Whither the Humanities?

sphere1.jpgHaving just returned from the ASLCH conference this past weekend, the role of humanities in the world of the law has been greatly on my mind.

It was a great conference–I presented on a double panel entitled “Reconfiguring the Language of Rights,” with Rose Cuison Villazor, Olati Johnson, Serena Mayeri, Melissa Murray, Frank Ravitch, Patricia Seith and Aric Short–and it was fascinating to be immersed in the world of the humanities again, something I have not much focused on since graduate school.

But the conference did make me wonder: will the role of humanities in the law ever be more than its current “Law and __” ghetto? In other words, will Law and Humanities ever be mainstreamed like Law and Economics? Should it be? I ponder this below….


For a while, of course, it did seem like Law & Humanities would go from margin to mainstream, particularly in the late eighties and early nineties. Everyone seemed to be publishing a book–Fish, Fiss, Delgado, Weisberg, etc–even Posner. And let’s not forget the Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities. It was a heady time.

But fifteen to twenty years later, the whole Law & Humanities movement hasn’t taken over the law in the way that it seemed it might. Certainly the disciplines of sociology and psychiatry have had their influences on legal scholarship, and there definitely are academics who focus on law & hum. But it’s never had the sweeping domination that law & econ had on the academy, or that empiricism seems to be having now.

Why is that? I think that the humanities has much to offer the study of law, and not just in the token “Law and Literature” or “Law and Race” course. So many legal scholars, however, have disdain for the whole endeavor. Is it the jargon? The lingering effects of deconstruction? The resistance of what is still considered a “professional” education?

Naturally, I have a few pet theories, but I’d love to hear from others….

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. I’m a Ph.D student in the medical humanities, as well as a research prof in health law and policy, so I obviously have a vested interest in law and the humanities. While I’m not sure I have a good answer for your question, one thing I do find remarkable is the paucity of awareness of what the humanities actually are. To the majority of academics I’ve encountered, and I do tend to think this is representative, the humanities are more or less an administrative designation that is rooted in classical learning.

    Indeed, the term “humanism” itself is most familiar to the postmodern world in the context of modern secular humanism.

    What I find meaningful in my own study and writing is an historically informed conception of the humanities, of the studia humanitatis. Learning more about what the humanities actually were, both in antiquity and in the crucial synthesis and interpretation of the medieval and Renaissance humanists, and what study in the humanist educational program was supposed to engender, is, IMO, significant for assessing what contributions humanities practice has for legal discourse.

    What’s interesting is when you look into this history, how quickly it becomes apparent that medieval and Renaissance humanists would find postmodern secular humanism bizarre for a variety of different reasons. Thus, my circuitous answer to your fascinating question is that I think very few people have an historically nuanced conception of the roots of the humanities, the purposes to which humanist study was originally put, and the expansive possibilities of such work. And, sadly, I tend to think this includes many academics working in fields of study designated as humanities.

    Robert Proctor’s book, in spite of several historiographical and interpretive flaws, IMO, is quite good in articulating some of these points. JMO.