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Archive for the ‘Pragmatism’ Category

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.”

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Do we need another biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served nearly 30 years as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nearly 20 years before that on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? He has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death in 1935. We have not discovered new details about him since Harvard made his papers available to researchers in 1985, so why has Stephen Budiansky chosen to tell his story?

The answer may have to do with something Holmes said in The Common Law, his only book: “If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.”

Indeed, they are — both in the law and in the transmission of history. Holmes has been so singularly misunderstood by jurists and scholars that his life and thought require scrutiny and revision. Because his story is bound up with judicial methods and tenets — his opinions still cited regularly, by no less than the US Supreme Court as recently as this past term — we need to get him right, or at least “righter,” lest we fall into error, sending the path of the law in the wrong direction.

A veritable cottage industry of anti-Holmes invective has arisen on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. No one, it seems, of any political persuasion, wants to adopt Holmes. He’s a giant of the law with no champions or defenders.

For some critics, Holmes is the paragon of states’ rights and judicial restraint who upheld local laws authorizing the disenfranchisement of blacks (Giles v. Harris, 1903) and the compulsory sterilization of individuals whom the state deemed unfit (Buck v. Bell, 1927). This latter decision he announced with horrifying enthusiasm: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For other critics, he’s the prototypical progressive, decrying natural law, deferring to legislation that regulated economic activity, embracing an evolutionary view of law akin to living constitutionalism, and bequeathing most of his estate to the federal government.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than tendentious caricatures. Budiansky follows Frederic R. Kellogg — whose Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Legal Logic appeared last year — in reconsidering this irreducible man who came to be known as the Yankee from Olympus.

Not since Mark DeWolfe Howe’s two-volume (but unfinished) biography, The Proving Years and The Shaping Years, has any author so ably rendered Holmes’s wartime service. Budiansky devotes considerable attention to this period perhaps because it fundamentally changed Holmes. Before the war, Holmes, an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gravitated toward abolitionism and volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips. He was appalled by a minstrel show he witnessed as a student. During the war, however, he “grew disdainful of the high-minded talk of people at home who did not grasp that any good the war might still accomplish was being threatened by the evil it had itself become.”

Holmes had “daddy issues” — who wouldn’t with a father like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the diminutive, gregarious, vainglorious, and sometimes obnoxious celebrity, physician, and author of the popular “Breakfast Table” series in The Atlantic Monthly? — that were exacerbated by the elder Holmes’s sanctimonious grandstanding about his noble, valiant son. For the aloof father, the son’s military service was a status marker. For the son, war was gruesome, fearsome, and real. The son despised the father’s flighty ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of bloody conflict.

Holmes fought alongside Copperheads as well, a fact that might have contributed to his skepticism about the motives of the war and the patriotic fervor in Boston. His friend and courageous comrade Henry Abbott — no fan of Lincoln — died at the Battle of the Wilderness in a manner that Budianksy calls “suicidal” rather than bold. The war and its carnage raised Holmes’s doubts regarding “the morally superior certainty that often went hand in hand with belief: he grew to distrust, and to detest, zealotry and causes of all kinds.”

This distrust — this cynicism about the human ability to know anything with absolute certainty — led Holmes as a judge to favor decentralization. He did not presume to understand from afar which rules and practices optimally regulated distant communities. Whatever legislation they enacted was for him presumptively valid, and he would not impose his preferences on their government. His disdain for his father’s moralizing, moreover, may have contributed to his formulation of the “bad man” theory of the law. “If you want to know the law and nothing else,” he wrote, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Budiansky’s treatment of Holmes’s experience as a trial judge — the Justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in those days presided over trials of first instance — is distinctive among the biographies. Budisansky avers,

[I]n his role as a trial justice, Holmes was on the sharp edge of the law, seeing and hearing firsthand all of the tangled dramas of the courtroom, sizing up the honesty of often conflicting witnesses, rendering decisions that had immediate and dramatic consequences — the breakup of families, financial ruin, even death — to the people standing right before him.

Holmes’s opinions as a US Supreme Court Justice have received much attention, but more interesting — perhaps because less known — are the salacious divorce cases and shocking murder trials he handled with acute sensitivity to evidence and testimony.

