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Friday, February 19, 2010

Linguistic Vagueness and Constitutional Law

The problem of “vagueness” has a venerable place in the twentieth-century philosophy of language. Broadly speaking, vagueness seems to present a stumbling block for semantic logicians (such as Bertrand Russell, who commented on the problem himself in 1923) who hope to provide some kind of unitary account of a language’s underlying structure.  In particular, vague words make it difficult to determine a sentence’s “truth-value”; that is, whether a speaker has communicated something “true” or “false” about the world.  The late, great David Lewis stated the problem nicely in a famous paper:

"If Fred is a borderline case of baldness, the sentence 'Fred is bald' may have no determinate truth-value.  Whether it is true depends on where you draw the line.  Relative to some perfectly reasonable ways of drawing a precise boundary between “bald” and “not-bald”, the sentence is true.  Relative to other delineations, no less reasonable, it is false.  Nothing in our use of language makes one of these delineations right and all others wrong.  We cannot pick a delineation once and for all (not if we are interested in ordinary language), but must consider the entire range of reasonable delineations."

My intuition is that problem of vagueness may also present a significant issue for modern constitutional scholars who hope to utilize particular semantic theories as part of a logical account of constitutional semantics.  Vagueness presents a big enough obstacle when we are trying to deconstruct reasonably precise kinds of sentences, and it seems to me that these problems are only compounded when we confront sentences in which a speaker is being deliberately vague—which seems to be an important feature of some aspects of constitution framing.  Again, in someone else’s—someone smarter’s—words (this time Oxford philosopher Timothy Williamson):

"The phenomenon of vagueness is broad.  Most challenges to classical logic or semantics depend on special features of a subject matter: the future, the infinite, the quantum mechanical.  For all such a challenge implies, classical logic and semantics apply to statements about other subject matters.  Vagueness, in contrast, presents a ubiquitous challenge.  It is hard to make a perfectly precise statement about anything.  If classical logic and semantics apply only to perfectly precise languages, then they apply to no language that we can speak."

All of this just contributes to my general suspicion of normative theories that seem bent on affixing some determinate, foundational meaning—whether “original” or otherwise—to constitutional text.  I’m not sure yet whether, or precisely how, the literature on vagueness can be helpful to constitutional theory though, and I’d be glad to read your thoughts.

Posted by Ian Bartrum on February 19, 2010 at 10:19 PM | Permalink

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