jurisprudence: an overview
The word jurisprudence derives from the Latin term juris prudentia, which means "the study, knowledge, or science of law." In the United States jurisprudence commonly means the philosophy of law. Legal philosophy has many aspects, but four of them are the most common. The first and the most prevalent form of jurisprudence seeks to analyze, explain, classify, and criticize entire bodies of law. Law school textbooks and legal encyclopedias represent this type of scholarship. The second type of jurisprudence compares and contrasts law with other fields of knowledge such as literature, economics, religion, and the social sciences. The third type of jurisprudence seeks to reveal the historical, moral, and cultural basis of a particular legal concept. The fourth body of jurisprudence focuses on finding the answer to such abstract questions as What is law? How do judges (properly) decide cases?
Apart from different types of jurisprudence, different schools of jurisprudence exist. Formalism, or conceptualism, treats law like math or science. Formalists believe that a judge identifies the relevant legal principles, applies them to the facts of a case, and logically deduces a rule that will govern the outcome of the dispute. In contrast, proponents of legal realism believe that most cases before courts present hard questions that judges must resolve by balancing the interests of the parties and ultimately drawing an arbitrary line on one side of the dispute. This line, realists maintain, is drawn according to the political, economic, and psychological inclinations of the judge. Some legal realists even believe that a judge is able to shape the outcome of the case based on personal biases.
Apart from the realist-formalist dichotomy, there is the classic debate over the appropriate sources of law between positivist and natural law schools of thought. Positivists argue that there is no connection between law and morality and the the only sources of law are rules that have been expressly enacted by a governmental entity or court of law. Naturalists, or proponents of natural law, insist that the rules enacted by government are not the only sources of law. They argue that moral philosophy, religion, human reason and individual conscience are also integrate parts of the law.
There are no bright lines between different schools of jurisprudence. The legal philosophy of a particular legal scholar may consist of a combination of strains from many schools of legal thought. Some scholars think that it is more appropriate to think about jurisprudence as a continuum.
The above mentioned schools of legal thoughts are only part of a diverse jurisprudential picture of the United States. Other prominent schools of legal thought exist. Critical legal studies, feminist jurisprudence, law and economics, utilitarianism, and legal pragmatism are but a few of them.