Law in Contemporary Society
We are continually asked this question but I am increasingly unsure of what can be done with "the idea." Is the question merely asking what kind of understanding can be achieved about the idea itself? Or is it asking what can actually be done with it, manifest in the world at large? To implement an idea in the real world requires coming to a conclusion, however final or temporary, that some solution to a problem is better than another. To come to a conclusion about what to implement, you have to "choose" in some sense, right? I know that the word choice has been frowned upon as of late, but it seems to me that at some level it has to be used, at least insofar as it describes conscious actions undertaken to influence numerous unconscious ones, through policy decisions for example.

So when Prof. Moglen asks the question, "What can we do with this idea?" I don't know how to respond. It seems to invite the drawing of conclusions. Except that whenever a conclusion is drawn, instead of discussing the merits of the conclusion, any consequent discussion is dismissed as doing "violence with ideas" rather than thinking about the "usefulness of ideas." This prompts many people to raise their hand and then say, "So X. So what?"

I understand the need to not get wrapped up in debate about the rightness of conclusions and can certainly sympathize with the idea of thinking about how ideas can be useful. I am just somewhat frustrated by the question, "What can we do with this idea?" if we aren't supposed to try and draw conclusions based on it.

  • How about using it to have another idea? Put it in a different context and see what it does there. Add another layer to it, putting a social-psychology proposition next to an economic one, or a biological proposition next to one from sociology. Take the two together and use them to ask a new question about something that seemed settled in the Contracts class, or that never made sense in Torts anyway. Drawing a conclusion is merely prelude to another "argument." But creativity in the combination of ideas avoids the sterility of debate by taking the discussion out of the box.

  • At the moment, the reason people are tending in the direction of "So what?" is primarily that they're not doing the reading. They think glancing at the assignment in the hour before class is good enough. "So what" is the question one asks when the other fellow's subtleties aren't clear because one hasn't taken the time to understand them. That will soon change.

-- MichaelDignan - 05 Feb 2009

I understand and share your frustration, Michael. It seems to me that part of the reason why people may be having trouble with this is that Prof. Moglen and many of the writers we have read are frequently declaring their conclusions. We often hear from Prof. Moglen that X or Y is "wrong," "stupid" or "foolish." Sometimes in class he does not simply "do violence with" ideas so much as he hacks them to pieces and victory-dances over their bloody corpses. The writers we read tend to have an antagonistic approach as well, a desire to illustrate the wrongness of a common misconception. Holmes, Arnold and Cohen start off by declaring that a commonly held attitude or idea of their contemporaries is wrong. They do not say, "well, this is what people think; what can we do with this idea?" They say "this is wrong and stupid, and here is why." Now, perhaps all of these people initially approached their respective questions with an attitude of "what can we do with this idea?" And perhaps their decisive conclusions are merely the endpoint of what initially began as a more relaxed and creative inquiry. But we do not see that. We see their conclusions, and we take our cues in the classroom in large part from the tone set by the professor and the readings.

This is not meant as a criticism of Prof. Moglen or Holmes or Arnold, incidentally, since I share your attitude to drawing conclusions. Part of my perspective may stem from the fact that, for me, "this is wrong" does not always mean "this can be proven false by logic or by pointing to empirical facts." Sometimes by "this is wrong" I mean "there's not much that can be done with this idea that is good or interesting." And if an idea's relationship to logic or empirical reality is flawed, then I think you can only do very limited things with it. So I don't see as much of a separation between drawing conclusions and playing with ideas as Prof. Moglen seems to. I also don't think that finding flaws in an argument or conclusion has to end up in the sterile back-and-forth of debate. When I draw a conclusion about the flaws in an idea, I often find myself trying to "fix" it by extracting the useful part of it, and maybe combining it with another idea and trying to see how they fit together. I think this is interesting and avoids the problem of treating conversations about ideas like battlegrounds.

-- AnjaliBhat - 06 Feb 2009

Anjali, I edited the formatting of your post to conform with other topics (it didn't have your name at the bottom, but I assume it's you). I also agree with almost everything you said.

-- AnjaHavedal - 06 Feb 2009

 

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r6 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:50:39 - IanSullivan
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