Christopher Tomlins’ fascinating essay, Historicism and Materiality in Legal Theory, reconsiders the purpose of legal history and its utility for legal theory. For the last three decades, Robert W. Gordon’s landmark article, Critical Legal Histories, has served as the shining lighthouse by which the discipline navigated the murky waters between fact and theory, description and normativity.1 Departing from the evolutionary functionalism of law and society and law and economics scholarship, Gordon extolled the virtues of a critical historicism. In showing the indeterminate character of law’s past, this historicism destabilizes its present. As Tomlins sees it, critical historicism offers a post-structuralist interpretation of law, marked by contingency, complexity, and contradiction. The project of locating law in its socio-temporal context, he argues, generates an almost infinite set of relationships for examination. If critical historicism contends that the relationship between law and society is underdetermined, then Tomlins yearns for bolder causal explanations about legal and social change. Building on several prior pieces, Tomlins’ essay calls for an alternative paradigm to historicism, what he terms “materiality.” (P. 59.)The last paragraph of Dinner's review also bears note:
Tomlins’ essay is part of a larger volume, edited by Maksymilian Del Mar and Michael Lobban, which reinvigorates a dialogue between history and theory. The wide-ranging essays examine the relevance of history to the study of jurisprudence. One quibble is that feminism’s history and feminist jurisprudence receive barely a passing mention in the volume. A related but not equivalent criticism is that women scholars wrote only two of the seventeen essays in the volume. A reader might consider these absences a contingent product of the editors’ selection process. Tomlins might instead point us toward a structural explanation: perhaps the artificiality of a divide between jurisprudence and the study of law’s social effects, or the enduring role that gender plays in the construction of academic networks.
Read the full review here.