Illuminate Legal Terminology™
Law Explorers

Legal research, legal writing, and legal translation are the lights that illuminate the dark, unknown regions in the universe of law.


Can we translate our customary methods and techniques when research transports us into another legal culture?

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Cultures and legal systems other than our own have made valuable contributions to the history of written law.

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Translation provides a laboratory in which we can learn to elevate our capacity to select and use legal terminology.

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Is law a science?[1]  Legal science is “one of the most powerful and coherent schools of thought in the history of the [C]ivil [L]aw tradition,”[2] but “it has never really caught on” in Common Law[3] countries.[4]  As one skeptic put it, “[law] has little enough in common with any science as to make it illegitimate to call it a ‘science.’”[5]  And even “[i]f law is a science,” wrote another, “it is not an exact science.”[6]

The idea of “science” has evolved over time:[7]

  • We frequently use the English noun “science” in its “modern restricted sense,”[8] but “science” derives from the Latin word scientia.[9]
  • In Latin, scientia signified “a knowing, knowledge, intelligence, science”[10] and included within its scope jurisprudence[11] or scientia juris (the science of law).[12]

The Institutes of Justinian defined jurisprudence as “the knowledge of things divine and human, the science of the just and the unjust,”[13] a definition that has been criticized as an example of the “logical faults” of Roman law.[14]  Centuries later, the systematic study of Roman law led to the creation of legal science,[15] a concept that can be ambiguous,[16]  multidimensional,[17] and interdisciplinary.[18]

For the purposes of Law Explorers®, the attraction of legal science is that it stimulates us to consider more than just what we know based on practice — legal science teaches us to also consider why the law is the way it is.[19]  If we apply that lesson to legal terminology, we can elevate our comprehension of legal language — “the lawyer’s basic tool” — and the manner in which it is used.[20]

The mysteries of law, like those of science, will provide “endless work for us”[21] if we elect to explore them.  The idea of legal science cannot explain all of those mysteries.  But even if legal science is not universal,[22] it can help us compare[23] and understand[24] unfamiliar legal systems — even our own — and illuminate legal terminology.

[1] “One fundamental question in the modern era has been whether law could be a science, and if so, in what sense.  As in the history of linguistics, there is a tension here between the idea that the enterprise can be a science on the lines of the natural sciences, or a science but in a distinct form with its own subject matter and methodology.”  Roy Harris and Christopher Hutton, Definition in Theory and Practice: Language, Lexicography and the Law (London: Continuum, 2007), 183.

[2] “At any given moment in the history of the civil law tradition a number of different points of view will be in competition with each other, but one or another will always tend to dominate.  The contemporary civil law world is still under the sway of one of the most powerful and coherent schools of thought in the history of the civil law tradition.  We will call it legal science.”  John Henry Merryman and Rogelio Pérez-Perdomo, The Civil Law Tradition: An Introduction to the Legal Systems of Europe and Latin America, 3rd ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 61.

[3] The recommended practice is to hyphenate the English phrases “civil law” and “common law” when we use them as adjectives and to write them as two words when we use them as nouns.  Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), s.v.v. “civil law . . . B. form of adjective,” “common law . . . D. as adjective.”  Law Explorers®, however, prefers to capitalize those phrases as proper nouns when they refer to a legal tradition or family, except when those phrases appear in a quotation that is part of a note.  In general, it is not necessary to hyphenate a proper noun that “is used attributively as a phrasal adjective.”  Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), s.v. “phrasal adjectives . . . G. proper nouns.”

[4] “Although the common law world has seen occasional brief trends toward the kind of thinking that characterizes legal science, it has never really caught on [there].”  Merryman and Pérez-Perdomo, The Civil Law Tradition, 3rd ed., 66.

[5] “The term ‘legal science’ is rarely encountered in contemporary writing, perhaps because lawyers know that they are not scientists. . . . There are ‘hard sciences’ such as chemistry, physics, biology, and there are ‘soft sciences’ such as sociology, psychology, and political science.  Law is a soft science at best; the better view, though, is that it has little enough in common with any science as to make it illegitimate to call it a ‘science.’”  Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, s.v. “legal science” (italics and double quotation marks replaced by single quotation marks).

[6] “[T]he lawyer — unlike his fellow professional, the chemist — [does not] deal with universal phenomena, with fixed points of boiling and freezing. . . . If the law is a science, it is not an exact science, and its language must share some of the ambiguity of life.”  David Mellinkoff, The Language of the Law (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2004), 394 (reference omitted).

