sanctions; and the neo-Kantian idea that a normative social phenomenon could not be explained purely in terms of social facts. In rejecting the "purity" of Kelsen's "pure theory of law," Hart broke decisively with Kelsen. (Hart and Kelsen, as it happens, grew to detest each other). Hart is widely considered responsible for bringing English-language jurisprudence into the philosophical mainstream.

The Concept of Law

Hart's most famous work is The Concept of Law, first published in 1961, and with a second edition (including a new postscript) published posthumously in 1994. The book emerged from a set of lectures that Hart began to deliver in 1952, and it is presaged by his Holmes lecture, Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals delivered at Harvard Law School. The Concept of Law developed a sophisticated view of legal positivism. Among the many ideas developed in this book are:

  • A critique of John Austin's theory that law is the command of the sovereign backed by the threat of punishment.
  • A distinction between primary and secondary legal rules, where a primary rule governs conduct and a secondary rule allows of the creation, alteration, or extinction of primary rules.
  • A distinction between the internal and external points of view of law and rules, close to (and influenced by) Max Weber's distinction between the sociological and the legal perspectives of law.
  • The idea of the Rule of Recognition, a social rule that differentiated between those norms that have the authority of law and those that do not. Hart viewed the concept of rule of recognition as an evolution from Kelsen's Grundnorm.
  • A late reply (published as a postscript to the second edition) to Ronald Dworkin, who criticized legal positivism in Taking Rights Seriously (1977), A Matter of Principle (1985) and Law's Empire (1986).

Other work

With Tony Honoré, Hart wrote Causation in the Law (1959, second edition 1985), which is regarded as one of the important academic discussions of Causation in the legal context. As a result of his famous debate with Lord Patrick Devlin on the role of the criminal law in enforcing moral norms, Hart wrote Law, Liberty and Morality (1963) and The Morality of the Criminal Law (1965). Hart's work on the relationship between law and morality had a significant effect on the law in the UK, helping bring about the decriminalization of homosexuality, among other things.


  • Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence (1953)
  • Causation in the Law (with Tony Honoré) (1959)
  • The Concept of Law (1961)
  • Law, Liberty and Morality (1963)
  • The Morality of the Criminal Law (1964)
  • Punishment and Responsibility (1968)
  • Essays on Bentham: Studies in Jurisprudence and Political Theory (1982)
  • Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy (1983)


  • Law, Morality, and Society: Essays in Honour of H. L. A. Hart, edited by P. M. S. Hacker and Joseph Raz (1977)

See also


  1. ^ Obituary of Jenifer Hart, Daily Telegraph, 9 April 2005
  2. ^ Margaret Howatson Obituary: Jenifer Hart, The Independent, 31 March 2005

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir Noel Frederick Hall
Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford
Succeeded by
John Keiran Barry Moylan Nicholas


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