Grounding-based formulations of legal positivism


The goal of this paper is to provide an accurate grounding-based formulation of positivism in the philosophy of law. I start off by discussing some simple formulations, based on the ideas that social facts are always either full or partial grounds of legal facts. I then raise a number of objections against these definitions: the full grounding proposal rules out possibilities that are compatible with positivism; the partial grounding proposal fails, on its own, to vindicate the distinctive role that is played by social facts within positivist accounts of law. Then, I present a more adequate and insightful formulation capable of solving their problems, which crucially relies on a robust notion of a social enabler. Finally, I model inclusive and exclusive positivism on the resulting template, and set out the advantages of the ground-enablers proposal.

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  1. 1.

    As usual (see e.g. Greenberg 2004, 2006; Plunkett 2012), by ‘legal facts’ I mean facts about the content of the law in a legal system, at a time.

  2. 2.

    LP and AP are sometimes glossed as making claims about the nature of law. However, it is an open question how determination claims are related to claims about the nature of things (see Audi 2012; Fine 2012; Rosen 2010; Trogdon 2013). For related reasons, Plunkett and Shapiro (2017) compellingly argue that labeling the LP/AP debate as concerning the ‘nature of law’ can be inaccurate or misleading. Further arguments against conceiving views in jurisprudence as concerned with the nature of law are provided by Bayón (2013).

  3. 3.

    For the idea that law being a social construction is the defining feature of positivism, see e.g. Coleman (2009: 383), Marmor (2007: 36) and Schauer (2005: 496). Green calls it ‘Hart’s Message’ (see his introduction to Hart 2012: xvii).

  4. 4.

    See Coleman (2009), Marmor (2004), Moreso (2012), Raz (1979) and Waluchow (2001).

  5. 5.

    Here I take determination and dependence to be converses of one another.

  6. 6.

    See Greenberg (2004), Moreso (2012), Plunkett (2012), and Shapiro (2011) for formulations of the sources thesis as involving the determination of legal facts by social facts.

  7. 7.

    See e.g. Dworkin (1977, 1986), Finnis (1980), and Greenberg (2004, 2006, 2014).

  8. 8.

    Waluchow (1994) introduced the labels ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’ to refer to these variants of positivism. The first version of ILP is usually traced to Coleman (1982), while the first of ELP to Raz (1979).

  9. 9.

    See Greenberg (2004: 158, 2006: 283–284), Plunkett (2012: 148; 2013: fn. 18; 2019) and Shapiro (2011: 267).

  10. 10.

    We shall see that one of the main difficulties in formulating ILP lies with specifying what this ‘making’ or ‘granting’ amounts to. As I shall argue in Sect. 4, one of the advantages of my proposed definition is that it provides a satisfactory way of answering this vexed question.

  11. 11.

    See Plunkett (2019).

  12. 12.

    See especially Dworkin (1977), who forcefully raised this type of argument. There are of course several other arguments for and against LP and AP. Here I’m only offering an illustrative sample.

  13. 13.

    On the connection between grounding and understanding, see Schaffer (2017b).

  14. 14.

    To be clear, LP and AP support different conclusions on how judicial disputes legally should be solved. Many positivists have noted that this may come apart from how disputes morally, or all-things-considered, should be solved. Thanks to Daniel Wodak for suggesting this clarification.

  15. 15.

    Dworkin’s writings (e.g. 1977, 1986), for instance, are ripe with applications of his anti-positivist view to real-life cases.

  16. 16.

    For some of the most important early work on grounding, see Correia (2005, 2010), the essays in Correia and Schnieder (2012), Fine (2001, 2012), Rosen (2010), and Schaffer (2009, 2016). For critical discussion, see Wilson (2014).

  17. 17.

    For arguments in favor of ground-theoretic interpretations of positivism and anti-positivism, see Rosen (2010), and Chilovi and Pavlakos (2019). Relatedly, Greenberg (2004) presents an influential argument against modal formulations of these views.

  18. 18.

    The present project parallels analogous efforts to frame dependence views in ground-theoretic terms. Grounding-based formulations of physicalism have been proposed by Dasgupta (2014) and Schaffer (2017a). Grounding-based formulations of naturalism have been given by Rosen (2017a). Applications of grounding to social ontology have been proposed by Epstein (2015), Griffith (2017), and Schaffer (forthcoming).

  19. 19.

    See, e.g., Plunkett (2012), Plunkett and Shapiro (2017), Rosen (2010), and Stavropoulos (2014).

  20. 20.

    Though these assumptions about grounding are very widespread, they haven’t gone unchallenged. The view that grounding statements are best regimented through a non-truth-functional sentential connective has been endorsed by Correia (2010) and Fine (2012). On transitivity, see Litland (2013), Loss (2017), Schaffer (2012), and Tahko (2013).

  21. 21.

    I use capital roman letters denote facts, and Greek capitals to denote pluralities of facts.

  22. 22.

    See Audi (2012), Fine (2012), and Rosen (2010).

  23. 23.

