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From Apology to Utopia and the Inner Life of International Law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2016


A certain body of mythology has emerged in recent years around Martti Koskenniemi's From Apology to Utopia (FATU). At its heart lies a group of received wisdoms that tell us that FATU should essentially be considered a work of postmodern scholarship, that it provides a typical illustration of the so-called deconstructivist approach, and that its single most significant contribution to the field of international legal theory lies in its discussion of the subject of legal indeterminacy. In this article, I seek to challenge and displace this set of narratives, by excavating and restoring to the surface FATU's original intellectual project: a highly ambitious attempt to revive the traditional enterprise of ‘legal science’ by marrying Kelsenian legal positivism with Saussurean structuralist semiotics. In doing so, it succeeded in developing a set of analytical idioms and reasoning protocols that gave the international law profession not only a reason but also the necessary intellectual materials to revolutionize its day to day understanding of the essential character of international legal practice. Thus, far from being a manifestation of any kind of postmodernist sensibility, FATU, I am going to argue, represents, in fact, the exact opposite of it.

INTERNATIONAL LEGAL THEORY: Symposium on Martti Koskenniemi's From Apology to Utopia
Copyright © Foundation of the Leiden Journal of International Law 2016 

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1 M. Koskenniemi, From Apology to Utopia (1989; rev. edn. 2006). All references hereafter are to the revised edition.

2 Paulus, A., ‘International Law after Postmodernism’, (2001) 14 LJIL 727 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 C. Mieville, Between Equal Rights (2005), 48–50.

4 FATU, 546–61.

5 Scobbie, I., ‘Towards the Elimination of International Law’, (1990) 61 British Yearbook of International Law 339 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Beckett, J., ‘Rebel without a Cause?’, (2006) 7 German Law Journal 1045 Google Scholar.

7 Crawford, J., ‘Chance, Order, Change’, (2013) 365 RCADI 115–34Google Scholar; See Mieville, supra note 3, at 52–9.

8 F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious (2002), xiii.

9 Bourdieu, P., ‘In Conversation’, (1992) 191 New Left Review 111 Google Scholar, at 120.

10 The term ‘inner life of the law’ comes here from Francis Biddle, but also Karl Marx. Neither of them, admittedly, used it in the exact same sense in which I use it here. See F. Biddle, Mr. Justice Holmes (1942), 61; K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works (1975), Vol. I, at 260.

11 ‘Legal dogmatics (dogmatische Rechtswissenschaft) – the term frequently used in German to mean the legal science of the law itself as distinguished from such ways of looking upon law from the outside as philosophy, history, or sociology of law.’ M. Rheinstein, Max Weber on Law in Economy and Society (1954), 10.

12 Koskenniemi, M., ‘Introduction: Alf Ross and Life beyond Realism’, (2003) 14 EJIL 653 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 655.

13 Ibid., at 658 (emphasis added).

14 FATU, 1.

15 Consider, for instance, the part where Koskenniemi openly admits that in recent years he had gradually come to realize that the enterprise of legal theory had, in fact, a rather limited purchase since ‘international law is not a theoretical discipline’ and taking its normative foundations seriously ‘has never been its [defining] characteristic’, ibid., at 600.

16 See D.L. Medina, Teoria Impura del Derecho (2004).

17 Kennedy, D., The Last Treatise: Project and Person , (2006) 7 German Law Journal 982 Google Scholar.

18 Schachter, O., ‘International Law in Theory and Practice’, (1982-V) 178 RCADI 60–2Google Scholar.

19 Not that this should be treated as absolute proof, but that this endorsement was conscious and deliberate is evidenced, inter alia, by Koskenniemi's own later admissions. See, e.g., Koskenniemi, M., ‘Letter to the Editors of the Symposium’, (1999) 93 American Journal of International Law 351 CrossRefGoogle Scholar: ‘My aim was to examine international law from a standpoint that would be in some ways systematic, perhaps even scientific.’

20 FATU, 13.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., at 12.

23 Ibid., at 13.

24 Desautels-Stein, J., ‘International Legal Structuralism: A Primer’, (2016) 8 International Theory (forthcoming)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 See, e.g., FATU, 10, fn.7.

26 See Kennedy, D., ‘Form and Substance in Private Law Adjudication’, (1976) 89 Harvard Law Review 1685 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kennedy, D., ‘The Structure of Blackstone's Commentaries’, (1979) 28 Buffalo Law Review 205 Google Scholar; see also D. Kennedy, The Rise & Fall of Classical Legal Thought (2006), xiv–xxxi (reviewing some of the historical background surrounding rise of the Harvard legal-structuralist project).

