Legal intellectual history, I suggest in this Paper, is the street sweeper in the parade of law’s history and its use of history. Lawyers and legal academics want great, important figures, cases, and theories with and against which they can do battle. The student-edited law reviews prefer bold, clear claims that explain why one answer to an historical question presented will bring justice, while a competing answer is manifestly unjust; why one past approach lacks principle or created worse consequences; or how one theory or another can explain all manner of thorny legal issues which bedevils academics and practitioners. Viewing an appellate decision, legislative enactment, or academic debate, the legal academic must travel back in time to set matters straight, redeeming the past to make certain that the future avoids its confused and unfortunate fate.
Intellectual historians trail behind the legal academy’s heavy-breathing and magnificent use of the past, cleaning up its waste by providing context, complicating narratives, and replacing bright trumpet horns with muted tones, vivid colors with shades of gray. Well after the parade has dispersed and marchers have moved on, and often before the next “Big Issue” causes the celebrants to line back up, intellectual history can bring complexity and context back in to the frame. I illustrate this dynamic first by describing the use of legal realism in Brian Tamanaha’s recent monograph on what he describes as the formalist-realist divide in legal theories about judging and about legal doctrine, and in the debate over that divide. In Part II, I describe a relatively minor figure in the pantheon of legal realists (as that pantheon currently exists), Thurman Arnold, and his realist critique of the criminal law and procedure.
Mark Fenster, Mr. Peabody's Improbable Legal Intellectual History, 64 Buff. L. Rev. 101 (2016), available at