Over the last four decades of common law thought, there have been increasingly sophisticated attempts to develop comprehensive theories of private law. Chief amongst these are (1) theories of corrective justice, (2) economic theories, and (3) formalist accounts. The common feature of these apparently diverse ‘grand theories’ is a lack of trust in collective action: legislatures are not trusted to serve the public good, individuals are trusted only to pursue their private interests, and judges are trusted only when they focus on technical legal issues, not when they ask whether their decisions may have a broader significance. These accounts implicitly contrast the rights of individuals with the good of the community. Yet the opposition is false: safeguarding the rights of individuals is safeguarding the good of the community, and vice-versa. Their approach makes large areas of private law either invisible or incomprehensible, and leave them with little to say on how the law can be reformed or improved. Trust in collective institutions, as well as in individuals, is ubiquitous in all modern societies – rightly so, necessarily so – and as this is more widely appreciated, these grand theories are progressively losing their distinctive character as their better points are absorbed back into mainstream legal thinking.'The Return of Legal Realism' by Dan Priel in Markus D Dubber and Christopher Tomlins (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Historical Legal Research (Oxford University Press, 2018) comments
The main goal of this essay is to explain in what sense ‘we are all realists now’. It examines various answers to this question suggested by existing literature and proposes another. The key is identifying a fundamental divide among the legal realists on what makes their view ‘realistic’. One group of legal realists, of whom Karl Llewellyn and Jerome Frank are the most notable exponents, has argued that realism consists in greater awareness by legal academics to the realities of legal practice. The other group, of whom Felix Cohen and Walter Wheeler Cook were notable exponents, has argued that being realistic about law meant adopting the methods of the natural sciences. Following on this, the two groups of realists have given very different answers to a series of fundamental questions about such as the common law, the proper approach to law reform, legal education. Ultimately, I argue, these two views rest on competing views on the authority of law. It is this contrast, I argue, that allows us to place the realists in historical context, as well as explain the continuing relevance of legal realism(s) to contemporary debates.