[7] To the Greek philosopher Plato, for example, the concept of science included more than what the modern English term signifies to most of us:

The semantic focus of the English term “science” is clearly in its count-noun use (a), the one that allows us to speak of a distinct body of knowledge, e.g., geometry or chemistry, as “a science”.  Radiating out from this focus are:  (b) the collective-noun use, and (c) the abstract-noun use, which makes it possible for us to speak of the thinking that characterizes the sciences.  The use of ἐπιστήμη includes these three patterns, but there are some major complications.  The Greek term also carries (d) the state-noun senses of “knowledge” and “understanding”, and corresponds also to two uses  of the English term “skill”:  (e) the abstract-noun use (as in “He shows skill”), and (f) the count-noun use (as in “Horse-riding is a skill”).

Alexander P.D. Mourelatos, “Plato’s Science — His View and Ours of His,” in Science and Philosophy in Classical Greece, ed. Alan C. Bowen, Sources and Studies in the History and Philosophy of Classical Science 2 (New York: Garland, 1991), 14 (single quotation marks changed to double).

The English noun “epistemology” derived in part from the Greek term epistḗmē.  C.T. Onions, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, with the assistance of G.W.S. Friedrichsen and R.W. Burchfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “epistemology.”  The senses of ἐπιστήμη included “knowledge, understanding, skill, experience, wisdom”; “scientific knowledge, science”; and, in the plural form, “the sciences.”  [Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott], A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1996), s.v. “ἐπιστήμη.”  The English noun refers to “[t]he branch of philosophy that deals with the varieties, grounds, and validity of knowledge.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “epistemology.”

[8] According to one source, 1725 was the year of the first recorded use of the English noun “science” in its “modern restricted sense of a branch of learning based on observation and tested truths, arranged in an orderly system.”  Robert K. Barnhart and Sol Steinmetz, eds., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2008), s.v. “science.”

[9] Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “science.”

[10] Charlton T. Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary: With Brief Helps for Latin Readers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v. “scientia.”

[11] Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary, s.v. “scientia.”

[12] Santiago Segura Munguía, Nuevo diccionario etimológico Latín-Español y de las voces derivadas, 4th ed., Serie Letras 34 (Bilbao: Universidad de Deusto, 2010), s.v. “scĭentĭa.”

In Spanish, la ciencia del derecho (the science of law) is also called jurisprudencia.  Germán Cisneros Farías, Diccionario jurídico: Más de 750 frases y aforismos latinos, 2nd ed., Estudios jurídicos 51 (México: Trillas, 2009), “Iurisprudentia.”  Like the English term “jurisprudence,” jurisprudencia derived from the Latin term iūrisprūdēntĭa.  Segura Munguía, Nuevo diccionario etimológico Latín-Español y de las voces derivadas, s.v. “iūrisprūdēntĭa.”

[13] The quoted words appear in Title 1 of Book 1 of the Institutes of Justinian as “Iuris prudentia est divinarum atque humanarum rerum notitia, iusti atque injuste scientia.”  J.B. Moyle, trans., The Institutes of Justinian: A Facsimile of the Moyle Latin Edition of 1912 Together With the English Edition of 1913 (Birmingham: Legal Classics Library, 1985), 97 (page 3 of the English translation).  The quotation has been attributed to the Roman jurist Domitius Ulpianus, also known as Ulpian, who “was the last of the great classical jurists and a voluminous writer.”  Christian Chêne, “Enseignement du Droit,” in Dictionnaire de la culture juridique, eds. Denis Alland and Stéphanie Rials (Paris: Quadrige/Lamy-Presses Universitaires de France, 2007), 617; Magnus Magnusson, Chambers Biographical Dictionary, with the assistance of Rosemary Goring, 5th ed. (Edinburgh: Chambers, [1993]), s.v. “Ulpianus, Domitius.”

[14] The example of the definition of jurisprudence appears in the footnote to this explanation of the “logical faults” of Roman law:

This relation between philosophy and the sciences was not adequately perceived by the Roman jurists, because its true appreciation depends on conditions many of which are realised only in the modern world.  To them jurisprudence was philosophy and all philosophy. . . . [T]he failure to distinguish sufficiently between jurisprudence and the other sciences, notably ethics, resulted in logical faults, especially of definition, which mar in no small degree the excellences by which the Roman law is on other grounds distinguished.

J.B. Moyle, “General Introduction,” in The Institutes of Justinian, 62 (footnote omitted).

[15] The primary role in the creation of legal science has been attributed to the German legal scholars of the nineteenth century whose work culminated in the German Civil Code of 1896.  Merryman and Pérez-Perdomo, The Civil Law Tradition, 3rd ed., 61-62.  Here is one explanation of the reasoning of those scholars:

The concept of legal science rests on the assumption that the materials of the law (statutes, regulations, customary rules, etc.) can be seen as naturally occurring phenomena, or data, from whose study the legal scientist can discover inherent principles and relationships, just as the physical scientist discovers natural laws from the study of physical data.  As a leading German scholar of the time, Rudolph Sohm, put it:  “The scientific process, by means of which principles are discovered that are not immediately contained in the sources of law, may be compared to the analytical methods of chemistry.”  Under the influence of this kind of thinking, legal scholars deliberately and conscientiously sought to emulate natural scientists.  They intended to employ the scientific method, and they sought admission to the community of scientists.

