Interpretivism, sometimes called legal interpretivism to distinguish it from similar schools of thought in other disciplines, is a school of legal philosophy commonly associated with American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. Interpretivism views law as being interpreted by the practice of lawyers and jurists, and claims this is the nature of law itself. Unlike other schools of legal philosophy, interpretivism views law not as something imposed from outside, but as a product of the practice of law. Interpretivists claim law has a relationship with ethics and morality, but that they are not the same.
Legal interpretivism was developed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It emerged into a legal world dominated by two ways of thinking about the philosophy of law — legal positivism and natural law theory. Interpretivism has some similarities to both schools of thought and some important differences. It has sometimes been thought of as a middle ground between the two.
Natural law theory is the older of the two schools of thought. Like all legal philosophies, it contains several diverse points of view, but all share the basic idea that there is an underlying natural law that serves as the foundation for manmade law. Natural law consists of basic principles of fairness, justice, and equity that transcend cultural boundaries, and manmade or "positive" law should respect these. In some traditions, natural law is believed to proceed from divine or supernatural sources, while others see it as inherent in human nature.
Legal positivism is a school of thought that says laws are made by human societies, not discovered in nature, and have no inherent connection to ethics or justice, except insofar as these considerations influence the people who create them. Legal positivists are more concerned with studying the ways in which laws are created and applied. Positivism is concerned with understanding the human institution of law, not endorsing or opposing any particular law or way of making laws.
Legal interpretivism has some similarities with both schools of thought. Like proponents of natural law, interpretivists agree there is an external purpose for law; they do not, however, believe laws exist independent of human construction. Like legal positivists, they accept that the law is a product of human society and politics. Unlike legal positivism, however, interpretivism contends legal practice is justified by reference to outside values, and argues that the act of interpretation is actually part of the process of making and defining law.