This essay reviews four recent English-language essay collections, each of which proposes a vision of private law theory – that is, of how private law appears in the light of a wider understanding of the world. It concentrates on how each collection gives some sort of shape to the emerging discipline. Discussion of the shape, meaning and significance of private law is of course nothing new; but the recent massive outpouring of theory, and the issues which have been treated as important, require some discussion of the intellectual climate which has led us to this place. For the most part, this essay argues, the discussion has been governed by the increasing obsolescence of classical private law concepts, which the more progressive writers have taken as a call to develop new concepts, and the more traditional writers have taken as a call to defend what is valuable about them; over time, this has increasingly pushed the traditionalists to a position where they can describe some (though hardly all) of what we all see, but which is largely impotent in justifying it – that is, in explaining why it is worth retaining. Meanwhile, the terms of debate have become increasingly narrow, as continuity is privileged over change, the lawyer’s point of view privileged over that of other community members, and national court-based law is emphasised over the many other forms of social ordering. Yet there are now also welcome signs of a broader approach, by which different perspectives are seen as complementing one another rather than as rivals, and there is (sometimes at least) genuine enquiry into what is really universal and what is merely a local present-day peculiarity. And we might be approaching – to put it no higher – the time when private law theory is a genuine conversation rather than as a mere cacophony of voices.
Hedley, Steve, Private Law Theory: The State of the Art (September 5, 2021).