Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Meaning And Interpretation

DovBear and I have been arguing back and forth about the nature of meaning and interpretation. DB made the outlandish claim that constitutional texts can be made to mean whatever we want them to mean. I disagreed. Here's the key comment in the exchange.

"I agree that a Constitution can be interpreted on a number of levels because interpretation is not merely a semantic exercise and takes place on other levels (normative, pragmatic, etc.). But meaning is inherently a semantic term. The Constitution does not mean what we want it to mean. Its meaning is determined by a number of semantic and linguistic conventions which are shared by the relevant community.

I think this is an important distinction because it affects how we should approach interpretation. If we understand that the semantic meaning of the text is one thing and the normative interpretation is another thing, we'll be better able to engage in debate over the proper interpretation. Moral categories have no place in debates over meaning (unless the meaning of the text involves moral categories) and semantic arguments about meaning are not relevant to the normative questions relating to the text."

You can read the whole thread.

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