"Writing and Reading in Philosophy, Law, and Poetry"

Michigan Law Authors
Publish Date
1999
Publication
Law and Literature
Publication Type
Book Chapter
Abstract

In this paper I will treat a very general question, the nature of writing and what can be achieved by it, pursuing it in the three distinct contexts provided by philosophy, law, and poetry.

My starting-point will be Plato's Phaedrus, where, in a wellknown passage, Socrates attacks writing itself: he says that true philosophy requires the living engagement of mind with mind of a kind that writing cannot attain. Yet this is obviously a paradox, for Socrates' position is articulated and recorded by Plato in writing. How then can we make sense of what Plato is saying and doing? What kind of writing, for example, does he think he is himself engaged in? What, according to him, is good philosophical writing more generally, if such a thing exists? This will be my first question.

Next I shall turn to the law, where it seems that writing is both utterly necessary and, as we shall see, often hopeless as a guide to the decision of actual cases. I shall look in particular at the first amendment to the Con stitution of the United States and a case arising under it, asking what we can hope writing can achieve in this context. What is good legal writing, if such a thing exists, and what can be attained by it? Finally, I shall turn to poetry, using a poem by William Carlos Williams as my example, to define more fully the conception of writing, and of writing well, towards which I am working, in the hopes that we can then carry it back to what we have already done in philosophy and law. In all of this I shall be trying to give content to a rather simple and traditional idea-that reading and writing can be seen as forms of conversation- by working it out in three rather different situations.

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