Peter D. Cleary, ’74


When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?

I decided to major in philosophy in high school. I chose Princeton largely because of its Philosophy Department. A tour of the campus clinched the deal.

What made you decide to major in Philosophy?

My high school in Southern California offered an introductory course in philosophy taught by Peter Drobac. I took his course in the fall of 1968 and followed that with a second semester of independent study. Drobac encouraged me to continue studying philosophy at university and thought Princeton had the best department.

Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you would like to share?

I had the good fortune of studying under four of the eight professors listed under the Great and the Good: Walter Kaufmann, David Lewis, James Ward Smith and Margaret Wilson.

I was very taken with Jim Smith’s introductory course Philosophy and the Modern Mind. He was an inspired lecturer, and later supervised my senior thesis on David Hume’s Theory of the External World. Other courses that stand out in my memory include Walter Kaufmann’s course on Nietzsche and Margaret Wilson’s courses on Continental Rationalism and the British Empiricists. I would be remiss if I did not mention Carlos Baker, the Hemingway scholar in the English Department. He spent an enormous amount of time mentoring me in my sophomore year, going over all my papers line by line and teaching me to write properly. These four professors, particularly Smith and Baker, influenced me enormously.

Perhaps the Philosophy Department’s greatest attribute was its small size: in my year (1974), there were only nineteen philosophy majors. This meant that class sizes were small and students had unusual access to faculty. There was a lot of emphasis on writing. I took one metaphysics course in my senior year that required one short paper a week. This was actually a wonderful discipline, although it made completing my thesis much harder.

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

I entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1974 and graduated in 1977.

What do you do now?

I have practiced law for over 35 years, most notably as a partner at Coudert Brothers, the first truly global law firm, and later Freshfields. I also worked for nearly five years as the General Counsel of one of the divisions of the World Bank Group. My career has been very international, focusing on cross border infrastructure and finance primarily in the emerging markets. Law and philosophy have intersected in my career more than one might have expected. My work involves creating complex transaction structures in jurisdictions where the law is often less fully developed. This requires one to step back and consider first principles and the very concept of law. I think about Locke, H.L.A. Hart and Rawls all the time. [This interview was conducted in 2015.]

Final words?

Choosing Princeton and philosophy were two of the best decisions I have made. Incredibly talented mentors taught me to think, read and write critically. The emphasis on faculty interaction, small classes and constant writing resulted in a very personal education. I use the skills I learned at Princeton every day.

It is not a bad thing to spend four years with some of the best minds in the country considering life’s fundamental questions. It helps you put much of what comes later into perspective and, very occasionally, a rational framework. For me, it was also a lot of fun.