Feeling in the Supreme Court

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In a NYT Op-Ed a few days ago, Molly Worthen identified as "a broad cultural contagion" the "reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch", and urged us instead to "think, believe or reckon". I countered that emotion has largely been bleached out of feel used with sentential complements — "feel that SENTENCE" has long been a standard way to present SENTENCE as the result of a rational evaluation of evidence. (See "Feelings, beliefs, and thoughts", 5/1/2016.)

In support of that view, I gave some examples from biomedical research reports in the MEDLINE collection, starting in 1974, the first year available from that source. Today, I'll give some examples from the U.S. Supreme Court.

From a sample of SCOTUS decisions, starting in 1930:

On the whole, we feel that, were the matter less clear than we think it is, on the words of the income tax law as applied to the situation in Washington, we should be constrained to follow the long and unbroken line of executive construction, applicable to words which Congress repeatedly reemployed in acts passed subsequent to such construction.

Freedom of debate might be stifled and independence of thought checked if jurors were made to feel that their arguments and ballots were to be freely published to the world.

But where the creditor goes beyond the practice of the parties under the original contract and tries to enforce rights never asserted against the other contracting party, and in addition tries to collect counsel fees exceeding 177% of the maximum amount claimed against the receiver who is attempting to salvage the assets for the benefit of the other creditors who have a substantial interest in the estate of the debtor, we can not feel that a court of equity is any place for him to press his demands.

Under these circumstances we do not feel that petitioner should be foreclosed from all opportunity to offer evidence before the Board on this issue, however remote may be his chance to take his case out of the Clifford rule.

From oral arguments in 1955, the first year in which SCOTUS oral arguments were recorded:

And therefore, we feel that the injunction prayed for by Texas under any conception of her rights would be ineffective and ineffectual because it would depend upon the will of a person who's not a party to the contract.

We feel that we are here in the protection of what we think is a very sacred right within the general concepts of the Fourteenth Amendment.

We think that that is purely a national subject, a subject which Congress should be allowed alone to deal with and therefore, we feel that the field has been preempted.

That is, I don't question the Government's records and I feel that his denial of those statements breaks down his own testimony here.

We feel that if the position of the respondents and of the majority of the Court of Appeals is sustained, the congressional purpose will be frustrated.

Some readers may feel that these example are not relevant, because there's a twist in Molly Worthen's argument. Although she objects to the idea of feeling rather than thinking, her examples focus on "feel like S" rather than "feel that S". The "feel like S" construction is both non-standard and on the rise, so that older speakers will be more likely to find it objectionable, and also more likely to interpret it as describing an emotional response rather than a rational conclusion.

Back in 1954, long before "feel like S" came into widespread use, Alice Hamilton complained about "the increasing rejection of 'believe' and 'think' in favor of 'feel'", and wondered whether this might "show that we accept the dictum of the newer psychology that all our decisions are based on emotion, not on thought" ("Words Lost, Strayed, or Stolen", The Atlantic, September 1954). 

Interestingly, a Google ngram plot of (feel that the)+(feel that he)+(feel that she)+(feel that it)+(feel that they) peaks in 1955, suggesting both that Dr. Hamilton was responding to a trend, and that she may have succeeded in commanding the tide to retreat:

(This is consistent with the previously-noted fact that "feel that" has been declining in MEDLINE texts from the start in 1974.)

plot of feel that he,feel he,feel like he illustrates that the "feel like S" construction, though rising, is still relatively rare in the published texts that are indexed, reflecting its informal and non-standard character:

Limiting the search to English Fiction somewhat undermines the view that Dr. Hamilton turned the tide, since in that collection the decline starts well before her article was published:

As for Dr. Hamilton's dig at "the newer psychology",  I noted yesterday that the same connection is implicit in the older philology:  think, believe, and reckon are etymologically connected to concepts of sensation, motion, and emotion, just as feel is ("Epistemological metaphors and meanings", 5/2/106).  Of course, there is also some newer "newer psychology" that points more precisely in the same direction…


  1. Charles said,

    May 3, 2016 @ 8:44 am

    As a reader, I dislike the phrase, "feel like…" because I have to work a little harder to understand the writer's intent and level of commitment to the truth of the expression that follows "felt like" Immediately from context than I would if they were to choose a word that expresses that commitment with greater precision. But, I just can't get excited about the issue. I simply choose not to use it and to work a little harder to understand the writer who uses it (or not to read works by those writers who use it too frequently). The issue hardly seems worth all the work put into it.

