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Law and the Humanities: An Uneasy Relationship


Jack M. Balkin


Yale University - Law School

Sanford Levinson


University of Texas Law School


Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Vol. 18, p. 155, 2006
Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 121
U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 109

Abstract:     
In 1930 legal professionals like Judge Learned Hand assumed that law was either part of the humanities or deeply connected to them. By the early twenty-first century, this view no longer seems accurate, despite the fact that legal scholarship has become increasingly interdisciplinary. Instead law has moved closer to the social sciences. This essay discusses why this is so, and why the humanities exist in an uneasy relationship with law and contemporary legal scholarship.

No matter how often the legal academy embraces skills and knowledges external to law, law's professional orientation - and the fact that law is taught in professional schools where most students will not become academics - continually pulls legal scholarship back toward an internal attitude toward law and recourse to traditional legal materials. As a result, law remains far more like a divinity school - devoted to the preservation of the faith - than a department of religion - which studies various religions from multiple perspectives. To the extent that the contemporary disciplines of the humanities view law externally or in ways inconsistent with its professional orientation, they are merely tolerated in law schools rather than central to legal study. More generally, because law is a professional field, it resists colonization by other disciplines that view law externally. Instead, law co-opts the insights of other disciplines and turns them to its own uses.

Ironically, law's thoroughly rhetorical nature, which strongly connects it to the traditions of the humanities, places the contemporary disciplines of the humanities at a relative disadvantage. Law uses rhetoric to establish its authority and to legitimate particular acts of political and legal power. Law's professional orientation pushes legal scholars toward prescriptivism - the demand that scholars cash out their arguments in terms of specific legal interpretations and policy proposals. These tasks push legal scholars toward technocratic forms of discourse that use the social and natural sciences more than the humanities. Whether justly or unjustly, the humanities tend to rise or fall in comparison to other disciplines to the extent that the humanities are able to help lawyers and legal scholars perform these familiar rhetorical tasks of legitimation and prescription.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

Keywords: law and the humanities, interdisciplinary studies, interdisciplinarity, humanities

JEL Classification: K10

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Date posted: October 22, 2006  

Suggested Citation

Balkin, Jack M. and Levinson, Sanford, Law and the Humanities: An Uneasy Relationship. Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Vol. 18, p. 155, 2006; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 121; U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 109. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=939068

Contact Information

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)
Yale University - Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)
Sanford V. Levinson
University of Texas Law School ( email )
727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
512-471-3273 (Phone)
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