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Posts Tagged ‘truth’

Habermas for Law Professors

In Art, Arts & Letters, Communication, Creativity, Essays, Ethics, Habermas, Humanities, Information Design, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post is an adaptation of this printable, PDF document

This post is intended to assist law professors who wish to incorporate critical theory (in general) and Habermas (in particular) into their teaching.  This post addresses just one essay by Habermas that is representative of his thought.  It does not address other important areas of Habermasian theory such as the “public sphere” (a concept that the essay nevertheless implicates). 

This post should provide some basic insights into Habermas that could be incorporated into a law school classroom.  Contracts in particular would benefit from Habermasian analyses, which could just as constructively be applied to torts, evidence, constitutional law, or any course dealing with litigation and the courtroom.  This post provides basic information.  It does not tell law professors how to use the information.  The use will require creativity. 


Fundamental to the paradigm of mutual understanding is … the performative attitude of participants in interaction, who coordinate their plans for action by coming to an understanding about something in the world.  When ego carries out a speech act and alter takes up a position with regard to it, the two parties enter into an interpersonal relationship.  The latter is structured by the system of reciprocally interlocked perspectives among speakers, hearers, and non-participants who happen to be present at the time. 

        —Jürgen Habermas, “An Alternative Way Out of the Philosophy of the Subject”[1]

In a way, “An Alternative Way Out of the Philosophy of the Subject” is a response to Foucault’s theories of subjectivity that treat subjects as produced by forces of power.  Habermas seems to consider Foucault’s theories as so preoccupied with knowledge formation and structural preconditions for knowledge formation that they (the theories) become pseudoscience abstracted from practical realities.  A Foucaultian paradigm centers on subjectivity trained by mechanical forces whereas a Habermasian paradigm explores communicative reason in the context of discourse enabled by the ideations of individual subjects articulating their positions to one another in mutually intelligible utterances.       

Contra Foucault, Habermas submits that reason—articulated, assimilated, and mediated by language—must be understood as social.  For social interaction to be meaningful, its interlocutors must believe that their articulations are objectively “true” or sincere (I place “true” in quotations because the “pragmatically expanded theory of meaning overcomes [the] fixation on the fact-mirroring function of language”).  Speech must be governed by points of common understanding.  These points are reached when “ego carries out a speech act and alter takes up a position with regard to it.”  Ego, here, refers to a person’s conscious awareness that is capable of being conveyed in speech.  “Alter” does not refer to alter ego, but to some agent outside the subjective world of cognition, intention, and belief.  This “alter” is part of the external or objective world to which the ego can articulate feelings or thoughts, provided that ego and alter have in common a familiar discursive space (a lifeworld) for their subjective expressions.  By this reading, alter has an ego, and ego can be an alter.  The terms simply depend upon which subject is articulating his position in a given speech situation; the terms are merely descriptive.  

To claim that we can comprehend events or things in the world is to suggest that we can speak about them.  To speak about events or things in the world is to convey information about them from one party to another using shared vocabularies governed by rules that the parties accept unconditionally. The interpersonal relationship among or between parties, as Habermas suggests, is “structured by the system of reciprocally interlocked perspectives.”  The study of this relationship brings Habermas further away from the Foucaultian paradigms of subjectivity and towards the paradigm of mutual understanding that has come to mark Habermasian thought.  Read the rest of this entry »


The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

Truth and the Virtue of Candor: Advocacy as Art

In Advocacy, Arts & Letters, Communication, Information Design, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Writing on February 21, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Jonathan Board lives in Northern Appalachia with his wife and three children.  A graduate of West Virginia University College of Law, he has also attended Harvard Extension School, Fairmont State University, and the University of Cincinnati. Beyond legal commentary, he enjoys civic and community volunteerism, theological and ethical discourse, technologies, and athletic coaching.

