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Dharma and Natural Law: Max Weber’s Comparison of Hindu and (Occidental) Christian Legal Traditions

DOI https://doi.org/10.15543/MWS/2017/2/4

Laura Ford

In this essay, I argue that Max Weber’s treatment of the western natural law tradition, in comparison to Hindu legal traditions, enables us to see his sociology of law from a revealing angle. In particular, this comparison directs our attention to important complications of meaning in Weber’s famous contrast between formal and substantive rationality in law. I contend that, in his encounter with the Dharmaśāstras, Weber met jurisprudential treatises that fit within his definition of formal rationality in law. Seeing why he nonetheless did not regard them so affords new insights into his ideal-typical conceptions of formal and substantive rationality in law, and, more broadly, into his conceptions of the relationship between law and religion. Offering a tentative critique of Weber’s arguments for the uniqueness of western, ‘scriptural’ traditions of law, I nevertheless also seek to show that his scholarship on the religiously-inflected legal traditions of India and the west merits continued attention.


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