Making a "Contribution" in America: The Irrelevance of the Individual in the March of Progress

[The work of taking European jurisprudence and giving it a practical application in the US] is seen as "outside," centered not in the person but in collaboration in a common purpose, as the construct of an impersonal subject matter transcending individual achievement. That is why [Walter Wheeler] Cook uses a second word to describe [Wesley Newcomb] Hohfeld's work. This word, which has as much typical meaning for American life as does message, is contribution. "Contribution" expresses an attitude toward intellectual endeavor that does not see such an achievement as the work of the person, the expression of personal philosophical stature; rather, it democratically reduces the individual to a number in the mass of cooperating minds.

"Contribution" has a primary cultural-philosophical significance as the relation in which history stands to the civilization of the present. Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, Europe, all are seen from the aspect of their "contribution" to the height of American civilization. (If the writer believes in gestures of humility, he will reverse the relationship and speak of "our debt to Greece and Rome.")

One of the highest forms of critical recognition for a scientific or scholarly work is the formula that it is "a real contribution" to the discipline in question. Starting with the linear rational development of modem natural science and taking its bearings from the evolution from amoeba to Abraham Lincoln, in happy innocence of all cultural-morphological problems, every form of human endeavor appears especially as an "activity" that, whatever it produces, can do so only in a forward and upward direction, so that the individual may have only a modest part in progress but is assured of this small part.

The subject matter on which the labor of progress is practiced is impersonal but lacks the compactness of a philosophical system or a work of art. Structures are not dropped into it from above; the substance of the problem, and with it the methodology, arise anew out of every concrete situation, so that in spite of shared work and gradual accretion, the process has neither tradition nor purpose.

"Progress" is accepted as somehow structuring itself, while the "messages" and "contributions" come from no place or time and seek their progressive position in the process according to an unknown law. The ahistorical nature of message and contribution is characteristic of the strong feeling of connection and incorporation in the metaphysical progress of the world process. As a result, forms of cooperation, the feeling that "we're all in the same boat, " emerge; the experience is one of a shared attack on an irrational and undefined enemy—chaos is vanquished over and over by progress. This attitude eliminates the problems of adopting a tradition, of originality, of theoretical connection, and of the growth of a culture.

Anglo-American Anlytic Jurisprudence,
pp 194-195.