The Genealogy of Legal Positivism

Posted: 29 Feb 2008

See all articles by David Dyzenhaus

David Dyzenhaus

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law/Department of Philosophy

Date Written: 2004


This article argues that legal positivism is best understood as a political tradition which rejects the Separation Thesis - the thesis that there is no necessary connection between law and morality. That tradition was committed for some time to eliminating the conceptual space in which the common law tradition and its style of reasoning operate. A genealogical reconstruction of the tradition shows that when positivist judges are forced to operate in that space, they have to adapt their own style of reasoning to some of the constraints of that space. That most contemporary positivists will attempt to disown such judges is symptomatic of deep problems in contemporary positivism, problems which stem from the attempt to detach positivism from its political tradition. So a recent neo-Benthamite revival in legal theory is welcome. Not only does it reunite positivism with its political tradition, but it also opens the way for a productive debate between positivism and its critics. 'As for the philosophical approach, once so lively and dominant, it seems at times today rather tired, and exhibits its unease by seeking revitalization in flirtations with the absurd. But the problems of legal theory remain as fascinating as they ever were, and, if there is any grand message in these essays, it is that the historical study of legal institutions may have more to offer to their solution than has yet been appreciated'.

Suggested Citation

Dyzenhaus, David, The Genealogy of Legal Positivism ( 2004). Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 24, pp. 39-67, 2004. Available at SSRN:

David Dyzenhaus (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law/Department of Philosophy ( email )

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