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Schools of Jurisprudence: Theories & Definitions

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  • 0:05 Jurisprudence
  • 1:40 Natural Law
  • 2:45 Legal Positivism
  • 3:41 Legal Realism
  • 4:38 Critical Legal Studies
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Jurisprudence is the study of law, or the philosophy of law. It helps us better understand the creation, application, and enforcement of laws. This lesson explains what jurisprudence is, and explores some specific schools of jurisprudence.

Jurisprudence

Jurisprudence is the study of law. It is a type of science that explores the creation, application, and enforcement of laws. Jurisprudence is the study of theories and philosophies regarding law.

If we understand the theories and philosophies behind law, then we can better understand our laws. The word 'jurisprudence' is derived from the Latin phrase juris prudential. This means 'knowledge of the law.'

General jurisprudence can be broken down into several different categories. First, there are categories that represent the types of questions scholars seek to address. These questions mostly represent one of two sub-categories.

The first sub-category is analytic jurisprudence. This area addresses the meanings and uses of legal concepts, such as, 'what is law?'

The second sub-category is normative jurisprudence. This area addresses the moral basis of law, such as, 'what is the purpose of law?'

There are also categories that represent theories, or schools of jurisprudence, regarding how those questions are best answered. Let's explore some of the well-known schools of jurisprudence.

Natural Law

Natural law is a philosophy of law that focuses on the laws of nature. This school of jurisprudence represents the belief that there are inherent laws that are common to all societies, whether or not they are written down or officially enacted.

This school of thought tells us that law is rational and reasonable. Natural law proposes that laws are a logical progression from morals. Therefore, actions that are considered to be morally wrong will be against the law. But also, actions that are considered to be morally right can't truly and justly be against the law. Natural law exists regardless of what laws are enacted.

Our Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are both heavily based on natural law. Thomas Jefferson even cited natural law in the Declaration of Independence, calling it 'the laws of Nature and of Nature's God.'

Legal Positivism

A second school of jurisprudence is called legal positivism. Generally speaking, this school of thought is the opposite of natural law.

Legal positivism proposes that there isn't necessarily a connection between law and morality. Instead, it holds that law comes from various sources, usually the government. If the government enacts a law, then it should be followed.

Under legal positivism, there is no valid argument for breaking a law, even if the law isn't considered to be fair or just. For example, there would be no valid justification for breaking a law by peacefully protesting an issue. This is true even if the protestor has strong ethical and moral objections to the issue - though under a natural law theory, the protest would be justified.

Legal Realism

Another school of jurisprudence is known as legal realism. This theory proposes that law is a reflection of the personal views of those people in charge of enacting, applying, and enforcing it. The actual practice of law determines what law is.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has advocated this philosophy. In a lecture at Suffolk University Law School, Justice Sotomayor explained that 'the law that lawyers practice and judges declare is not a definitive, capital 'L' law that many would like to think exists.' Instead, courts and lawyers are 'constantly overhauling the law and adapting it to the realities of ever-changing social, industrial, and political conditions.'

Critical Legal Studies

Lastly, let's take a look at critical legal studies. This school of jurisprudence is a newer theory, as compared to the others. It was a popular way of viewing law in the 1970s and 1980s.

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