Jurisprudence, History, and the Institutional Quality of Law

Article — Volume 101, Issue 4

101 Va. L. Rev. 919
Download PDF

This piece below was presented during the Jurisprudence and (Its) History Symposium, held by the Virginia Law Review and the Program in Legal and Constitutional History in September 2014. 

As Charles Barzun and Dan Priel note in their prospectus for this symposium, the question of how jurisprudence and history relate to one another arises in a number of distinctive forms, and raises a range of interesting and consequential questions. And yet the parallel lines between jurisprudence and the history of legal ideas, which they lament in particular, are reproduced across several of these questions—notably between philosophical theories of law and historical analyses of the development of laws and legal institutions, as well as of the other social institutions and circumstances which provide the environment and framework for that development. Moreover, the historical jurisprudence to which Vinogradoff aspired—a discipline which would bring history, psychology and the social sciences into dialogue with philosophical analysis of law—stands, a century after its conception, as little more than a footnote in contemporary study of the history of jurisprudential ideas (and as yet less than that in conventional jurisprudential study).

The reason, certainly, lies in the incomplete success with which Vinogradoff was able to articulate his vision of the intellectual linkages underpinning the desirability of that dialogue; and more generally in the association of historical jurisprudence with discredited or outmoded ideas, such as the relationship between the identity of particular legal orders and the essential spirit of a people articulated by Savigny; or on generalizations grounded in broad-brush historical anthropology, such as that of Maine. But, whatever the weaknesses of that broad (and itself diverse) nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tradition in the history of legal theory, there is strong reason to think that something important was lost with its decisive and lasting marginalization at the hands of an analytical jurisprudence which has no use for a careful analysis of either its own or law’s genealogy.Indeed, as Gerald Postema argues in his contribution to this symposium, there is further reason to think that this loss also implies an impoverished conception of philosophy and of its contribution to legal theory.

In this Article, after setting out some of the key ways in which the intellectual lines of history and jurisprudence intersect, I will approach the question of whether, and why, history deserves a more central place in jurisprudential thinking in terms of a broad understanding of law as having a fundamental institutional dimension, as well as being a product of social power and interests. Since law realizes itself in terms of intersecting institutional arrangements, and since these change over time, institutional history is central to the very idea of law which jurisprudence aspires to illuminate. Moreover, the history of institutions is fundamental not only to positive jurisprudence but also to normative jurisprudence: Understandings of law and legality structure the conditions of existence for the realization of moral or political ideals in and of law.

After reviewing this argument in relation to a key question of general jurisprudence—that of the quality of legality, understood as the distinctive modality of law—I will pursue it through a more detailed case study in special jurisprudence: an analysis of the trajectory of ideas of criminal responsibility in English law since the eighteenth century. I will argue that, while a broad family resemblance among ideas of responsibility in different eras can be identified, the variations on those ideas—and their particular inflection, relative importance, and impact—depend fundamentally on historically contingent constellations of ideas, institutions, and interests. Furthermore, I will argue that this historical insight into the evolution of law itself maps onto the history of twentieth-century jurisprudence, with three broad—and all-too-often mutually indifferent or even contemptuous—traditions concerning themselves with each of the three broad, law-shaping dynamics, in contrast to the more generous reach of jurisprudential—including philosophical—thinking of earlier eras. This narrowing focus of jurisprudential study, doubtless, has been to some degree a consequence of the increasing specialization and sophistication of the relevant disciplines. But, like the rejection of the bold vision of some versions of historical jurisprudence, it has not been without intellectual cost.

Before moving on, I should perhaps preface my argument, forming part of a symposium in which some distinguished historians of law and legal ideas are represented, with something of a confession. In the early part of my career, legal history and the history of legal ideas were closed books to me, as I made my way in a field of criminal law scholarship dominated by doctrinal scholarship and by concept-focused philosophical analysis of the foundations of criminal law. These two very different paradigms have one big thing in common: They tend to proceed as if the main intellectual task is to unearth the deep logic of existing legal doctrines, not infrequently going so far as to read them back onto history, as if things could never have been other than they are. The reasons for this intellectual disposition vary, but it is, to me, a very unsatisfactory one, and from quite early on I found it necessary to temper my reading of criminal law’s conceptual arrangements in the light of sociological information about the context in which they emerge and operate. But in more recent years, I have increasingly found myself turning to historical resources to motivate a more critical examination capable of revealing, first, the contingency of particular legal arrangements, and second, the patterns of development over time which may help us to develop causal and other theses about the dynamics which shape them and hence about the role and quality of criminal law as a form of power in modern societies. So, in a sense, I have been using history in support of an analysis driven primarily by the social sciences.

This is not always a palatable approach to historians. Historians are by disciplinary temperament, after all, closely attentive to detail and particularity; hence their reservations about the construction of general theories which inevitably flatten out detail or nuance are understandable. Yet history is of central importance to social theory, and it is no accident that all of the great social theorists, from Marx to Foucault via Weber, Durkheim, and Elias, among others, have incorporated significant historical elements into their interpretations of the broad factors shaping societal development. Indeed, without the diachronic perspective provided by history (or the perspective offered by comparative study) we could have no critical purchase on social theory’s characterizations of or causal hypotheses about the dynamics of social systems. Hence, while recognizing that not all historians feel comfortable about the deployment of historiography in the service of social theory, I would argue for its appropriateness and indeed necessity (as well as adding—by way of plea in mitigation!—my boundless gratitude to the historians whose meticulous research makes this sort of interpretive social theory possible).

Click on a link below to access the full text of this article. These are third-party content providers and may require a separate subscription for access.

  Volume 101 / Issue 4  

Jurisprudence and (Its) History

By Charles Barzun and Dan Priel
101 Va. L. Rev. 849

Jurisprudence, the Sociable Science

By Gerald J. Postema
101 Va. L. Rev. 869

Time-Mindedness and Jurisprudence: A Commentary on Postema’s “Jurisprudence, the Sociable Science”

By David Luban
101 Va. L. Rev. 903

Jurisprudence, History, and the Institutional Quality of Law

By Nicola Lacey
101 Va. L. Rev. 919