Norberto Bobbio (1909–2004) and Law: A Centennial Tribute

Published date30 June 2011
Date30 June 2011
AuthorTeresa Chataway
Teresa Chataway
Norberto Bobbio’s Birth Centenary was celebrated in Turin in October
2009. This article acknowledges an important 20th century legal
philosopher whose work is yet to be fully appreciated in the Anglo-
American context. A short introduction is followed by an overview of his
works in English, and intellectual profile. Relevant excerpts aim to convey
some understanding of his legal scholarship. Three exemplars of his
contribution to law: jurisprudence, legal sociology and the general theory
of law are discussed. It is argued that a Bobbian lens can be usefully
employed to consider some of the pressing 21st century legal-political and
social issues.
It is easy to praise a philosopher. It is difficult to make clear, to oneself and to others, the
nature and significance of his achievement.
Karl Popper
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 55, 173–202
Copyright r2011 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1108/S1059-4337(2011)0000055010
Norberto Bobbio’s Birth Centenary on 18 October 2009 was marked in Italy
with a series of academic seminars and cultural events. The International
Congress held in Turin provided a range of reflective presentations on his
figure and significant contribution to scholarship and Italian public life.
Bobbio was Italy’s foremost legal, political and moral philosopher of the 20th
century. For over 60 years, through the breadth of his scholarship and public
engagement, he exerted a far-reaching influence on both academics and
ordinary people. He played a central role in developing the interconnection of
law, politics and morals, and communicating that knowledge to all levels of
Italian society and beyond.
Bobbio was conversant in English, French and German. His first book
in English, The Philosophy of Decadentism: A Study in Existentialism, was
published in 1948. During the subsequent three decades, several of his legal
and political theory articles appeared in Anglo-American academic
journals. Concurrently, other translations, including some law texts, were
published in Latin America, Mexico and Spain. Not surprisingly, it was in
these countries, which had experienced despotic regimes, that his theories of
liberty, equality, democracy and human rights were so well received.
Perhaps, it was also due to the conviction pervading his writings on those
principles that encouraged the germination of those seeds even in such
parched ground. Bobbio’s theoretical clarity and crystalline expression are
well acknowledged, and they operated as vital conduits to promote the kind
of free persuasion that is essential for an effective democracy: he observes
that ‘democracy needs clarity as much as humans need air’ (Bobbio, 1945,
p. 159).
Bobbio’s writings are underpinned by his eclectic understanding, which
derives from his synthesis of a body of knowledge in legal, political and
moral philosophy. Significantly, it was from such a perspective that he
engaged with different interlocutors during the difficult years under fascism
in Italy. As an engaged intellectual, Bobbio considered complex questions
from a principled position, and beyond national boundaries, and these
attributes distinguished his approach.
Bobbio’s intellectual trajectory and interdisciplinary body of writings
provide a broad spectrum of understanding, which also reveals a developed
international mind. This spans his cultural origins steeped in the Piedmontese
landscape, his synthesis of Continental scholarship and thorough assimila-
tion of the English classics, and includes his reception of Anglo-American
influences that he found relevant to particular social and legal areas.

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