Budiansky skillfully summarizes Holmes’s almost 30-year tenure on the US Supreme Court, the era for which he is best known. He highlights Holmes’s dissenting opinions and his friendship with Justice Louis Brandeis, who was also willing to dissent from majority opinions — and with flair. For those looking for more detailed narratives about opinions Holmes authored as a Supreme Court Justice, other resources are available. Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent, for example, dives more deeply into Holmes’s shifting positions on freedom of speech. Healy spends a whole book describing this jurisprudential development that Budiansky clears in one chapter.

Contemptuous of academics, Budiansky irrelevantly claims that “humorless moralizing is the predominant mode of thought in much of academia today.” He adds, “A more enduring fact about academic life is that taking on the great is the most reliable way for those who will never attain greatness themselves to gain attention for themselves.” Harsh words! Budianksy accuses the French historian Jules Michelet of rambling “on for pages, as only a French intellectual can.” Is this playful wit or spiteful animus? Is it even necessary?

Budiansky might have avoided occasional lapses had he consulted the academics he seems to despise. For instance, he asserts that the “common law in America traces its origins to the Middle Ages in England […] following the Norman invasion in 1066,” and that the “Normans brought with them a body of customary law that, under Henry II, was extended across England by judges of the King’s Bench who traveled on circuit to hold court.” This isn’t so. Writing in The Genius of the Common Law, Sir Frederick Pollock — “an English jurist,” in Budiansky’s words, “whose friendship with Holmes spanned sixty years” — mapped the roots of the common law “as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic.” In other words, Budiansky is approximately one thousand years off. Rather than supplanting British customs, the Normans instituted new practices that complemented, absorbed, and blended with British customs.

The fact that Budiansky never mentions some of the most interesting researchers working on Holmes — Susan Haack, Seth Vannatta, and Catharine Wells come to mind — suggests willful ignorance, the deliberate avoidance of the latest scholarship. But to what end? For what reason?

It takes years of study to truly understand Holmes. The epigraph to Vannatta’s new edition, The Pragmatism and Prejudice of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., aptly encapsulates the complexity of Holmes’s thought with lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Budiansky recognizes, as others haven’t, that Holmes was large and contained multitudes. Holmes’s contradictions, if they are contradictions, might be explained by the famous dictum of his childhood hero, Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Holmes was consistently inconsistent. His mind was expansive, his reading habits extraordinary. How to categorize such a wide-ranging man? What were the defining features of his belief? Or did he, as Louis Menand has alleged, “lose his belief in beliefs”? Budiansky condenses Holmes’s philosophy into this helpful principle: “[T]hat none of us has all the answers; that perfection will never be found in the law as it is not to be found in life; but that its pursuit is still worth the effort, if only for the sake of giving our lives meaning.”

Holmes was intellectually humble, warning us against the complacency that attends certainty. Driving his methods was the sober awareness that he, or anyone for that matter, might be incorrect about some deep-seated conviction. During this time of polarized politics, self-righteous indignation, widespread incivility, and rancorous public discourse, we could learn from Holmes. How civil and respectful we could be if we all recognized that our cherished ideas and working paradigms might, at some level, be erroneous, if we were constantly mindful of our inevitable limitations, if we were searchers and seekers who refuse to accept, with utter finality, that we’ve figured it all out?

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Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta identifies the common law as a central feature of the jurisprudence of former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes treated the common law as if it were an epistemology or a reliable mode for knowledge transmission over successive generations. Against the grand notion that the common law reflected a priori principles consistent with the natural law, Holmes detected that the common law was historical, aggregated, and evolutionary, the sum of the concrete facts and operative principles of innumerable cases with reasonable solutions to complex problems. This view of the common law is both conservative and pragmatic.

Vannatta’s analysis of Holmes opens new directions for the study of conservatism and pragmatism—and pragmatic conservatism—demonstrating that common-law processes and practices have much in common with the form of communal inquiry championed by C.S. Peirce. For more on this subject, download “Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes,” which appeared in the journal Contemporary Pragmatism in the fall of 2018.

What Is Pragmatism?

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on February 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

Pragmatism is difficult to define because it refers to a wide-ranging philosophical tradition.  Figures with little in common, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Isaac Levi, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George Herbert Mead, have been associated with pragmatism.