27 Fuller's work, in particular, seems to have had a very significant impact on the evolution of Kennedy's concept of legal structures. See further Kennedy, D., ‘From the Will Theory to the Principle of Private Autonomy: Fuller's “Consideration and Form”’, (2000) 100 Columbia Law Review 94 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 See Rasulov, A., ‘CLS and Marxism: A History of an Affair’, (2014) 5 Transnational Legal Theory 622 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Kennedy, D., ‘A Semiotics of Critique’, (2001) 22 Cardozo Law Review 1147, at 1149–57Google Scholar.

30 A partial exception can be found in D. Kennedy, International Legal Structures (1987). But its version of legal structuralism in any event had a much stronger Derridean flavour and, if only in this respect, was fundamentally different from FATU's. For further discussion of that project, see Rasulov, A., ‘The Horizontal Mechanism Initiative in the WTO: The Proceduralist Turn and Its Discontents’, (2015) 6 European Yearbook of International Economic Law 61, at 7983 Google Scholar.

31 Kennedy, supra note 26.

32 H. Kelsen, Introduction to the Problems of Legal Theory (1992).

33 S. Krasner, International Regimes (1983); R. Keohane, After Hegemony (1984).

34 Henkin, L., ‘International Law: Politics, Values and Functions’, (1989-IV) 216 RCADI 22 Google Scholar.

35 L. Henkin, How Nations Behave (1979), 320.

36 Schachter, O., ‘Towards a Theory of International Obligation’, (1968) 8 Virginia Journal of International Law 300 Google Scholar, at 302.

37 Henkin, L., ‘The Reports of the Death of Article 2(4) Are Greatly Exaggerated’, (1971) 65 American Journal of International Law 544 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Brownlie, I., ‘Recognition in Theory and Practice’, (1982) 53 British Yearbook of International Law 1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 P. Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (1987), 3–6.

40 Abbott, K., ‘Modern International Relations Theory: a Prospectus for International Lawyers’, (1989) 14 Yale Journal of International Law 335 Google Scholar; Slaughter Burley, A.-M., ‘International Law and International Relations: A Dual Agenda’, (1993) 87 American Journal of International Law 205 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Slaughter Burley, A.-M., ‘International Law and International Relations’, (2000) 285 RCADI 9 Google Scholar.

41 M. Koskenniemi, Gentle Civilizer of Nations (2001), 500–1.

42 Koskenniemi, M., ‘Legal Universalism’, in Cheng, S. (ed.), Law, Justice, and Power (2004), 46 Google Scholar, at 59.

43 FATU, 561.

44 Compare Gerstenberg, O., ‘What International Law Should (Not) Become: A Comment on Koskenniemi’, (2005) 16 EJIL 125 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dupuy, P.M., ‘Some Reflections: A Response to Martti Koskenniemi’, (2005) 16 EJIL 131 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Cohen, F., ‘Transcendental Nonsense and the Functional Approach’, (1935) 35 Columbia Law Review 809 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 J. Searle, Construction of Social Reality (1995), 9–23.

47 FATU, 8–9.

48 Ibid., at 531.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., at 521.

51 Ibid., at 534.

52 J. Singer, Entitlement (2000), 9–13; S. Banner, American Property (2011), 45–80.

53 Cf. P. Schlag, The Enchantment of Reason (1998) 100–8. See also FATU, 568–9.

54 ‘Law is what lawyers think about and how they go about using it in their work’. Ibid., at 569.

55 See H. Kelsen, General Theory of Law and State (2006), 133–5; Kelsen, supra note 32, at 70.

56 Ibid., at 80.

57 FATU, 555.

58 Ibid., at 556.

59 Kelsen, supra note 32, at 70.

60 Kennedy, D., ‘Semiotics of Legal Argument’, (1991) 42 Syracuse Law Review 75 Google Scholar (emphasis added).

61 FATU, 591.

62 Ibid., at 59.

63 Ibid., at 575.

64 Ibid., at 42.

65 Balkin, Cf. J.M., ‘The Crystalline Structure of Legal Thought’, (1986) 39 Rutgers Law Review 1 Google Scholar.

66 Kelman, M., ‘Trashing’, (1984) 36 Stanford Law Review 293 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 FATU, 598.

68 Ibid., at 596–8.

69 Cf. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (2002), 89: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’

70 FATU, 589: ‘the descriptive project of [this book] is not an account of how legal decisions are made – it is about how they are justified in argument’.