What Is Law?

65 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2015 Last revised: 16 Oct 2016

See all articles by Brian Z. Tamanaha

Brian Z. Tamanaha

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: October 14, 2016

Abstract

Theorists who tackle “What is law?” usually acknowledge the difficulty of the question, then, with hardly a pause, launch into their proposed answer. Instead, focusing on three main categories of concepts of law, I examine in detail why previous attempts have failed to achieve a consensus. Several factors have contributed. One source of disagreement involves clashes among intuitions about law. Further problems are created by the narrowness of functional analysis, on which nearly all concepts of law are based. Confusion also arises because law shares basic characteristics with many social institutions, as I show drawing on insights from the philosophy of society. Theorists also typically fail to recognize two distinct orientations of law, and multiple forms of law, which singular concepts of law cannot accommodate. Finally, variability and change owing to the social-historical nature of law defeats efforts of legal philosophers to identify essential features and universally true concepts of law. At the conclusion I present a way of understanding law that emerges out of the lessons learned from past unsuccessful efforts.

Here are the topic headings in the essay: Three Categories of the Concept of Law; Pivotal Role of Intuitions About Law; Over-Inclusiveness of Functionalism; Under-Inclusiveness of Functionalism; Why Functionalism Cannot Answer ‘What is Law?’; Error of Conflating ‘Rule System’ and ‘Legal System’; Law as Part of the Institutional Substrate of Society; State Law’s Two Orientations; Coexisting Multiple Legal Forms; Necessary and Essential Features Or Typical Features; Universal Application versus Universal Truth; What is Law?

Keywords: jurisprudence, philosophy of law, law and society, legal anthropology, legal sociology, legal history, and comparative law

Suggested Citation

Tamanaha, Brian Z., What Is Law? (October 14, 2016). Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 15-01-01. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2546370 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2546370

Brian Z. Tamanaha (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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