Legal Thought Now: Law and the Structure of Society

Return to Course Catalog

Spring 2014 Course
Meets: W 1:00pm - 3:00pm in Hauser Hall Room 104
2 classroom credits

This course explores central themes of legal and social theory. It takes as its focus the relation of law and legal thought to the formative institutional arrangements and ideological assumptions of society: that is to say, to the structure of society. The course can serve as an introduction to jurisprudence. However, it is not a survey; it seeks to offer a sustained treatment of a fundamental question.

No issue is more important to either legal or social thought. Law has been defined as the institutional form of the life of a people: its subject matter are the institutions and practices of a society, viewed in relation to the interests and ideals that are supposed to justify them and to give them meaning. This subject matter is also the concern of politics, which upholds or transforms a society's established assumptions and arrangements, expressed as law.

Today, however, we lack a way of thinking about such structures: what they are, how they are made, how we can change them, and what they should become. Legal thought has been part of this problem; it could become part of the solution.

The course begins with a discussion of the past and present of legal thought, seen from the perspective of what legal thought says, and fails to say, about the structure of society. We then consider the achievements and failures of some of the most ambitious attempts to provide us with a way of thinking about the structure of society and about its manifestation in law. We go on to address major ways in which contemporary legal theory and legal doctrine evade the task of structural criticism, and explore the political consequences of these evasions. After reflecting on the relation of institutions to beliefs, within and outside law, we turn to the constructive agenda of the course: the recovery of structural imagination in legal and social thought.

Readings are drawn from classic and contemporary legal and social theory.

The final takes the form of an extended take-home examination.

Note: This course is jointly-listed with FAS as Government 1096.