Towards Classical Legal Positivism

31 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2011 Last revised: 30 Sep 2011

See all articles by Dan Priel

Dan Priel

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School

Date Written: July 15, 2011


This essay rethinks the history and understanding of the debate between legal positivism and natural law. It does so by distinguishing between classical legal positivism, represented by the work of Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham, and contemporary legal positivism, the one familiar from self-styled positivists works in the last fifty years. I argue that the difference between the two is that classical legal positivism sought to provide a theory of law within a broader account of nature (including human nature), whereas what is characteristic of contemporary legal positivism is its rejection of this approach. This distinction is valuable for understanding the historical path of jurisprudence as the approach of the classical legal positivists is similar to the one found in the work of many natural lawyers, both classical and contemporary. What separates classical legal positivists from the natural lawyers is thus not - contrary to claims by contemporary legal positivists - that the classical legal positivist were the first to argue that "legal validity" does not depend on the moral soundness of a legal norm. Rather, they disagreed on the correct account of nature and human nature. Nonetheless, both classical legal positivism and natural law are similar in seeking to place a theory of law within a broader theoretical perspective. The difference is significant both for understanding the views of Bentham or Hobbes (neither of which was particularly interested in identifying tests of "validity") but also for suggesting that the future of legal theory lies in returning to the views of the classical legal positivists and abandoning the approach that has dominated jurisprudence, and legal positivism in particular, since Hart's Concept of Law.

Keywords: legal positivism, natural law, Hobbes, Bentham, Hart, internal point of view

Suggested Citation

Priel, Dan, Towards Classical Legal Positivism (July 15, 2011). Osgoode CLPE Research Paper No. 20/2011, Available at SSRN: or

Dan Priel (Contact Author)

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics