What is interpretation? One can imagine a range of answers to this question. One answer might begin with the observation that the English word “interpretation” is used to refer to a variety of human activities. Translators at the United Nations interpret remarks made in French when they offer an English translation. Literary critics interpret novels when they investigate the deep and sometimes unconscious motivations of the author. Conductors interpret a score when they make decisions about meter, tempo, and dynamic range. Actors interpret a screenplay when they improvise new lines based on their understanding of the characters. Judges interpret statutes when they attempt to disambiguate words and phrases that could have multiple senses. The term “interpretation” is used in a variety of contexts to refer to a variety of human activities.
It might be the case that the word “interpretation” is used in different senses in these diverse contexts-–the word “interpretation” may be ambiguous. Or it could be the case that the diversity of interpretive activities is evidence that “interpretation” is a “family resemblance” concept (to use Wittgenstein’s felicitous phrase): the various forms of interpretation may share an overlapping set of characteristics, but lack an “essence” or core. And finally, it is possible that all of the diverse human activities that we call “interpretation” are unified-–that “interpretation” is a functional kind with an essential structure. In other words, there are at least three views about the relationship between all of the various activities that we call “interpretation”; we can express these three views as three competing theses or claims. The ambiguity thesis is the claim that the word “interpretation” refers to several conceptually distinct activities and that it is simply a mistake to advance a theory of interpretation that seeks to unify them. The family resemblance thesis is the claim that the diversity of interpretive phenomena is structured by a series of common features, no one of which is shared by all of the activities that we call “interpretation.” The unity-of-interpretation thesis is the claim that all (or almost all) of the activities that we call “interpretation” share a common structure or set of essential properties. This essay investigates the unity-of-interpretation thesis in relation to the views advanced by Ronald Dworkin, in his new, deeply interesting, and sure-to-be-controversial book, Justice for Hedgehogs.
Justice for Hedgehogs represents the latest stage in the development of Dworkin’s complex and evolving theory of interpretation. Part I of this essay argues that as Dworkin’s theory of “interpretation” has developed, the object of the theory has shifted from the interpretation of legal texts to the construction of legal rules to general normative theory. Part II explicates the theory of interpretation offered in Justice for Hedgehogs and the unity-of-interpretation thesis-–the claim that all of the various activities that we call “interpretation” share an essential structure with all human intellectual activities other than science. This part concludes that Dworkin’s view obscures rather than illuminates the nature of “interpretation” in law and legal theory. Part III suggests a reconstruction of Dworkin’s view that draws on the distinction between “interpretation” and “construction.”
90 B.U. L. Rev. 551-578 (2010)
Scholarly Commons Citation
Solum, Lawrence B., "The Unity of Interpretation" (2010). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 855.