A Conversation with Ralph Lerner

Benjamin Franklin

JMC faculty partner Ralph Lerner sat down with Law and Liberty’s associate editor Lauren Weiner to discuss his most recent book, Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political andPhilosophic, and his engagement with the great ideas.

Keeping Company with the Great Authors: A Conversation with Ralph Lerner


Ralph Lerner is one of our nation’s most distinguished political philosophers. The Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago has ranged widely in political philosophy, teaching and writing on medieval philosophy, Alexis de Tocqueville, 17th and 18th century British thinkers, and the American Founding, among other subjects. His work on medieval Muslim philosophy blazed a trail that other scholars have been following since the publication of his coedited Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook (with Mushin Mahdi, Cornell University Press, 1963). In 2001, the Liberty Fund reprinted the landmark work he edited with Philip B. Kurland, The Founders’ Constitution (five volumes, originally University of Chicago Press, 1987). His many books include Revolutions Revisited: Two Faces of the Politics of Enlightenment (University of North Carolina Press, 1994) and Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Lerner is known for the wit and elegance of his interpretive essays, the latest collection of which is Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic. Law and Liberty’s associate editor, Lauren Weiner, asked him about it; here is the Q and A.


Lauren Weiner: Let me start by asking why you advocate reading naively. Shouldn’t we aim to be sophisticated readers?

Ralph Lerner: Good question! As we are growing up, we are encouraged by our mentors to become more discerning, to put away childish things and naïve ways of thinking. In short, we come to regard puzzling over the obvious as somehow simple-minded. To be truly sophisticated is to begin by digging deep.

The trouble with this counsel is that it narrows our field of vision. I like Sherlock Holmes’ explanation to the ever-befuddled Dr. Watson: “You see, my dear Watson, but you do not observe.” Impatience as well as a predisposition to ignore the surface of things undercuts our ability to observe and, ultimately, our ability to understand.

Read the rest of the conversation here >>




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