Inference and representation in legal interpretation

A workshop about inference, linguistic representation and mental representation in the interpretation and meaning of legal language


What determines the meaning of a legal text? Is it the original meanings of the words used, or their meanings now, intentions of the producer of the text, or some combination, or something else?

Does this meaning include elements that are not part of the encoded meaning, such as (conversational) implicatures, or other pragmatically inferred material?

How does this relate to the maxim that what courts seek is the ‘ordinary meaning’ of the text, and to principles of judicial interpretation such as ejusdem generis, noscitur a sociis, ‘reading down’ and ‘reading in’?

Can facts about linguistic syntax and semantics clarify disputes about legal meaning and interpretation? For example, how does jurists' talk of ‘ambiguity’ and ‘vagueness’ relate to linguists’ and philosophers’ notions? And does the (controversial) distinction between the analytic and synthetic play a role in legal interpretation? 

How do judges and other consumers of legal texts understand and interpret them? What are the roles played in judicial interpretation by linguistic decoding, inference and more creative legal decision-making? 

Such questions are the focus of a growing body of work by legal scholars who are beginning to apply notions from linguistics and philosophy of language to questions of legal interpretation and by linguists and philosophers of language who have turned their attention to the meaning and interpretation of legal ‘speech’ including statutes, constitutions, contracts and even legal notices, and to the role of judges and judicial adjudications. A key focus of this workshop is therefore the implications for the understanding of law of theoretical advances in philosophy of language, and in linguistics, particularly linguistic semantics and pragmatics. A question that naturally follows is what the import is of this theoretical work for the practice of law. Does it, for example, support or rule out any theories of intepretation current among jurists, such as varieties of textualism and originalism?


Hrafn Asgeirsson – University of Surrey

Victoria F. Nourse – Georgetown Law School

Georges Rey – University of Maryland, College Park

Benjamin Shaer – Carleton University, Ottawa

Brian Slocum – McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, Sacramento

Lawrence Solan – Brooklyn Law School


Nicholas Allott – University of Oslo



Friday 7th October

09:30 Coffee

09:45  Welcome & introduction

10:00 Victoria Nourse (Georgetown Law School): Lessons from the Philosophy of Language for Modern Statutory Interpretation (pdf of slides)

11:30 Nicholas Allott (University of Oslo) & Ben Shaer (Carleton University, Ottawa)The Pragmatics of Statutory Enactment (pdf of slides)

13:00 Lunch break

14:00 Georges Rey (University of Maryland, College Park): Analytic, A priori, False – But In Any Case Not Legally Binding (pdf of slides) (pdf of talk)

15:30 Coffee break

16:00 Larry Solan (Brooklyn Law School): From Textualism to Pragmatism in the U.S. Supreme Court? (pdf of slides)


Saturday 8th October

10:30 Hrafn Asgeirsson (University of Surrey): Vagueness, Reasons, and Judicial Discretion (pdf of slides)

12:00 Lunch break

13:00 Nicholas Allott (University of Oslo) & Ben Shaer (Carleton University, Ottawa)The Pragmatics of Judicial Adjudication (pdf of slides)

14:30 Coffee break

15:00 Brian Slocum (McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific, Sacramento): Language and Judicial Review of Agency Statutory Interpretations (pdf of slides)


Downloadable programme and abstracts (pdf)


Selected references

Asgeirsson, H. (2012). On the possibility of non-literal legislative speech. Monash University Faculty of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 45.

Asgeirsson, H. (2013). Vagueness and power delegation in law : a rely to Sorensen. In M. D. A. Freeman & F. Smith (Eds.), Law and Language. (pp. 344-355).

Carston, R. (2013). Legal texts and canons of construction: A view from current pragmatic theory. In M. D. A. Freeman & F. Smith (Eds.), Law and Language. (pp. 8-33).

Endicott, T. (2012). Legal interpretation. In A. Marmor (Ed.), Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Law. (pp. 109-122).

Freeman, M. D. A. & Smith, F. (Eds.). (2013). Law and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Greenberg, M. (2010). The standard picture and its discontents. In L. Green & B. Leiter (Eds.), Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Law: Volume I. (pp. 39-106). Oxford: OUP. 

Greenberg, M. (2011). Legislation as communication? Legal interpretation and the study of linguistic communication. In A. Marmor & S. Soames (Eds.), Philosophical Foundations of Language in the Law. (pp. 217-256).

Marmor, A. (2014). The Language of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Marmor, A. & Soames, S. (Eds.). (2011). Philosophical Foundations of Language in the Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mikhail, J. (2015). The constitution and the philosophy of language: Entailment, implicature, and implied powers. Virginia Law Review, 101(4).

Nourse, V. F. (2016). Misreading Law, Misreading Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Perry, J. (2011). Textualism and the discovery of rights. In A. Marmor & S. Soames (Eds.), Philosophical Foundations of Language in the Law. (pp. 105-129).

Rey, G. (2009). Concepts, defaults and internal asymmetric dependencies: Distillations of Fodor and Horwich. In N. Kompa, C. Nimtz & C. Suhm (Eds.), The A Priori and its Role in Philosophy. Paderborn: Mentis.

Shaer, B. (2013). Toward a cognitive science of legal interpretation. In M. D. A. Freeman & F. Smith (Eds.), Law and Language. (pp. 259-291).

Slocum, B. G. (2015). Ordinary Meaning: A Theory of the Most Fundamental Principle of Legal Interpretation. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Solan, L. (2010). The Language of Statutes : Laws and Their Interpretation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Solum, L. B. (2010). The interpretation-construction distinction. Constitutional Commentary, 27, 95-118.

Sorensen, R. (2001). Vagueness has no function in law. Legal Theory, 7(04), 387-417.

Tiersma, P. M. & Solan, L. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 



Nicholas Allott
Tags: linguistics, philosophy, law, pragmatics, philosophy of language, jurisprudence, semantics, syntax, philosophy of mind
Published July 21, 2016 12:01 PM - Last modified Oct. 11, 2016 6:33 PM