Baron on Leiter on Empirical Legal Studies
A few weeks ago I was on the train home, reading an old piece of scholarship from one of my favorite colleagues at Temple, Jane Baron. Jane is well-known for her work on law and literature, the rhetoric of property/T&E, and interdisciplinary studies more generally. The particular piece that I read on the train was “Interdisciplinary Scholarship as Guilty Pleasure: The Case of Law and Literature” (Law & Literature, 1999). Jane’s observations about law and literature were strikingly relevant to the blog debate this summer which Brian Leiter instigated in his post “So-Called ‘Empirical Legal Studies.” That debate was fierce, but no one made the precise point that Jane appears to have anticipated over a decade ago. So I asked her to comment for us on Leiter & ELS. Here’s what she had to say.
“I arrived late to the debate Brian Leiter stirred up in his summer post on “So-Called ‘Empirical Legal Studies,’” whose incendiary title alone probably irritated self-identified ELS scholars. Of course, I’m not an ELS scholar, and frankly I have my own share of axes to grind about ELS. All those annoying numbers, data points, p’s and n’s—no one writes prose well enough to make those methods sections interesting to read. And I have already had my fill of faculty candidates with inchoate and incoherent ideas for adding an unspecified “empirical” component to their research—meaning they would count something if they could think of something to count.
But even given my own frustrations with ELS, two things particularly struck me about Leiter’s post. One was his assertion that the skill level of ELS scholars was “low, or at least lower than the typical . . . law & philosophy interdisciplinary scholar of yesteryear.” Considering Leiter’s 1992 characterization of then-extant law and philosophy scholarship as “intellectual voyeurism,” the insult to contemporary ELS is perhaps even stronger than many current ELS scholars might have realized.
The second thing that struck me was Leiter’s assertion that the ELS “mutual-admiration society” might be “disconnected from the central normative and conceptual questions of legal scholarship and legal education.” I think the challenge here was intended to provoke ELS scholars to show that their work does connect to those questions. Josh Wright has written thoughtfully on this question and probably lots of other folks have as well.
But I think it’s worth asking some different questions: why are we to assume that there are “central normative and conceptual questions of legal scholarship and legal education”? And should we be sure, as Leiter seems to be, that “smarts on your feet, the ability to draw conceptual distinctions, [and] construct and deconstruct arguments . . . are the . . . intellectual skills . . . needed in law”?
As I explored in earlier work, the compare-and-contrast analysis of interdisciplinary work constructs the very fields being dissected. In the realm of law and literature, for example, the tendency is to contrast the (allegedly) rich, textured, emotional realm of the literary with the (allegedly) dry, abstract, logical realm of the legal. This formulation effectively defines law as a pure domain of rules—a domain in which Langdell himself would have been happy to dwell.
But of course not all literature is morally rich (pick your favorite noire novel). And not all law is dry or abstract (pick your favorite opinion). We can depict literature as a form of plenitude and law as a form emptiness, but do we really want to?
In his ELS post, Leiter employs the inside/outside trope, to similar effect. He puts the ability to react fast, analyze arguments, and address ‘normative and conceptual questions’ inside law, and the ability to crunch numbers and analyze data outside law. But we can all think of some number crunching that is clearly inside law (B=P x L anybody?) and surely someone as intellectually accomplished as Leiter can’t mean to assert that there are no normative or conceptual questions outside law.
I am not just quibbling over words here. The question whether (all or some of) ELS work is good legal scholarship implicates the important question of what counts as “legal.” We can define law as a realm composed entirely (or centrally) of conceptual and normative questions. But we don’t have to. Indeed, at least some ELS work is designed to demonstrate that the normative questions that are ostensibly central in legal analysis are not in practice determinative, so that the “law” we thought we knew is not the “law” with which judges and practitioners work. Maybe that work is persuasive, and maybe it’s not. But at least that work is sensitive to the problem of defining law’s realm, a problem Leiter’s post assumes away.”