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The elements of international legal positivism

Hovell, Devika (2022) The elements of international legal positivism. Current Legal Problems, 75 (1). pp. 71-109. ISSN 0070-1998

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Identification Number: 10.1093/clp/cuac003


This article contains a plea for continuing attention to the elements of international legal positivism. Using the language of ‘elements’ deliberately plays on the positivist tendency to describe the legal discipline as a legal science. Yet law’s elements differ in important ways from the usual objects of scientific inquiry. Law’s method does not seek to address the structure and behaviour of the physical world, but that of a particular society with its own political polarities, structure and functions. The fact that international law inherits its positivist method from the domestic legal context therefore presents complications. While the adoption of positivism as international law’s predominant legal method was animated in part by a desire to provide international law with the imprimatur it needs to claim credibility as a legal system, it has also served as an impediment to international law’s development in a distinctive fashion from domestic law. International law’s attachment to the positivist method has at times extended to an attachment to certain presuppositions more closely associated with the development of the modern European state. This article takes the position that it is important to engage with international legal positivism on its own terms. Part I traces the lineage of three important traditions of international legal positivism (‘social thesis’ positivism, ‘system-based’ positivism and ‘teleological’ positivism) highlighting their different emphases and in doing so identifying key elements. Part II interrogates certain presuppositions sometimes associated with these traditions and considers whether it is appropriate to rethink or re-engineer these aspects in their application to the international legal system. While positivism is sometimes associated with ‘purifying’ law as a discipline, the article takes the position that the positivist method can only endure if complemented by a rich legal, political and social discourse focused on understanding its relationship to the elements of the international legal system, in particular, international law’s community, authority and functions.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2022 The Author
Divisions: Law
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)
Date Deposited: 11 Nov 2022 15:48
Last Modified: 07 Jun 2024 16:03

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