The Vanity of Dogmatizing

Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 27, 2010-2011

St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-193

28 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2010 Last revised: 16 Nov 2010

See all articles by Marc O. DeGirolami

Marc O. DeGirolami

St. John's University - School of Law

Date Written: September 3, 2010


This essay considers Brian Tamanaha’s “Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide,” a book which takes aim at one of the most deep-rooted jurisprudential dichotomies of the last century: the concepts of legal formalism and legal realism. The book aims “to free us from the formalist-realist stranglehold,” an exercise that, it is claimed, will allow “us [to] recover a sound understanding of judging.”

After summarizing the historical features of the book, this essay explores Tamanaha’s interesting critical reconstruction, one which attempts to explain why the formalist/realist dichotomy achieved such salience in the face of copious contrary historical evidence. In the context of assessing the author’s critique, the essay expresses some reservations about Tamanaha’s appeal to “balanced realism.” In specific, the essay argues that a book that purports to debunk certain conceptual categories should not return to the same dry conceptual well after purporting to drain it.

This recursive move suggests that even after all the historical smudge-marks have been identified and retouched, the best that can be done is resignation to a kind of murky via media somewhere between formalism and realism’s grosser excesses. The essay offers two interpretations of Tamanaha’s backslide to “balanced realism,” which it calls the metaphysical and the historicist interpretations.

What might all of this mean for legal scholarship? The question is too large to be pursued in any detail here, but the essay concludes by speculating about how adopting the metaphysical and historicist modes in legal theory might influence one facet of constitutional theory: originalist and living constitutionalist theories of interpretation. It is tentatively suggested that in light of the sorts of systematic academic distortions that Tamanaha so adeptly documents in the area of jurisprudence, the historicist mode, though rarely pursued by legal theorists, offers a more promising future for this debate in constitutional theory as well as for the formalist/realist question itself.

Keywords: Legal Theory, Constitutional Law, American Legal History

Suggested Citation

DeGirolami, Marc O., The Vanity of Dogmatizing (September 3, 2010). Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 27, 2010-2011, St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-193, Available at SSRN:

Marc O. DeGirolami (Contact Author)

St. John's University - School of Law ( email )

8000 Utopia Parkway
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States

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