You’re Allowed to Use Examples

Here’s a passage from Duncan Kennedy’s book of legal theory, A Critique of Adjudication:

“My overall project is to examine the place of adjudication in an ideologically divided society. A basic idea is that much ideological conflict is about the rules of law. [Whether judges] are ideological actors is disputed. To the extent that they are ideological actors, there has been little attention paid to the quetion of how the organization of a significant amount of rule-making activity through actors whose ideological role is disputed…affects the outcome of ideological dispute.

All of these terms are fuzzy. I want to make them considerably more precise by proposing a vocabulary corresponding to a model. First, I define ideology as a universalization project of an ideological intelligentsia…”

I wonder if every reader of that begins to groan with despair at the same moment. For me, it’s when the elation of Kennedy’s promise that he will soon clarify his fuzzy terms subsides into the disappointment of finding out he intends to do that by “proposing a vocabulary corresponding to a model.” And here I was thinking he might clarify his terms by giving us some examples, instead of giving us… still more terms.

But I was foolish to expect that, really, because Kennedy didn’t actually promise he would make his terms any clearer. That was a misreading on my part. What he actually said was that he would make his fuzzy terms more precise, a promise he fulfilled. In fact, one of the core dysfunctions in academic writing is the conflation of precision and clarity. Of course, it’s a lawyer’s disease, too. The lawyer believes if he piles as many words as possible into the contract, specifying every possible eventuality, there can be no room for ambiguity, and thus through precision there is clarity. Unfortunately, though, every additional term just adds another potential argument over interpretation. And so, further defining the statement that “judges are ideological” by saying that ideology is “a universalization project of an ideological intelligentsia” only gets us to further disputes, which is why Kennedy has to add endnotes (which I omitted) for the words “universalization project” and “ideological intelligentsia” giving precise definitions of those terms.

All of this might be made easier if academics could remember to tell themselves that you’re allowed to use examples. Not every abstract theoretical term needs to be defined using more precise abstract theoretical terms. You could tell a story! Nobody’s stopping you! But for some reason there’s a self-imposed ban on illustrative anecdote, and once you’ve been a professor for a certain number of years, words like “universalization” seem as if they’re reducing rather than increasing one’s obfuscatory fuzziness.