Legal Interpretation and the Philosophy of Language

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Abstract

Law is guidance through language, whether the language of statutes, judicial decisions, constitutional provisions, contracts, or wills. It is therefore not surprising that lawyers, judges, and legal commentators have sought whatever assistance they could find from other fields which deal with the meaning and interpretation of words: including literary theory, linguistics, and semiotics. Assistance has also been sought from philosophy of language, and the various philosophical writers on the deeper understanding of truth, meaning, and reference. However, at the end of the day, it is not clear that any of these searches have taught the legal profession useful new knowledge or methods of knowing. This article offers an overview of some of the attempts to use philosophy of language to alter or resolve questions of legal interpretation. It first considers the determinacy and indeterminacy of law, and then looks at H. L. A. Hart and the 'open texture' of language. The article also discusses intentionalism, originalism, textualism, and plain meaning with respect to interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and concludes by outlining the links between politics, law, and philosophy.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbook of Language and Law
EditorsPeter M. Tiersma, Lawrence M. Solan
PublisherOxford University Press
Pages145-155
ISBN (Electronic)9780191750694
ISBN (Print)9780199572120
DOIs
StatePublished - 2012

Keywords

  • Constitution
  • Determinacy
  • Hart
  • Indeterminacy
  • Language
  • Legal interpretation
  • Open texture
  • Originalism
  • Philosophy
  • Politics

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