The Place of the Humanities in Politics and Law

I just wanted to highlight two very insightful articles on the humanities I should have read earlier. First, here’s part of the abstract of Balkin & Levinson’s Law and the Humanities: An Uneasy Relationship:

Law’s professional orientation pushes legal scholars toward prescriptivism – the demand that scholars cash out their arguments in terms of specific legal interpretations and policy proposals. These tasks push legal scholars toward technocratic forms of discourse that use the social and natural sciences more than the humanities. Whether justly or unjustly, the humanities tend to rise or fall in comparison to other disciplines to the extent that the humanities are able to help lawyers and legal scholars perform these familiar rhetorical tasks of legitimation and prescription.

Laura Kalman has observed a similar tension between advocacy and academic research in the legal academy, and I’m happy to see B&L moving the conversation forward.

Second, here is Harvey Mansfield writing in First Things on How to Understand Politics:

Politics is not an exchange between the bargaining positions of a buyer and a seller in which self-interest is clear and the result is either a sale or not, all without fuss. As it happens, self-interest does not explain even commercial transactions. That we get angry if we feel cheated, or that we succumb to the charm of salesmanship, shows that more than a small measure of ego enters into the behavior of those who pride themselves on calculation.

Self-interest, when paramount, cools you off and calms you down; thumos pumps you up and makes you hot. In politics there is bargaining, as in commerce, but with a much greater degree of self-importance. People go into politics to pick a fight, not to avoid one.

A provocative and passionate take on a subject that many have tried (and failed) to reduce to transactional logics.


Here is Mansfield’s conclusion:

My profession needs to open its eyes and admit to its curriculum the help of literature and history. It should be unafraid to risk considering what is ignored by science and may lack the approval of science. The humanities too, whose professors often suffer from a faint heart, need to recover their faith in what is individual and their courage to defend it. Thumos is not merely theoretical. To learn of it will improve your life as well as your thinking.

It is up to you to improve your life by behaving as if it were important, but let me provide a summary of the things that you will know better after reflecting on the nature of thumos: the contrast between anger and gain; the insistence on victory; the function of protectiveness; the stubbornness of partisanship; the role of assertiveness; the ever-presence of one’s own; the task of religion; the result of individuality; the ambition of greatness. Altogether, thumos is one basis for a human science aware of the body but not bound to it, a science with soul and taught by poetry well interpreted.

Though Charles Taylor critiqued the modeling of human sciences on natural sciences over twenty years ago (and interpretive social science is getting a second look), few have applied such ideas as eloquently or entertainingly as Mansfield does in this essay.

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