Is the Law Language or Culture?

Almost all puzzles in the field of law hinge on a question something like this, “What does that word or phrase mean?” Difficult legal questions frequently turn on whether a modifier is applied to only the first term in a list, or each term in a list. Other questions are whether a specific object in a case is included (or excluded) by a [vague] category named in a statute. (Is a butter knife a “dangerous object”? A sewing needle? A jagged piece of plastic?)

In keeping with a previous post on this subject, I posit that legal analysis is fundamentally the analysis of language and the culture of that language. The primary worry about this can be phrased as this question: Can there be objectively correct and incorrect answers in a composite analysis of culture and language? Let me illustrate this difficulty with the concepts of semantics and syntax.

As I put on my coat, I tell my roommate, “I’m going out to the store for a few things. Do you need anything?” My roommate says, “There’s no soda in the fridge.”

Did my roommate ask me to get soda? The actual words he said contain no request, command, order, or anything of the sort; he only stated a fact about the contents of our refrigerator. This is the semantic analysis: the construction of the words and their specific meaning. However, most people familiar with our language and culture easily recognize this as a casual, polite request. Obviously, his statement that we are out of soda is in reply to an inquiry aimed at finding out what we lack that I could purchase at the store. It is largely uncontroversial that he means for me to buy more soda, precise language notwithstanding. This is syntactic analysis: the implicit, understood meaning in the context of the situation.

Here’s the takeaway: neither analysis seems entirely “wrong,” and that’s deeply troubling for those who want the law to be clear and black-and-white. The semantics cannot deny that my roommate may well have meant that I am to buy soda, and yet the syntactics cannot reject the fact that my roommate’s language contains no sort of request-in-fact for more soda. This leads to a problem in law: if a statute can be understood in two very different ways, and neither can be said to be wrong, how can we know that the law actually is? We are unwilling to accept that there is no “right” answer for the meaning of the law, because this leads us to the possibility of having two, inconsistent sets of laws depending on the interpretation of the statutes.

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