Biography:Alf Ross

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Short description: Danish jurist (1899–1979)
Alf Ross
Alf Niels Christian Ross

(1899-06-10)10 June 1899
Died17 August 1979(1979-08-17) (aged 80)
Virum, Denmark
Alma materUniversity of Copenhagen, Uppsala University
Known forRoss's paradox
Scientific career
FieldsLaw, philosophy of law, sociology of law
InstitutionsUniversity of Copenhagen
ThesisTheorie der Rechtsquellen: ein Beitrag zur Theorie des positiven Rechts auf Grundlage dogmenhistorischer Untersuchungen (1929)
Doctoral advisorAxel Hägerström

Alf Niels Christian Ross (10 June 1899 – 17 August 1979) was a Denmark jurist, legal philosopher and judge of the European Court of Human Rights (1959–1971).[1] He is best known as one of the leading figures of Scandinavian legal realism. His debate in 1959 with the prominent British legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart – which began in the Cambridge Law Journal (Vol. 17) – was important in framing the modern conflict between legal positivism and legal realism.[2][3]


Education and academic career

Ross was born in Copenhagen as a son of civil servant Frederik Ross and graduated from high school in 1917. Ross studied law at the University of Copenhagen graduating in 1922. He consequently worked in a barrister's office. In 1923, he commenced a study tour, which would last for two and a half years, visiting France, England and Austria, where he met and befriended fellow legal scholar, Hans Kelsen. He spent 1928–1929 at the Uppsala University, receiving a doctoral degree in philosophy in 1929 under the supervision of Axel Hägerström. In 1935, he was appointed to teach constitutional law at the University of Copenhagen.[4]

On Law and Justice

In 1953, Ross published his most famous book Om Ret og Retfærdighed (which he would later publish in English, under the title On Law and Justice).

In this book, he states that there is no a priori validity to give the law some special position. Experience serves as a guideline. This means, for example, that the famous dictum ‘suum cuique tribuere’, ‘to give to everyone his own’, has no meaning until it has been determined what actually belongs to someone, which means that this is a matter of begging the question (On Law and Justice, § 64 (p. 276)). His determination not to rely on anything but the facts leads to statements as the following: “The legal rule is neither true nor false; it is a directive.” (On Law and Justice, § 2 (p. 2)). Furthermore, the norm is directed at judges rather than citizens (On Law and Justice, § 7 (p. 33)).

In this line of thought, he opposes natural law-approaches: “Like a harlot, natural law is at the disposal of everyone. The ideology does not exist that cannot be defended by an appeal to the law of nature. And, indeed, how can it be otherwise, since the ultimate basis for every natural right lies in a private direct insight, an evident contemplation, an intuition. Cannot my intuition be just as good as yours? Evidence as a criterion of truth explains the utterly arbitrary character of the metaphysical assertions. It raises them up above any force of inter-subjective control and opens the door wide to unrestricted invention and dogmatics.” (On Law and Justice, § 58 (p. 261).)


  • "Imperatives and Logic", Theoria vol. 7, 1941, pp. 53–71
  • Towards a Realistic Jurisprudence: A Criticism of the Dualism in Law (1946)
  • A Textbook in International Law (1947)
  • Constitution of the United Nations (1951)
  • Why Democracy? (1952)
  • "Tû-Tû", Harvard Law Review vol. 70, Issue 5, March 1957, pp. 812–825. Originally published in Festskrift til Henry Ussing. O. Borum, K. Ilium (eds.). Kobenhavn Juristforbundet, 1951
  • On Law and Justice (1959)
  • The United Nations: Peace and Progress (1966)
  • Directives and Norms (1968)
  • "On Self-Reference and a Puzzle in Constitutional Law", Mind (1969)
  • On Guilt, Responsibility and Punishment (1975)


  1. Evald, Jens (2014). Alf Ross – a life. Copenhagen: Djøf Publishing. pp. 310–315. ISBN 978-87-574-2786-8. 
  2. Holtermann, Jakob v H. (2016-10-26) (in en). A Straw Man Revisited: Resettling the Score between H.L.A Hart and Scandinavian Legal Realism. Rochester, NY. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2859404. 
  3. Hart, H. L. A. (November 1959). "Scandinavian Realism" (in en). The Cambridge Law Journal 17 (2): 233–240. doi:10.1017/S0008197300007650. ISSN 1469-2139. 
  4. Waaben, Knud (2003). "Alf Ross 1899–1979: A Biographical Sketch". European Journal of International Law 14 (4): 661–674. doi:10.1093/ejil/14.4.661. 


  • Hempel, Carl G. (1941). "Alf Ross. Imperatives and Logic". Journal of Symbolic Logic 6 (3): 105. doi:10.2307/2268596. 
  • Evald, Jens. Alf Ross: a life Djoef Publishing (2014)