C.S. Peirce is credited as the wellspring of pragmatism, in part because he used the term “pragmatism” to refer to his writings and teachings. Yet when his friend William James began identifying as a pragmatist, Peirce sought to rename his mode of thinking “pragmaticism” to distinguish his ideas from James’s.

More recently, Richard Rorty garnered a reputation as a pragmatist despite his deep misgivings about Peirce. James himself claimed to have learned pragmatism from reading John Stuart Mill. He called pragmatism a new name for old ways of thinking. Pragmatism, in this sense, has no fixed origin and is not confined to a single philosophical discipline attributable to any one thinker. It is, rather, a plastic concept describing an instrumental approach to solving concrete problems.

Descriptions of pragmatism are fluid and wide-ranging because of its various iterations by multiple thinkers with disparate interests and backgrounds. Pragmatism is nevertheless identifiable by certain features and qualities.

Pragmatists tend to avoid claims to unqualified certainty or universalism; they resist abstractions, closed schools of thought, and dogma that purport to have all the answers. They are searchers and seekers, never comfortable that the knowledge they have attained is complete or comprehensive.

Pragmatists seek to generate inquiry by systematically and intentionally testing ideas in the material world through practical application and sustained observation, by modifying or adapting ideas when errors are found, by subjecting ideas to a community of minds for verification (rather than leaving them to individuals in isolation), and by examining the habits and tendencies of nature and behavior for recurring, lasting themes or traits. Although pragmatists tend to be tolerant of views that have not been discounted, or open to ideas that have not been disproven, they are also prudently skeptical of ideas that have not won out in the course of history, i.e., that are unrepresented in custom or tradition.

Pragmatism is neither liberal nor conservative in the political sense, but represents a mode of knowing and understanding based on lived experience and confirmed hypotheses. Pragmatism is a constantly modified methodology for acquiring knowledge; it’s not a doctrine. It looks to ascertainable outcomes and proven results as indicia of the truth and workability of ideas.

The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Pragmatism

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on February 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Seth Vannatta of Morgan State University recently coauthored a piece with me on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The piece appeared in the fall 2016 issue of UMKC Law Review.

Richard Posner is one of the few legal minds to have noticed the affinity between the philosophies of Holmes and Nietzsche. Dr. Vannatta and I hope to expand the circles of interest in this topic.

Our article demonstrates how Holmes’s pragmatism both comports with and departs from Nietzsche’s existentialism. Holmes’s pragmatism shares with Nietzsche’s existentialism a commitment to skepticism, perspectivalism, experiential knowledge, and aesthetics, as well as an abiding awareness of the problematic nature of truth and the fallibility of the human mind.

We suggest that Holmes was familiar with Nietzsche’s writings and that the two thinkers turned away from Christian ethics and glorified the life struggle in distinctly evolutionary terms. Both men celebrated the individual capacity to exercise the will for purposes of personal autonomy, greatness, and creative or aesthetic achievement. Nietzsche, however, did not share Holmes’s belief in the pragmatic potential of meliorism, which marks the distinction between their notions of fate.

The thinking of Nietzsche and Holmes converges in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a manifest influence on both Holmes and Nietzsche and whose thinking on fate and power, inflected as it is by aesthetic pragmatism, shapes our understanding not only of Holmes and Nietzsche in isolation but also of Holmes and Nietzsche as paired, ambitious philosophers concerned about the role of fate and power in human activity.

The article is available for download here in the SSRN database for those who are interested in reading more about this curious relationship between two intellectuals whose ideas shaped society during the 20th century.

Richard Posner is a Monster

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Scholarship, Writing on January 11, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

William Domnarski is probably right when he writes that Richard Posner, like his hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “seemed destined for a literary life.” Holmes modeled himself on Emerson; he was the class poet at Harvard and earned his reputation as a thoughtful if controversial man of letters who could write with panache.

Posner, who majored in English at Yale, modeled himself on Holmes. “Holmes,” Posner declared in a missive, “is the greatest jurist, at least of modern times, because the sum of his ideas, metaphors, decisions, dissents, and other contributions exceeds the sum of contributions of any other jurist of modern times.” Posner’s writing similarly stands out for its flair and confidence.

