[John Gardner unexpectedly died from cancer a few months after this interview was completed.]
How did you come to be an academic?
As a law student, I planned to practice at the Bar in London. But I could never resist entering a competition. As a child, I won all sorts of strange things by filling in coupons on the back of cereal packets and the like. So when I got a notice from All Souls College advertising their Prize Fellowship competition I registered for it right away. Six exams and a viva later I found myself elected to a Fellowship, much to my surprise. That gave me seven years in which to think and write, and also to learn how to teach. Unsurprisingly, I was pretty happy with my lot and came to see academia as a promising line of work.
In layman’s terms, what is your research about?
I am a generalist. I write about numerous topics in the philosophy of law. For many years I wrote about topics in criminal law (such as self-defense and provocation) until I felt that I was repeating myself. More recently I have been writing about topics in the law of torts and contract, especially remedies (such as compensation and restitution). Along the way I have written about the nature of law, legal reasoning, the rule of law, constitutions, officials, justice, charity, privatization, and many more things. Right now I am returning to a topic that I wrote about very early in my career: discrimination.
What arguments or views are central to your research?
No arguments or views could be described as central to my research since my research ranges so widely. I think I am probably most often cited from my views on responsibility (the most basic kind is, as the word suggests, an ability to respond), on excuses (they are not pleas of incapacity but claims of reasonableness), on reparative duties (they are duties to do the next best thing when one fails in one’s duty). I am also often cited for my remarks on ‘legal positivism’ and ‘natural law’ even though they are not original. It always amazes me what catches on.
What do you find most exciting about your research?
That I get to do it at all! I am not sure whether younger scholars enjoy the same freedom as I have always enjoyed to write about what I want, exactly as I want to. For them there is so much pressure to come up with grant proposals and to have ‘impact’ and so on. I got into this business at a stage when fewer official questions were asked about how I am using my time and what I am doing with my brain, and I have been lucky enough to be able to keep those questions more at less at bay ever since.
What I enjoy most in my working life is when I attend a conference or workshop on something I have never really thought about very seriously before, especially if I am asked to be a commentator on a really good paper by a more junior scholar. That often starts me on a new research trajectory. Then I am kept awake at night with all the new puzzles that I would like to solve (but never will). My former tutor Niki Lacey has often worried that I see it all as a giant game of Sudoku. But what’s wrong with Sudoku?
What are some big trends in Jurisprudence these days and how do you feel about them?
I haven’t noticed any big trends and that is all to the good. We should each work on the particular questions that take our fancy. I have noticed a little trend: often it is said that some problem in philosophy of law properly belongs to philosophy of science, or philosophy of language, or metaethics, or such like, so that is where we should look for our solutions. That makes me feel very depressed. It makes me think that philosophy is, in the minds of some people, a bureaucracy with various departments staffed by their own cadres of experts. In fact there are only good arguments and bad ones, good solutions and bad ones. Of course, one should learn about a puzzle before one writes about it. But ultimately the point is just to tackle it, not to assign it to some area of philosophy. If it comes up in my work, it’s my problem!
What would you like to see change in academia (at large or your field of research)?
I would like the generations coming up behind me to enjoy the same freedoms that I enjoyed, with permanent jobs, secure pensions, and a lot less time spent filling in forms. I think that gradually, over the past 30 years, power has tended to shift from academics to managers and administrators under the guise of taking onerous tasks off the hands of academics. The result: more onerous tasks for academics.
What are some of your non-academic interests, pursuits, or hobbies?
I play bass guitar in a band, I read like crazy, I tend an allotment, and I do home improvements (although I have recently had surgery, which inhibits the latter two activities). I am also interested in film, especially twentieth-century European cinema. When I am organised enough, I go to the movies a couple of times a week. We are lucky enough to have a serious picture-house in Oxford now, for which I have a watch-all-you-like pass. Last year I went maybe 60 times.
If you had to pick a desert island book (academic or not), music album, or film, which one would it be?
Dekalog by Krzysztof Kieślowski or Heimat 2 by Edgar Reitz. Low by David Bowie. Complete Short Stories by Graham Greene. You decide - I like surprises.
This interview was conducted in April 2019 by Carolina Flores (St. Hugh's, MMathPhil, 2016) who is a philosopher working in epistemology and social philosophy. Photograph by Keith Barnes.