Monday, July 07, 2008

the study of the human condition

Questions posed in humanities classes are often too broad, and yet "important": what is the good? How does the good obtain? What is love? What does it mean to love?

Recent conversations with a political philosopher friend has made me realize how much, how often, and how deeply I have thought about such questions. Hard to believe, but some never really think about such questions, nor define the answers to themselves. I like to think about such questions. Whenever I read a book, I do not just absorb the story, but also the deeper themes. What did this book say about life? What does the butler Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, tell me about a life lived without love or risk? Why does Tom Waits' Martha sound different to me now than it did in 1997, before I had my heart broken the first time by my first love?

I think about these things. Always in a very limited way, I grant you. And often, very emo. During the trying times of my life (and I have had plenty, and no, not just stupid teenage shit) was I studying the human condition by listening to pop music on repeat, or by reading poetry and literature, or by reading philosophy? Yes, I would argue, vehemently. True, the inward focus that accompanied this excavation of "what is love" meant that I was tending to my personal condition as much as studying the "human condition." But because I never really wrote about my feelings, or experiences (this is as close to a diary as I'll ever get, and I leave out a hell of a lot), I think that I mostly externalized such questions. Who was Laura, and what did she mean to Petrarch? Why did the sparrow mean almost as much to Catullus as Lesbia? I asked myself, at the age of eleven, why did Emma Bovary kill herself? You know, I still don't know, and I don't know anything.

But it is not like the only thing I have ever done in life was listen to music or read literature and philosophy. Well, maybe last week that was the only thing I did, but that's a relative aberration. While I have always been a student of the humanities, I have also been a student of politics, of law, sociology, and on occasion, psychology. Do not the other disciplines address the "big," "important" questions? Or are the questions so specific as to no longer be fundamental? Does the law ask "what is justice?", or is it so instrumentalist in its definition and too focused on its implementation as to ignore the epistemic quandary of the question? Do sociologists study humanity, or merely humans and their interaction? Do political scientists study only the rules that humans make and the organizing principles of their collective interaction rather than the question of what it means to be a human in a rule-bound society? Is it the case that psychologists, in focusing on the internal processes of humans as micro-interactions, neglect the study of the essential human character?

I propose a project for myself, and my readers. Most of you are law-type people. Let us see what our discipline and profession can say about such questions. Let us be interdisciplinary and reach out to other schools of thought and see what they have to say about this. Not that literature and poetry and music and art are not valuable for such a study. But in times of reflection, I wonder that I immediately go to them rather than the other tools at my disposal. Why, if I want to say what I feel, I wish to refer someone to a certain passage of a book, a particular poem, or the lyrics of a song? Why can't I make some sort of comparable metaphor in law, sociology, or economics? (At least without sounding stupid, and if you say "Sun Tzu's Art of War explains everything I will hit you.)

So, I have on my bookshelf The Concept of Law. Why not, The Concept of Love, or The Concept of Life? Let us think, and think aloud about these questions.

So, first part of the project: why literature? Why is this blog called Law and Letters? What was all the hubbub about law and literature, and why did this particular area of scholarship seem so natural (Kafka, Plato, Doestoevsky, etc. etc.), why was it so flawed, and is there any place for it now? Does it say anything original about the human condition that literary theory, separately, or legal philosophy, separately, does not already say in a more coherent, persuasive manner?

This part will come much later, probably, because there's a lot of reading I have to do to get to a place where I can say anything intelligible about it. The study of the human condition takes a while.


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