Both men extended their influence beyond their legal opinions and have contributed to philosophy, becoming provocative historical figures in their own right. Posner has correctly invoked Holmes as a pragmatist, even if Holmes avoided the designation and referred to William James’s pragmatism as an “amusing humbug.” A member of the short-lived Cambridge Metaphysical Club that birthed pragmatism in the 1870s — and which also included James and C. S. Peirce — Holmes at least imbibed the pragmatism that was, so to speak, in the Boston air. Posner’s pragmatism, however, is only tangentially related to the thinking of Peirce and James, and so one hesitates to call it pragmatism at all.

In a move that must irritate University of Miami professor, Peirce supporter, and Richard Rorty critic Susan Haack, Posner distinguishes his variety of pragmatism — what he calls “everyday pragmatism” — from philosophical pragmatism. His thesis is most pronounced in his book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy(2005). The quotidian pragmatism that inheres in the law is, in his view, practical and forward-looking and based on “reasonableness.”

It’s not always clear how this mode of pragmatism intersects with, or diverges from, the so-called traditional or classical pragmatism, though it differs markedly — and refreshingly — from what Haack labeled “vulgar Rortyism,” that Frenchified variety of structuralism that dispensed with truth as a meaningful category of discourse.

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One suspects, given his outsized ego, that Posner delights in having placed his stamp on legal pragmatism, thereby forcing perplexed students in philosophy departments to come to terms with his ideas and square them with not only Peirce and James but also John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and W. V. Quine.

Posner’s self-importance can be charming or off-putting. You might see him as an erudite, spirited dandy playing the part of flamboyant intellectual; or, more cruelly, as a bitter sophist bent on celebrating his own idiosyncratic views and maliciously dismissing his opponents with callous words and harsh indictments. Certainly his gratuitous rhetorical attacks on the late Antonin Scalia warrant this latter take.

And yet the man speaks with a high, soft voice; loves and spoils his cat; and spends most of his time reading and writing. It’s hard to condemn such things.

Posner is on record as having fancied himself as not just equal to, but more intelligent than, Learned Hand and Henry Friendly — two giants of American law — because he considered himself more informed about economics. This is surprising, chiefly because his self-assessment occurred before he became a judge.

As a judge, Domnarski tells us, “he could seek to persuade his new judicial colleagues to follow him, so as to further shape the law as he saw it — in his own image.” He continues to shape everything, it seems, in his own image, including, perhaps, Domnarski’s biography, which he read both in draft form and as a final manuscript.

One wonders how heavily he edited his own biography — how much latitude he enjoyed in fashioning his story. He sat for interviews and emailed with Domnarski, which wouldn’t be unusual or improper had he not been a primary source of his own legend, as he certainly appears to have been. As a young man, Posner exercised his authority as president of Harvard Law Review to include certain content over the objections of his peers. Might he have done this with his biographer?

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Posner, an only child, is used to promoting himself, and his acquaintances at different stages of his life often note his arrogance. As early as high school, he would say “the Poze knows,” and called himself “the mighty one,” writing in yearbooks that he “welcomes you as a High Priest of Posner Worship.” You can write this off as playful, but you can’t write off the fact that he cites himself in cases more than any other judge — though not by name, Domnarski points out, as if to acquit him of unseemly motivations.

An editor of a peer-reviewed journal once complained that Posner had cited himself too often in a paper, to which Posner rejoined that self-citation was necessary because he had produced most of the relevant literature on the subject. “The Poze knows,” the footnotes might have read. Another time an exasperated Posner wrote to editors at Cambridge University Press, “Don’t you know who I am?” — the same remark that landed Henry Louis Gates Jr. in hot water under different circumstances.

Although Domnarski connected with over 200 people to piece together this book, Posner’s personal opinion of himself seems to control the narrative and crowd out contrary valuations that critics may have offered. It’s not that Posner’s accomplishments and reputation are unearned. He’s worked hard to become perhaps the best-known and most prolific federal circuit judge in our nation’s history, and his talents and learning are unquestionable and impressive. The person who emerges in these pages is exceptional at what he does, but difficult to like. He graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School but was not popular. He remains good with ideas — just not with people. He’d rather disseminate brilliant theories than keep them to himself, even when they’re in bad taste or poor form. Whether that’s a virtue or vice depends upon one’s priority for manners and decorum.

