Law in Theory and History – a Neglected Dialogue

Guest blog by Peter Candy.

On Friday 28 April the Law School at the University of Edinburgh was delighted to host a workshop dedicated to the theme of ‘Law in Theory and History: A Neglected Dialogue’. The conference, which was convened by Prof. Claudio Michelon and Dr. Paul du Plessis (both Edinburgh), followed the recent publication of an important volume edited by Michael Lobban and Maks Del Mar, entitled Law and Theory in History: New Essays on a Neglected Dialogue (Hart Publishing, 2016).
Michael Lobban (LSE) began proceedings by with an exploration of the tension between the instinct of the theorist to reach for the universal, and that of the historian to find meaning in context. Michael suggested that, if we are to follow Milsom’s proposal that the aim of the legal historian is to establish what legal actors at any given time thought they were doing, then we should look to theory to help us understand the life of the legal concepts with which they were engaged.
The relationship between philosophical inquiry and historical inquiry was further interrogated by Maks Del Mar (Queen Mary). While the former, he argued, is characterised by the ‘pursuit and identification of distinct units’, historical inquiry is acutely sensitive to ‘affecting variables’. This latter expression refers to any number of real-world factors that can impact upon the patterning of legal thought: for example, archival practices, the architecture of legal spaces, and the medium through which that thought is communicated.
After a short break, Maks was followed by John Hudson and Caroline Humfress (both St. Andrews). John explored how different definitions and conceptions of law shape the dialogue between theory and history, each of which is attended by the respective pitfalls of over-generalisation and hyper-nominalism. Caroline, meanwhile, set out to provide a fresh understanding of how legal historians engage with legal concepts. Expressing an unease with the dichotomy of ‘law-in-theory’ as opposed to ‘law-in-practice’, she introduced Hart’s appeal to Wittgenstein as a possible alternative. If, as Hart suggests, “we wish to understand our concepts”, “we must consider them when they are ‘at work’, not when they are ‘idling’ or ‘on holiday’”. Building on the critique of how we understand concepts ‘at work’ contained in Lobban and Del Mar’s Law in Theory and History, Caroline offered her own view that concepts are both at work when they are applied in determinate circumstances and when they are used in juristic discourse.
Stephen Bogle (Glasgow) finished the morning session with a critique of James Gordley’s The Philosophical Origins of Modern Contract Doctrine (Clarendon Press, 1991). Stephen identified three analytical approaches to historical sources: rational reconstructions, historical reconstructions, and, finally, Hegelian appreciations of the place of the text within a given Geistesgeschichte (loosely, cultural history). While in the first approach scholars are apt to ask modern questions of the text, an historical reconstruction seeks to understand its meaning in a way that could have been within the original author’s contemplation. Looking to The Philosophical Origins, Stephen argued that Gordley’s approach seems to have been inspired by Hegelianism; that is, a method of bringing together theory and history as part of the Geist (or, spirit) of the culture by which it was produced.
After lunch, Dan Carr (Edinburgh) gave an illuminating paper on the role of narrative in judicial decision making in modern Scots law. Tracing a thread back to the influential 20th century professor of Scots law, T. B. Smith, Dan showed how a narrative concerned with the perceived corruption of Scots law by foreign (and, particularly, English) influence has taken hold over time. In a number of important judicial decisions this narrative has been used to justify one particular outcome over another. Consequently, it represents a form of judicial reasoning that deserves closer scrutiny and attention.
Finally, Chloë Kennedy (Edinburgh) returned to the tension between theory and history by looking more closely at whether legal concepts are best understood in their ‘immanent’ (i.e. contextual) or ‘transcendent’ state. Turning to the concept of criminal responsibility, Chloë argued for a ‘middle way’ (following John Hudson), by which legal concepts could be better understood through theory and history without positing a conflict between them.
All the papers provoked energetic discussion, which continued over dinner at the ever-dependable Ciao Roma. Also in attendance: Thomas Gallanis (Iowa), Neil Walker (Edinburgh), Martin Kelly (Edinburgh), Paul Burgess (Edinburgh), and Peter Candy (Edinburgh).

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