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“There are no words that are ‘clear’ in and of themselves”: Meta-pragmatic comments and semantic analysis in legal interpretation

  • Zohar Livnat EMAIL logo


Legal interpretation often includes a profusion of meta-pragmatic comments about the interpretation process itself. Thus, while pragmatic theories refer to the interpretation processes as natural, mostly unconscious processes, in legal interpretation the inference processes take on a conscious form. Meta-pragmatic comments provide a glimpse into this process and surface various aspects of it that have been described theoretically. The aim of this study is to examine the possibility of applying theoretical pragmatic terms to the legal interpretation discourse.A semantic-pragmatic analysis of a few cases shows that while the linguistic component of the legal interpretation makes it easy to apply pragmatic theory, some of the procedures performed by judges are incompatible with a semantic-pragmatic interpretation and contradict its theoretical assumptions. The purposive approach to interpretation that has developed in the Israeli legal system raises some serious problems in that sense. Applying the objective purpose of a statute even when it is obvious that the legislators could not have desired that in order to change the law cannot be considered “interpretation” in the pragmatic sense, since the central element of speaker’s intentions has been given a completely different meaning, and the aim of the interpretation procedure, namely identifying the speaker’s intentions, has for the most part been lost. This paper suggests that these cases should be viewed as exceptions to pragmatic interpretation and they do not permit application of pragmatic theory to them, at least not of the types of approaches attributed to Grice’s legacy. Nevertheless, this does not mean that theoretical pragmatic tools are not applicable to judicial opinions and to other kinds of legal text.


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Received: 2016-12-1
Accepted: 2017-3-22
Published Online: 2017-6-20
Published in Print: 2017-6-27

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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