The Politics of Law and the Behavioural Sciences. Historical Contexts and Conceptual Sources: Call for Papers

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 13 May 2015, 9:00-18:00
Badia, MWP Common Room


The rationale behind the workshop

This workshop is part of the Max Weber Programme events organized by the MW Fellows series. Franz L. Fillafer (HEC 2014-105) and Magdalena Malecka (LAW 2013-2015) are organizing it.

Current research on law, as well as the practices of contemporary states, is marked by an increasing interest in the findings of the behavioural and cognitive sciences. Today’s proponents of the application of the behavioural sciences to law mainly refer to research in psychology, economics, decision theory, and cognitive science. This sort of approach to law is increasingly backed by policymakers. Our workshop is designed to interrogate from both historical and conceptual perspectives this reliance on ostensible regularities evinced by the behavioural sciences. In doing so, we hope to offer a venue for the critical reconceptualization of the relationship between law, nature, and science.

The debate on these issues has so far chiefly focused on the ways in which science became politicized. Analyses conducted under the label of  ‘biopolitics’  have problematized the relations between life and politics, yet little attention has been devoted to the role law plays at the interface between science and politics.

            This workshop addresses the historical preconditions, philosophical implications and political corollaries of the incorporation of scientific knowledge about human behaviour into law. Our purpose is to

  • clarify what philosophical and methodological problems are created by the reliance on knowledge about behavioural regularities in legal contexts;
  • highlight in what way this reliance on scientific ‘findings’  challenge the conception of law as a normative enterprise;
  • isolate recurrent schemes and modes employed in the modelling of the relationship between law and the study of nature.

The purpose of this is not primarily the demonstration of antecedents: rather, we aim at exploring the historical contexts and conceptual sources of current references to science in law and policymaking. We intend to do so by situating these references in the historical debate about the laws of nature and by using them to shed light on how law’s capacity to adjust to, address or countervail the lawfulness of nature, was conceptualised.

For this reason we would like to discuss the contemporary challenges provoked by the usage of behavioural science in law and politics from a historical perspective; there is a historical dimension to the understanding of law-like regularities that determine behaviour in legal contexts, but this dimension is given short shrift in current debates on the application of scientific knowledge to law and politics.

Pursuing these lines of inquiry we invite contributions that address the following questions:

  •  What concepts of legal laws and laws of nature does the current reliance on findings from the behavioural sciences involve?
  • What are the justifications for current applications of scientific findings in law and policy settings? In what ways do these applications transform the concept of law?
  • What kind of relations occurred between the laws of nature, natural law, and positive law in the early modern and modern periods? What kind of relations are believed to exist between behavioural regularities ‘discovered’ by contemporary science on the one hand and legal norms on the other? What analogies exist between those two types of relations?
  • Is the approach to law- and policymaking that relies on behavioural knowledge related to the dichotomy between norms and facts? How might the questioning of this binary distinction by philosophers, sociologists and historians of science affect the practice of legislation and policymaking?
  • Is it possible to grasp the contemporary reliance on behavioural regularities with the early modern/modern terminology (e.g. the relationships between laws of nature and legal laws)? What could be gained by adopting a ‘biopolitical’ framework?


In combining historical and contemporary perspectives, we encourage the submission of abstracts from the following fields of study: the history of the laws of nature in their connection to natural and positive law; Neo-Kantianism/legal positivism and contemporary natural science; histories of psychology and law; the history of the behavioural sciences and law; biopolitics and law; histories of normativity; philosophy of nature and philosophy of law.

We invite submissions of abstracts (up to 350 words) by the 20th of February.

Invitation for submissions of final papers will be notified before the 28th of February.


Please send abstracts to [email protected]; [email protected] 

Format and outcomes of the workshop

We will ask  our speakers to pre-circulate their papers in order to ensure a lively exchange during the event. In addition we shall prepare a reader that will contain classical texts and sources to provide a common basis for discussion. We intend to publish contributions from the workshop in an edited volume or a journal theme issue.