Natural law, state formation and the foundations of social theory

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This article proceeds from the claim that the earliest examples of sociological method were linked by a critique of the theories of natural law proposed in the Enlightenment. It illustrates this point by surveying the rise of social theory in the aftermath of the French Revolution and by examining approaches to natural law in key texts in the history of sociology. However, the article claims that natural law remains a blind spot for sociological method, and the original sociological dismissal of natural law as a formal body of normative postulates has prevented the formation of sociology as a comprehensive system of social interpretation. Using a series of historical examples, the article then argues that natural law theory needs in itself to be viewed sociologically, and, throughout modern history, ius-natural thinking has served not only to establish formal norms for evaluating social and political practices, but also to form the positive preconditions for the evolution of contemporary society in its distinctive differentiated form. The article concludes by arguing that a sociological reconstruction of natural law points the way towards a sociological theory of theory, which has typically proved elusive for sociological methodologies. © The Author(s) 2013.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-221
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Classical Sociology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2013


  • Early social theory
  • Enlightenment
  • historicization
  • metaphysics
  • natural law
  • sociology of theory


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