Concurring Opinions is delighted to introduce Professor Susanna Blumenthal, and the participants in our online symposium on Law and the Modern Mind: Consciousness and Responsibility in American Legal Culture (Harvard University Press, 2016).
In the book, Susanna explores how American jurisprudence has been shaped by differing conceptions of rationality,consciousness, agency, and accountability. Focusing on the period dating from America’s founding through the end of the nineteenth century, the book shows how the developing conception of what she terms the “default legal person” (p. 7), modeled after cultural notions of the “free and independent man,” (id.) was both at the core of the early Americans’ legal philosophy and simultaneously a threat to the founders’ vision of ordered liberty. Because they viewed self-government as both a psychological and political enterprise, jurists built a republic of laws upon the Enlightenment science of the mind with the aim of producing a responsible citizenry.
Focusing on everyday private law adjudication, such as will contests and intrafamilial contracts, Susanna shows how judges struggled to reconcile common sense notions of rationality with novel scientific concepts that suggested deviant behavior might result from disease rather than conscious choice. Questions of capacity, for example, were particularly salient as lawsuits raised questions about “unnatural dispositions” (the title of one of her chapters). She explores the connections between changing scientific views of insanity and the jurisprudence of culpability.
Law and the Modern Mind is extremely thought-provoking as it calls attention to the problematic relationship between consciousness and liability in American jurisprudence, to the difficulties reconciling medical knowledge of the mind with legal culpability.
To consider these and many other issues raised by Blumenthal’s book, we have invited an all-star – and multidisciplinary — cast of thinkers: Anne Dailey, Concurring Opinion’s own Gerard Magliocca, Michele McKinley, Nomi Stolzenberg, Martha Umphrey, and Steven Wilf.
We look forward to this discussion, and please join in with comments! Susanna will also be responding to the commentary.