Our topic this week is “holism,” more particularly the idea that theories of the law are (or “should be” or “can be”) holistic. Legal holism can be captured in a famous slogan, “The law is a seamless web,” and the contemporary legal theorist who is most associated with legal holism is Ronald Dworkin.
And before we get on with it, a brief digression on the origins of the phrase. The idea of the law as a seamless web seems to be derived from a related idea--that history is a seamless web--found in the writiings of Frederic Maitland: "Such is the unity of all history that any one who endeavours to tell a piece of it must feel that his first sentence tears a seamless web." Frederic William Maitland, A Prologue to a History of English Law, 14 L.Querterly Rev. 13 (1898) (online version).
Ideas about legal holism may also have been influenced by philosophical ideas about holism and in particular "meaning holism"--a notion that is strongly associated with Quine.
The Law is a Seamless Web
The idea that the law is a seamless web is familiar to almost every law student, but what on earth does this phrase mean? I think the best initial approach to this idea is to place it in the context of a common-law system. Suppose we have an unsettled question of law (e.g. a question about proximate causation in tort law). The question is unsettled in our jurisdiction, so there is no binding precedent—no prior decision of a higher court addresses the issue. But the lack of binding precedent does not imply that precedent is irrelevant to our question. The judge deciding our case with a tricky proximate cause question will want to look at the cases that deal with analogous issue. Her search for relevant case law might begin with cases on causation in tort law, but from there, it could lead to other issues and distinct doctrinal fields. For example, causation in tort is analogous to causation in criminal law. So our judge might base her reasoning in part on the way an analogous question was decided in the criminal context. And causation also arises in a variety of other legal contexts, leading our judge to move from fields that are closely related to torts, to more distant topics, including environmental law, administrative law, or even tax. Moreover, questions of proximate causation are only partly about causation, they also involve judgments about responsibility and reasonableness of conduct. In a common law system, the law is a seamless web in the sense that common-law ideas connect with one another in complex relationships of consistency and mutual support. A tremor in one region of the web of the law can in principle resonate in other region.
Coherence and Holism
The idea that holism involves wide and deep relationships of consistency and mutual support can be captured by introducing a related notion coherence. We might say that legal holists believe that a principle of coherence applies to the law as a whole. Each proposition of law ought to be consistent with every other proposition. Coherence can require more than mere consistency, however. A system of law achieves coherence at a deeper level if the normative justifications for legal propositions are consistent and mutually supporting.
Cohererence can be local or global. The theory that the law is a seamless web can be rephrased as “the law is globally coherent,” and we might call that view “global legal holism.”
Ronald Dworkin’s theory, “law as integrity,” takes the idea that the law is seamless web to its logical conclusion. Dworkin illustrated his theory with an imaginary judge, Hercules. Because Hercules acts on the basis of the premise that the law is a seamless web, Hercules is required to construct the theory that best fits and justifies the law as a whole in order to decide any particular case. Given the holistic assumption that a change anywhere in the law can produce consequences everywhere, Hercules must constantly revise his theory—checking to assure himself that a recent change in the law of trusts does not have consequences for the best interpretation of the reasonable person standard in torts.
Of course, actual judges are not like Hercules in this regard. No actual judge could possible construct a theory of the whole law of her jurisdiction. Actual judges must make do with theories that are local rather than global in nature. This is not to say that no actual judge has a tacit (or even partially explicit) view about the way the law hangs together as whole. Indeed, some real world judges have views that account for many different regions of the law. The most intellectual judges (Richard Posner, for example) have comprehensive legal theories that provide consistent explanations across many different doctrinal fields. But even these Herculean judges cannot actually produce a theory that fits and justifies all of the law—that would take longer than a human lifespan permits and most of the work would be terribly dull.
Holism versus Particularism
So far, I’ve been presenting a fairly sympathetic view of legal holism. But holism is a controversial view in the law. One might believe that holism is domain specific. That is, it might be the case that all of tort law hangs together, but that tort law is a more or less closed system. It could be the case that criminal law operates on a different set of principles than those that operate in tort, and hence that conclusions reached in criminal law are different from those reached in tort law on analogous questions. Of course, the domain of coherence could be a higher or lower level of generality than doctrinal field. Perhaps, perhaps all of private law is coherent, but public law operates on different principles. Alternatively, perhaps the common law and statutory law form two different fields—each coherent within its own realm but not consistent with each other. Moving to the other end of the spectrum, it might be that the law governing the tort of negligence is coherent, but that negligence and battery operate on entirely different principles.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from global legal holism (“The law is a seamless web.”) there is at least logical space for a local legal particularism (“Take each case on its own merits.”). Legal particularism may be related to the analagous view in moral theory and the idea of the "priority of the particular."
Is Holism Normative, Descriptive, or Interpretive?
Before we come to a close, let’s address one final question: what kind of theory is legal holism? You may have notice that I’ve been deliberately ambiguous in my phrasing of holist claims using locutions like “is or ought to be.” One view of global legal holism is that it is a normative claim: the law ought to form a seamless web. Why? Well, that’s a big question, but one cluster of reasons for preferring consistency in the law centers around the rule of law values of predictability, certainty, and publicity.
Another view of global legal holism is that it is a descriptive theory. As a matter of fact, judges (in common law systems) strive for consistency. The phrase—the law is a seamless web—is couched as a descriptive claim. Of course, this will be a special sort of descriptive claim, because no one thinks that the law actually is fully consistent at the global level.
Yet another view of global legal holism is that it an interpretive theory. On this view, legal holism bears a relationship to the idea of the hermeneutic circle. The meaning of any given legal rule must be interpreted in light of the whole set of rules, and the meaning of the whole set depends on the meaning of the particular members. On this view, holism is quasi-descriptive and quasi-normative: legal interpretation both is imperfectly holistic and legal interpretation aims at global consistency.
The distinction between holism and particularism is quite useful. Once you begin to look, you will quickly find that many legal arguments depend on implicit assumptions about the presence or desirability of coherence in the law. In particular, it often edifying to look for how some legal arguments turn on assumptions about whether coherence should be global or local.
- Legal Theory Lexicon 059: The Law Is A Seamless Web
- Legal Theory Lexicon 067: The Priority of the Particular
- Scott Brewer, Figuring The Law: Holism and Tropological Inference in Legal Interpretation, 97 Yale L.J. 823 (1988).
- Andrei Marmor, Coherence, Holism, and Interpretation: The Epistemic Foundations of Dworkin's Legal Theory 10 Law and Philosophy 383-412 (1991).
- Frederic William Maitland, A Prologue to a History of English Law, 14 L.Querterly Rev. 13 (1898) (online version).
- Henry Jackman, Meaning Holism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014).
(Last revised on February 11, 2018.)