The effort to group jurisdictions around the world into a handful of legal families based on common characteristics of their laws has traditionally occupied a central role in the comparative law literature. This Article revisits the intellectual history of comparative law and surveys the evolution of legal family taxonomies from the first efforts at classification in the late-nineteenth century to the influential categorizations advanced by René David and Zweigert and Kötz in the 1960s. The early taxonomies differed from their modern counterparts in important ways. Although the nineteenth century is usually viewed as the apex of the common-civil law dichotomy, this distinction was conspicuously absent from legal family classifications until the twentieth century. A number of economic and political factors – ranging from economic liberalism to anti-colonialist sentiment – likely played a role in minimizing the salience of legal traditions in nineteenth-century legal thought.
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