A Eulogy to Neil MacCormick by Neil Walker

Professor Neil Walker's Eulogy to Neil MacCormick

Greyfriars Kirk
17th April 2009

Neil MacCormick's life was an extraordinary one in many ways, and nowhere more so than in the domain of the academy.

As a young man he was an outstanding student of Philosophy and English at Glasgow and of law at Oxford. After lecturing at Dundee and then on his return to Balliol College Oxford, he was called to the Regius Chair of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at Edinburgh in 1972 at the remarkably young age of 31. It was a Chair he was to hold with unique distinction for 36 years; for more than half of his life.

As a deep and creative thinker about the role of law in modern society, Neil's place in the pantheon of jurisprudence was assured long before he embarked on the monumental four-volume study of ‘Law, State, and Practical Reason' that consumed the last 10 years of his academic life. The publication of the first edition of his justly celebrated monograph, ‘Legal Reasoning and Legal Theory', in 1978 announced a major new voice in the world of legal theory. The influence of that voice never waned during Neil's life, nor shall it do so on his death.

Neil's work has been and will remain a major reference point for all the major contemporary debates on law's place in the order of things. He published ground-breaking studies on the special quality of legal reasoning, on the anatomy of a legal system, on the relationship between state law and other legal orders in an increasingly interconnected world, and on the connection between the conscience of the law and the broader spheres of private ethics and public morality.

Neil's was a remarkably versatile body of work, but perhaps even more remarkable was its integrity. The fundamental issues that engaged Neil in his last works were in essence the same as those that had occupied him in the early days, as was his broad approach to these issues. Certainly, he constantly freshened and refined his ideas to take account of new developments in the world of legal and political affairs. These included new ethical dilemmas posed by advances in medical science or information technology; or, to take an example especially close to his intellectual and political heart, the unprecedented challenge to our state-centred understanding of law posed by the recent flowering of the European Union as a significant legal and political community in its own right, and, indeed, by the forward march of Scottish self-government. Yet such was the distinctiveness in both style and substance of Neil's approach that the author of his vast corpus of work was, from the beginning to the very end, unmistakably one and the same.

The power of Neil's ideas and the extent of his scholarly influence owed much to his deft originality, and also to his peerless capacity for sympathetic understanding and reconstruction of the extensive and diverse canon of thought that influenced his own. But his impact was also in part due to his great talent as a communicator. His highly seductive writing style - at once urbane and conversational, invariably expansively generous to the other view but gently insistent upon the superiority of his own - won him many converts and countless admirers, and of course quite a few imitators. Neil did not, in truth, discriminate much between the different registers of communication - between speaking and writing - but only between good and bad communication. To read Neil was always and immediately to hear Neil speak. That was one of the gifts he gave us in his life, just as it will be one of our great comforts and consolations in his death.

Neil's academic contribution, however, cannot simply be measured by the outstanding quality and sure legacy of his scholarship. As a citizen of the wider academy, his service was also immense. He was twice Dean of the Law Faculty, as well as serving as Provost of the Faculty Group of Law and Social Science 1994-7, and as Vice Principal for international affairs, 1997-99. He also worked selflessly, tirelessly and to extraordinary effect in a variety of roles to promote worldwide the academic discipline that he called his own. Neil did these things not only out of a sense of duty, but also because he passionately believed in the scholarly institution and all it represents as one of the vital sources of a decent and civilized society. Neil loved Edinburgh University, but he loved equally the very idea of a university, and indeed the global communities of the mind that the spread and sustenance of the idea of a university enables.

In ways that embraced but went beyond his particular political commitments, Neil also excelled as what we might term a public intellectual. I use the term with some hesitation, not just because Neil might have balked at its overstylization - at its hint of self-importance, but more tellingly because he would have found the adjective ‘public' simply redundant. For Neil, in order to be true to ones vocation as an intellectual one must be prepared to ‘go public', so to speak. One had to engage with the issues of the day; one had a duty to develop and disseminate new ideas for dealing with these issues; and one was required to express healthy skepticism before all conventional wisdom, whatever its source. All of these standards Neil met with unswerving commitment.

Finally, however, it is in his personal rather than his public capacity that perhaps most people will remember Neil MacCormick the professor. Neil's example and Neil's support touched so many people and affected them for the good. Neil won all the glittering prizes. He was a longstanding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and of the British Academy. He was appointed an honorary QC (England and Wales), and held seven honorary Doctorates, the last awarded by his own university only last December. And, of course, in 2001 he received his knighthood for services to scholarship in law. Neil was doubtless proud to be recognized in all these ways, and typically was deeply conscious of the additional responsibility such recognition brought. But he was never remotely motivated to do what he did by the prospect of such rewards, nor changed by their receipt. He was essentially a modest man, despite having far less to be modest about than most of us. He was also someone who believed that intelligence and insight, and the life of the mind more generally, were their own reward. And with his brilliance, and in his endlessly renewable enthusiasm, he taught that priceless lesson to so many.

But Neil also touched many people in the academy in a much more active way. In his last book, entitled ‘Practical Reason in Law and Morality' - written at his family home in the last summer of his life - in the course of a beautiful chapter entitled ‘Using Freedom Well' Neil discusses the so-called ‘auxiliary virtues'. These are those virtues that relate not to the performance of our basis duties or to the keeping of our contractual commitments, but that pertain instead to the sphere of personal liberty, and to the puzzle of how best to use that personal liberty. For Neil, prominent amongst these auxiliary virtues is what he calls ‘considerateness'. With typical dexterity, Neil proceeds to probe the idea of considerateness apart to reveal not one but two virtuous attitudes. One is a kind of abstract concern for the other, a minimum measure of respect and care, even charity, that is owed to all who cross our path, however many (and In Neil's case, there were very many). The other dimension of considerateness refers to a generous willingness actively to engage with other people in their concrete particularity, with their unique needs, perspectives, foibles and aspirations.

As he so often did, Neil wrote and spoke of which he knew and practiced. He was a man of a million kindnesses, small and large, offered both to those whom he knew well and to those whom he knew hardly or not at all. I have never met a more considerate human being - in either and both senses of the terms - than Neil MacCormick, and I don't suppose I, or the many of us present here today, ever will. For that and for so many other things we honour him and treasure his memory.

Neil Walker