Inaugural Lecture: Professor Neil Walker

Walker, N. (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesPublic Engagement – Public lecture/debate/seminar


Inaugural Lecture: 'Out of Place and Out of Time: Law's Fading Co-Ordinates'

Professor Neil Walker's Inaugural Lecture took place in the Playfair Library, Old College. Introduced by Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea. Abstract: We commonly find the legitimacy of law called into question at various levels. The content or interpretation of individual legal rules is often a matter of disagreement and dispute. Sometimes the officials of a legal system are placed under more general critical scrutiny. Do the judges exercise too much power? Does the legislature disregard individual rights when passing new laws? Does the executive abuse individual rights when administering these laws? Occasionally the legal system as a whole is challenged. Is the legal system of an entity such as the European Union, or even the United Kingdom, one that does or should command our respect and allegiance? In this lecture I examine a doubt that runs even deeper and resonates more widely. In what sense, if at all, may the authority of law-in-general become open to question? This is by no means a new inquiry, but today it presents itself with a new intensity and takes a novel form – one that it independent of any particular moral or pragmatic argument about the basic (un)desirability of law as a way of resolving human affairs. The authority of law as a system of rules has always depended upon framing assumptions with regard to the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of the jurisdiction of these rules; that is to say, law must always situate itself and locate its basic co-ordinates both in space and in time. In spatial terms, law typically either makes an appeal to a particular place and to its particular community, or law makes an unbounded appeal to humanity at large. In temporal terms, a similar distinction emerges. Law may appeal to the tradition(s) or to the designated project(s) of a particular community – and so to a sense of that particular community’s past or future; or law may claim an eternal significance – an appeal to ‘all times’ to complement its appeal to ‘all places’. We tend to treat spatio-temporal particularism and spatio-temporal universalism in law as opposites – as rival ways of understanding and justifying law - but this ignores the way in which they can complement one another. Each provides an answer to the question of how law locates its basic co-ordinates in space and time. And if we examine different historical contexts, we observe that each can and often does supply the omission of the other - the universal jurisdiction often cited as the inspiration for, or resorted to as an authoritative gap-filler for or supplement to the particular jurisdiction, and vice-versa. We live in age where the spatio-temporal authority of particularism and universalism alike are subject to new challenges. On the one hand, the nation state, for long the dominant if not exclusive particular jurisdiction of law, is under threat from many other particular jurisdictions - whether subnational, supranational, transnational or private. On the other hand, many of the new ‘global’ jurisdictions, whether under the United Nations, or under particular treaty regimes, or occupying a more abstract realm of international law, either avoid or struggle to assert the quality of authoritative claim consistent with spatio-temporal universalism. And as the old co-ordinates fade, an increasing part of contemporary law floats ‘in–between’ - special (to a subject-matter) rather than particular (to a community) or general (across subjects and communities) without being universal. How does law adapt and how can law adapt in response to this unsettling of its basic co-ordinates?
Period18 Nov 2008
Event typeOther
LocationEdinburgh, United Kingdom