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Some Realism About New Legal Realism: What's New, What's Legal, What's Real?


Current endeavours to develop a ‘realistic’ concept of international law should take into account that there is not only one reality. It does not suffice to admit that reality can be perceived from different angles. Rather, a realistic account of modern society has to acknowledge that we can no longer speak of the ‘world’ or ‘reality’ as a singular entity. Perspectives matter; they construct their own, distinct objects of cognition. A ‘New Legal Realism’ is deliberately new, legal, and realistic only insofar as it is conceived as an understanding of how (international) law creates its own realities.

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1 See Shaffer, G., ‘The New Legal Realist Approach to International Law’, (2015) 28 LJIL 189. On the issue also Shaffer, G. and Ginsburg, T., ‘The Empirical Turn in International Legal Scholarship’, (2012) 106 AJIL 1; Erlanger, al., ‘Is It Time for a New Legal Realism?’, (2005) 2 Wisconsin Law Review 335. See also Bodansky, D., ‘Legal Realism and Its Discontents’, (2015) 28 LJIL 267, questioning the novelty of New Legal Realism.

2 See Shaffer, supra note 1, at 189; Lang, A., ‘New Legal Realism, Empiricism and Scientism: The Relative Objectivity of Law and Social Sciences’, (2015) 28 LJIL 231.

3 See M. Ferraris, Manifesto del nuovo realismo (2012), and the contributions in M. Gabriel (ed.), Der Neue Realismus (2014). For a more refined version of ‘speculative realism’, see Q. Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (2008).

4 See Gabriel, M., ‘Einleitung’, in M. Gabriel (ed.), Der Neue Realismus (2014), 8 at 9.

5 See Lang, supra note 2, at 231. Shaffer and Ginsburg, supra note 1, at 10, present a narrower understanding, stating that ‘philosophical pragmatism . . . maintains that we intervene in an uncertain world and must assess empirically the impact of previous interventions and use that information to determine what is desirable and possible in any context’.

6 See for the primary epistemological interest in Scandinavian Legal Realism J. v. H. Holtermann and Madsen, M. R., ‘European New Legal Realism and International Law: How to Make International Law Intelligible’, (2015) 28 LJIL 211; and, in the context of a general comparison of the two movements, with respect mainly to their idea of property, Alexander, G. S., ‘Comparing the Two Legal Realisms – American and Scandinavian’, (2002) 50 AJIL 131, at 149.

7 See Shaffer, supra note 1, at 189; and in more detail Nourse, V. and Shaffer, G., ‘Varieties of New Legal Realism: Can a New World Order Prompt a New Legal Theory?’, (2009) 95 Cornell Law Review 61, at 115.

8 Lang, supra note 2, at 240, with reference to Shaffer.

9 Ibid., at 240, with reference to Erlanger et al., supra note 1, at 342–3.

10 James, H., ‘The Real Thing’, in Bromwich, D. and Hollander, J. (eds.), Henry James: Complete Stories 1892–1898 (1996), 32, at 40.

11 Ibid., at 38–39.

12 Ibid., at 44–45.

13 Ibid., at 41.

14 Ibid., at 57.

15 Ibid., at 42.

16 Ibid., at 45.

17 Ibid., at 50–51.

18 Ibid., at 46.

19 Ibid., at 53.

20 Thus, when Lang, supra note 2, at 240, with reference to Erlanger et al., supra note 1, at 342–3, talks about the ‘truism . . . that the categories we use to apprehend the world are not natural but in part politically and socially constructed’, my question is: what exactly does ‘in part’ mean? Is there an empirical rest which escapes the construction?

21 See, e.g., Daston, L., ‘Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective,’ (1992) 22 Social Studies of Science 597.

22 See Daston, L., ‘Baconian Facts, Academic Civility and the Prehistory of Objectivity’, (1991) 8 Annals of Scholarship 337.

23 See T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

24 See Foucault, M., ‘Truth and Juridical Forms,’ in Faubion, J. D. (ed.), Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984: Vol. 3, 1.

25 For a detailed discussion of this problem, see Green, M. S., ‘Legal Realism as Theory of Law’, (2005) 46 William & Mary Law Review 1915.

26 See Shaffer and Ginsburg, supra note 1, at 5.

27 See H. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law (1994), at 124–54.

28 The classic reference is, of course, Hans Kelsen's Pure Theory of Law (1967).

29 See S. Fish, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And it's a Good Thing, Too (1994), at 141–179.

30 See Bodansky, supra note 1, at 273, with reference to Kozinski, A., ‘What I Ate for Breakfast and Other Mysteries of Judicial Decision Making’, (1993) 26 Loyola Los Angeles Law Review 993 (who claims, however, that ‘this is all horse manure’). For serious analysis, Danziger, S., Levav, J., and Avnaim-Pesso, L., ‘Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions’, (2011) 108 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 6889.

31 See Shaffer, supra note 1, at 189.

32 See Lang, supra note 2, at 231.

33 See Holtermann and Madsen, supra note 6, at 216, with reference to Max Weber's critique of Stammler.

34 One might notice that ‘after the fact’ is one of the few phrases where the English language has preserved the original and indeed legal meaning of ‘fact’. See Daston, ‘Baconian Facts’, supra note 22, at 345.

