Holmes and Dissent
The Journal Jurisprudence, Vol. 12, 2011
48 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2011 Last revised: 2 Aug 2013
Date Written: April 26, 2011
Holmes saw the dissent as a mechanism to advance and preserve arguments and as a pageant for wordplay. Dissents, for Holmes, occupied an interstitial space between law and non-law. The thought and theory of pragmatism allowed him to recreate the dissent as a stage for performative text, a place where signs and syntax could mimic the environment of the particular time and place and in so doing become, or strive to become, law. Holmes’s dissents were sites of aesthetic adaptation. The language of his dissents was acrobatic. It acted and reacted and called attention to itself. The more provocative and aesthetic the language, the more likely it was for future judges and commentators to return to that dissent to reconsider Holmes’s argument — the more likely, that is, that non-law might become law. In this sense, language for Holmes was not just a vehicle for law but also law itself. This paper argues that Holmes’s dissents both reflect and revise pragmatist philosophy and that the proliferation of dissents has to do with American pragmatism. Focusing on Lochner v. New York (1905), Abrams v. United States (1919), and Bartels v. Iowa (1923), this paper shows that Holmes’s dissents represent an aesthetic adaptation of pragmatism that allows Holmes’s writing to become memorable not just for the ideas it articulates, but also for the way in which it articulates those ideas.
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