For nearly a century legal scholars have vacillated between two strategies for dealing with the collapse of legal science as an autonomous discipline. One typical response has been to abandon the notion of a legal theory and to borrow a theoretical discipline from the social sciences or from the humanities. Another response has been to discard the idea of legal theory by highlighting the practical wisdom of lawyers and celebrating law as a craft.

Our mission in this Essay is to describe legal theory as an enterprise robust enough to justify separate naming. Legal theory focuses on the work of society's coercive normative institutions. It studies the traditions of these institutions and the craft typifying their members, while at the same time continuously challenging their outputs by demonstrating their contingency and testing their desirability. In performing the latter tasks, legal theory necessarily absorbs lessons from law’s neighboring disciplines. But at its best, legal theory is more than a sophisticated synthesis of relevant insights from these friendly neighbors, because of its pointed attention to the persistent jurisprudential questions regarding the nature of law, notably the relationship between law's normativity and its coerciveness and the implications of its institutional and structural characteristics.

Before we turn to elaborate on these features, we begin with an outline of the three other important discourses about law: law and policy; socio-historical analysis of law; and law as craft. Sketching these three genres of legal scholarship is instrumental for our task because analyzing the ways in which legal theory is different from these other modes helps us characterize legal theory.


Jurisprudence | Law | Law and Economics | Law and Society | Legal Education | Legal History, Theory and Process | Legal Writing and Research | Public Law and Legal Theory

Date of this Version

April 2010