Since Gallie introduced the notion of essentially contested concepts, it has given rise to considerable debate and confusion. The aim of this paper is to bring clarity to these debates by offering a critical reconstruction of the notion of essential contestedness. I argue that we should understand essentially contestable concepts as concepts that refer to ideals or to concepts and phenomena that can only be fully understood in light of ideals and that are, as a consequence, open to pervasive contestation. Moreover, some concepts are second-order essentially contested: it may be a matter of ongoing dispute as to whether they should be regarded as essentially contested. The concept of law is an example. Some authors argue that it is ideal-oriented, whereas others claim it is not. This insight that ‘law’ is a second-order essentially contested concept may explain some of the disagreements between legal positivism and its various opponents.

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Keywords essentially contested concepts, Gallie, ideals, concept of law, secondorder essentially contested concepts
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Journal Jurisprudence (An International Journal of Legal and Political Thought)
van der Burg, W. (2017). Law as a Second-Order Essentially Contested Concept. Jurisprudence (An International Journal of Legal and Political Thought), 8(2), 230–256. Retrieved from