Law in Contemporary Society
I came across this article in the New York Times this morning and it rubbed me the wrong way.

The author uses Plato's rarely-invoked "Theaetetus" to set up a distinction between philosophers and lawyers with relation to time. Specifically, the lawyer's work is such that he is trapped in time (eg. deadlines, time is money, etc.), while the philosopher is able to "take his time" in philosophizing. The consequence is that the lawyer is "small in his soul and shrewd and a shyster." I read the dialogue myself after reading this article, and while I think the author stretches the degree of opposition placed in the text between lawyers and philosophers, the opposition is there.

My own opinion is, first, that time has become such a pervasive feature of society today that even present-day philosophers would be constrained by it (eg. professors at universities who feel pressure to keep producing articles and books lest they lose their relevancy, like Martha Nussbaum or even Slavoj Zizek). It also seems that Plato's idea of the lawyer as ruled by time has become more obvious (eg. hourly billing, court scheduling, SOL). As for the consequence-- that is, that the lawyer is "small in his soul" and a "shyster," I don't know. I personally have met many lawyers who fit that description. The real debate is over whether this is necessarily true of all lawyers given the lawyer's dependence on time.

From Plato's further description of the soul in the "Phaedo," being "small" in one's soul is ultimately about not being able to rise above daily, corporeal matters. The lawyer's job, however, requires immersion in corporeal, transient facts. Nonetheless, it appears to me that the most celebrated lawyers (eg. Holmes) have been able to keep both feet on the ground while still looking up to philosophical ideals like "freedom," "good," etc. In short, I would say that basing the distinction between lawyers and philosophers in the concept of time is incorrect. Better understanding might be found in looking at what is motivating or guiding the behavior of a particular lawyer or philosopher.

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 17 May 2010

Kalli, I read the same article even though I know absolutely nothing about philosophy. I agree with you that the author polarizes philosophers and lawyers but when I tried to figure out whether I believe his dichotomy, I realized that I can't think of a modern class of philosophers at all. You suggested professors, but think of all the hierarchical hoops and hurdles an associate professor has to jump through and over to get tenured, or to move along the track at all. I think that modern philosophers must either have so much inherited money that they have never had to and never will have to work and somehow not be a dissipated individual, or they're the starving artist types in Williamsburg and they're not trying to 'make it.' (Or, I guess the author's suggestion is that we all have a little philosopher within us if we "take time even when we don't have it," to read his new column.)

My other rather mundane thought is that a time-crunch doesn't always make for poor ideas. I absolutely believe that there is enormous creativity and good that can come out of timeless brainstorming, but the description of the time allotments in a court trial in Ancient Greece reminded me of debating rules. I remember doing weeks of research on whatever topic we were given, writing out arguments for the affirmative and the negative sides. But many times, it's when I'm at the stand rushing to prepare for the next argument that a killer point occurs to me. The last argument for the negative side is aptly named a crystallization, and for better or worse, good lawyers 'crystallize' all the time. It seems that 'real' philosophers, the kind that wander around falling into wells, never do.


Jenn, I don't know how I would define what a philosopher is to say whether or not they exist today. I mentioned professors because I thought it would be an example with which most people would be agree. Looks like I was wrong. My own opinion is that someone wouldn't have to "make it" to be a philosopher...

As for the effect of a time-crunch on poor ideas, have you looked over any of your answers to law school exams post-exam? It's the difference between producing ideas that are good enough and ideas that are good.

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 24 May 2010


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r4 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:25:58 - IanSullivan
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