The Concept of Law

by H. L. A. Hart

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Concept of Law is a 1961 book written by British legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart (Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart). It is compiled of several lectures on legal positivism that Hart delivered in 1952 on the subjects of sovereignty, legal validity, and the connections and differences between legal and moral obligation.

In the book, Hart systematically presents his views and opinions on many problems of legal and analytical philosophy. He develops a concept of law in a descriptive and detailed manner, explaining the meaning and the origin of the subject, and compares its practice in early societies to its practice in the modern societies of today. Hart also writes several analyses, essays, and commentaries on other legal theorists (most notably John Austin, Hans Kelsen, Max Weber, and Ronald Dworkin).

According to Hart, law is a complex system and a sociopolitical phenomenon which cannot be explained by just one definition. He argues that even if a theorist comes up with an accurate conceptualization and specific definition of "law," it still won’t fully explain what exactly law is, how it functions, how it operates, and how can it be comprehended. Thus, he presents his own theory on law, defining it as an affair which consists of two distinctive forms of rules: primary and secondary rules.

Primary rules are laws, or rules of conduct, which impose legal obligations on the physical behavior of a person. If a person disobeys a primary rule or a law, he/she will have to face certain consequences. For instance, a primary rule is the law against theft or murder.

Secondary rules are empowering rules which identify who will create, amend, or abolish a law or a primary rule. Therefore, primary rules are dependent on secondary rules. Secondary rules do not have sanctions, but they require social acceptance. They are separated into three sub-types, designed to tackle the three main problems of the law: rules of recognition (the problem of uncertainty), the rules of change (the problem of efficiency), and the rules of adjudication (the problem of static quality of the law).

Hart argues that, in order to function properly, the law must protect all of its members. The book has received many positive reviews, and is considered one of the most important and influential books ever written in the fields of legal philosophy and analytical jurisprudence.

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