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From the Latin term juris prudentia, which means "the study, knowledge, or science of law"; in the United States, more broadly associated with the philosophy of law.

Legal philosophy has many branches, with four types being the most common. The most prevalent form of jurisprudence seeks to analyze, explain, classify, and criticize entire bodies of law, ranging from contract to tort to Constitutional Law. Legal encyclopedias, law reviews, and law school textbooks frequently contain this type of jurisprudential scholarship.The second type of jurisprudence compares and contrasts law with other fields of knowledge such as literature, economics, religion, and the social sciences. The purpose of this type of study is to enlighten each field of knowledge by sharing insights that have proven to be important in advancing essential features of the compared discipline.

The third type of jurisprudence raises fundamental questions about the law itself. These questions seek to reveal the historical, moral, and cultural underpinnings of a particular legal concept. The Common Law (1881), written by oliver wendell holmes jr., is a well-known example of this type of jurisprudence. It traces the evolution of civil and criminal responsibility from undeveloped societies where liability for injuries was based on subjective notions of revenge, to modern societies where liability is based on objective notions of reasonableness.

The fourth and fastest-growing body of jurisprudence focuses on even more abstract questions, including, What is law? How does a trial or appellate court judge decide a case? Is a judge similar to a mathematician or a scientist applying autonomous and determinate rules and principles? Or is a judge more like a legislator who simply decides a case in favor of the most politically preferable outcome? Must a judge base a decision only on the written rules and regulations that have been enacted by the government? Or may a judge also be influenced by unwritten principles derived from theology, moral philosophy, and historical practice?

Four schools of jurisprudence have attempted to answer these questions: formalism proposes that law is a science; realism holds that law is just another name for politics; Positivism suggests that law must be confined to the written rules and regulations enacted or recognized by the government; and naturalism maintains that the law must reflect eternal principles of justice and morality that exist independent of governmental recognition.

Modern U.S. legal thought began in 1870. In that year, Holmes, the father of the U.S. legal realist movement, wrote his first major essay for the American Law Review, and Christopher Columbus Langdell, the father of U.S. legal formalism, joined the faculty at Harvard Law School.


Legal formalism, also known as conceptualism, treats law like a math or science. Formalists believe that in the same way a mathematician or scientist identifies the relevant axioms, applies them to given data, and systematically reaches a demonstrable theorem, a judge identifies the relevant legal principles, applies them to the facts of a case, and logically deduces a rule that will govern the outcome of a dispute. Judges derive relevant legal principles from various sources of legal authority, including state and federal constitutions, statutes, regulations, and case law.

For example, most states have enacted legislation that prohibits courts from probating a will that was not signed by two witnesses. If a court is presented with a number of wills to probate for the same estate, and only one of those wills has been witnessed by at least two persons, the court can quickly deduce the correct legal conclusion in a formalistic fashion: each will that has been signed by fewer than two witnesses will have no legal effect, and only the will executed in compliance with the statutory requirements may be probated.

Formalists also rely on inductive reasoning to settle legal disputes. Whereas deductive reasoning involves the application of general principles that will yield a specific rule when applied to the facts of a case, inductive reasoning starts with a number of specific rules and infers from them a broader legal principle that may be applied to comparable legal disputes in the future. griswold v. connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), provides an example. In Griswold, the Supreme Court ruled that although no express provision of the federal Constitution guarantees the right to privacy, and although no precedent had established such a right, an individual's right to privacy can be inferred from the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments and the cases interpreting them.

English jurist Sir Edward Coke was among the first to popularize the formalistic approach to law in Anglo-American history. Coke believed that the Common Law was "the peculiar science of judges." The common law, Coke said, represented the "artificial perfection of reason" obtained through "long study, observation, and experience." Coke also believed that only lawyers, judges, and others trained in the law could fully comprehend and apply this highest method of reasoning. The rest of society, including the king or queen of England, was not sufficiently learned to do so.Langdell invigorated Coke's jurisprudence of artificial reason in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. Langdell compared the study of law to the study of science, and suggested that law school classrooms were the laboratories of jurisprudence. Judicial reasoning, Langdell believed, parallels the reasoning used in geometric proofs. He urged professors of law to classify and arrange legal principles much as a taxonomist organizes plant and animal life. Langdell articulated what has remained the orthodox school of thought in U.S. jurisprudence throughout the twentieth century.

