Thursday, March 31, 2016

McCrary reviews Blumenthal, "Law and the Modern Mind"

We recently announced the publication of Susanna L. Blumenthal's Law and the Modern Mind: Consciousness and Responsibility in American Legal Culture (Harvard University Press). Via Religion in American History, we now have a review, by Charles McCrary (Florida State). Here's the first paragraph:
Liberal subjectivity and its complications loom throughout nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual history. Owing largely to Scottish Common Sense, American thinkers posited a normative, but putatively descriptive, account of the human subject. The person was rational, discrete, and agentive. However, as many historians have shown, these assumptions were frequently challenged, and many people clearly did not fit this model. Of course, one point of this model was to exclude certain subjects, such as women, African Americans, and Native Americans. But there were other exceptions too, some of which were understood as less fixed states, like the drunkard, the monomaniac, or the lunatic. Scholars of American religion have shown some interest in these politics of personhood, especially as they relate to Christian anthropology and the influence of Protestant thought of American political forms. Antebellum reformers, for instance, thought carefully about vice and social responsibility as they worked for temperance and against prostitution. Social gospel leaders, in different terms, considered the role of modernization and industrialization amid perceived social breakdowns. Religious figures from all positions on slavery employed ideas about morality and mental capacity to forge their theological justifications. Educators acknowledged the importance of cultivating morality and worked to instill it in public schoolchildren while navigating the politics of nonsectarianism. These are all familiar topics. Less common in American religious studies, though no less important, are mundane but meaningful legal issues like insurance, wills, torts, and divorce. It was here, Susanna Blumenthal argues in Law and the Modern Mind, that philosophical, legal, and medical discourses about personhood, consciousness, agency, and rationality had salience. Blumenthal’s brilliant study of “the default legal person” locates these high-minded and thorny questions—What is a person? Who is rational? What is insanity? Wait, isn’t everyone a little irrational sometimes?—in courtrooms throughout the nineteenth century.
Read on here.