Is There a “New” New Haven School?

by Jessica Karbowski

What is the value in considering a body of work as a part of a new “school” of legal thought? Panelists Robert Ahdieh, Rosa Brooks, Ryan Goodman, and Derek Jinks were asked by moderators Laura Dickinson and Oona Hathaway to provide their perspectives on this question and to offer their opinions on the pros and cons of identifying their scholarship with a so-called “New” New Haven School (NNHS). After Hathaway framed the questions, based on the major themes that emerged during the conference, Dickinson offered a starting comment. She highlighted the importance of defining the work of this group in opposition to a current body of legal scholarship that embraces rational choice theory and focuses on the state to the exclusion of other international actors. Additionally, Dickinson noted that ideas that are part of an identified collective have the potential to carry greater cohesive weight in scholarly discourse. She suggested that for the thinkers assembled, such cohesion would be a great asset in combating those thinkers who are advancing an increased skepticism towards international law.

The panelists’ discussion was in many ways an attempt to identify the unifying themes in each others’ work, but it also took time to recognize differences. Brooks offered her position on the unifying feature of the proposed NNHS in saying, “What really unites the disparate work in this room is a modesty about the capacity of theory to offer explanations of everything, or anything at all.” Goodman identified the unifying feature of the works of members of the potential NNHS to be their normative commitments, and their constant effort to call on other schools/scholarship to confront the normative implications of their legal theory. He also saw as a unifying thread the desire to dislodge the nation-state from a place of pre-eminence, through focusing attention on both universally recognized norms and transnational dimensions of legal action. Ahdieh identified several “echoes” of the New Haven School that he could see in the potential NNHS, including the emphasis on the intersection between theory and practice, the process-oriented nature of both schools, and the centrality of the notion of human dignity (a core concern for the New Haven School), which is being echoed through the NNHS’s central focus on human rights.

Next the panel debated the utility of calling their work part of a “New” New Haven School. They first discussed whether school of thought labels are helpful, and whether a label tied to the New Haven School in particular (both from an historical and a geographical standpoint) is appropriate. The general sense was that coalescing around a new school of thought, one grounded in the New Haven School’s wisdom, could be quite helpful. Goodman noted that this new label might cause the parameters of these scholars’ work to be mis-framed, because it suggests a juxtaposition with the original New Haven School and not an organic extension of it. He also noted that this title seems to indicate that one school is superseding the other or is the successor to the other, which is an unproductive distraction. Jinks indicated that this label might encourage oversimplification or distortion. It might, for example, overemphasize commonalities and ignore differences between New Haven School thinkers and new scholars trained in the New Haven School methodology. It might also increase the risk of “scholarly inbreeding” in the transfer of knowledge to students, which would encourage emulation instead of independent thought. However, he observed several potential benefits as well, including: (1) the increased potential for influence because the body of work will be correctly viewed as sharing common ambitions and supporting a discrete set of propositions; (2) the facilitation of increasingly complex theoretical building off of mutually supported work; and (3) the organizational effects of association, which include forging a richer identification, instilling a richer sense of common purpose, a providing a platform for articulating and defining that common purpose. Hand-in-hand with this benefit is the facilitation of collaboration between scholars, encouraging them to incorporate new insights that are understood as “tweaks” into the school’s more general model.

At the end of the panel discussion and Q&A session, Hathaway offered closing remarks to both the panel and the conference. First, Hathaway noted that a central theme in this conference was the articulation of a response to “bare-knuckled realism” of statist international law scholars. The New Haven School is realist, but its realism is steeped in a broader set of human commitments and assumes a more pluralist approach to the law. Second, Hathaway highlighted the connection between the study of the law and science/scientific outlook and policy. She emphasized the importance of the New Haven school’s interdisciplinary approach, and the general emphasis on both quantitative empiricism and “qualitative empiricism.” The third theme that Hathaway identified was the desire to retain a policy-centered methodology, which the New Haven School created. Hathaway noted the importance of starting with a robust assessment of the problem and all of the sources of decision making, but then emphasized that these young scholars wanted to use that assessment to effect positive change. Hathaway noted the agency associated with this group of scholars and the notion of actually engaging in international law, citing the proliferation of clinical work on international human rights as central to this idea. Finally, Hathaway offered that it may make sense to tie the new scholarship emerging at this conference to New Haven, since the people and the ideas at the center of the scholarship have a link to this place. Still, she emphasized that these ideas—and the new generation of international law scholars—are not at all bound by the space of New Haven. Their scholarship, and the collective name it is given, naturally should extend to include all those who share the normative and methodological commitments mentioned above.

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