Lea Vaughn, Book Review, 67 , J. Legal Educ. 354 (2017), (reviewing Susanna L. Blumenthal, Law and the Modern Mind: Consciousness and Responsibility in American Legal Culture (2016)). https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/faculty-book-reviews/1
Journal of Legal Education
This review essay will proceed in three parts followed by a conclusion that assesses the success and contribution of her work. The first section sketches her approach to legal history and her point of view. Professor Blumenthal takes on the monumental task of challenging the received wisdom of legal historians such as Willard Hurst.
Second, this review will paint a condensed portrait of Blumenthal’s methodology. Her book and its underlying analysis draw on a breathtaking base of source materials: Hundreds of cases, treatises, and biographical notes are woven into her observations. The careful depiction and analysis of these materials is central to establishing her thesis: that the traditional account of the development of American law, as a unitary response to wealth accumulation and the growth of the industrial society, paints a false portrait of unanimity of opinion. Rather, she argues, jurists were faced with competing accounts of the mind and legal responsibility; more often than not they chose pragmatically among these accounts, so it is overly simplistic to characterize American legal developments as a unitary or linear march of progress. Importantly, in contrast to the usual approaches in the legal history literature that focus on criminal law, Blumenthal turns her attention to cases in the areas of wills, family law, contracts (particularly insurance contracts), and torts.
Finally, the third part of this review will outline what is one of the most powerful, and, in my mind, important contributions of her book—an in-depth analysis of the intersection of law and medicine in the period under study. This analysis, as I will note, can be brought to bear on modern conversations involving law, genetics, and neuroscience. Some lessons about the use of science in law that emerge from her study are worth repeating.