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The Nature of Legal Interpretation

What Jurists Can Learn about Legal Interpretation from Linguistics and Philosophy

Language shapes and reflects how we think about the world. It engages and intrigues us. Our everyday use of language is quite effortless—we are all experts on our native tongues. Despite this, issues of language and meaning have long flummoxed the judges on whom we depend for the interpretation of our most fundamental legal texts. Should a judge feel confident in defining common words in the texts without the aid of a linguist? How is the meaning communicated by the text determined? Should the communicative meaning of texts be decisive, or at least influential? 
To fully engage and probe these questions of interpretation, this volume draws upon a variety of experts from several fields, who collectively examine the interpretation of legal texts. In The Nature of Legal Interpretation, the contributors argue that the meaning of language is crucial to the interpretation of legal texts, such as statutes, constitutions, and contracts. Accordingly, expert analysis of language from linguists, philosophers, and legal scholars should influence how courts interpret legal texts. Offering insightful new interdisciplinary perspectives on originalism and legal interpretation, these essays put forth a significant and provocative discussion of how best to characterize the nature of language in legal texts.

288 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Language and Linguistics: Language and Law

Law and Legal Studies: General Legal Studies, Legal Thought, The Constitution and the Courts


"Slocum's book is a useful addition to the literature on interpretation. His knowledge of linguistics provides the reader with a comprehensive account of meaning and conventionality in a neighboring field of study."

The Cambridge Law Journal

“This volume of essays considers the question of whether insights from linguistics, philosophy, and psychology could contribute to better methodologies for determining the meaning of legal texts, and goes on to ask the even more provocative normative question, namely, if law should ground the search for meaning in legal texts in what we know from those other disciplines about the relationship of texts and meaning.  At a time when legal scholarship on textual interpretation has become increasingly stale, sterile, and formulaic, this collection of interdisciplinarily grounded essays from leading scholars is indeed a breath of fresh air.”

Janet Ainsworth, Seattle University

The Nature of Legal Interpretation is an excellent anthology—well conceived and well executed. The contributors are first-rate, and their contributions reflect that. The theoretical basis of legal interpretation is experiencing a boom period in academic interest and controversy right now. The proper approach to interpreting the Constitution and statutes is of incredible importance, and its importance is being relearned in the wake of Supreme Court opinions interpreting the Second Amendment, the Affordable Care Act, and the due process clause. Although there has been a lot written on the topic in the last decade, most of it has been the product of legally trained academics with little sophistication in linguistic philosophy. The Nature of Legal Interpretation fills that gap and provides much-needed clarity and complexity to how we understand contemporary legal disputes.”

Larry Alexander, University of San Diego

"Certainly, any lawyer who writes or explains the law and who is able to find a few moments for the consideration of matters outside the purely pragmatic considerations of the daily workload will find this a fascinatingly alternative perspective on how language is perceived and valued by those whose interests in the philosophy and structure of communication can help us to understand more about the internal structure of what we are, generally subliminally, doing every day."

Statute Law Review

Table of Contents

Brian G. Slocum
Chapter 1. The Contribution of Linguistics to Legal Interpretation
Brian G. Slocum
Chapter 2. Philosophy of Language, Linguistics, and Possible Lessons about Originalism
Kent Greenawalt
Chapter 3. Linguistic Knowledge and Legal Interpretation: What Goes Right, What Goes Wrong
Lawrence M. Solan
Chapter 4. The Continued Relevance of Philosophical Hermeneutics in Legal Thought
Frank S. Ravitch
Chapter 5. The Strange Fate of Holmes’s Normal Speaker of English
Karen Petroski
Chapter 6. Originalism, Hermeneutics, and the Fixation Thesis
Lawrence B. Solum
Chapter 7. Getting Over the Originalist Fixation
Francis J. Mootz III
Chapter 8. Legal Speech and the Elements of Adjudication
Nicholas Allott and Benjamin Shaer
Chapter 9. Deferentialism, Living Originalism, and the Constitution
Scott Soames
Chapter 10. Deferentialism and Adjudication
Gideon Rosen
Response to Chapter Ten: Comments on Rosen
Scott Soames

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