3:AM Magazine Interviews Brian Leiter
3:AM: I want to ask you about the Wall Street Occupation and Plutocracy but I want to start by giving our readers a sense of where your arguments are coming from. You’re an expert in the philosophy of law, a leading authority on the philosophy of Nietzsche and have taken on the role of a public intellectual of the left. So were you always an iconoclastic type and was it political ideals that brought you to philosophy originally?
Brian Leiter: Yes and no! Yes, I guess my mix of intellectual interests and normative positions are iconoclastic, but, no, it wasn’t politics that brought me to philosophy. What brought me to philosophy most immediately was the study of Sartre, especially Huis Clos, in high school, which crystallized my propensity towards existential angst, which follows naturally for any sentient being upon atheism and a vivid sense of mortality. There followed upon this interest in Sartre a kind of fateful mistake: Sartre was a philosopher, so I was told, and he dealt with matters of existential moment, and, on top of all that, my father had studied philosophy in college and thought it a worthy topic, so I thought I should study philosophy! So I went to the college that, at the time, was reputed to have the best philosophy program in America, not knowing that most of its faculty did not think Sartre was really a philosopher! Things worked out happily, though, as I took to the other parts of philosophy, learned about Nietzsche and Marx and Freud with Richard Rorty and Raymond Geuss, but also discovered the useful “intellectual cleanliness” (as Nietzsche would say) that is characteristic of so-called “analytic” philosophy, which was then dominant.
The parochialism of analytic philosophers didn’t much matter for me, as I had my own sense of what really mattered, what really had value, and that probably explains my iconoclastic mix of interests: as a sympathetic student of Marx who loves Nietzsche; as a Nietzschean who values the dialectical rigor of so much boring “analytic” moral philosophy; as a defender of H.L.A. Hart’s legal positivism, who thinks the American Legal Realists that Hart did so much to discredit had far more insight than he gave them credit for. I’ve been helped by being largely immune to, indeed often offended by, amour-propre (to use Rousseau’s term): I don’t really care what “respectable” academics think, though sometimes they get it right. My political sympathies did play a role, however, in my decision to also study law, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. This was before the “revolution from the Right” that Reagan orchestrated, and so it was possible, back in the 1970s, to think of lawyering as a force for social and economic progress.