Truth and the Virtue of Candor: Advocacy as Art

The truth is that no law student in America receives competent training in the art of advocacy.  [] Generations of students [have been produced] who at graduation were utterly unqualified to do anything except what their professors did—study the law.[1]

The art of warfare is defined as deception. Sun Tzu said, “When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.  Hold out baits to entice the enemy.  Feign disorder, and crush him.”[2]  Similarly, the art of legislation, as John Quincy Adams observed, is the ability “to do a thing by assuming the appearance of preventing it.  To prevent a thing by assuming that of doing it.”[3]  The art of business is that “set of dynamic, integrated decisions, that you must make in order to position your business in its complex environment.”[4]  Surprisingly, the art of advocacy, which, unlike war and, to differing degrees, legislation and business, affects every aspect of life. Yet, it is left without scholarly definition, thus begging the question: what is it? I submit that the art of advocacy is a combination of many elements—storytelling, play-acting, artistic expression.  As the opening quote suggests, the legal education system today focuses almost entirely on the methods and techniques of legal research, not on true advocacy.  This is due, at least in part, to the adoption of the “case method” style of study.  Case methodology was developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell during his professorship at Harvard over a century ago.[5]  This style of study is infused with pragmatism, and focuses almost entirely on legal research and teaching through the process of inference.  Although research is arguably one of the more important aspects of the profession and practice of law, it is, in fact, only one aspect.  Langdell’s technique overlooks the fact that advocacy is an essential aspect of the practice of law, and, as such, requires the mastery of numerous oratory skills.  However, Langdellian theory has infected the legal profession to the point that many legal scholars consider the teaching of these oral advocacy “arts” as nothing more than juvenile exercises—something that must be shunned in the hallowed halls of legal academia.[6] Read the rest of this entry »

Signs Taken For Truths

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Semiotics on October 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Recently I was reading Erika Lindemann’s book A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).  I was preparing for class and needed some inspiration from someone far smarter. I found that inspiration in Lindemann’s chapter “What Do Teachers Need to Know about Linguistics?”  I won’t go into how I used that chapter for class but would like to expand on what Lindemann calls “graphic conventions” (62).

Focusing on the “role language plays in composing, especially at the writing and rewriting stages,” Lindemann argues that writing instructors need a greater facility with English linguistics to understand the composition process—specifically, to understand how students select and appropriate diction (60).  This premise leads Lindemann into a discussion of alphabets and symbols with linguistic values (62).

Lindemann’s claims about how matters of taste are always braided with “our assumptions about what language should and shouldn’t be” are interesting, but this post discusses what language might be.

Language can become a vehicle for discovering “truth.” Literature, made up of language, can become, to employ Kenneth Burke’s phrase, equipment for living.  By “truth” I don’t necessarily mean moral truth.  I mean physical truth.  Language is a system of meaning that makes truth—the referent—intelligible even if it only signifies or stands in the place of reality.  Read the rest of this entry »

A Defense of Law-and-Literature

In Arts & Letters, Jurisprudence, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Literary Theory & Criticism on May 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm

“Why study literature in professional school?” people have asked when I said that I work in a discipline called law-and-literature. I usually reply, “For the same reason we study math from elementary school until college: to learn about ‘truth.’”

The concept of “truth” has become the subject of ridicule. The postmodern era of scholarship, with its roots in poststructuralism, deconstruction, and narratology, ushered in new conceptions of metaphysics and ontology: all texts, indeed all things emanating from texts, whether cultural norms or social values, are at variance with themselves. Nothing has essential meaning; everything is indeterminate and arbitrary. The self-evident “meaning” perceived by individuals is socially constructed, having been centered or passed down through networks of people and events. These, at any rate, are the simplistic accusations put forth by those fed up with postmodernist presuppositions.

I’m no enemy of postmodernism, but I tend to agree with French theorist Bruno Latour, who claims that we have never been modern, so we cannot have been postmodern, and besides, there is something to this concept of “truth.”  Why else would we have mathematics? Mathematics, like literature, has the capacity to bring about answers. True answers. Postmodernism has never quite debunked this truth-seeking field. Read the rest of this entry »

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