Cornell Law Review

Article Title

Logic and Experience


Allen D. Boyer


Twenty years too late (perhaps one hundred years too late) we are finally beginning to understand the crabbed, dogged, literally myopic man who gave us the modern American law school - the casebook, the Socratic method, the first-year contracts course, and the lawyer-academician. Among its many merits, Logic and Experience, 1 by William LaPiana, 2 provides the most thoughtful biographical treatment to date of Christopher Columbus Langdell. Nine decades after his death, Langdell continues to be honored and denigrated because of forty-odd words in the preface to his Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts. 3 These were the sentences that suggested that "law, considered as a science, consists of certain principles or doctrines," 4 and that legal reasoning was a matter of identifying and applying certain basic, universal principles. 5 "The number of fundamental legal doctrines is much less than is commonly supposed," Langdell explained, "the many different guises in which the same doctrine is constantly making its appearance ... being the cause of much misapprehension." 6 These passing remarks have sufficed to associate Langdell with an inflexible scientism - the idea that law is an exact science, capable of precise and geometric calculation. This view materialized as early as 1880, when Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called Langdell "the greatest living legal theologian." 7 The invective changed, but lost none of its sarcastic edge, when Jerome Frank attacked Langdell as "a brilliant neurotic." 8 Finally, in 1974, during the lectures which became The Ages of American ...