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Posner’s most remarkable and admirable quality, it seems to me, is his ability — even willingness — to accept constructive criticism in stride. He doesn’t take evaluations of his work personally, and he invites opposition to fine-tune and improve his ideas. He instructs his clerks to criticize his draft opinions line by line so that he can perfect his rationale. “[W]e should want” and “insist upon,” he wrote to a colleague, “challenge and criticism; the rougher the better; for one of the great dangers of achieving eminence is that people are afraid to criticize you and then you end up inhabiting a fool’s paradise.”

Posner has referred to himself as a “monster,” a characterization he’s also reserved for Wagner, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Proust, Kafka, and Michelangelo. The term thus seems like an odd form of self-approbation rather than regret or self-loathing. It accords with his grand notion that he is “a Promethean intellectual hero,” not just some federal judge who happens to be well read.

Posner remains “a writer first and a lawyer second.” He’s correct that, as he told one correspondent, “the modern practice of law does not offer a great deal of scope for the poetic imagination.” Law schools have divided faculty into fields and sub-fields, and specialists in different areas of practice are increasingly unable to speak to one another in a common idiom or with shared vocabularies. Posner studied at Yale under Cleanth Brooks, who directed Posner’s research on William Butler Yeats, so he knows a thing or two about the poetic imagination and memorable expression.

But maybe the law is not about poetic imagination. Maybe it requires a prosaic and mechanical mind that can dispassionately and without fanfare adjudge the soundness of legal arguments presented by the parties to a case. If so, Posner may have been better suited for a different profession, one he would have loved and within which he could have more appropriately flaunted his creativity. Being an English professor, though, would’ve been out of the question; he dismisses much of what English literature departments regard as scholarship as “bullshit.” He uses the same word to describe work in the legal professoriate, of which he was once a seminal figure. By age 30, in fact, he had achieved the rank of full professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He cultivated the image of an iconoclastic rabble-rouser willing to subject all human activity to cost-benefit analysis. He popularized the law-and-economics movement and eagerly imparted that economic efficiency supplied the right methodology for describing and delineating common-law judging, which involved practical resolutions to concrete problems. The doctrinaire Posner of this period drifted far from the Communist roots of his mother. More recently, though, he’s alleged that capitalism is a failure and moved decidedly to the left on key issues.

Perhaps because of his haughtiness, the law can seem boring and routine without him. There’s something to be said for the color and liveliness he brings to his office, and for his belief that “the law really is a very limited field for a person of literary bent.” Domnarski’s treatment may seem deferential, but it doesn’t cover up Posner’s naked, sometimes brutal honesty. Posner is willing to say what others aren’t, and able to say it more eloquently.

If, as Domnarski avers, Posner considers the average lawyer to be like Bartleby or Ivan Ilych — fancifully tragic figures — then he must disdain or pity those lawyers who come before him in the courtroom and submit their briefs for his relentless scrutiny. The 1987 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary states that lawyers who argued before Posner found him to be “arrogant, impatient, dogmatic,” and “opinionated,” and that he “dominates arguments” and “cross-examines lawyers as if they were 1-Ls in a Socratic exchange with a professor.” The man is important, no doubt, but never learned how to play nicely.

Ever the Darwinian, Posner has suggested that great books prove their merit over time in the competition of the marketplace; perhaps his reputation will too.

Seth Vannatta on Conservatism and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on December 28, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

At some point all writers come across a book they wish they had written. Several such books line my bookcases; the latest of which is Seth Vannatta’s Conservativism and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics.

The two words conservatism and pragmatism circulate widely and with apparent ease, as if their import were immediately clear and uncontroversial. But if you press strangers for concise definitions, you’ll likely find that the signification of these words differs from person to person. Maybe it’s not just that people are unwilling to update their understanding of conservatism and pragmatism—maybe it’s that they cling passionately to their understanding (or misunderstanding), fearing that their operative paradigms and working notions of 20th century history and philosophy will collapse if conservatism and pragmatism differ from some developed expectation or ingrained supposition.

