But Is Dope-Growing "Commerce" on Twin Earth?


Matt Yglesias has a fun post deploying philosopher Hilary Putnam's idea of semantic externalism as an argument against "original intent" approaches to jurisprudence. Also, intriguingly, Matt mentions that Stanley Fish, of all people, relied on an original intent argument in an old New York Times op-ed. I tracked it down on Nexis, and indeed he does, in the course of attacking Justice Scalia's "textualism." This is very weird indeed, because in Fish's circles, that's called the "intentional fallacy" when you do it with literature.

NEXT: The United States: OK, I Guess, But It Would be Better if It Were More Like Mexico

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “Intentional Fallacy” is a New Critical / Structuralist term/concept. And Fish is a poststructuralist whose work in many ways reacts against structuralism. In short, intentional fallacy is not nearly the boogey-man for Fish’s generation of scholars, and scholars since Fish, as it was for earlier structuralist critics. So, it doesn’t seem so strange that Fish would engage in “intentional fallacy”. His op-ed on the Sokal scandal reaffirms this from another perspective.

  2. Semantic externalism is an excellent tool for examining factual statements, but the constitution is an imperitive statement. It is not a description of the existing government, but rather a prescription for the type of government the delegates to the constitutional convention wanted.

    Consider another elm/oak thought experiment. Assume that there are two trees on my property an oak and an elm. I’ve hired you to chop one down, and then I say “go chop down that elm” and point at an oak. You should probably ask me “do you mean that oak that you pointed at, or do you really want to get rid of the elm, and just point at the wrong tree?”

    In that case, intention is everything, and external semantics are only a clue to the intentions of the speaker.

  3. In that case, intention is everything, and external semantics are only a clue to the intentions of the speaker.

    Although isn’t that the division of linguistic labor Putnam was referring to?

    The more complicated thing for that philosophy is that the meaning of words can shift over time, so when Jefferson says “liberty” he may very well have known exactly what he was talking about, as did others collaborating on the document, but we have a different understanding of the word “liberty” than he did.

    But of course Yglesias’s example has the same problem as your example–he meant Socrates but was mistaken as to who did what, so the person who fits it better is Plato. So to find out whether Yglesias was meaning Socrates and confused some biographic data or meant the author of the body of works but confused the subject, you’d have to ask him.

    That being said, you could figure it out if there was sufficient context. Similarly the Founding Fathers left quite a bit of context around as well, so it’s not quite the impossible task Yglesias would like it to be (so he can argue that the Second Amendment means nothing).

  4. True, but again, the twin-earth thought experiment and the simpler elm example both deal with declaritive language. They’re dealing with facts. However, when looking into legal and constitutional issues, you’re not exploring factual, declaritive statements. An imperitive statement is neither true nor false, although it can be self contradictory, or rely upon invalid premises. I guess I’d like to see some discussion of what effect this has on the ‘original intent’ concept.

  5. No but imperative statements can refer to declarative objects, e.g. “commerce”. We know it says “regulate interstate commerce” but what does he mean by “interstate commerce”?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.