Five Kinds of Perspectives on Legal Institutions

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There is at least one immediate sense in which legal discourse is perspectival: it qualifies acts and facts in the world on the basis of rules. Legal concepts are for the most part constituted by rules, both in the sense that rules define these concepts’ semantic content and that, in order to engage with legal practice, we must act according to those rules, not necessarily complying with them but at least having them in mind. This is the distinctive perspective of law: however, it would be misleading to think that this is the only perspective we can have in legal discourse. That of rule-constituted legal concepts is the fundamental perspective -- the inevitable presupposition of most legal assertions -- but other perspectives are possible on top of this fundamental background: perspectives on law, stemming from the basic perspective of law. In this paper, I will try to argue that some different perspectives regarding law can be accounted for by analyzing different kinds of concepts that emerge in connection with legal institutions. My argument will consist of three steps as follows. First, I will explain how legal concepts are constituted by rules, referring in this regard to John Searle’s analysis of institutional concepts as it emerges in his Making the Social World, of 2010, and amending this analysis according to some criticisms that in 1986 Neil MacCormick had raised against Searle with specific reference to the legal domain. Second, I will show that there are some kinds of concepts relevant for an institution which are not captured by Searle’s analysis in terms of constitutive rules, even if this is amended according to MacCormick’s criticisms. This I will do by considering the game of chess as a simple system of rule-constituted concepts (concepts such as 'checkmate,' 'bishop,' 'king'). I will consider four examples of perfectly legitimate assertions regarding a match of chess -- these being (1) ‘I won’; (2) 'you made a good attack'; (3) 'you are cheating'; (4) 'you made good use of the first-move advantage,' and I will show that, while the first three assertions can be analyzed in terms of concepts (those of 'victory,' 'attack,' and 'cheating') which are not constituted by the rules of chess but are rather common to several different competitive games, being typical of the broader practice of competitive game-playing of which chess is an instance, the fourth assertion includes a concept (that of 'first-move advantage') which is peculiar to chess, just like a rule-constituted element, but is not constituted by the rules of chess. This analysis will lead to a new categorization of institutional concepts. Apart from rule-constituted institutional concepts, which are the only ones recognized by Searle, in order to account for cases (1), (2), and (3) I will distinguish between three kinds of meta-institutional concepts, namely, goal-oriented, mode-oriented, and value-oriented meta-institutional concepts, and then I will introduce the category of para-institutional concepts to account for case (4). Finally -- and this is the third step of my argument -- I will explain how these different kinds of institutional concepts appear when we adopt different perspectives on the institutional frameworks we deal with. This will lead us to a categorization of possible perspectives regarding law that corresponds to the previous one regarding concepts. There is first a structural perspective regarding the instantiation of institutional elements which clearly involves rule-constituted institutional concepts -- as when we say 'I am making a will.' There is then a teleological perspective regarding the goal of our institutional acts which calls into question goal-oriented meta-institutional concepts -- as when we say 'I wrote that will in order for you to have a distinctive right to my property.' Then, we can adopt a strategical perspective regarding some peculiar ways in which institutional acts can be performed, and this has often to do with mode-oriented meta-institutional concepts -- as when we say 'the Labour Party is making parliamentary obstructionism so that the Government will fall before the enactment of the labour reform,' or 'workers start today a work-to-rule action.' Clearly, we can also adopt an evaluative perspective over institutional facts or acts, and here typically value oriented meta-institutional concepts emerge -- as when we say 'that rule is clearly unjust' or 'that contract is unfair.' Finally, we can limit ourselves to a descriptive perspective on phenomena which are peculiar to a given institutional setting, and here para-institutional concepts are often useful -- as when we say 'the Italian electoral system before 1990 led to a sort of reform paralysis' or 'a strict use of the criterion requiring proof beyond any reasonable doubt can be expected to entail a low conviction rate.'
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Archival date: 2015-11-21
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