Charles Barzun

Jurisprudence and (Its) History

Virginia Law Review

UVA Law Faculty Affiliations


It is not obvious that philosophers and historians of law should take much interest in the scholarly enterprises of the other. Many legal philosophers understand their task as one of clarifying the meaning of such familiar legal concepts as “right,” “duty,” or “law” by offering analyses of them that purport to be general, abstract, and timeless. Meanwhile, historians tend to be suspicious of speculative claims ungrounded in fact and so often prefer to focus on the concrete, particular features of actual legal regimes.
But surface appearances can deceive. Unlike some other areas of philosophy, the subject matter of jurisprudence is at least partially (if not entirely) a social phenomenon. For this reason, legal philosophers since at least H.L.A. Hart have recognized their task to be a “hermeneutic” one — one which aims to discern or make explicit the “self-understanding” of legal actors. At the same time, legal historians aim not simply to record legal rules that existed at some given point in history, but to unearth the meaning that actual people have attached to law. Perhaps, then, philosophical and historical inquiries about law share the same ultimate scholarly goal and subject matter.
This essay serves as the Introduction to a symposium in the Virginia Law Review that explores just this possibility. Its purpose is both to highlight some of the themes common to the symposium’s essays and comments, and, more ambitiously, to suggest that these papers show how philosophers and historians of law might bring their respective disciplinary methods to bear in answering the same kind of question. In particular, both methods are useful for answering questions about what best explains the endurance or disappearance of an idea, theory, or set of concerns in legal thought or practice. Our claim is not that legal historians and philosophers of law should agree in the answers they give to such questions. They will and should often disagree. Rather, our goal is to show how scholars from the two disciplines may plausibly be seen as joining issue in a productive debate, rather than simply talking past one another.


Charles Barzun & Dan Priel, Jurisprudence and (Its) History, 101 Virginia Law Review 849-867 (2015).

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