Monday, February 27, 2012

In Retrospect: Gordon's "Critical Legal Histories"

Just out in Law and Social Inquiry 37 (Winter 2012): 167-86 is a "Symposium on Gordon’s 'Critical Legal Histories.'”  It looks to be a well-conceived and ably executed retrospective on what was probably the most important historiographic contribution to the field of American legal history in the late-twentieth century, Robert W. Gordon's "Critical Legal Histories," Stanford Law Review 36 (1984): 57-125.

Introduction to Symposium on “Critical Legal Histories”
Hendrik Hartog

This introduction to a symposium on Robert Gordon's classic article “Critical Legal Histories” (1984) suggests that the article should be read in the first instance as a response to the distinctive historical and jurisprudential currents of the 1980s, even as it also remains a work that continues to challenge legal historians working today, a generation later.

What is Left of the Law and Society Paradigm after Critique? Revisiting Gordon's “Critical Legal Histories”
Christopher Tomlins

For more than twenty-five years, Robert Gordon's “Critical Legal Histories” has been savored by legal historians as one of the most incisive explanations available of what legal history can and should be. Gordon's essay, however, is of significance to the course of sociolegal studies in general. This commentary offers an appreciation, and a critique, of “Critical Legal Histories.” It explores Gordon's articulation of the central themes of critical legal studies, in particular his corrosion of functionalism and embrace of the indeterminacy thesis, and assesses the consequences for sociolegal and legal-historical analysis of the resultant stress on the contingency and complexity of social life.

Of Mandarins, Legal Consciousness, and the Cultural Turn in US Legal History
Susanna L. Blumenthal

This article traces the impact of Robert Gordon's "Critical Legal Histories" on scholars writing at the intersection of law and history. While Gordon's central claim about the constitutive character of the law has come to serve as a working assumption in the field, the case he made for the intellectual history of doctrine as articulated by legal mandarins has proven less influential in the twenty-five years since the article was published. Instead, legal historians have focused their attention on the interaction between official and lay forms of law-making with a decided emphasis on popular legal consciousness. For precisely this reason, the time may be ripe for reconsideration of mandarin materials, not only for what they have to tell us about the dynamics of cultural change, but also as sources of insight into basic puzzles of the human condition that have tended across time to be expressed in and through legal forms.

The History in “Critical Legal Histories”
Laura F. Edwards

This commentary explores Robert Gordon's "Critical Legal Histories" from the perspective of the discipline of history. It argues that we are still stalled at the intellectual juncture that Gordon described so well twenty-five years ago because functionalism and the resulting problems that Gordon addresses in the area of sociolegal studies also pervade the discipline of history. The results reinforce the divide between sociolegal studies and other kinds of historical studies that tend to inhibit the conceptual transformation that Gordon advocates and to marginalize legal studies within the discipline of history.

“Critical Legal Histories Revisited”: A Response
Robert W. Gordon

The author responds to comments reappraising “Critical Legal Histories” (CLH) (1984). CLH critiqued “evolutionary functionalism,” the idea that law is a functional response to a typical modernizing process. CLH argued that “society” was partly constituted of legal elements and that law was too indeterminate to have reliably regular functional effects. CLH has been misinterpreted as calling for a return to internal histories of “mandarin” doctrine: all it said was that some doctrinal histories were valuable, without privileging them. This response clarifies that the relations of law to society and social change, and of high-level official law to everyday local law are distinct issues. CLH is mostly moot today, since social-legal historians have incorporated its insight that legal concepts are embedded in everyday social practice. But other fields have revived deterministic Whiggish accounts of progressive development and of law functional to it—to which CLH's critique still seems relevant.

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