Characterizing a legal–intellectual culture: Bacon, Coke, and seventeenth-century England

Peter Grajzl, Peter Murrell, Cliometrica 15(1), 43 - 88, February .


A characterization of the ideas of Francis Bacon and Edward Coke, two preeminent English lawyer-scholars, provides insights into the nature of the legal-intellectual culture of early seventeenth-century England. This emerging culture remains underexplored, even though it immediately preceded and provided essential input into the 'culture-of-growth', the eighteenth-century cultural paradigm viewed as a catalyst for England's historically unprecedented technological advance and economic growth. To develop insights, we employ a methodology not previously used in this context, applying structural topic modeling to a large corpus comprising the works of both Bacon and Coke. Estimated topics span legal, political, scientific, and methodological themes. Legal topics evidence an advanced structure of common-law thought, straddling ostensibly disparate areas of the law. Interconnections between topics reveal a distinctive approach to the pursuit of knowledge, embodying Bacon's epistemology and Coke's legal methodology. A key similarity between Bacon and Coke overshadows their differences: both sought to build reliable knowledge based on generalizing from particulars. The resulting methodological paradigm can be understood as reflecting a legacy of common-law thought and constituting a key contribution to the era's emerging legal-intellectual culture. More generally, our analysis illustrates how machine-learning applied to primary texts can aid in exploration of culture.

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