Seeking Change by Doing History

Seeking Change by Doing History (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 25 Pp.

27 Pages Posted: 10 May 2018

See all articles by Janne Elisabeth Nijman

Janne Elisabeth Nijman

The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID); Amsterdam Center for International Law - University of Amsterdam; T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Date Written: April 24, 2018


In her Inaugural Lecture Janne E. Nijman explores the so-called ‘Turn to History’ in international legal scholarship. Interest in the intellectual history or ‘history of ideas’ of international law has surged around the last turn of the century. A new sub-field has thus emerged: ‘History and Theory of International Law’. Nijman contextualises this development and stages three possible approaches of why and how to study ideas and theories of the past. A central proposition is that the field of ‘History and Theory of international Law’ ultimately aims to establish a dialogue between international legal thought then and now. In this way (and by employment of e.g. the Cambridge School method) a critical distance emerges with respect to our own international legal thinking and its underlying political and moral ideas. The meaning of international law ideas changes through time – in the study thereof lies the critical potential and value for our own thinking.

International law is often presented as an emancipatory, progressive project in which human dignity has come to be increasingly well-protected. With the ‘turn to history’ however the dark sides of international law, including the influence of European – also Dutch – colonial expansion on the development of international law (and vice versa), come to the fore. Studying for example the thought of Hugo de Groot uncovers this ambivalence. Nonetheless Grotius’ humanist thinking about humankind, society, and (international) law also opens up space for a perspective alternative to the ‘Hobbesian’ international order. Fundamental issues then are: who counts within the international legal order, and on which moral and political presuppositions is this order built? This Lecture makes a connection to the work of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and points to a possible alternative line of reasoning in which the concept of international legal personality functions as a starting point for questions about just international institutions and law. These are urgent questions at a time of globalisation, interdependency and hyperconnectivity, in which citizens are highly critical towards European and international/global institutions.

Keywords: international legal history; international legal theory; historiography; international institutions; international law

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Nijman, Janne Elisabeth, Seeking Change by Doing History (April 24, 2018). Seeking Change by Doing History (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 25 Pp., Available at SSRN:

Janne Elisabeth Nijman (Contact Author)

The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) ( email )

Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2
Geneva, 1202

Amsterdam Center for International Law - University of Amsterdam ( email )


T.M.C. Asser Instituut ( email )

P.O. Box 30461
2500 GL The Hague, 2517JN

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