A Theory that Beats the Theory? Lineages, the Growth of Signs, and Dynamic Legal Interpretation

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Legal philosophers distinguish between a static and a dynamic interpretation of law. The former assumes that the meaning of the words used in a legal text is set at the moment of its enactment and does not change with time. The latter allows the interpreters to update the meaning and apply a contemporary understanding to the text. The dispute between these competing theories has significant ramifications for social and political life. To take an example, depending on the approach, the term “cruel punishment” used in the US Constitution will be given an 18th century meaning or a contemporary one. The philosophy of language seems to provide greater support to the static approach to legal interpretation. Within this approach the lawmaker is perceived as a speaker and legal texts are interpreted as utterances. As a consequence, interpretation is a quest for the speaker/lawmaker’s intention or the public meaning that prevailed at the time of enactment. Neither the intention nor the public meaning are considered to have changed in time. In this paper I argue that the philosophy of language provides the dynamic approach with an equally robust support as the static one. This support comes from an externalist perspective in semantics, rooted in philosophical pragmatism and supported by Ruth Millikan’s concept of meaning as proper function. Grounding the dynamic approach in a well-founded linguistic philosophy rises to the challenge presented by the originalists’ declaration that “it takes a theory to beat a theory”.
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