Monday, January 28, 2019

A Third Interlude: Presenting the Same Book to Different Audiences

I just returned from Paris, where I presented in the École de Droit of Sciences Po my most recent book on the history of European Law. This was the fifth time, in which I presented this book, the previous opportunities being the Law Faculty of the Universidade Nova of Lisbon, The departmental seminar of the European University Institute (the graduate school of the European Union), the joint PhD program of the University of Florence and Siena, The Annual Meeting of the American Society for Legal History (hurray!), and now Paris. As I flew back over the Ocean, I was thinking about how different each of these experiences was. 

In Lisbon, the session was mainly attended by law students. The students – who obviously read the book— wanted to know how I situated myself. They asked to which school of thought I belonged and how I distinguished myself from other scholars. They also wanted to know how Portugal would be inserted into my narrative. Did I not believe in the existence of nations? (I do not). Did I not think that European law was different, even superior, to law elsewhere? (I do not). The session at the European University Institute was mostly attended by jurists and historians. Many of them are involved in the construction of Europe through historical research but also through legal work, and they mainly wanted to know why I identify my object of study as “European Law” (for many Europeans this term designates the Law of the European Union). They also asked how I chose what to concentrate upon (in terms of subject matter but also geographical coverage), and what putting together England and the Continent taught me. In the Joint PhD, students and faculty were particularly interested to hear my views as to whether law was an important element everywhere, always, and in all regards. Do historians need to take it into account? In what ways? How can they? Participants in Italy also asked how (and what) we can know about the legal past. Many of their questions were directed at methodology: What can be learned from which type of sources and how does one piece together into a coherent narrative the multiple fragments of information that the archives contain. At the Annual Meeting, three commentators discussed the book. Their comments were mostly directed at posing questions about choice and selection. One of the commentators also discussed how my work could be situated among the various schools engaged in doing European legal history. In Paris, the public included both law professors and political scientists. They were particularly interested in the “big picture:” How law interacted with society and society with law, how European were the developments I described, and whether law was fixed or contingent, enduring or constantly changing. Listeners also wanted to hear more about how I selected what to write about and why certain important features of European law were absent. What was Europe came up several times, as did the question whether I intended to reproduce existing narratives or question them. Is law something that exists objectively or is it what jurists tell us it is, that is, a narrative that they, the jurists, can (and often do) constantly change?  

These differences can of course be fortuitous and depend on the accidental group of people that happened to gather that very same day, but my impression is that at least some of them had to do with distinct academic traditions of reading and discussing, as well as with the preoccupations of distinct listeners of distinct disciplines. I often tell students that no reader is ever faithful to a book. I certainly am not. I read books with my own questions in mind and looking for the information I most desire to find. As a result –as often happens to me with films or fiction books I really like —I can read the same book over and over again, each time seeing it differently or getting other things from it.  As Ruiz Zafón, a Spanish novelist, once said, because books are labyrinths, we need to find our own path in order to transit through them. And, as we do, we often discover what we already possess.  This voyage of discovery is ours, not the author's, and no author can ever control it.


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

“I can read the same book over and over again, each time seeing it differently or getting other things from it.”

I think this is so true, and perhaps best realized or fully appreciated only with the considerable passage of time. I’ve read some books periodically over the years from as far back as the late 1970s, and it is such a revelatory joy to learn and see things I missed (or ‘interpreted’ differently) the first, second, or third time ‘round (and one reason I’ve come to be increasingly reluctant to get rid of any of my books!). In my case, this happens most often with works in philosophy and psychology, not so much in the social sciences (including history), although if the quality of the latter is especially high, as it is, say, in the work of a Clifford Geertz, Stanley J. Tambiah, Jon Elster (who is, in many respects, at the same time a philosopher), Frederick Cooper, Jeffrey M. Paige, Philip Mirowski, Marie Jahoda, or Amartya Sen (an economist and philosopher), it may occur there as well.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I probably should have qualified the reference to psychology above, as it is not the literature in ”scientific” (or experimental) psychology I was referring to but works in humanist, existential, and especially psychoanalytic psychology.

Unknown said...

You've written some very interesting posts here over the last few weeks. Many thanks for them. Just a couple of questions for you.

In the light of the fact that you minimize the distinctiveness of the English Common law, what do you make of the legal history of late medieval and early modern Scotland? The English Common law was taking root in thirteenth-century Scotland only to be abandoned in the fourteenth and replaced in the sixteenth by Roman law of continental origin. England could have followed the same path, or at least a similar one, as Scotland but never did. This divergence between the two countries seems to suggest that there existed more exceptionality in England during this period than you are willing to grant.

In this post you state that you do not believe in the existence of nations. Would you mind saying a few more words about what you mean by this, since on the surface it sounds quite absurd?

Travis Baker

Anonymous said...

Scotland is a fascinating story, though I think it shows precisely the contrary, that is, the flexibility of both systems and the degree by which contemporaries (until the seventeenth century at least) did not view then as opposites, but as comparable.
As for nations: this is a much longer question but yes, I do think that (like many other categories we use) nations are social constructs. As a result, we must always think who invokes them, when, why, and in what way.