Teaching the course 'History of Legal Theory' at UvA
Published in  
November 1, 2019

Teaching the course 'History of Legal Theory' at UvA

From September until October 2019, I taught the course ‘History of Legal Theory’ at PPLE College at the University of Amsterdam, together with colleagues prof. Marc de Wilde, Robbert Weaver and Robbie Voss. It is a second-year course in the Bachelor Programme Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE).

What is PPLE College?

PPLE is a Bachelor’s programme combining four disciplines, namely Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE). It is a collaboration between the faculties of Economics and Business, Social and Behavioural Sciences, and Law of the University of Amsterdam. The programme is founded on the notion that the contemporary challenges cannot be addressed from the vantage point of one academic discipline. PPLE College started in September 2014 and has built up a steady flow of a few hundred students a year, and this number is increasing. What I especially like about PPLE is more than half of the students come from foreign countries. See this website for more information about the academic programme.

Our course 'History of Legal Theory'

Although I have taught other courses over the past years at PPLE, is was the first time I taught this course at PPLE. It is a second year course for students in the law major. In this course, we outlined the development of legal theory from pre-Roman times to the present. We explained the evolution of legal theories, concepts and ideas by relating them to changing historical contexts. Topics that we have discussed include: theories about the nature and purpose of law, the relationship between law and justice, sources of law, legal interpretation, the rule of law, natural law, contract theory, the origins and limitations of private property, the purposes of criminal law and punishment, and the relationship between rules and principles (such as equality before the law and the principle of legality). The last two weeks of the course were specifically devoted to the history of human rights. Questions that we addressed included: in what historical contexts did the discourse of human rights emerge, in response to what cultural, political, social and economic developments were human rights invented, how were these rights justified, how were they used to promote the emancipation of particular groups (for example religious minorities, women, slaves) in response to what historical circumstances did the various categories of rights (civil, political, social, economic, cultural rights) emerge, and what criticisms of the continuous expansion of rights have been formulated in the past?

Compulsory literature

This course was taught over the past years by prof. Marc de Wilde and had very positive evaluations, so we decided to keep the same format for the course this academic year. The compulsory literature consisted of two books with the following titles:

(1) J.M. Kelly, A Short History of Western Legal Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
(2) Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History, NewYork: Norton, 2008.

The course consists of two lectures and two tutorials a week. The lectures focused on describing and explaining the historical evolution of legal theory and human rights. The lectures provided students with the necessary background information for understanding the literature. By emphasizing historical continuities and discontinuities, the lectures enabled students to recognize and understand the main characteristics of law in particular historical periods (for instance, the main characteristics of Roman law) as well as the main differences between historical periods (for instance, the main differences between Greek and Roman law). The most influential and difficult theories (for instance, Aristotle’s theory of law and justice, Aquinas’s theory of governmental authority, or Grotius’s theory of natural law) were explained in more detail. Particular attention was given to the evolution of legal science and methods of legal interpretation (for instance, the scholastic method of the medieval jurists, the historical-philological method of the legal humanists, and the axiomatic-deductive method of the natural lawyers). The tutorials offered students the opportunity to discuss the relevant literature by addressing questions about the main developments in the history of legal thought, the main legal theories, concepts and ideas. Students were required to prepare questions about the literature in advance of the tutorials.


The examination of this course included a three-hour written exam, which counted for 70% of the final grade. In addition students, submitted an essay every week that we graded (and counted for 30% of the final grade).

I really enjoyed teaching this course, and the student evaluations were very positive: they gave us a 8.6 overall grade of the course!