Jurisprudence is the study and theory of law. Scholars of jurisprudence, or legal theorists (including legal philosophers and social theorists of law), hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the nature of law, of legal reasoning, legal systems and of legal institutions. Modern jurisprudence began in the 18th century and was focused on the first principles of the natural law, civil law, and the law of nations. General jurisprudence can be broken into categories both by the type of question scholars seek to answer and by the theories of jurisprudence, or schools of thought, regarding how those questions are best answered. Contemporary philosophy of law, which deals with general jurisprudence, addresses problems in two rough groups:
- (1.) Problems internal to law and legal systems as such.
- (2.) Problems of law as a particular social institution as it relates to the larger political and social situation in which it exists.
Answers to these questions come from four primary schools of thought in general jurisprudence:
- Natural law is the idea that there are rational objective limits to the power of legislative rulers. The foundations of law are accessible through human reason and it is from these laws of nature that human-created laws gain whatever force they have.
- Legal positivism, by contrast to natural law, holds that there is no necessary connection between law and morality and that the force of law comes from some basic social facts. Legal positivists differ on what those facts are.
- Legal realism is a third theory of jurisprudence which argues that the real world practice of law is what determines what law is; the law has the force that it does because of what legislators, judges, and executives do with it. Similar approaches have been developed in many different ways in sociology of law.
- Critical legal studies is a younger theory of jurisprudence that has developed since the 1970s. It is primarily a negative thesis that holds that the law is largely contradictory, and can be best analyzed as an expression of the policy goals of the dominant social group.
Also of note is the work of the contemporary Philosopher of Law Ronald Dworkin who has advocated a constructivist theory of jurisprudence that can be characterized as a middle path between natural law theories and positivist theories of general jurisprudence.
The English term is based on the Latin word jurisprudentia: juris is the genitive form of jus meaning "law", and prudentia means "prudence" (also: discretion, foresight, forethought, circumspection; refers to the exercise of good judgment, common sense, and even caution, especially in the conduct of practical matters). The word is first attested in English in 1628, at a time when the word prudence had the now obsolete meaning of "knowledge of or skill in a matter". The word may have come via the French jurisprudence, which is attested earlier.