“I Became Intrigued by the Relationship Between Disciplines and Their Different Answers to the Same Question” – 5in10 with Alain Zysset

Photo: Joanna Scheffel

Alain Zysset is a Lecturer in Public Law at the School of Law, University of Glasgow. In the academic year 2019/2020, he is a Fellow of re:constitution – Exchange and Analysis on Democracy and the Rule of Law in Europe, a joint programme of the Forum Transregionale Studien and Democracy Reporting International, funded by Stiftung Mercator. Alain’s research lies at the intersection of public law, international law and political theory. His main area of research is the theory and practice of the European Court of Human Rights.


What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

Rather than being intrigued by a specific subject, I became attracted to critical thinking about society generally as an adolescent. It started with reading newspapers in the evening. I then was gradually attracted to the humanities and the social sciences, in particular philosophy, sociology and history. This also coincided with the first opportunities to write critically and creatively in high school. I found writing a particularly enjoyable form of engagement with the world and with myself. Throughout these early years, I became more and more intrigued by the relationship between disciplines and their different answers to the same question. Later, I had the chance of studying three of them separately (philosophy, history, law) through different graduate degrees. In my research today, I try to combine two (philosophy and law) as much as I can.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

I have not had a chance to do that yet but if that were the case, I would articulate my motivations to embark on the project in the first place. My project focuses on the idea of populism and its relation to human rights law. However, I am not sure what populism is and it is even less clear what human rights are. I would therefore gather my students’ opinion on these rather preliminary issues. Also, given that the project aims to connect a social and political phenomenon (populism) to a particular legal and judicial context (the European Court of Human Rights), I would also ask them how they would go about connecting the two. My intuition is that the European Court of Human Rights has a special responsibility of responding to the wave of populism that is consolidating in many states that are under the authority of this Court. This intuition is based on my prior research on the Court’s own conception of democracy, which is deliberative. If populism is a threat to deliberative democracy, which I think it is, it seems to me that populism is a direct threat to the Court’s conception of democracy.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

My initial training in philosophy. Philosophy is relentlessly formative. Philosophy helps structure and question our relationship to the world and our knowledge of the world. Among other things, it explores the nature and the limits of what other disciplines depend on, which is our capacity to reason and act in accordance with it. As mentioned earlier, philosophy has also strengthened my interest in the social sciences and their various approaches to explaining and theorizing a social, political or legal phenomenon. This was facilitated by my encounter with epistemology and philosophy of science in my first year at university. I then received mentorship from a professor who encouraged me to think about norms and how there can be norms – in particular, moral or legal norms – if our world is made of physical particles. A question of that gravity never leaves you. The other formative station was the encounter with my doctoral supervisor who helped me transition from philosophy to law. The study of law can be relatively (and regrettably) insulated from other disciplines. My supervisor’s enthusiasm, expertise and support for writing a dissertation at the intersection of human rights law and the philosophy of human rights were truly exceptional.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods?

I have found that my research ideas do not tend to emerge from sitting at my desk and thinking intensely about a topic. Rather, a slightly distracted or relaxed mode of reflection may be more productive initially, which explains why I have found many ideas by doing something quite different or by being at different places (even on a regular working day). Interestingly, this seems to apply to other things: I am an avid tennis player and my best tennis seems to involve a form of slight dis-engagement from the playing itself, this time emotional. The second research step is the writing itself, which is the most enjoyable one both because it is inherently creative but also because the thinking goes deeper through the writing itself. In terms of methods, my research lies at the intersection of law and philosophy. I try to promote it by using the label of interdisciplinarity but for the reasons mentioned above I am still unsure where the boundaries between the two are. As a result, my method may be close to what is called “normative jurisprudence”, which consists in examining a law or legal decision through the lens of moral or political theory. I particularly like examining if and how a court decision can be justifiable from the standpoint of a particular moral or a political theory. This being said, I am not sure that there is a method here in the conventional sense of the term.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) inspired you recently?

I recently read Amia Srinavasan’s article “The Aptness of Anger” in the Journal of Political Philosophy. It has nothing to do with my research project, but it is exemplary of addressing an old question – namely, whether it can be appropriate to be angry – and giving it a novel answer. It is also exemplary of this combination between rigor, clarity and originality that philosophers are always striving to achieve. In terms of workshops and conferences, I recently attended one on the reform of UN treaty bodies, which are in charge of monitoring the implementation of key human rights treaties by states. It was a rare occasion for theorists like me to engage with the experts sitting on these bodies, who are also legal academics. I have always wondered what being an expert in human rights could mean. Finally, I also recently attended a workshop on Arthur Ripstein’s recent book on Kant and international law, which very much impressed me in terms of intellectual achievement and possibilities to develop seminal philosophical ideas in the current legal context.


Citation: “I Became Intrigued by the Relationship Between Disciplines and Their Different Answers to the Same Question” – 5in10 with Alain Zysset, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.04.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23692.


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