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Rediscovering Williston

107 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2004  

Mark L. Movsesian

St. John's University School of Law


This is an intellectual history of classical contracts scholar Samuel Williston. I argue that the conventional account of Williston's jurisprudence presents an incomplete and distorted picture. While much of Williston's work can strike a contemporary reader as arid and conceptual, there are strong elements of pragmatism as well. Williston insists that doctrine be justified in terms of real-world consequences, maintains that rules can have only presumptive force, and offers institutional explanations for judicial restraint. As a result, his scholarship shares more in common with today's new formalism than we commonly suppose. Even the undertheorized quality of Williston's scholarship - to modern readers, the least appealing aspect of his work - makes a certain amount of sense, given his goals and intended audience.

Keywords: Classical Legal Theory, Contracts, Formalism, Jurisprudence, Legal History, Williston

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K12, K19

Suggested Citation

Movsesian, Mark L., Rediscovering Williston. Washington and Lee Law Review, Vol. 62, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Mark L. Movsesian (Contact Author)

St. John's University School of Law ( email )

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