Hobbesian, Holmesian, Columbian

We are flushed out.  Again.

A paean to Oliver Wendell Holmes, and his second most oft quoted* quote:

“The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience…”

Logic v. Experience – or put another way, Reason v. “Science” – has been for over two thousand years the fundamental preoccupation of epistemology in “western thought” which of course we have explained before.  It is a very, very large and almost laughably esoteric subject.  You might say it is the subject underlying every other subject.  Judges and other rulers – and for that matter lawyers – who are not otherwise trained in epistemology should stay away from it and leave it to the professionals.

So again we must point out the incoherence and prompt self destruction of this nihilist proposition, the same fate of every nihilist proposition.  Holmes chose his words carefully.  “Life” – at least as we know it – is moving, changing and dynamic, and quite unlike the fixed and unchanging meanings of static, logical propositions.  So to say that the life of the law is experience and not logic is a simple tautology.  The life of anything is certainly not logic, by definition.

But a more basic objection, of course, is that “the law” is not a living thing but rather an abstraction.  Abstractions do not “experience” anything at all.  So the second most famous Holmes statement, to the extent it is not a tautology, is completely meaningless.  It has no rational content whatsoever.

We don’t intend to disparage Holmes personally.  He suffered traumatic experiences in the American Civil War.  He “experienced” the carnage of Antietam.  That might well impart a reflexive belief that experience trumped logic.

Still.  That reflexive belief, put into practice by judges and rulers, is a horrifying inversion of reality.  As we have noted, logic fully informs and governs our experience.  Indeed it is not an exaggeration to say that as far as we can tell, logic governs the whole universe.

This is probably an appropriate little follow up to our earlier musings (follow the above links, please) on the subject since today is Columbus Day, which has become quite a controversial holiday and in many places observed more as “indigenous peoples day”, on the theory that the real Christopher Columbus was a cruel tyrant who should not be honored with a holiday.  Maybe that’s true.  Maybe not.

But logically speaking, it can’t be both.  Ugh.


*The first most oft quoted is undoubtedly “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” from his pro forced sterilization decision, Buck v. Bell.


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Filed under epistemology, wrongful convictions

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