Merryman and Pérez-Perdomo, The Civil Law Tradition, 3rd ed., 62.

[16] In French law, the expression science du droit can have two different senses, a broad sense in which law is itself a science, and a more restricted sense in which law and the science of law are distinct:

L’idée qu’il peut y avoir une science du droit est ancienne et ambiguë.  Cette expression peut avoir en effet deux sens différents.  Dans un sens très large, elle désigne simplement la pratique des juristes et elle est synonyme de dogmatique juridique.  Selon cette conception, le droit n’est pas l’objet d’une science, mais il est lui-même une science.  Dans un sens plus restreint, on ne parle de science du droit que lorsqu’on veut distinguer entre le droit et la science du droit.  C’est l’opposition de ces deux significations qui permet de distinguer entre deux conceptions de la science du droit ou deux épistémologies juridiques, l’épistémologie du droit et l’épistémologie de la science du droit, d’inspiration positiviste.

Michel Troper, “Science du droit,” in Dictionnaire de la culture juridique, eds. Denis Alland and Stéphanie Rials (Paris: Quadrige/Lamy-Presses Universitaires de France, 2007), 1391-92.

[17] According to one explanation, la science du Droit is an in-depth and methodical knowledge of law that is  broad enough to include not only legal rules but also all of the resources of legal thought, the basic concepts, the practical knowledge, and the applied science, as well as each of the branches of that in-depth and methodical knowledge, such as the science of interpretation:

La science du Droit ; connaissance approfondie et méthodique du Droit, englobant non seulement celle de ses règles, mais la maîtrise de l’ensemble des ressources de la pensée juridique . . ., science fondamentale, et le savoir pratique qui en gouverne l’application . . ., science appliquée ; par [extension], chacune des branches de cette connaissance, science de l’interprétation, science de la législation, etc.

Gérard Cornu, ed., Vocabulaire juridique, rev. Marie Cornu, Marie Goré, Yves Lequette, Anne-Marie Leroyer, and Jean-Louis Sourioux, 9th ed. (Paris: Quadrige/Presses Universitaires de France, 2011), s.v. “science” (internal references omitted).

[18] In the Islamic legal tradition, we encounter one example of the interdisciplinary nature of legal science:

Because all the Islamic sciences have the same roots and the same objective, they are interdependent, and borrow from and rely upon each other.  The science of uṣūl al-fiqh is no exception.  It is methodologically similar to other classical Islamic sciences.

Šukrija Husejn Ramić, introduction to Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), xii.

The term “uṣūl al-fiqh” refers to “the roots of Islamic law” and “is concerned with the sources of Islamic law, their order of priority, and the methods by which legal rules may be deduced from the source materials of the Sharī⁽ah.” Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2008), 1.  What can the distinction between uṣūl al-fiqh and fiqh teach us about the nature of legal science?

To deduce the rules of fiqh from the indications that are provided in the sources is the expressed purpose of uṣūl al-fiqh.   Fiqh as such is the end product of uṣūl al-fiqh; and yet the two are separate disciplines.  The main difference between fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh is that the former is concerned with the knowledge of the detailed rules of Islamic law in its various branches, and the latter with the methods that are applied in the deduction of such rules from their sources.  Fiqh, in other words, is the law itself, whereas uṣūl al-fiqh is the methodology of the law.  The relationship between the two disciplines resembles that of the rules of grammar to the language.  Uṣūl al-fiqh in this sense provides standard criteria for the correct deduction of the rules of fiqh from the sources of Sharī⁽ah.

Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence, 2.

[19] An important difference between knowledge of the science of law and knowledge of the details of the practice of law is that scientific knowledge includes not only what to do but also why:

El conocimiento de la ciencia es diferente al dato obtenido en la práctica, porque el conocimiento científico incluye la explicación de la causa: por lo tanto quienes logran el conocimiento del derecho sólo por la práctica, saben lo que se debe hacer, pero no saben por qué, en cambio el hombre de ciencia conoce el por qué.

José Martínez Pichardo, Lineamientos para la investigación jurídica, 10th ed. (México: Porrúa, 2009), 59-60.