Since the early 1970s, Professor ronald m. dworkin has been the foremost advocate of the formalist approach with some subtle variations. Although Dworkin stops short of explicitly comparing law to science and math, he maintains that law is best explained as a rational and cohesive system of principles that judges must apply with integrity. The principle of integrity requires that judges provide equal treatment to all litigants presenting legal claims that cannot honestly be distinguished. Application of this principle, Dworkin contends, will produce a "right answer" in all cases, even cases presenting knotty and polemical political questions.


The realist movement, which began in the late eighteenth century and gained force during the administration of President franklin d. roosevelt, was the first to attack formalism. Realists held a skeptical attitude toward Langdellian legal science. "The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience," Holmes wrote in 1881.

Realists held two things to be true. First, they believed that law is not a scientific enterprise in which deductive reasoning can be applied to reach a determinate outcome in every case. Instead, most litigation presents hard questions that judges must resolve by Balancing the interests of the parties and ultimately drawing an Arbitrary line on one side of the dispute. This line is typically drawn in accordance with the political, economic, and psychological proclivities of the judge.

For example, when a court is asked to decide whether a harmful business activity is a common-law Nuisance, the judge must ascertain whether the particular activity is reasonable. The judge does not base this determination on a precise algebraic equation. Instead, the judge balances the competing economic and social interests of the parties, and rules in favor of the litigant with the most persuasive case. Realists would thus contend that judges who are ideologically inclined to foster business growth will authorize the continuation of a harmful activity, whereas judges who are ideologically inclined to protect the environment will not.

Second, realists believed that because judges decide cases based on their political affiliation, the law tends always to lag behind social change. For example, the realists of the late nineteenth century saw a dramatic rise in the disparity between the wealth and working conditions of rich and poor U.S. citizens following the industrial revolution. To protect society's poorest and weakest members, many states began drafting legislation that established a Minimum Wage and maximum working hours for various classes of exploited workers. This legislation was part of the U.S. Progressive movement, which reflected many of the realists' concerns.

The Supreme Court began striking down such laws as an unconstitutional interference with the freedom of contract guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. U.S. realists claimed that the Supreme Court justices were simply using the freedom-of-contract doctrine to hide the real basis of their decision, which was their personal adherence to free-market principles and laissez-faire economics. The realists argued that the free-market system was not really free at all. They believed that the economic structure of the United States was based on coercive laws such as the employment-at-will doctrine, which permits an employer to discharge an employee for almost any reason. These laws, the realists asserted, promote the interests of the most powerful U.S. citizens, leaving the rest of society to fend for itself.

Some realists only sought to demonstrate that law is neither autonomous, apolitical, nor determinate. For example, jerome frank, who coined the term legal realism and later became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, emphasized the psychological foundation of judicial decision making, arguing that a judge's decision may be influenced by mundane things like what he or she ate for breakfast. Frank believed that it is deceptive for the legal profession to perpetuate the myth that the law is clearly knowable or precisely predictable, when it is so plastic and mutable. karl llewellyn, another founder of the U.S. Legal Realism movement, similarly believed that the law is little more than putty in the hands of a judge who is able to shape the outcome of a case based on personal biases.

Since the mid-1960s, this theme has been echoed by the Critical Legal Studies movement, which has applied the skeptical insights of the realists to attack courts for rendering decisions based on racial, sexist, and homophobic prejudices. For example, feminist legal scholars have pilloried the Supreme Court's decision in Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 97 S. Ct. 451, 50 L. Ed. 2d 397 (1976), for offering women less protection against governmental discrimination than is afforded members of other minority groups. Gay legal scholars similarly assailed the Supreme Court's decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186, 106 S. Ct. 2841, 92 L. Ed. 2d 140 (1986), for failing to recognize a fundamental constitutional right to engage in homosexual Sodomy. The Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. ___, 123 S. Ct. 2472, 156 L. Ed. 2d 508, that overturned the Bowers holding was a vindication for gay rights jurisprudence.

Other realists, such as Roscoe Pound, were more interested in using the insights of their movement to reform the law. Pound was one of the original advocates of sociological jurisprudence in the United States. According to Pound, the aim of every law—whether constitutional, statutory, or case—should be to enhance the welfare of society. Jeremy Bentham, a legal philosopher in England, planted the seeds of sociological jurisprudence in the eighteenth century when he argued that the law must seek to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people in society. Bentham's theory, known as Utilitarianism, continues to influence legal thinkers in the United States.

