“Critical Legal Histories Revisited”: A Response


Robert W. Gordon is Professor of Law, Stanford University; Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History, Emeritus, Yale University. Thanks to the symposium contributors and participants in legal history workshops at the University of Michigan and University of Toronto for valuable comments.


The author responds to comments reappraising “Critical Legal Histories” (CLH) (1984). CLH critiqued “evolutionary functionalism,” the idea that law is a functional response to a typical modernizing process. CLH argued that “society” was partly constituted of legal elements and that law was too indeterminate to have reliably regular functional effects. CLH has been misinterpreted as calling for a return to internal histories of “mandarin” doctrine: all it said was that some doctrinal histories were valuable, without privileging them. This response clarifies that the relations of law to society and social change, and of high-level official law to everyday local law are distinct issues. CLH is mostly moot today, since social-legal historians have incorporated its insight that legal concepts are embedded in everyday social practice. But other fields have revived deterministic Whiggish accounts of progressive development and of law functional to it—to which CLH's critique still seems relevant.