Karen Tani at the Legal History Blog has drawn attention to Allan Beever's new book, Forgotten Justice: The Forms of Justice in the History of Legal and Political Theory (OUP, 2013). The argument fron the publisher:
Throughout much of the history of political philosophy, many of the great philosophers begin their work with an investigation of private law. Why is this? And why is the central focus of our modern concern, the state, examined so late in their works? This book suggests an answer to these and related questions. It reveals that there are two general ways of thinking about the legal and the political: the modern which sees all through the lens of the state, and the traditional which begins with individuals and with the normative relations that exist between them building only slowly towards the community and the state.
In the modern view, private law is understood as a method for achieving certain social goals. As such, it can be overlooked by political philosophy. For the traditional view, on the other hand, private law is of central philosophical importance, because it is there that we observe a society's enunciation of its most fundamental political and legal values. Arguing that an understanding of the traditional view is essential to an understanding of private law and political life, this book highlights how the modern conception is seriously distorting in this regard.
A story unfolds throughout the chapters: the story of the growth and decline of the traditional view in political and legal thought. It challenges the modern fixation with the state, arguing for a return to the traditional view of legal and political community.
Strictly speaking of the historical argument- that sounds rather pursuasvie to me. We have a very difficult time thinking about the relationship between political philosophy and public law (or "public philosophy") on the one hand and private law on the other. The most striking example of this difficulty that comes to mind, at least for me, is the concept of equity. We have strong, broad historical and theoretical treatments of the subject (think of Peter Hoffer's Law's Concience, David Lieberman's The Province of Legislation Determined (a personal favorite of mine), or the work of Drucilla Cornell, or along those lines Derrida's famous essay in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. That being said, the relationship between the concept of equity and the jurisdiction of equity is understudied. Good places to look right now, I have found, are in law and literature- Daniela Carpi's own work and edited volumes, including The Concept of Equity and Practiging Equity, Addressing Law, and Bradin Cormack's A Power to do Justice, and in legal history- Ian Williams of University College, London on the practical creation of maxims in late medieval and early modern legal theory.
Chancery courts at all levels of various constitional orders were controversial in the early modern British Atlantic world precisely because they were local sites for configuring jurisdictional and judical power (think of the political situation behind the Zenger case, or Jefferson's pet project of instituting a High Court of Chancery in Virginia, to say nothing of his equity commonplace book). Chancery, in other words, was shot through with larger, open-ended questions at play in English, British, and British American constitutionalism about who judges and where (and for whom and for where) they get to do it. Contests over conciliar courts (from the Star Chamber on down) were fundamental fights about sovereignty itself.
Now in terms of political theory, one of the many reasons I remain skeptical of the perpetually asserted importance of Carl Schmitt is that his notions of the state of excpetion and political theology would not have struck anyone in the early modern world thinking about equity as particularly insightful or original. It has long been understood that there is a point at which positive if not all of customary law breaks down, loses coherence, or becomes suspended, and a good deal of the history of legal and political thought has been concerned to identify just what that point is and when or where it should be or simply is reached, and what should happen when it is reached. Are we standing then in the presence of natural law, a transcendent justice, and how do human institutions, or human beings themselves, acknowledge that point and deliver that justice without becoming, or at least appearing to become, either the object or instrument of sheer force of sovereign will? These are questions broached by More and Hobbes among others in their days and in our own age of "governmentality" and the security state these questions are hardly irrelevant. But, so the argument might go, we ask and answer such questions not only in political philosophy or high constitutional (or unconstitutional) politics, but in our relationships with one another, in everyday practices and in private law. Bonnie Honig of the American Bar Foundation makes something of a similar point in her book, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy.
One could speak here of a need for ordinary legal philosophy.
Anyway, I will discuss Jefferson's place in all this in another post before signing off. Beever's book sounds quite interesting, and it seems to be part of a trend to refocus legal scholarship on big questions that involve the long history of thought- it is worth noting that scholars are getting over our ingrained (and I would want to say in many cases still justified) concerns about metanarratives.