Legal arborism

One of the blawgers at Double Aspect, Leonid Sirota, asks if “living tree” constitutional theories can explain the grounds and consequences of their views in the context of jurisprudence in Canada. (Sirota and his co-bloggers seem to occupy an interesting intellectual space, being McGill educated, working abroad, but whose philosophical jurisprudence seems mainly influenced by the American tradition.) Laid against that background, he asks a bevy of questions, and invites some answers. I’ll give it a shot.

(Style note: because I’m tired of writing “living tree doctrine advocates” and its long-winded cognates, I’ll call this position legal arborism. And, full disclosure: my sense of the views of legal arborism in Canada are deeply influenced by a course I audited with Wil Waluchow at McMaster, and so are tilted in favor of his own living tree constitutionalism. His kindness, patience, and scholarly acumen have influenced me a great deal.)

To give you an idea of my own perspective, allow me to say a few words about my intellectual background. My research focus is on informal promulgation, or the publicity of law (understood as a phenomenon deserving of explanation by collective social epistemology). On the one hand, my views on the written/unwritten distinction, at least at the level of discernment or court interpretation, are something of a mixed bag; I don’t know if I would consider myself a legal arborist, if only because I am wary of having my intellectual life bewitched by the power of a metaphor. So, because I am a philosophical eccentric in this and other ways, I do not think I am a thoroughly disciplined advocate of the “living tree” doctrine, and my answers will likely be inadequate. That said, I see an awful lot of merit in the arborist’s point of view of common-law — so much so that I would be far more sympathetic to the legal arborist’s general conception of law than the depiction of law provided by originalists. So, I’m with the Ents.

“1) Do you think that the linguistic meaning of the constitutional text changes over time after its entrenchment?”

This is a complex question. The question presumes that there is a distinction between linguistic and application meaning, or sentence vs. use meaning — usually captured by the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. But, as a commenter on that thread notes, many of us would dispute the application/linguistic meaning distinction, insofar as it is supposed to help us sort between two piles of content ascriptions that lawyers and judges would care about (i.e., concerning different kinds of legal effects, the constructive and the merely interpretive). And by ‘us’, I do not just mean legal arborists. I mean, ‘us’, as in virtually everyone who works in philosophy of language who was educated in the last half-century. Indeed, in my view, the best originalists don’t even follow through with the pragmatics/semantics distinction in their considered accounts. So, e.g., I’ve noted before that — aspirations to the contrary — Lawrence Solum’s “semantic” originalism is nothing of the kind, since it asks us to enrich communicative content (meaning, strict entailments) with cooperative implicatures when such are required by the method of triangulation. Solum calls it a semantic theory, but he is mis-stating (indeed, understating!) the powers of the actual theory that he advocates.

But this is easily fixed; a better presentation of the originalist argument is possible. Such an argument would either have to admit the pointlessness of appeals to textual purity, and confess that it invites relatively obvious widenings of the scope of the “semantic” theory (to include near-side pragmatics); or, it would have to advocate a Copernican revolution in semantic theory, forcing it to include extra-semantic elements; or, it would have to articulate the aims and motives behind the triangulationist method in extra-semantic terms, e.g., in terms of the political value of publicity. (FWIW, I think that in the long run the third option is the smarter move, though it would take an essay to state why.)

“2) Do you think that governing bodies should have a power to modify or override the communicative content of the constitutional text in response to changing circumstances and values?”

I think, to this question, the answer is an incorrigible ‘yes’, provided that we identify the right linguistic context that is responsible for the change in content. So, notice that there’s a difference between communicative content that changes because of a corresponding change in background conditions which affect the interpretation of statute or caselaw (i.e., related to global changes in perspective and fact), and a change in content that is merely determined by the intentions of the Court with respect to the proper aims of statute or caselaw.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the latter is faulty on broadly conservative grounds — because “activist judges”, etc, etc. Fine. It is nevertheless true to say that in the former context, an apparent change in linguistic meaning is both legitimate and hard to deny, even when we go about mere interpretation of what is said in the text. So, e.g., to take Waluchow’s example — in the infamous Persons case, the meaning of “person” is radically different in 1945 as opposed to 1845 because many substantial background assumptions have changed (e.g., about property ownership, theories of sexual psychology, etc.). Our global background conditions make it absurd to read “persons” as meaning “men” alone and pretend to be doing it in good faith. So, it is not just that the Privy Council found the caselaw disagreeable or unjust according to their personal moral convictions. It is that there has been a change in stable meaning, owing a change in the background of interpretation.

