The Interpretation-Construction Distinction

Abstract

The interpretation-construction distinction, which marks the difference between linguistic meaning and legal effect, is much discussed these days. I shall argue that the distinction is both real and fundamental – that it marks a deep difference in two different stages in the way that legal and political actors process legal texts. My account of the distinction will not be precisely the same as some others, but I shall argue that it is the correct account and captures the essential insights of its rivals. This Essay aims to mark the distinction clearly! The basic idea can be explained by distinguishing two different moments or stages that occur when an authoritative legal text is applied or explicated. The first of these moments is interpretation – which I shall stipulate is the process that recognizes or discovers the linguistic meaning or semantic content of the legal text. The second moment is construction – which I shall stipulate is the process that gives a text legal effect. I shall then claim that the difference between interpretation and construction is real and fundamental. Although the terminology could vary, legal theorists cannot do without the distinction. One more preliminary point: the topic of this Essay is narrow and conceptual. This Essay, has three goals: to explicate the nature of the interpretation-construction distinction, to argue that this distinction marks a real difference, and to suggest that the distinction is helpful in that it enables legal theorists to clarify the nature of important debates, for example debates about constitutional interpretation. The Essay does not offer any particular theory of interpretation or construction – that it is, it remains agnostic about questions as to how linguistic meaning can be discerned or how legal content ought to be determined. Nor does this theory offer an account of the history and origins of the distinction. Those topics are important, but raising them in this Essay might shift attention away from prior questions about the nature and value of the distinction itself. Here is the roadmap. In Part II, this Essay shall discuss two preliminary sets of ideas: vagueness and ambiguity, and semantic content and legal content. In Part III, this Essay shall use these preliminary ideas to answer the questions, "What is interpretation?" and "What is construction?" In Part IV, this Essay shall consider some objections to the interpretation-construction distinction. In Part V, this Essay shall develop the argument that the distinction is fundamental and indispensable.

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Lawrence B. Solum
Georgetown University

Citations of this work

Constitutionalism.Wil Waluchow - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Deferentialism: Soames on legal interpretation.Lawrence B. Solum - 2022 - Philosophical Studies 179 (6):2097-2107.
Incorrect Interpretation in the Light of the Law of Interpretation.Paulina Konca - 2023 - International Journal for the Semiotics of Law - Revue Internationale de Sémiotique Juridique 36 (2):629-648.

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