What A Founding Father Thought Constitutional Originalism

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose that what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it… I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times…

Thomas Jefferson, from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816


Sorry, Scalia, but it appears your originalism is actually against the original intent of this Founding Father.


This is a little embarrassing, but I’m about to quote an article from Slate.com.


Liberalism, at its core, is not so much a doctrine as a disposition, a habit of mind, and it’s compounded of two principal elements: An abhorrence of cruelty and a sense of the provisional nature of human knowledge.


Despite my lingering shame at admitting to reading Slate, I was struck by this particular phrase, within a piece about the French essayist (arguably, the original essayist) Michel de Montaigne.

I was struck by how well that sentence encapsulated my own sense of my ideology – and how it is not truly an ideology. Perhaps it is more truly something closer to Kantian categories than a true ideology, or doctrine, as the author write.

Free Will

I have been having conversations with some friends about the existence of non-existence of free will.

The conversation was begun, in a cliched fashion, on Facebook. A poet of my acquaintance was arguing against free will and in favor of determinism.

While initially participating in the Facebook thread, I switched to a longer form discussion and wrote a letter to a friend of mine with a philosophical bent, but also with far more of a scientific bent than I.

My initial thesis was that, scientifically (at least based on my limited understanding of science), was that determinism is a powerful argument. In truth, I felt trapped by it. The argument for free will that I could see successfully contradicting that was a theistic god.

In Jamesian, pragmatic terms, I agreed that we must act as if free will exists. But once one moves beyond pragmatism into more metaphysical questions, I had trouble seeing free will exist except as something granted by a beneficent god.

When I met with my friend, I was surprised to find him not being an advocate for scientific determinism. For the most part, he felt a deep need to believe in free will. The philosophical basis was primarily pragmatism, though he also provided me a possible, scientific way out in the idea of “emergent phenomena.” I would explain it better, but frankly, I am just now reading up on it myself.

More Marginalia

Apparently, this whole effort to keep marginalia alive is still rolling alone – at least in this New York Times piece.

I am very sympathetic to the idea, but I admit to also being one of those people who cringe at writing in their books. Perversely though, I love finding old books at used bookstores with notes written in it by a prior owner.

One of the few books I have personally marked up is Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. It has been badly battered (I used to drag it to my favorite LA bar, the Pig and Whistle and read it while drinking and eating their nachos [their secret – using wonton chips instead of tortilla chips]). It’s also filled with tons of bookmarks, with little notes written on them. But I have also done a little scribbling of some marginalia.

The reason that particular book got special treatment is that it has been a real struggle for me. I don’t pretend to truly understand many of the concepts described (the “body without organs,” for example).

I should also mention a exhibit held at the Folger Shakespeare Library called “Extending the Book” about something called grangerizing. In the nineteenth century, folks used to expand their books by adding new pages to them. They would have them rebound to allow for the new, larger size. Often, the additions were illustrations that they thought had some correspondence to the action within the text. While not, technically speaking, marginalia, it is certainly the ultimate in book owners not holding their tomes sacred in its original form.

My Favorite Bookstores: The Bodhi Tree

I have only rarely done yoga. I’ve never been particularly spiritual. I don’t believe in New Age theories. Yet I am fascinated by the collection of spiritual and New Age books at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Melrose in Los Angeles. I discovered it quite by accident, just exploring the town one weekend, but came back frequently.

Unfortunately, the Bodhi Tree is in imminent danger of closing. Right now, it is only guaranteed to be open through the fall of 2011, though they are working hard to find a new owner who will keep it alive in the manner which it deserves.

For the moment, though, it is a wonderful community gathering spot.

Even if, like me, you are not into New Age stuff, they had a solid poetry section, a wonderful selection of primary texts in Asian philosophy and thought. Also, as a historian, I find Theosophy fascinating and they had a great many primary texts by Blavatsky and here successors, students, and followers. And they did not ignore Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thought and texts, either.

I don’t know what will happen to the Bodhi Tree, but I pray it can survive in a form which can continue to serve those who seek some sort of solace from its shelves.



Using my $100 ebook card from Barnes & Noble (thank you, Mu!), I decided to catch up on some western philosophy. Over half of my gift card went to purchase Alvin Plantinga‘s Warrant: The Current Debate. A little bit of a misleading title, because I don’t think anybody but Plantinga was debating “warrant” much before him.

In college, my epistemology professor, Aron Edidin, was a friend of Plantinga and gave us some short articles by him to read. At the time, the class was not impressed – possibly because, as I know understand from having begun this book, our professor did a poor and, arguably, flat out inaccurate job of describing warrant (which he posited as being in addition to “justified” in the traditional formulation of “justified true belief” when, in fact, it was intended to replace “justified”).

My professor did say that Plantinga was writing a trilogy (it had not yet been finished at the time) of books about warrant that would culminate in a argument for a theistic god. At the time, I was a raging atheist, so this did not particularly excite me, but now my interest is piqued (of course, he doesn’t get to that until the third book).

So I am a handful of pages into Plantinga – far enough along to know that, though not entirely my fault, I have been until now misrepresented his work when thinking of it.

Continuing in this vein, I also dropped a $1.99 on a Barnes & Noble edition of William James’ classic, Varieties of Religious Experience.