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John Austin (1790–1859) was a noted British jurist and published extensively concerning the philosophy of law and jurisprudence.

Austin served with the British Army in Sicily and Malta, but sold his officer's commission to study law. He became a member of the Bar during 1818. He discontinued his law practice soon after, devoted himself to the study of law as a science, and became Professor of Jurisprudence in the University of London (now University College London) 1826-32. Thereafter he served on various Royal Commissions.

His publications had a profound influence on English jurisprudence. They include The Province of Jurisprudence Determined (1832), and Lectures on Jurisprudence.

Theories on legal positivism

The three basic points of Austin's theory of law are, that:

  • the law is command issued by the uncommanded commander--the sovereign;
  • such commands are backed by threats; and
  • a sovereign is one who is habitually obeyed

John Austin is best known for his work developing the theory of legal positivism. He attempted to clearly separate moral rules from "positive law."

Austin was greatly influenced in his utilitarian approach to law by Jeremy Bentham. Austin took a positivist approach to jurisprudence; he viewed the law as commands from a sovereign that are backed by a threat of sanction. In determining 'a sovereign', Austin recognized it as one who society obeys habitually. This of course raises problems of the sovereign-many - Parliament, comprising numerous individuals, each with varying authoritative powers. Austin's theory also falls somewhat short in his explanations of Constitutions, International Law, non-sanctioned rules, or law that gives rights. Insofar as non-sanctioned rules and laws that allow persons to do things, for instance contract law, Austin says failure to adhere to the rules does indeed lead to sanctions, however such sanctions are in the form of "the sanction of nullity." In this way he defined law primarily in terms of the power to control others. This definition of law was criticised by the 20th century legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart, who said that it was analogous to a gunman backing up his demands with a threat of violence.

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