[20] Professor Heikki Mattila has emphasized the important function that the study of language can perform in the improvement of legal language:

Legal language is the lawyer’s basic tool.  Thus, familiarity with this language is a matter of great importance for them.  Traditionally, this familiarity has been obtained indirectly:  in studying the content of the legal order, the young lawyer simultaneously adopts legal terminology and style.  However, a practical process of this kind only provides familiarity of a certain type.  Above all, the historical aspect remains in the dark. . . .

More serious still, indirect adoption is often less critical.  Only a purposive study of the characteristics of legal language will clearly reveal the shortcomings of that language.  Such studies enable improvements in the quality of legal language.

Heikki E.S. Mattila, Comparative Legal Linguistics, trans. Christopher Goddard (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009),19-20.

[21] The Unknown presents opportunities for exploration in science as well as in law:

[Science] accumulates new results day by day, providing endless work for us.  An entire universe that has scarcely been explored lies before the scientist.  There is the sky sprinkled with celestial bodies moving about in the darkness of infinite space, the sea with its mysterious depths, the earth guarding within its innermost recesses the history of life, including man’s predecessors; and finally, the human organism or masterpiece of creation.  Each cell presents us with the unknown, and each heartbeat inspires profound meditation within us.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Advice for a Young Investigator, trans. Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson, [rev. ed.] (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 43-44.

[22] To a degree, legal science is culture dependent.  The explanations for the differences among legal systems include historical circumstances, technical errors, and the characteristics that distinguish one people or community from another:

Aunque hemos dicho que la ciencia busca la verdad y que ésta como tal debe ser aceptada por todo mundo, ello no implica que la verdad jurídica, por fundarse en datos de un Derecho nacional no sea científica por carecer de valor universal, pues la afirmación se hace universalmente en razón de un sistema.  Por otro lado hay que llamar la atención en el sentido de que la racionalidad que debe orientar (y que de hecho orienta) a los diferentes sistemas ha hecho que exista una gran afinidad entre los preceptos de los diferentes países.  Ahora bien, si comparamos las discordancias legales encontraremos que corresponden a las diferencias que distinguen a un pueblo de otro, o bien que son la manifestación de deficiencias en el quehacer de los legisladores, ya debidas a errores técnicos, a circunstancias históricas, etc.

Sergio T. Azúa Reyes, Metodología y técnicas de la investigación jurídica, 6th ed. (México: Porrúa, 2005), 6.

[23] “Comparative law offers the only way by which law can become international and consequently a science.  The increase in cross-border activity is expanding the use and utility of comparative law, which is moving from local/region-centric to global.  The internationalization of transactions, the use of the Internet, and the increasing applicability of foreign law make comparative law an indispensable tool of the legal practitioner.”  J. Paul Lomio and Henrik Spang-Hanssen, Legal Research Methods in the U.S. and Europe, 2nd ed. (Copenhagen: DJØF, 2009), 276 (footnotes and references omitted).

[24] Questions about the nature of metaphor and about the degree to which metaphor varies according to culture present interesting parallels to debates over the validity of legal science.  In its sense as a modern, literary term, “metaphor” is “the most important and widespread figure of speech, in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two.”  Chris Baldick, comp., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “metaphor” (internal reference omitted).  But according to some, “metaphor is a pervasive phenomenon in everyday language and, moreover, . . . it represents the output of a cognitive process by which we understand one domain in terms of another.”  S. Coulson, “Metaphor and Conceptual Blending,” in Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, eds. Keith Brown and Keith Allan (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2009), 543 (references omitted).

Professors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson “argued that truth is always relative to a conceptual system, that any human conceptual system is mostly metaphorical in nature, and that, therefore, there is no fully objective, unconditional, or absolute truth.”  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 185.  They offered “[an] experientialist account of understanding and truth” as an alternative to what they called “the myths of objectivism and subjectivism.”  Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 185, 192.  “Though there is no absolute objectivity,” Lakoff and Johnson asserted that, under their experientialist alternative, “there can be a kind of objectivity relative to the conceptual system of a culture.”   Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 193.


Title of page Legal Science
Address of page
Languages English; Latin; Greek; Spanish; French; Arabic
Terms and phrases legal science; Civil Law; Common Law; science; Roman law; scientia; legal terminology; legal language; legal tradition; jurisprudence; ciencia del derecho; jurisprudencia; science du droit; usul al-fiqh; Islamic law; comparative law
Events Institutes of Justinian; Burgerliches Gesetzbuch
Publications Definition in Theory and Practice; The Civil Law Tradition (3rd ed.); Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law; Advice for a Young Investigator; Legal Research Methods in the U.S. and Europe; Metaphors We Live By
Authors Bryan Garner; David Mellinkoff; Gerard Cornu; Mohammad Hashim Kamali; Jose Martinez Pichardo; Heikki Mattila; Sergio Azua Reyes
Individuals Plato; Justinian