The best version of the originalist intuition rests on the idea that true expressions are stable, or built to last. So, there is at least one important difference between “2+2=4” and “The duck-rabbit illusion depicts a rabbit”: you can count on being able to get away with asserting (and assenting to) ‘two and two make four’ tomorrow, but you can’t count on being able to even assert or assent to “The duck-rabbit illusion depicts a rabbit” in the next breath, since a Gestalt shift can take it all away. The presumption of future ‘stickiness’, the idea that legal rules are going to be a going concern, is a truth-maker in law. Which is to say that legal truth implies stability, at both the level of meaning and the level of politics, and this stability across contexts helps to satisfy the need for presumptive guidance to private actors.

There are two kinds of things you have to say about the originalist’s attempt at assuring stability in this way. First, it must be noted, and emphasized, that cross-contextual meaning is itself deeply and richly dependent upon an array of assumptions or givens which give it content. This is true for both partial expressions and sentences. The very idea of a “quark” is unintelligible in the context of an epistemic community that lacks a rich set of judgments about the behavior of particle physics. The sentence, “I want to cut the sun” (John Searle’s example) is sufficiently strange as to be almost unintelligible, given that there are no feasible means (open to our current imagination) that would make that sentence true. Cross-contextual content depends on a network of beliefs, judgments, and capabilities, and any change in these implicit background conditions can lead to explicit changes in meaning. That just seems to be a fact about how meaning works. Significance wanders.

Second, where they get off track, at the level of politics, is the sense that the only factor which provides that stability is strict fidelity to fixed intentions of original speakers. But what they are actually seeking is equilibrium, and a sufficiently large change in context very well might demand a new equilibrium.

To see why the originalist approach to stability is misguided, let’s consider a parable. Suppose someone were to say: “I must build my home on solid ground.” That seems like a reasonable thing to say. Now suppose they encounter a man who has built a boat, and lives their life at sea. “That’s silly, you get knocked around a lot,” says the man who built their home on solid ground. Then a hurricane comes and washes the house away, while the boat (though battered) survives. Question: whose home was more stable? Answer: it depends on your context and background assumptions. The house on land was stable in one context, but the house on the sea was stable in another. With the predicted rise of the sea, the rule, ‘build your home on solid ground’, is not going to provide anything like the need for presumptive guidance to private actors.

Solum’s mixed originalism

Since earlier this year Lawrence Solum testified before the Senate, now is a good time to read up on his work on constitutional originalism.

Solum (2008, “Semantic Originalism”, SSRN) argues that semantic originalism depends on the ‘clause meaning thesis’. This view states that the semantic content of the constitution is given by its conventional semantics and its pragmatics (context, division of linguistic labor, implication, and stipulations). The conventional semantics is established by its original public meaning (what he calls the ‘fixation thesis’).

The puzzle, for me, is in justifying the label of “semantic originalism”. Why semantic?

Solum makes it clear at the outset that he distinguishes between the semantic, applicative, and teleological senses of meaning, and stipulates that he’s only doing the semantic thing. (p.2-3) And that is fine and well. But then he cashes out the ostensibly semantic project partly in terms of applicative content: e.g., implicatures and stipulations. (p. 5; 54-58) And then he rejects competitor views (like Ronald Dworkin’s interpretivism) for smuggling teleology, consequences, and applications into an ostensibly semantic theory. (p.83)

Obviously this cannot work. Instead, if Solum were articulating a coherent view, he should not be calling his own originalist view a ‘semantic theory’. Perhaps he should be calling it a mixed theory of literal meaning, perhaps of an austere kind. After all, the semantics/pragmatics boundary is only of significance to a particular kind of analytic philosopher who is more obsessed with compositionality. It isn’t interesting to everyone for all purposes, and maybe isn’t even useful to everyone who cares about literal meaning. But then that would require confronting a central dogma in the philosophy of language.

Probably, the apparent incoherence of the paper is mitigated by the fact that Solum’s “Semantic Originalism” is a draft on SSRN. It’s just a draft, and goodness knows I’ve had my share of bad drafts. But it’s still a shame. I prefer long-form articles, where theorists can spell out the authoritative vision in detail, and that breadth of vision is often sacrificed in published works owing to editorial considerations. And the paper appears to be otherwise considerate, nicely written, and well-informed. It is just hard for me to reserve my disappointment in finding out that the entire programme is a house built on sand.