Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Words, Their Purposes, and Their Meanings

In Giles v. California, 554 U.S. __ (2008), decided today, Justice Scalia, speaking on behalf of the Court (but see below), wrote:
It is not the role of courts to extrapolate from the words of the Sixth Amendment to the values behind it ....
It is not my office in this blog to debate the fine points of constitutional interpretation. But, question, dear Reader, is it not insensible, nonsensical, strange, anti-commonsensical, etc., to postulate a disjunction, never to be bridged, between a search for the meaning of language and the purpose or purposes of the language whose meaning one wishes to decipher? For example, if I say, "You're a bad fellow, Jonah," might it not be useful to inquire into what I was trying to say and do when I said what I did? If I say to John, "You've got a right to the same share that every man here does" would it not be useful, in determining the meaning of "man," to inquire whether I intended to split the prize (or whatever) only among males or also among women? And how would you decide whether "man" in my statement does or does not include male human beings who are 13 years old? By staring at the word "man"? Only by inquiring how I used the word in other situations? Suppose you discovered that I occasionally said in church, "Man is by nature an evil beast." Would that settle the question of what I meant when I used the word "man" in talking about the prize (or whatever) that was to be divided equally? (By the way, when I said "same," what leads you to interpret that word as "equal"?) Might it be said that Justice Scalia's understanding of semantics is primitive (in an unfavorable sense)?

N.B. In case you were wondering: I approve of the Court's holding in Giles.

P.S. The above-quoted words by Scalia fall in Part II-d-2 of his opinon. I haven't yet tabulated the confusing array of partial concurrences, the dissents, etc., to determine if that part of the opinion got the endorsement of a majority of the Court's Justices; perhaps Scalia spoke only for a plurality there. If so, good.

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