Conceptual Analysis in Science and Law (draft)

Posted: 20 Aug 2010 Last revised: 14 Nov 2012

See all articles by Aaron J. Rappaport

Aaron J. Rappaport

University of California Hastings College of the Law

Date Written: August 17, 2010


Ever since H. L. A. Hart’s magisterial work, The Concept of Law, conceptual analysis has been viewed as the dominant method of doing jurisprudence. Far less appreciated is the fact that it is also a central tool in the field of cognitive science. That may be surprising to some, given the differences in these disciplines’ mission: Legal theorists struggle with abstract questions about the “nature” of Law and Justice; cognitive scientists explore the workings of the human mind. If cognitive scientists and legal philosophers are doing different things when they do conceptual analysis, how do they differ?

This paper offers the first full-scale comparison of the way conceptual analysis is used in these two fields. The paper’s conclusion is provocative and striking. It argues that cognitive scientists employ an appealing and coherent form of this key methodology, while legal theorists employ an approach that might be fairly characterized as a methodological muddle. The implication for legal theory is profound: If legal theory hopes to be a relevant and coherent discipline, it must re-imagine its methodological commitments and seek out a more appealing set of tools and methods. The concluding section of the paper grapples with that challenge, offering some thoughts on how jurisprudence can be placed on a more solid and appealing foundation.

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Keywords: Jurisprudence, Legal Theory, Concepts, Conceptual Analysis, Hart, Cognitive Science

Suggested Citation

Rappaport, Aaron J., Conceptual Analysis in Science and Law (draft) (August 17, 2010). Available at SSRN:

Aaron J. Rappaport (Contact Author)

University of California Hastings College of the Law ( email )

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