Author:Rubin, Edward L.
Position:Symposium on Brian Z. Tamanaha's 'A Realistic Theory of Law'

In A Realistic Theory of Law, (1) Brian Tamanaha rejects the claim that universal legal principles exist, and its variant that essential features of law applicable to all societies can be identified. He argues that we should define law in accordance with our society's ordinary usage of the term and analyze law in other societies on the basis of the practices they follow on subjects that fall within the boundaries of that usage. Tamanaha then observes that the effort to identify universal principles or essential features of law has interfered with our understanding of the way that law, as we define it, has evolved over the course of human history. Even more importantly, this effort has occluded our understanding of our own legal system, which is largely organization-based and managerial, and carries out a wide variety of functions beyond the traditional one of regulating relations between private persons.

There are at least two major arguments against the positions that Tamanaha advances. The argument against rejecting any universal legal standards is that this rejection is a form of cultural relativism and thus precludes our ability to make moral judgments about other nations or other societies. (2) Are we truly willing to say that slavery or human sacrifice is not wrong, but merely reflect a different cultural perspective; are we willing to say that there are no universal principles by which we can condemn someone like Hitler? The argument against allowing all the organizational and managerial practices of our society to count as law is that it validates governmental action that violates important legal or moral principles. (3) Are we truly willing to say that discretionary, opaque, and result-oriented behavior of modern administrative agencies does not raise concerns about their lawfulness?

These may seem like separate objections, stated at different levels of generality, but I will maintain that they suffer from a common defect and thus are best answered with a single argument. That argument is that the principles by which we formulate our moral judgments are the product of our own society, the very same society that has generated our modern form of government. The idea that we can articulate and apply universal moral principles is simply a rhetorical device, characteristic of own society, and one that cannot withstand sustained examination. This does not preclude us from advancing moral arguments; rather, it means that the best moral arguments we can advance--the ones that will be most meaningful to us--are derived from our own conceptual framework, that is, the framework generated by our own society. It also means that the concepts of law and government that will be most meaningful to us are our own concepts of those institutions. We can criticize those institutions, but global condemnations of them based on different concepts, concepts that are not our own, are also little more than rhetorical devices designed to grant an illusory validity to particular criticisms being voiced within the context of our own society's debates.

The underlying theory of this argument goes beyond the boundaries of the discussion in Tamanaha's book. The book is designed to refute certain widespread positions in Anglo-American analytic jurisprudence (4) and does so within the framework of that jurisprudence. The basic approach of analytic jurisprudence, like analytic philosophy in general, is to interrogate our own beliefs, to demand that we reflect on the values that we hold and the consequences they imply. Tamanaha's reliance on this approach is not a defect, because the positions against which the book is directed are probably critiqued most effectively on their own terms.

In my view, there is a more philosophically and psychologically convincing way to address general questions about law and legal systems. This is Husserl's phenomenology, an approach less common in Anglo-American jurisprudence but dominant on the European continent. I argue that phenomenology leads to a different and more effective answer to the two objections that might be raised against Tamanaha's position, and thereby offers a different perspective on that position. Thus, it is not a critique of Tamanaha's argument, but rather an alternative route to the same conclusions that he reaches.

This article applies a phenomenological approach to the subject matter of Tamanaha's book, and the potential criticisms against it, in four sections. Section A shows why there are no universal principles of law and why any claim to such principles is incoherent. Section B then argues that the effort to find universal principles that apply to all legal systems is an inadequate and indeed defective way to understand legal systems other than our own. Section C argues that this effort is also an inadequate and defective way to understand our own legal system. The final section then applies these arguments to the modern administrative state and shows that global critiques of it, even at the most sophisticated level, tend to be based upon such asserted universal principles. The administrative state is our society's mode of governance; its specific features can of course be criticized, but its basic existence is the product of the same conceptual processes that generate the basis for any criticisms that we might advance.


    Phenomenology's basic insight leads to the recognition that the search for universal principles of law is based on unsupportable assumptions. This reinforces Tamanaha's argument against such principles, but does so on somewhat different grounds. Tamanaha states that his approach is grounded on pragmatism, an epistemological approach asserting that theoretical statements are to be judged on the basis of their usefulness. (5) Pragmatism is not a demand that theory should have practical value--that it should be rejected unless it allows us to solve the mystery of gravitation or design a better government. The point, rather, is that a theory that fails to advance any sort of inquiry, including a theoretical one such as the basis of knowledge or the meaning of ethics, is an empty use of language, perhaps enjoyable as imaginative writing but of no philosophic value. Pragmatism is the only starting point that Tamanaha needs because analytic jurisprudence does not go beyond it. A theoretical argument that has no use, in pragmatism's sense of that term, will not be relevant to such an inquiry; it cannot be deployed within analytic philosophy's process of interrogation and argument.

    Pragmatism becomes problematic, however, if we are not satisfied to base philosophic inquiry on arguments that appeal to us, as members of our own society, as reasonable or coherent, but rather seek to ground it on more basic considerations, namely, those that place the source and nature of our beliefs in question. This is the point at which Continental and Anglo-American philosophy diverge. An analytic philosopher can assert: "I think, therefore I am." (6) When we reflect on this statement, we recognize that it effectively establishes the limits of doubt for an individual, since existence cannot be doubted by a process that implies existence. Continental philosophy, however asks: "Who are you?" What assumptions are built into the concept of a rational, conscious entity that can pursue the Cartesian analysis? What is the philosophic grounding of selfhood and thought, and what does it imply for the way that the self is constructed and thought pursued? (7)

    Husserl's phenomenology offers an answer that has proved decisive in the development of Continental philosophy. All thought, he argues, is based upon experience. (8) Our starting point is the world that surrounds us, the "lifeworld" in his terminology, and we are immersed--Heidegger says "thrown" (9)--into that world before we have any notion of ourselves as selves. (10) We cannot stand apart from the lifeworld and speculate about its reality or its significance, because we are inevitably part of it, and all our thoughts and ideas derive from it. Because our lifeworld consists of our own experience, Husserl's position is one of radical subjectivity; all the individual can know is what he or she has actually been in contact with and perceived or undergone. Part of that experience, however--an important and essential part--is contact with other human beings. Knowledge, culture, and the very ability to speak and think results from such contact. To describe this, Husserl uses the term "intersubjective," indicating that each individual is formed and shaped by his or her own experience, but much of that experience consists of contact with other individuals who are similarly formed and shaped. This is, in effect, the answer to the "who are you" question that Husserl poses to Descartes in response to his claim that he will doubt everything and reach the conceptual starting point for all speculative thought. (11) An enormously complex process of individual and intersubjective experience precedes the ability to ask that question, Husserl argues, and the reality of that process cannot be challenged or put into doubt because it is anterior to the ability to doubt and creates the entity that asks the question.

    The dominant approach to the human sciences and social theory, in Europe and increasingly in the Anglo-American world as well, can be attributed to the insights of Husserl and his followers. This approach is familiarly described as the "social construction of reality." (12) In essence, it means that the way people think, in any given society, will be determined intersubjectively, that is, by the lifeworld formed by their intersubjective experiences. (13) Of course, individuals will also be shaped by their personal experiences, but the meaning of those experiences--the way that the individual perceives and processes them--will be the result of intersubjective understandings that prevail...

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