Jurisprudence is the study of law, specifically legal philosophy and science. It has numerous branches that focus on a range of issues, from whether or not law should exist to what sort of penalties are appropriate for violations of the law. The field is largely dominated by Western laws and ethics, although students of Eastern law do exist. The term is also used to refer to a specific branch of law, such as environmental or medical jurisprudence.
The concept of jurisprudence has been around for quite a long time. Both the Ancient Greeks and Romans considered the philosophy of law, and earlier societies probably did as well. The term itself is derived from a Latin phrase, juris prudentia, meaning “knowledge of the law.” As long as humans have had laws governing their activities, philosophers and commentators have been thinking about these laws and considering how they fit in with the societies which they are supposed to codify and protect.
Some of its well known branches include natural law, normative jurisprudence, and analytic jurisprudence. Natural law is a school of legal philosophy which believes that there are certain innate laws which are common to all human societies, whether or not they are spelled out in legal materials. Normative jurisprudence looks at the purpose of legal systems, and which sorts of laws are appropriate. Analytic jurisprudence is meant to be an objective study of law in neutral terms, differentiating it from natural law, which evaluates legal systems and laws through the framework of natural law theory.
Since law can often be slippery and incomprehensible, it may come as no surprise to learn that jurisprudence is extremely complex and sometimes very confusing. Many of the world's most famous scholars and philosophers have at least dabbled in its study, producing dense tomes, complicated arguments, and tricky rhetoric. The study of jurisprudence is also important for a good lawyer, because it ensures that he or she deeply understands the law and the philosophical approaches which have been involved in its creation.
Studying law does not necessarily make someone a lawyer, although it is an important part of a legal education. For judges and other people who must interpret, defend, or reject the law, jurisprudence is a very important field, along with more general studies of history, society, and philosophy. Since laws are such an important underpinning of society, their study can also provide valuable information about a nation and its people.