Idea for a Harvard Legal Theory Forum

September 12th, 2008 · No Comments

September 9, 2008


Dear Law Students, Graduate Students, Faculty, and Others Interested in Legal Theory,


I am thinking about initiating a Harvard Legal Theory Forum to provide a venue for students at Harvard Law School, and also graduate students at other schools in Harvard and other area universities, to discuss legal theory and bounce their ideas off of each other. Harvard Law School has, to some extent, a reputation as an anti-intellectual place, and I think that this reputation is not entirely undeserved. Particularly, many journals and student organizations focus narrowly on particular legal interests to the extent that they are somewhat hostile to theoretical treatment of law that cuts across legal fields. (There are certainly exceptions to this, but I have not found any organization that provides a good home for legal theory that cuts across a wide variety of legal topics and does not have any particular political affiliation.) This Forum would attempt to provide a home for legal theory that does not fit neatly within other legal fields, and it would be open to anyone interested in discussing or learning about legal theory.


The subject matter that such a group addresses might vary significantly depending on who is interested in this project. “Legal theory” is not a particularly narrow term. I thought first about reviving the “Law and Philosophy Society,” (which, as far as I can tell, has ceased to function) but the terminology of law and philosophy is often used in Anglo-American academia to connote a very methodologically narrow field. I have a sense that there are many people at Harvard who are not particularly interested in philosophy as it is defined by most American philosophy departments but who are interested in meta-accounts of law that might draw from Continental philosophy, feminist or queer theory, literary theory and criticism, history, political science, economics, and a number of other fields. All of these approaches might fairly be characterized as “legal theory,” and I would hope to incorporate as many of these approaches as possible into this Forum. 


I think that there are a number of reasons that it is important to encourage the study of legal theory. Communities around the world are changing and developing their legal systems to address the realities of globalization. They are also recognizing, to a greater extent than they have in the past, the difficulties and opportunities of regulating boundedly-rational actors. And they are confronting the challenges of adapting to effectively attend to the emergence and expansion of new communications technologies. As legal systems grow, it is important for legal theory to do so as well both so that it can provide coherent descriptive accounts of how laws work and so that it can effectively advance criticisms or normative stories about legal systems. The emergence and growth of a number of “law and” approaches to legal theory also challenges legal theorists to evaluate whether these modes of academic production provide useful ways of thinking about law. Young scholars should work to develop legal theory that builds on the strength of past theoretical endeavors but that also incorporates a fresh understanding of the world and law’s place in it. While working closely with established scholars is vital to building on prior theoretical accomplishments, developing a fresh understanding of the world is, to a large extent, a task for young scholars, and by working with one another to rethink legal theory young scholars can develop such understandings. This Forum would attempt to provide a resource for young scholars to collaborate and also a platform for young scholars to connect with more established scholars.


The particulars of how such a Forum would best be structured depend on the interests of the participants. Such a Forum could hold regular, informal meetings to discuss legal theory. Somewhat more formally, it could hold discussions of classic or recent works on legal theory or of Forum members’ writings on legal theory. It could also invite professors to participate in discussions of Forum members’ work or of published works on legal theory. I could also envision that the Forum might forum members’ writings as occasional papers, because the narrow focuses of many of the law journals at Harvard makes it rather difficult to find a suitable outlet to publish such writing.


Please contact me if you think that you might be interested in joining me to undertake such an initiative. Please feel free to pass along this information to anyone you know who might be interested.




Jonathan Gingerich

 jgingerich at jd10.law.harvard.edu

Tags: Administration