35 L. Rosen, Law as Culture: An Invitation (2006), 68.

36 Shaffer, supra note 1, at 196.

37 See for a parallel differentiation between scientific and legal facts Lang, supra note 2, at 231.

38 See E. Vos, C. Joerges, and K.-H. Ladeur (eds.), Integrating Scientific Expertise into Regulatory Decision-Making: National Traditions and European Innovations (1997).

39 See Fish, supra note 29, at 231–42.

40 See Klabbers, J., ‘The Relative Autonomy of International Law or the Forgotten Politics of Interdisciplinarity’, (2004–2005) 1 Journal of International Law & International Relations 35, at 36–37; Klabbers, J., ‘Counter-Disciplinarity’, (2010) 4 International Political Sociology 308, at 308.

41 See Klabbers, ‘The Relative Autonomy of International Law’, supra note 40, at 41–42; Klabbers, ‘Counter-Disciplinarity’, supra note 40, at 309–10; for the risk of colonization see also Shaffer, supra note 1, at 189.

42 See Holtermann and Madsen, supra note 6, at 222, with reference to Bourdieu, P., ‘The Force of Law: Toward a Sociology of the Juridical Field’, (1987) 38 Hastings Law Journal 805. A helpful comparison of Bourdieu's analyses with Luhmann's systems theory is presented in A. Nassehi and G. Nollmann (eds.), Bourdieu und Luhmann: Ein Theorievergleich (2004).

43 See Shaffer, supra note 1, at 189; Shaffer and Ginsburg, supra note 1, at 10.

44 See Lang, supra note 2, at 231.

45 See ibid., at 254, with regard mainly to the tension between formalism and empiricism, pragmatically stating that ‘the mixture has proved to be resilient, and to be able to satisfy, at least at an everyday, pragmatic level, the practical demand for reasonably objective decision-making in particular governance contexts.’

46 See G. Jellinek, Allgemeine Staatslehre (1914; W. Jellinek ed.), 10.

47 Bodansky, supra note 1, at 268; Huneeus, A., ‘Human Rights Between Jurisprudence and Social Sciences’, (2015) 28 LJIL 255, claims in a similar direction that for a fully developed human rights legal scholarship one needs to combine the perspectives of jurisprudence and social sciences.

48 See H. Kelsen, Allgemeine Staatslehre (1925), 6.

49 Indeed, even in the neo-Kantian vein we find attempts to widen the perspective by reaching beyond the classical difference between practical and theoretical reason and the respective dichotomy of ‘is’ and ‘ought to’. See E. Lask, ‘Rechtsphilosophie’, in Gesammelte Schriften, 1. Band (1923), 275 at 306.

50 See N. Luhmann, ‘Das Erkenntnisprogramm des Konstruktivismus und die unbekannt bleibende Realität’, in Soziologische Aufklärung 5: Konstruktivistische Perspektiven (2009), 31–57.

51 Huneeus, supra note 47, at 257, with reference to Erlanger et al., supra note 1, at 336 (who, however, do not speak of ‘overcoming’ but, more cautiously, of ‘translating among’ these differences).

52 This is, e.g., the basic argument of Gabriel's ‘new realism’. See Gabriel, supra note 4, at 9.

53 See, e.g., Luhmann, N., ‘Closure and Openness: On Reality in the World of Law’, in Teubner, G. (ed.) Autopoietic Law: A New Approach to Law and Society (1988), 335 at 348.

54 See Shaffer, supra note 1, at 207, speaking of ‘law's particular epistemologies and forms of reason-giving’ but not elaborating on this issue in more detail.

55 See, e.g., W. Dilthey, ‘Beiträge zur Lösung der Frage vom Ursprung unseres Glaubens an die Realität der Außenwelt und seinem Recht,’ in Die geistige Welt. Einleitung in die Philosophie des Lebens. Erste Hälfte: Abhandlungen zur Grundlegung der Geisteswissenschaften, Gesammelte Schriften Bd. V (1957), 90 at 98. Generally, on the issue, see Blumenberg, H., ‘Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Möglichkeit des Romans’, in Jauß, H. R. (ed.), Nachahmung und Illusion. Kolloquium Gießen 1963. Vorlagen und Verhandlungen (Poetik und Hermeneutik I) (1969), 9 at 13.

56 See N. Luhmann, Organisation und Entscheidung (2000), 137.

57 See, on the relevance of reflexivity, also Lang, supra note 2, at 231.

58 See, for practical examples of this kind of technique, ibid., at 231.

59 See Shaffer and Ginsburg, supra note 1, at 1, 41.

60 See Shaffer, supra note 1, at 189; Shaffer and Ginsburg, supra note 1, at 1.

* Professor of Legal Philosophy and Public Law at the University of Kiel, Germany [].

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Leiden Journal of International Law
  • ISSN: 0922-1565
  • EISSN: 1478-9698
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