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Understanding Legal Realism

Brian Z. Tamanaha

Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law

May 2008

St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-0133

Legal realism is well known, but generally misunderstood. Through a close examination of the work of the legal realists and their predecessors, this article presents a complete reconstruction of legal realism. The most startling finding of this article is that all the key insights now identified with the realists were set forth by prominent jurists much earlier. The article shows that Pound, Cardozo, and the legal realists, and their entire (respective) legal generations, were exposed to so much realism that they could not help but see judging in realistic terms. It is often said today, We are all realists now. Ample evidence will be presented in this article to show that at least three decades before the arrival of the legal realists, They were all realists then too. What was said about judging at the time - a full century ago - sounds exactly like what is said about judging today.

The reconstruction completed in this article will simultaneously confirm the insights of realism about judging while dissolving the historical distinctiveness of the legal realists as a group. This finding is consistent with Llewellyn's own insistence (in the closing words of his essay defining legal realism) that a group philosophy or program, a group credo of social welfare, these realists have not. They are not a group. Llewellyn also wrote that Their differences in point of view, in interest, in emphasis, in field of work, are huge. They differ among themselves well-nigh as much as any of them differs from, say, Langdell. Modern accounts of legal realism, which typically present the legal realists as a distinctive group, have ignored these puzzling assertions, but they hold the key to understanding what legal realism was about.

The aim of this exploration is to rescue realistic views about judging from the clutches of the prevailing misunderstanding about legal realism. It is a follow-up to The Bogus Tale About the Legal Formalists (available on SSRN). The combined effect of these two pieces is to show that the formalist-realist divide is entirely false as a historical matter, and should be discarded. Modern debates about judging are structured by and remain trapped within this false antithesis.

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Date posted: April 30, 2008 ; Last revised: August 13, 2008

Suggested Citation

Tamanaha, Brian Z., Understanding Legal Realism (May 2008). St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-0133. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1127178 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1127178

Contact Information

Brian Z. Tamanaha (Contact Author)
Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law ( email )
Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
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