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Thoughts on an Essay about Pragmatism

In American History, Arts & Letters, Communication, Essays, Ethics, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pragmatism, The Literary Table, Western Civilization on August 20, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post appeared here at The Literary Table.

Lately I’ve been reading a subject of interest to the lawyers, theologians, writers, and philosophers at the table: pragmatism.  (Pragmatism finds a way of encompassing any interest whatsoever.)  The following discussion is brief and does not do justice to the nuances of my subject: Ruth Anna Putnam’s essay “The Moral Impulse” (in The Revival of Pragmatism, Morris Dickstein, ed., Duke University Press, 1999).  Nevertheless, I proceed with eyes wide open. 

Putnam opens by referencing William James’s pragmatist metaphysics and its reliance upon feelings and the sensorial to get at the religious or moral.  This reference provides Putnam wide latitude to articulate her arresting point that people participate in moral value systems because they always retain agency even if their actions seem like products of habit.  People do not act in putatively moral ways simply because they are conditioned or determined to do so; they act in those ways because they want to do so.  The want is the moral impulse.  That one should act or think on an impulse does not evacuate that action or thought of all intelligence.  “It is not,” Putnam assures us, “to say that one does not have or has not given intellectually compelling reasons for that position” (63).  In fact, as James himself suggests, we may—notice he does not say ought to or must—entertain any moral impulses so long as they lead us toward critical currents of thought that have not been invalidated even if they have not been validated.  Using such Jamesian refrains as her starting-point and hesitating over the usefulness of a now catch-all signifier like “pragmatism,”[1] Putnam announces her intention to explore moral beliefs in the work of James and Dewey.  Her focus is on those moments of convergence and departure, with slightly more emphasis on the departure.  Without touching on all Putnam’s arguments about James and Dewey and their agreements and disagreements, I will here note one of Putnam’s more sustained and striking observations, which addresses the difference between James’s and Dewey’s moral values: the difference which, it turns out, is at the heart of her essay.

Having shown that James sees the question of free will in terms of determinacy and indeterminacy without essentializing that binary opposition, and having shown that Dewey rejects James’s position as a dualism that is fundamentally flawed, Putnam resorts to James’s position to lump Dewey into a determinist camp and James into a free will camp (which does not seem the same as an indeterminacy camp, but I will not get into that).  Putnam then resorts to Dewey’s position by implicitly allowing that these polarized categories will not do; for she suggests that Dewey questioned the amount of personal agency a person could achieve in a world that, in light of quantum physics, does not seem deterministic (64).  At any rate, her point in playfully adopting both a Jamesian and Deweyian perspective at once seems to be that despite the seeming differences between them, James and Dewey both “understand that morally significant choices express who we are and shape who we will be,” and that “this relation between character and conduct leaves room for choice, for moral growth or deterioration, even for dramatic reversals” (64).  The human mind makes deliberate choices based on evaluative criteria gained by experience in the tangible world.  That, I suspect, is a statement with which James and Dewey and I daresay even Putnam would agree. Read the rest of this entry »


The Place of Miscegenation Laws within Historical Scholarship about Slavery

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, Economics, History, Law, Laws of Slavery, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Slavery, The Literary Table, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization on May 17, 2011 at 8:28 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post appeared at The Literary Table.


Miscegenation laws, also known as anti-miscegenation laws, increasingly have attracted the attention of scholars of slavery over the last half-century.  Scholarship on slavery first achieved eminence with the publication of such texts as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen (1946), Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), and Leon F. Litwack’s North of Slavery (1961).  When Winthrop D. Jordan published his landmark study White Over Black in 1968, miscegenation statutes during the era of American slavery were just beginning to fall within historians’ critical purview.  The Loving v. Virginia case, initiated in 1959 and resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, no doubt played an important role in activating scholarship on this issue, especially in light of the Civil Rights movement that called attention to various areas of understudied black history. 

