Legal fallibilism: Law (like science) as a form of community inquiry

Discipline Filosofiche 19 (2) (2009)
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Abstract

Fallibilism, as a fundamental aspect of pragmatic epistemology, can be illuminated by a study of law. Before he became a famous American judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., along with his friends William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, associated as presumptive members of the Metaphysical Club of Cambridge in the 1870s, recalled as the birthplace of pragmatism. As a young scholar, Holmes advanced a concept of legal fallibilism as incremental community inquiry. In this early work, I suggest that Holmes treats common law cases more like scientific experiments than as deductive applications of already clear rules. Common law rules may be seen as a product of 1) the conflicts that occur in society, 2) the channeling of conflicts into legal disputes, 3) the gradual accumulation of judicial decisions classified into groups, and 4) the development of consensual understanding, expressed in rules and principles, as to how future cases should be classified and decided. This does not involve only lawyers and judges. Especially in controversial cases, it may indirectly involve an entire community. The legal process is seen as an extended intergenerational process of inquiry. It illuminates the relation of thought, expression, and conduct among a community of inquirers, applied to the problems of social ordering.

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Frederic Kellogg
Universidade Federal de Pernambuco

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