The Analytical Turn in Nineteenth-Century Legal Thought
33 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2011 Last revised: 1 Nov 2017
Date Written: May 31, 2011
This essay seeks to account for the introduction of the analytical method into Anglo-American legal thinking in the 19th century and to identify some of the doctrinal consequences of this mode of problem-solving. I focus on a particular sense of analysis – the disaggregation into components of seemingly unified entities, not previously seen as composites. On this view, a discussion of U.S. law as involving federal law and state law does not involve analysis, but a discussion of privacy as including decisional and spatial aspects would involve analysis. The term analysis long predates the nineteenth century, but had previously been used by lawyers to mean investigation or classification rather than disaggregation. Drawing on research by John Pickstone, I show that the technique, though not unheard of before the 19th century, was taken up in a wide array of scientific disciplines circa 1780-1840, particularly in chemistry. This helps to explain its diffusion into other intellectual spheres, including law.
The 19th-century analytical revolution had a profound effect on the Anglo-American legal system, its doctrines, and its approach to problem-solving, to such an extent that modern lawyers’ views about their professional competences, and their beliefs about what constitutes a persuasive legal argument, would be radically different without this feature. The analytical approach is evident in contemporary thinking about statutory drafting and interpretation, constitutional law, and administrative law, as well as the common law. Because it is beyond the scope of a single essay to delineate these effects fully, I focus here on the changes associated with the introduction of elements into 19th-century jurisprudence, in a pattern that reveals some of the most visible results of the analytical approach.
Part I discusses the rise of analysis in science and the law around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Part II shows how issue preclusion (in res judicata) was reconceived in the course of the 19th century, morphing from a doctrine focused on the relitigation of particular facts, to a doctrine concerned with legal issues, now understood as involving legal conclusions based on facts. Part III addresses the reconceptualization of criminal offenses as consisting of elements, a development that led to new ways of thinking about burdens of proof and the role of mens rea in criminal liability. A concluding section reflects briefly on the implications of this approach to legal science. The argument shows that legal science may be profitably studied not only by looking at the statements of lawyers such as David Hoffman, Simon Greenleaf, and George Sharswood, who took pains to insist that they were being scientific, but also by looking to particular instances in which lawyers adopt scientific methods, even if they do not call attention to this practice, and even if they make no claims about legal science.
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