Law and economics is one school of thought that traces its lineage to Benthamite jurisprudence. This school, also known as economic analysis of the law, argues that judges must decide cases in order to maximize the wealth of society. According to law and economics exponents, such as richard posner, each person in society is a rational maximizer of his or her own self-interest. Persons who rationally maximize their self-interest are willing to exchange something they value less for something they value more. For example, every day in the United States, people voluntarily give up their time, money, and liberty to acquire food, property, or peace of mind. This school of thought contends that the law must facilitate these voluntary exchanges to maximize the aggregate wealth of society.

Another school of thought Bentham influenced is known as legal pragmatism. Unlike law and economics exponents, legal pragmatists provide no formula for determining the best means to improve the welfare of society. Instead, pragmatists contend that judges must merely set a goal that they hope to achieve in resolving a particular legal dispute, such as the preservation of societal stability, the protection of individual rights, or the delineation of governmental powers and responsibilities. Judges must then draft the best court order to accomplish this goal. Pragmatists maintain that judges must choose the appropriate societal goal by weighing the value of competing interests presented by a lawsuit, and then using a "grab bag" of "anecdote, introspection, imagination, common sense, empathy, metaphor, analogy, precedent, custom, memory, experience, intuition, and induction" to reach the appropriate balance (Posner 1990, 73).

Pragmatism, sometimes called instrumentalism, is best exemplified by Justice Holmes's statement that courts "decide cases first, and determine the principle afterwards." This school of thought is associated with result-oriented jurisprudence, which focuses more on the consequences of a judicial decision than on how the relevant legal principles should be applied.

The Realist-Formalist Debate

The realist-formalist dichotomy represents only half of the jurisprudential picture in the United States. The other half comprises a dialogue between the positivist and natural-law schools of thought. This dialogue revolves around the classic debate over the appropriate sources of law.

Positivists maintain that the only appropriate sources of law are rules and principles that have been expressly enacted or recognized by a governmental entity, like a state or federal legislature, administrative body, or court of law. These rules and principles may be properly considered law, positivists contend, because individuals may be held liable for disobeying them. Positivists believe that other sources for determining right and wrong, such as religion and contemporary morality, are only aspirational, and may not be legitimately consulted by judges when rendering a decision.

Natural-law proponents, or naturalists, agree that governmental rules and regulations are a legitimate source of law, but assert that they are not the only source. Naturalists believe that the law must be informed by eternal principles that existed before the formation of government and are independent of governmental recognition. Depending on the particular strain of Natural Law, these principles may be derived from theology, moral philosophy, human reason, historical practice, and individual conscience.

The dialogue between positivists and naturalists has a long history. For many centuries, historians, theologians, and philosophers distinguished positivism from naturalism by separating written law from unwritten law. For example, the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets, as were many of the laws of the ancient Greeks. Roman Emperor Justinian I (a.d. 482–565) reduced most of his country's laws to a voluminous written code. At the same time, Christian, Greek, and Roman thinkers all appealed to a higher law that transcended the written law promulgated by human beings.

Prior to the American Revolution, English philosophers continued this debate along the same lines. English political thinkers John Austin and Thomas Hobbes were strict positivists who believed that the only authority courts should recognize are the commands of the sovereign because only the sovereign is entrusted with the power to back up a command with military and police force. First intimated by Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, the "sovereign command" theory of law has been equated in the United States with the idea that might makes right.

Contrasted with the writings of Hobbes and Austin were the writings of John Locke in England and Thomas Jefferson in America. In his Second Treatise on Government (1690), Locke established the idea that all people are born with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and property. Locke's ruminations about individual rights that humans possess in the state of nature prior to the creation of government foreshadowed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence announced the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights," including the right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Both positivism and naturalism have had an enormous influence on how U.S. citizens think about law. The institution of African–American Slavery, which was recognized by the U.S. Constitution and legalized by legislation passed in the South prior to the Civil War (1861–65), was attacked by abolitionists who relied on higherlaw principles of religion and conscience to challenge the moral foundations of human bondage. Following World War II, the Allied powers successfully prosecuted German government officials, industrialists, and military leaders in Nuremberg for committing Genocide against European Jewry, even though the Nazi regime had passed laws authorizing such extermination. The Allies relied in part on the natural-law principle that human dignity is an inviolable right that no government may vitiate by written law.

