The Common Law and Critical Theory

17 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2021

See all articles by Charles L. Barzun

Charles L. Barzun

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: June 23, 2021


Because common-law doctrines have long served as targets for critical theorists, it would be easy to see the common law and critical theory as essentially antagonistic with each other. But that would be a mistake. In fact, both critical theory and the common law—or, at least, one interpretation of the common law—license a quite similar, and similarly holistic, form of reasoning. Specifically, they both draw normative inferences from explanatory claims and vice versa. This symposium essay uses a case study to illustrate this quite general point. Catharine MacKinnon’s revolutionary argument that sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a vivid example not only of critical theory but also of an holistic interpretation of the common law. Because common-law reasoning and critical theory are analytically compatible in this way, I conclude by suggesting that each tradition has something to learn from the other.

Keywords: Catharine MacKinnon, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Posner, Sexual Harassment, Feminism, Critical Race Theory

Suggested Citation

Barzun, Charles L., The Common Law and Critical Theory (June 23, 2021). University of Colorado Law Review, Vol. 92, 2021, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2021-31, Available at SSRN:

Charles L. Barzun (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
434-924-6454 (Phone)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics