[Research seminar] ART THOU PIL? Reflections on the Fragmentation of International Lawyers

03 December 2020
  • Starts at: 16:00h
  • Fee: Free
  • Venue: Online
  • Organiser: T.M.C. Asser Instituut

On 3 December (16:00-17:00), the Asser Institute is proud to welcome Dr Jason Beckett. During this research seminar, he will be presenting his paper: ‘ART THOU PIL? Reflections on the Fragmentation of International Lawyers’.

When asked, “What is art?” or “What is physics’ relation to nature?”, there are few practitioners in either field who would be willing to give a comprehensive answer; unless it were self-evidently meaningless. But when we broach the analagous question “What is PIL?” the answers proffered are numerous, confident, internally comprehensive – and largely mutually exclusive. They are situated, paradigmatic, understandings, manifesting as Heimaten, or professional communities. International lawyers are professionally constructed within these communities; this process generates perceptions of coherence and determinacy “through indoctrination into a preferred way of seeing things.” This “front-loading” creates security, a sense of agreement and belonging: a community trained (conditioned) to see the world in a specific way; and to treat that vision as truth.

Thomas Kuhn famously analysed these shifting paradigms in the history of scientific thought, the “revolutions” by which one paradigm replaced another. He concluded that accepting a new paradigm is not a matter of logic, but a leap of faith: guided, David Harvey suggests, by “an aspect of nature which is important in terms of everyday activity and everyday life as it exists at a particular point in history.” This entails that paradigms can co-exist, and even paradigms known to be “wrong” can continue to operate if their failings are unimportant in material reality. Paradigms shift for material reasons. Consequently, if there are no materially important contradictions or shortcomings, paradigms can co-exist.

I argue that the lack of materiality in PIL engenders an unbearable mass of “legally cognizable materials”, huddled indiscriminately together; and not subject to any authoritative ranking or evaluation. Thus where Riley postulates that: “We cannot have a coherent exploration of international law’s presuppositions without clear grounds of demarcation.” I would counter that we have no right to expect our analyses to lead to coherent results. PIL is not actually a thing, but a conflictual mass of discrete communities. Each with its own standards for norm-recognition, interpretation, and competent legal argument.I will reflect on the simple existence of these chaotically co-existing communities in PIL; particularly in light of its lack of material existence or effect.

Law is what lawyers – or academics – perceive as law; but, especially in PIL, there is only a mass of unstructured data, and super-imposed dreams of order. Heimaten created by front-loading. Each believes its own techniques and conclusions to be universal: “true”, and interacts only with certain others; interactions structured around the belief in their own truths. As a result, it becomes easy to confuse intra-community agreement with practice, or “the facts of international law.” This tendency should be resisted. PIL will not be unified. There are many different ways of “doing” PIL. These have varying levels of prestige in specific settings. But none is more (in)competent than any other.

Asser research seminars

During the Asser Research Seminars, external researchers are invited to present their current and upcoming research with the Asser research community. The seminars are semi-open, as we invite a few external people who may be interested in the specific topic of the seminar. However, we aim to keep the group’s size limited, to stimulate interaction and high quality, in-depth discussions. Researchers who are interested in presenting their research to the Asser research community are welcome to send an e-mail to Dr Christophe Paulussen (c.paulussen@asser.nl).

For more information about past research seminars, please see here.