Historical Jurisprudence

Positivists and naturalists tend to converge in the area of historical jurisprudence. Historical jurisprudence is marked by judges who consider history, tradition, and custom when deciding a legal dispute. Strictly speaking, history does not completely fall within the definition of either positivism or natural law. Historical events, like the Civil War, are not legislative enactments, although they may be the product of governmental policy. Nor do historical events embody eternal principles of morality, although they may be the product of clashing moral views. Yet, historical events shape both morality and law. Thus, many positivists and naturalists find a place for historical jurisprudence in their legal philosophy.

For example, Justice Holmes was considered a positivist to the extent that he believed that courts should defer to legislative judgment unless a particular statute clearly violates an express provision of the Constitution. But he qualified this stance when a given statute "infringe[s] on fundamental principles as they have been understood by the traditions of our people and our law" (lochner v. new york, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 [1905]). In such instances, Holmes felt, courts were justified in striking down a particular written law.

benjamin n. cardozo, considered an adherent of sociological jurisprudence by some and a realist by others, was another Supreme Court justice who incorporated history into his legal philosophy. When evaluating the merits of a claim brought under the due process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, Cardozo denied relief to claims that were not "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty" and the "principle[s] of justice [that are] so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental" (Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 58 S. Ct. 149, 82 L. Ed. 288 [1937]).

Contemporary Thought

Each school of jurisprudence is not a self-contained body of thought. The lines separating positivism from realism and natural law from formalism often become blurry. The legal philosophy of Justice Holmes, for example, borrowed from the realist, positivist, pragmatic, and historical strains of thought.

In this regard, some scholars have observed that it is more appropriate to think of jurisprudence as a spectrum of legal thought, where the nuances of one thinker delicately blend with those of the next. For example, Harold Berman, a leading authority on comparative Legal History, has advocated the development of an integrative jurisprudence, which would assimilate into one philosophy the insights from each school of legal theory. The staying power of any body of legal thought, Berman has suggested, lies not in its name but in its ability to explain the enterprise of law.

Further readings

Dworkin, Ronald M. 1977. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

Grey, Thomas C. 1983. "Langdell's Orthodoxy." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 45.

Hayman, Robert L., Jr., Nancy Levit, and Richard Delgado, eds. 2002. Jurisprudence: Classical and Contemporary: From Natural Law to Postmodernism. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. 1963. The Common Law. Boston: Little, Brown.

Horwitz, Morton J. 1992. The Transformation of American Law: 1870–1960. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Llewellyn, Karl N. 2000. Jurisprudence: Realism in Theory and Practice. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.

Michael, Helen. 1991. "The Role of Natural Law in Early American Constitutionalism: Did the Founders Contemplate Judicial Enforcement of 'Unwritten' Individual Rights?" North Carolina Law Review 69.

Patterson, Dennis M. 2002. Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Posner, Richard A. 2001. Frontiers of Legal Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

——. 1990. Problems of Jurisprudence. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

Smith, Steven D. 2001. "Expressivist Jurisprudence and the Depletion of Meaning." Maryland Law Review 60 (summer): 506–77.

Stoner, James. 1992. Common Law and Liberal Theory. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Terry, Douglas A. 2002. "Don't Forget About Reciprocal Altruism: Critical Review of the Evolutionary Jurisprudence Movement." Connecticut Law Review 34 (winter): 477–509.


Anarchism; Chicago School; Feminist Jurisprudence; Gay and Lesbian Rights; Judicial Review; Law; Legal Education; Legal History; Nuremberg Trials; Roman Law; Socialism.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a theme in jurisprudence often considered to divide into two schools, the American and the Scandinavian. Oliver Wendell Holmes is perhaps the most famous figure on the American side. Famous dictums like ‘the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience’ and ‘the prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious, are what I mean by the law’ epitomize the approach. The Scandinavians, such as Olivercrona and Ross, produce a theoretical critique that to the ordinary lawyer seems not terribly reflective of reality: ‘a rule can be valid law to a greater or lesser degree varying with the degree of probability with which it can be predicted that the rule will be applied.’
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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