Why Precedent in Law (and Elsewhere) Is Not Totally (or Even Substantially) About Analogy

  • Frederick SchauerEmail author
Part of the Law and Philosophy Library book series (LAPS, volume 102)


Cognitive scientists and others who conduct research on analogical reasoning often claim that the use of precedent in law and elsewhere is an application of reasoning by analogy. In fact, however, law’s principle of precedent, as well as the way in which precedent is used in ordinary argument, is quite different. The typical use of analogy in legal argument, including the use of analogies to earlier decisions, involves the retrieval of a source analog (or exemplar) from multiple candidates in order to help make the best decision now. But the legal principle of precedent requires that a prior decision be treated as binding, even if the current decision maker disagrees with that decision. When the identity between a prior decision and the current question is obvious and inescapable, precedent thus imposes a constraint quite different from the effect of a typical argument by analogy. The importance of drawing this distinction between analogy and precedent is not so much in showing that a common claim in the psychological and cognitive science literature is mistaken, but that making decisions under the constraints of binding precedent is itself an important form of decision deserving to be researched in its own right, but which has been ignored because of the erroneous conflation of constraint by precedent with reasoning by analogy.


Decision Maker Legal System Previous Decision Wrong Decision Analogical Reasoning 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This paper emerged out of a series of illuminating conversations and exchanges with Dan Simon and Barbara Spellman, and I thank both of them for serving as involuntary foils and for extensive comments on an earlier draft. Larry Alexander, Michelle Cowley, and David Lynch also provided helpful comments, and Henry Monaghan, Matt Stephenson, Carol Steiker, Bill Stuntz, Larry Tribe, Mark Tushnet, and Lloyd Weinreb furnished useful legal references. Research support was provided by the Harvard Law School, the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, and the University of Oxford.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of LawUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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