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The History of International Law – or International Law in History? A Reply to Alexandra Kemmerer and Jochen von Bernstorff

Published on January 8, 2015        Author: 

Can international law scholars be historians, and should they be? This question, arguably at the centre of Alexandra Kemmerer’s post, might initially seem surprising. At first glance, most research on the history of international law does not reveal any major differences between the disciplines. Lawyers of a historical bent are just as familiar with, and adept at, the methodical standards of the historiographical approach, encompassing proximity to and critique of sources, transparency in terms of the approach and the assumptions made, insight into the historian’s own subjectivity and into the construed nature of all narratives.

If, nonetheless, there does exist a communication gap between the respective examinations of the history of international law, then this is attributable less to these kinds of methodical requisites and more to the fact that it isn’t always very clear why we are interested in international law and why we undertake research on it. Evidently, the discourses within the legal and historical disciplines on the state of the art in the field do not run parallel to one another; indeed they may in fact be incommensurable. What might help is an interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly when it is understood that interdisciplinarity is not about adopting the objectives of another discipline but instead debating the potential scope – and the limits – of one’s own work.

This might help us to understand why international law’s much-discussed ‘historiographical turn’ has gone largely unnoticed by professional historians. This is starting to change, but a programmatic mapping of contemporary research, as undertaken in the formidable Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law, clearly shows how much the research is still indebted to legal discourse. Or take the German Studies on the History of International Law, a series set out to contribute to the discussion of the historical foundations of the current international legal order. It seems that despite the recent interest in fashioning a global history and in the postcolonial turn, as discussed on this blog by Jochen von Bernstorff, little has really changed. In other words: lawyers, even when working on historical topics, are predominantly interested in understanding the law itself. This, of course, is a legitimate source of scholarly interest for jurists — but historians might find something lacking. Read the rest of this entry…

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