I began to immerse myself in pragmatism in graduate school when I discovered that its central tenets aligned rather cleanly with those of Edmund Burke, David Hume, F. A. Hayek, Michael Oakeshott, and Russell Kirk, men widely considered to be on the right end of the political spectrum even if their ideas diverge in key areas. In fact, I came to believe that pragmatism reconciled these thinkers, that whatever their marked intellectual differences, these men believed certain things that could be synthesized and organized in terms of pragmatism. I reached this conclusion from the same premise adopted by Vannatta: “Conservatism and pragmatism . . . are methods . . . guided by various common norms.” As such, they can lead to different political policies despite the consistently conservative character of their processes and techniques.

Read my review of Vannatta’s book in University of Dayton Law Review by downloading it from SSRN at this link.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Research & Writing, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Supreme Court, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

My latest book, scheduled for release next week through Bucknell University Press, is about United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The book continues my work at the intersection of law and the humanities and should interest scholars of literary theory, American literature, jurisprudence, and pragmatism.

I argue in the book that Holmes helps us see the law through an Emersonian lens by the way in which he wrote his judicial dissents. Holmes’s literary style mimics and enacts two characteristics of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought: “superfluity” and the “poetics of transition,” concepts ascribed to Emerson and developed by literary critic Richard Poirier. Using this aesthetic style borrowed from Emerson and carried out by later pragmatists, Holmes not only made it more likely that his dissents would remain alive for future judges or justices (because how they were written was itself memorable, whatever the value of their content), but also shaped our understanding of dissents and, in this, our understanding of law. By opening constitutional precedent to potential change, Holmes’s dissents made room for future thought, moving our understanding of legal concepts in a more pragmatic direction and away from formalistic understandings of law. Included in this new understanding is the idea that the “canon” of judicial cases involves oppositional positions that must be sustained if the law is to serve pragmatic purposes. This process of precedent-making in a common-law system resembles the construction of the literary canon as it is conceived by Harold Bloom and Richard Posner.

The book is available for purchase here:

Click here to purchase

Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.

 

Paul H. Fry on “The End of Theory” and “Neopragmatism”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 30, 2016 at 6:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry. The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a Conservative?

In American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism on November 4, 2015 at 8:45 am

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. can seem politically enigmatic in part because he was a jurist, not a legislator. He was no conservative, but he was no progressive, either. Misconstruing and mislabeling him only leads to the confusion and discrediting of certain views that conservatives and libertarians alike seriously ought to consider. One must not mistakenly assume that because Lochner-era Fourteenth Amendment due process jurisprudence favored business interests, Holmes stood against business interests when he rejected New York’s Fourteenth Amendment due process defense. (I have avoided the anachronistic term “substantive due process,” which gained currency decades after Lochner.)

Holmes resisted sprawling interpretations of words and principles—even if his hermeneutics brought about consequences he did not like—and he was open about his willingness to decide cases against his own interests. As he wrote to his cousin John T. Morse, “It has given me great pleasure to sustain the Constitutionality of laws that I believe to be as bad as possible, because I thereby helped to mark the difference between what I would forbid and what the Constitution permits.”

All labels for Holmes miss the mark. Holmes defies categorization, which can be a lazy way of affixing a name to something in order to avoid considering the complexity and nuances, and even contradictions, inherent in that something. “Only the shallow,” said Justice Felix Frankfurter, “would attempt to put Mr. Justice Holmes in the shallow pigeonholes of classification.”

Holmes was not conservative but more like a pragmatist in the judicial sense. His position on judging is analogous to William James’s suggestion that a person is entitled to believe what he wants so long as the practice of his religious belief is verifiable in experience and does not infringe upon the opportunity of others to exercise their own legitimate religious practices. James exposited the idea of a “pluralistic world,” which he envisioned to be, in his words, “more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom.” Holmes likewise contemplated the notion of a federal republic in his majority opinions and dissents.

The above text is adapted from an excerpt of my essay “Justice Holmes and Conservatism,” published in The Texas Review of Law & Politics, Vol. 17 (2013). To view the full essay, you may download it here at SSRN or visit the website of The Texas Review of Law & Politics.

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