On the Domestication of Critical Legal History

Document Type



History & Theory






Among many of today’s legal historians, there is a relatively new and generally unreflective understanding of the relationship between history and method. The landscape is everywhere marked by a tendency to eschew big thinking, grand theory, and programmatic approaches to historical explanation and social transformation. In the place of the grand theory approach to law and history, there is a preference for the minimalist, the pragmatic, the particularistic, and the quotidian. What this normal science of today’s legal historiography makes obvious is a kind of attachment to particular kinds of problems with particular sorts of built-in solutions. The result for today is intellectual stagnation, a routinized and thoroughly domesticated mode of revealing contingency. Oddly, the fascination with contingency, and its deadening affair with a minimalist pragmatism, is itself a result of the triumph of what continues to be called “critical legal history.” Ostensibly due to an interface between critical legal studies and the historical discipline, the rise and triumph of critical legal history hides a secret: the whole idea of a reigning critical appreciation for contingency seems to be a misnomer. Sure, some may say that “things might have been otherwise.” But what this intellectual settlement demands is obedience to its qualification: “things might have been otherwise, but they weren’t, and so let’s get on with doing what works.” Although so-called critical legal history seduces adherents with promises of edgy progressivism, the actual malaise of our minimalism seems in fact to suggest just the opposite. It is a quiescent and even quietistic method in practice, counseling in its conservatism against higher-order proposals that might ever make good on the discovery that nothing is natural. In the end, either we must accept that critical legal history in the United States is a lot less politically explosive than we once thought—given its deradicalization and domestication today—or that people have been mistaken about what critical legal history was, is, and ought to be.


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