    Minimality, the stronger principle that adding something to a full ground never yields another full ground, is very controversial and will not be assumed here. See Dixon (2016) for criticism of this principle, and Audi (2012) for a defense.

  24. 24.

    That is, it allows that there be some fact A and pluralities Γ and Δ such that A is fully grounded in Γ, A is fully grounded in Δ, and there is no fact that is both among Γ and among Δ.

  25. 25.

    Notice that in order to falsify the claim that facts of type A are fully grounded in facts of type B, it is not enough to show that facts of type A are grounded in facts that are not of type B.

  26. 26.

    See, for instance, Alchourrón and Bulygin (1971). This closure principle could be fine-tuned in ways that don’t affect the present discussion. In particular, a non-classical notion of entailment may be needed to avoid that logical truths be legally valid.

  27. 27.

    I will return to this distinction in Sect. 4.

  28. 28.

    Relatedly, Greenberg (2004) allows that positivism may appeal to descriptive facts of any sort. However, it should be stressed that Greenberg makes this concession while arguing against positivism, and his remarks should be read as part of his argument that positivism would fail even if it appealed to descriptive non-social facts. In other words, Greenberg is not claiming that the best way of understanding positivism is liberal in this way; rather, he is merely helping his case by maintaining that positivism would fall prey to his objection even if it enriched its explanatory resources in this way.

  29. 29.

    See Greenberg (2004: 158) and Plunkett (2012: 148, 2019).

  30. 30.

    I present my preferred answer to this question in Sect. 4.

  31. 31.

    Later in this section, we will see that the notion of enabler I use differs significantly from the one that figures in causation and reasons theory.

  32. 32.

    On causal enablers, see especially Lombard (1990).

  33. 33.

    See Bader (2016) and Dancy (2004).

  34. 34.

    For an early expression of this commitment, see Hart (1958: 601).

  35. 35.

    See Mackie (1991) for this point in connection to causal enablers. See Bader (2016) and Cohen (2018) for discussion on whether enablers can in general be grounds.

  36. 36.

    Advocates of the view that full grounds necessitate what they ground include Audi (2012), Correia (2005), deRosset (2013), Loss (2017), Rosen (2010) and Trogdon (2013). For discussion, see Chilovi (2018), Leuenberger (2014), and Skiles (2015). In fact, I think that the connection between grounding and modality is best modeled via a supervenience relation that is weaker than necessitation. However, the point I make here can analogously be made through the principle that grounding entails my favored kind of supervenience, so I frame it through the grounding-necessitation link only for the sake of simplicity.

  37. 37.

    See Chilovi and Pavlakos (2019).

  38. 38.

    Thanks to Jonathan Schaffer for discussion of this parallel.

  39. 39.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I discuss this option.

  40. 40.

    The terms ‘global’ and ‘local’ asymmetry were suggested to me by an anonymous reviewer.

  41. 41.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for inviting me to address this objection.

  42. 42.

    See Rosen (2017b), and the authors mentioned in fn. 36.

  43. 43.

    The conception of ILP on which it would be making a claim of iterated grounding is among the options recently canvassed by Plunkett (2019). The present paper may thus be read as offering an elaborated argument in favor of this interpretation.

  44. 44.

    See Bennett (2011) and deRosset (2013).

  45. 45.

    See Dasgupta (2014), Fine (2012), Rosen (2010), and Trogdon (2013).

  46. 46.

    See Litland (2017).

  47. 47.

    See Sider (forthcoming).


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Many thanks to Gloria Andrada, Juan Carlos Bayón, Fernando Broncano-Berrocal, Pedro Caballero, Jorge Cerdio, Fernando De los Santos Menéndez, Javier Gonzalez de Prado, Roberto Loss, Ezequiel Monti, Michele Palmira, George Pavlakos, Pablo Rapetti, Luis Rodríguez Abascal, Alfonso Ruiz Miguel, Julián Sauquillo González, Germán Sucar, Enrico Terrone, Jesus Vega, Lisa Vogt, and Daniel Wodak; to the participants to the Seminar in Metaphysics at the University of Barcelona; to the audiences of the Legal Philosophy Seminar at ITAM, of the Legal Philosophy Seminar at UAM, of the Applied Epistemology Seminar at UAM, and of the Law and Philosophy PhD Seminar at UPF. Special thanks are due to Esa Díaz-Leon, Stephan Leuenberger, Dan López de Sa, José Juan Moreso, David Plunkett, Jonathan Schaffer, and two anonymous reviewers. This research was financially supported by the UPF-based research group Law and Philosophy (Grup consolidat de Filosofia del Dret, Projectes AGAUR 2017 SGR 00823), and by the research project Social Metaphysics (PGC2018-094563-B-I00, MINECO FEDER).

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Chilovi, S. Grounding-based formulations of legal positivism. Philos Stud 177, 3283–3302 (2020).

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  • Grounding
  • Dependence
  • Fundamentality
  • Enablers
  • Legal positivism
  • Nature of law