    Having written that paragraph, maybe the phrase captures its user's "vague intuition" precisely and betrays their thought processes for gelatinous globs of associations and preferences that they are. In this case, we should be discussing those globs, using the language they inhabit as markers.

  2. D.O. said,

    May 3, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    Re: older philology. I am not a student (of the history) of philosophy, but I think, some time between Proto-Germanic, Old English and such and our New Age body-mind connection and embodied cognition there was something called the Age of Reason, Enlightenment and all that. People tried to separate preconceived notions, observations, feelings, opinions, thoughts, knowledge etc. Oh, well. Enough fuzzy thoughts, going back to feelings.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    In reading Mark's recent posts on "feeling, thinking, believing" of the last few days, they struck a resonant note with me, since I hear such hedging qualifications all the time from Mandarin speakers:

    wǒ juédé 我覺得 ("I feel")

    wǒ xiǎng 我想 ("I think")

    wǒ xiāngxìn 我相信 ("I believe")

    wǒ rènwéi 我認為 ("I consider / deem")

  4. Geoff Nunberg said,

    May 3, 2016 @ 12:03 pm

    Hamilton also criticizes the use of 'feeling', as in "the feeling in the State Department is that…" It too peaked in the 1960s but goes back to the mid-19th c. My sense is that the critics started to take after these expressions in the 1950s because they offered the opportunity to take an oblique poke at ego psychology. In a 1980 essay called "Succeeding in Language," Leo Braudy recalls that when he was a graduate student at Yale in the 1960s, a teacher corrected his "Thomson feels that" to "Thomson thinks that" and wrote in the margin, "Poor fellow! Doesn't he know how to think?"

  5. carla said,

    May 3, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    The Supreme Court exemplars are interesting to me. In my "lawyering" class during my first year of law school(*), I was taught emphatically enough that I remember it, "Courts do not *feel*. Courts *hold*." We were taught to write things like "In Solo v. Skywalker, the Court held that smashing little floating balls was a legitimate use of the Force;" this was supposed to be a stronger formulation than "The Court felt that …" I find it preferable because it is both stronger and more precise; a holding is an actual statement of law, not merely an opinion.

    I suppose if one were referring to a concurring opinion or a dissenting opinion, neither of which carries the force of a majority opinion, one could more legitimately write "Justice Organa felt that …" But even then, I would prefer "Justice Organa reasoned that …" or "Justice Organa argued that …."

    (*) This is the class in which students are nominally introduced to practical aspects of the profession such as negotiating, interviewing people, and writing briefs, as opposed to nearly all the other classes that focused on the theory and substance of the law.

  6. tangent said,

    May 4, 2016 @ 12:04 am

    I am not a lawyer but I hold that all of the Supreme Court examples would not tolerate replacing the "feel that" with "hold that". You have no occasion to even consider /holding/ that, would be the reaction. So having "feel" available appears to be serving a usage distinction.

  7. Anan said,

    May 6, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    Further to the thinking/feeling discussion in politics:


    The author of that piece, Cass Sunstein, is a famous and prolific law professor.

    Regarding the Supreme Court quotes, my lawyerly feeling is that 'feel' and 'hold' (in the legal sense) are not direct synonyms. 'Hold' is a stronger pronouncement — a court would usually say 'we hold' for the ultimate result of the case (e.g., 'the Court holds that a corporation is a person within the meaning of the First Amendment'), and not use it for all of the steps of reasoning throughout. A synonym for 'hold' would be 'conclude' or 'determine' or maybe 'find', although 'find' has a specific meaning relating to findings of fact (rather than law). Still, I think these quotes are good evidence that 'feel' is a synonym for 'think' or 'believe' even in more formal speech.

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