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Holmes and the Pragmatic Common Law

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, The Supreme Court on May 7, 2014 at 8:45 am

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No summary could do justice to the wealth of literature about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s relationship to C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, but a few points of commonality are worth mentioning. First, Holmes was akin to Peirce in the embrace of fallibilism and the scientific method. Holmes disliked natural law thinkers because they purported to know the truth about the law by way of reason or moral teaching. In contrast, Holmes believed that the common law gradually filtered out the most workable, although not necessarily the most moral, theories; in fact, he felt that it was not the province, expertise, or training of the judge to explore issues of morality. He also believed that truth was best determined by a community of inquiring minds rather than by a judge ruling in isolation or by a justice with only eight colleagues to help work through his or her analysis. Therefore, he adhered to the doctrine of judicial restraint and deferred to statutes enacted by legislatures, which consisted of representatives elected by and accountable to the people.

Second, his notion of truth was like James’s: fluid but ultimately associated with the conglomerate views of a majority that have been tested and corroborated by concrete evidence. Holmes did not share James’s optimism, but he did share his literary sparkle. He also shared James’s meliorism and pluralism. The Common Law is a testament to the melioristic nature of the common law system. Holmes’s judicial restraint and deference to local legislatures, moreover, attest to his recognition of diverse local communities and associations that enable social cooperation and legal growth.

Third, Holmes’s celebration of the instrumentalism of the common law smacks of Dewey’s instrumentalism and its Darwinian complements. Like Dewey, Holmes moved pragmatism away from the science, logic, and mathematics that intrigued Peirce, away from the moral psychology and religious vibrancy that intrigued James, and towards the social and political considerations that intrigued Dewey. Holmes and Dewey were, to some degree, consequentialists; they cannot be made out as pure utilitarians—far from it—but their analyses do tend to focus on the importance of outcomes to the evaluation of human action. Finally, Holmes and Dewey emphasized the value of experiment and were majoritarian in that they maintained faith in the ability of distinct communities to arrive at unique solutions to pressing social issues and to memorialize those solutions in official legislation.

These three pragmatist influences enabled Holmes to create a theory of the common law unique to him that both accounted for and distanced itself from the legal positivism of John Austin and Hobbes, who traditionally have been thought of as adversaries of common law theory.

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