Law is a system of rules that governs the activities and relations among people within a society or state. It deals with crimes, business agreements and social relationships, among other things. Its purpose is to maintain a peaceful society by imposing limits on the behavior of individuals. This function of law is one of the reasons that it is regarded as one of the most important functions of government.
The nature of law is a subject of great interest to philosophers, as well as a subject of concern for social planners and politicians. There are a number of sources of interest in this question: one is the sheer intellectual intrigue involved in trying to understand such a complex and intricate aspect of human culture; another is the fact that laws are often perceived as having a normative, reason-giving aspect which purports to guide behavior and give rise to permissible sanctions against deviations from those guidelines.
For this reason, there are a number of different theories about the nature of law. For example, one view, known as natural law theory, argues that the nature of law is based on natural principles that are inherently recognized by most people. Other, more recent theories attempt to show that laws are derived from or conditioned by the context in which they are developed and applied.
A common feature of all these theories is that they try to capture some widely shared concept of law by attempting to reduce it to some set of basic, foundational facts about human behavior and human interactions. This, of course, does not commit a person to the implication that law, on this account, is good or morally justified.
Nevertheless, many questions remain about the nature of law, even after these various reductionist approaches are adopted. For example, a group of influential scholars in the first half of the 20th century, called legal realists, argued that it is impossible to predict the outcome of a case simply by looking at the set of facts that the court is considering; the outcome depends on the judges’ individual interpretations of those facts, which are ultimately shaped by the societal and cultural environment in which the courts operate.
Other theories also attempt to explain the normative, reason-giving aspect of law by arguing that it is a necessary feature of any institution that claims legitimate authority. A famous argument along these lines was made by a philosopher named J. L. Austin, although his argument was later strongly criticized by the philosopher H.L. A. Hart. Other theories try to explain this aspect of law by comparing it to similar normative domains in human culture, such as morality and social conventions. However, these comparisons are also controversial. Nevertheless, there is considerable interest in attempting to understand the nature of law, in part because it is a crucial element in the operation of most states and societies. It is, therefore, a topic of continuing debate.