In Loving, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s miscegenation statutes forbidding marriage between whites and non-whites and ruled that the racial classifications of the statutes restricted the freedom to marry and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the wake of Loving, scholarship on miscegenation laws gained traction, although miscegenation laws during the era of American slavery have yet to receive extensive critical treatment.  Several articles and essays have considered miscegenation laws and interracial sex during the era of American slavery, but only a few book-length analyses are devoted to these issues, and of these analyses, most deal with interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the nineteenth-century antebellum period, or from the period of Reconstruction up through the twentieth-century.  This historiographical essay explores interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the corpus of historical writing about slavery.  It does so by contextualizing interracial sex and miscegenation laws within broader trends in the study of slavery.  Placing various historical texts in conversation with one another, this essay speculates about how and why, over time, historians treated interracial sex and miscegenation laws differently and with varying degrees of detail.  By no means exhaustive, this essay merely seeks to point out one area of slavery studies that stands for notice, interrogation, and reconsideration.  The colonies did not always have miscegenation laws; indeed, miscegenation laws did not spring up in America until the late seventeenth-century, and they remained in effect in various times and regions until just forty-four years ago.  The longevity and severity of these laws make them worthy our continued attention, for to understand miscegenation laws is to understand more fully the logic and formal expression of racism. Read the rest of this entry »

Law Professors and Laws of Slavery

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Slavery, The Literary Table, Western Civilization on April 4, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post was first published over at The Literary Table.  I have reposted here because the content of the post relates to many recent posts on this site.

Kenneth Stamp published his landmark study The Peculiar Institution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) in 1956, thus inaugurating the institutionalized and concerted efforts of scholars to examine the history of slavery in America with greater detail.  Research and study of the history of slavery then gained momentum in the 1960s.  One of the seminal texts from this period was David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University Press, 1966), winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  An ambitious undertaking, this book seeks to demonstrate the continuity of slavery through various times and places in Western Civilization.  A legitimizing narrative or logic always accompanies the institution of slavery, Davis suggests, but such narrative or logic—or narrative logic—is fraught with paradoxes threatening to undermine the institution altogether.  How, for instance, does one reconcile the ideals of freedom and equality, so celebrated by American Revolutionaries, with the pervasive reality of human bondage?  How does one make sense of a Christianity that both condemns and justifies slavery?  How can slaves be humans—rational agents with free will—and chattel property at once?  How does ending the slave trade worsen conditions for the enslaved?  If enslaving infidels, and only infidels, is valid by law and church teaching, then how do European colonists validate the enslavement of converted Africans?  How can colonists rely heavily upon an institution that they fear?  How can one of the earliest American colonies to oppose slavery (Georgia) become a hotbed for slavery?  If, according to law and church teaching, only pagans can be enslaved, why are not Natives enslaved as frequently or as much as Africans?  For that matter, why do early objections to slavery focus on Natives, who are less likely to become slaves than blacks?  Why do colonists insist on Christianizing slaves yet fear converted slaves?  How does the antislavery movement develop out of the very ideology sustaining slavery?  How do notions of sin both justify and subvert the institution of slavery?  Why does the Age of Enlightenment, with its celebration of reason, humanism, and liberation, intensify rather than disparage slavery?  And how can the New World, a putatively progressive landscape, rely on and perpetuate an ancient institution?  These and other questions permeate Davis’s provocative text.  Davis does not try to resolve these apparent contradictions so much as he explores them through various persons, places, and patterns; in so doing, he describes how human bondage gets revised and extended from one age to the next, and how justifications for slavery in one era inaugurate justifications for slavery in later eras.  Read the rest of this entry »

Law & Literature: A Basic Bibliography

In American History, Arts & Letters, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Literary Theory & Criticism, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Pedagogy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics, Slavery, The Literary Table, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization on April 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Patrick S. O’Donnell compiled this bibliography in 2010.  He teaches philosophy at Santa Barbara City College in California.  This bibliography first appeared over at The Literary Table

Amsterdam, Anthony G. and Jerome Bruner. Minding the Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Atkinson, Logan and Diana Majury, eds. Law, Mystery, and the Humanities: Collected Essays. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Ball, Milner S. The Word and the Law. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow. Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies.  Kansas  City, MO: Andrew McMeels Publ., revised ed., 2006.

Best, Stephen M. The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Binder, Guyora and Robert Weisburg. Literary Criticisms of Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Biressi, Anita. Crime, Fear and the Law in True Crime Stories. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Black, David A. Law in Film: Resonance and Representation. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Brooks, Peter. Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature. Chicago, IL: University of  Chicago Press, 2001.

Brooks, Peter and Paul Gewirtz, eds. Law’s Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998 ed. Read the rest of this entry »

The Literary Table

In Arts & Letters, Literary Theory & Criticism, The Literary Table on May 27, 2010 at 3:22 pm

I will begin blogging for The Literary Table, a website that explores the world of literature through history, law, religion, and other disciplines.  Read my first post here.

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