Sunday, January 19, 2020

How To Do Things With Signs: An Overview of Semiotics for Lawyers and Others

Click HERE for a link to my current draft of "How To Do Things With Signs: Semiotics in Legal Theory, Practice, and Education."


Discussing federal statutes, Justice Scalia tells us that “[t]he stark reality is that the only thing that one can say for sure was agreed to by both houses and the president (on signing the bill) is the text of the statute. The rest is legal fiction."

How should we take this claim? If we take "text" to mean the printed text, that text without more is just a series of marks. If instead we take "text" (as we must) to refer to something off the page such as the "meaning" of the series of marks at issue, what is that meaning and how do we know that all the legislators "agreed" on that "meaning"? In seeking answers here, we necessarily delve into semiotics (i.e., the “general theory of signs”) by noting that meaningful ink marks ("signifiers) signify a meaning beyond themselves (the "signified.") Thus, understanding how signs function is integral to lawyers' textual and linguistic analysis. Additionally, as this article demonstrates, legal analysis and rhetoric are much impoverished if lawyers ignore nonverbal signs such as icons, indices, and nonverbal symbols.

In providing a broad overview of semiotics for lawyers, this article thus (1) begins with a general definition of signs and the related notion of intentionality. It then turns to, among other things, (2) the structure and concomitants of signs in more detail (including the signifier and the signified), (3) the possible correlations of the signifier and the signified that generate signs of interest to lawyers such as the index, the icon, and the symbol; (5) the expansion of legal rhetoric through use of the index, the icon, and the non-verbal as well as the verbal symbol, (6) the nature of various semiotic acts in public and private law (including assertives, commissives, directives, and verdictives); (7) the interpretation and construction of semiotic acts (including contracts as commissives and legislation as directives); (8) the role of speaker or reader meaning in the interpretation and construction of semiotic acts; (9) the semiotics of meaning, time, and the fixation of meaning debate; (10) the impact of signifier drift; (11) the distinction between sense and understanding; and (12) some brief reflections on semiotics and the First Amendment. This article also provides an Appendix of further terms and concepts useful to lawyers in their explorations of semiotics.

Keywords: semiotics, intentionality, signifier, sense, reference, meaning, index, icon, symbol, rhetoric, speech act, interpretation, construction, speaker meaning, reader meaning, originalism, first amendment, intent, contracts, legislation, Peirce, Shakespeare, directive, commissive, verdictive

Monday, June 3, 2019

Voltaire and the Semiotics of Dress

For those who doubt that there is a semiotics of dress, here is Voltaire wigged and wigless. Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for displaying these busts in near tandem.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

La Bruyère on Human Inconstancy

It's a shame so many Anglophones don't read or even know of La Bruyère.  Here's some food for thought from his clever pen (as translated by Jean Stewart):  "After making a close and mature study of men, and recognizing the wrongness of their thoughts, their feelings, their tastes and affections, one is forced to admit that they have less to lose by inconstancy than by persistence."

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Joseph Ransdell on Charles Sanders Peirce

"When the truth about Peirce's life and accomplishments becomes generally known, it will be perceived that he was not only the most omnicompetent scientific mind of his time, perhaps never subsequently to be equalled, but also a moral hero of the intellect, of the stature of Socrates: a veritable icon or paradigm of philosophia--which really means devotion to the search for truth . . . ." Joseph Ransdell, Semiotic Objectivity in Frontiers in Semiotics 240 (John Deely et al. eds., 1986).

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Fantastic Cognitive Emotion & the Law Symposium Held at Wake Law 2/22/19

Many thanks to the thoughtful speakers and Wake Law Review students who made possible this engaging February 22, 2019 symposium on the inseparability of emotion and reason in legal and other reasoning. The symposium volume will be forthcoming.  Read more about cognitive emotion and the law here.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Miscellaneous French Verse Translations

When translating verse, I think one should try to capture both the form (meter, line positions, rhyme scheme, etc.) and substance to the extent possible and to the extent not cumbersome* in the new language.  "To the extent possible" can require much work that I think is often missing from much translation.  I also think the original should be printed on the opposing page so the reader can judge the success for herself. 
*Where end stopping or alexandrines, for example, seem cumbersome in English, I would think the original poet would want substitutes that distract less in English. Thus I've often used iambic pentameter in lieu of hexameter.  I've also often avoided end stopping where that seemed a distraction (my translation of Phaedre for example).

Here are the English pages of some of my dabblings along these lines.  I think the Veraline & Du Bellay present especially hard challenges and I keep tweaking......
I.  Verlaine: MacIntyre claimed: “No one has ever translated, or can or will translate [Chanson d'automne]; yet it offers the supreme challenge, the shifting lure of the bright impossible.” Maybe MacIntyre didn’t try hard enough?

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Making Good Sense: Pragmatism’s Mastery of Meaning, Truth, and Workable Rule of Law

Here is the abstract for my latest article forthcoming in the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy. In the article, I try to take a middle path between two types of error plaguing present times: "post-truthism" and formalism.


The hermeneutic pragmatism explored in this article timely examines how “post-truth” claims over-estimate semantic freedoms while at the same time underestimating semantic and pre-semantic restraints. Such pragmatism also timely examines how formalists err by committing the reverse errors. Drawing on insights from James, Peirce, Putnam, Rorty, Gadamer, Derrida, and others, such hermeneutic pragmatism explores (1) the necessary role of both internal and objective experience in meaning,  (2) the resulting instrumental nature of concepts required to deal with such experience, (3) the related need for workability to apply to the “the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted,” (4) the inherent role of morality and other norms in measuring such workability, (5) the semantic as well as experiential nature of our workable realities,  (6) the semantic freedoms involved in constructing, framing, and retaining our workable realities and concepts, and (6) the semantic, pre-semantic, and other restraints on constructing, framing, and retaining our workable realities and concepts.

Such hermeneutic pragmatism also introduces Eunomia, a real-world alternative to Dworkin’s superhuman judge Hercules.  Named after the Greek goddess of good order, the human Eunomia represents the reasonable judge excellently versed in (among other things) legal theory, legal practice, linguistics, and philosophy of language.  Additionally, in its appendices, this article surveys the pragmatic restraints of “implementives” and provides a detailed overview of pragmatic “workability” restraints for both law and fact.

In addition to countering formalist error, such hermeneutic pragmatism thus timely counters troubling “post-truth” claims in certain segments of government and society. For example, The Washington Post tells us that President Trump is “known for trafficking in mistruths and even outright lies;” that “The president often seeks to paint a self-serving and self-affirming alternate reality for himself and his supporters;” that, through May 31, 2018; “Trump had made 3,251 false or misleading claims in 497 days--an average of 6.5 such claims per day of his presidency;” and that  Donald Trump, Jr. has posted poorly-doctored images making “his father’s Gallup presidential approval rating look [ten points] higher than it actually is” while claiming “I guess there is a magic wand to make things happen and @realdonaldtrump seems to have it.”  Additionally, the President’s attorney Rudy Giuliani has expressly claimed that “Truth isn’t truth.” Competent and ethical lawyers must of course reject such mendacity.

("Sense" in the title of this article means not only “meaning conveyed or intended” but also “capacity for effective application of the powers of the mind as a basis for action or response.” See Sense, MERRIAM-WEBSTER’S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY (11th ed. 2014) “Workable” has the broad meaning discussed in Sections II, IV, and Appendix C of the Article.)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Addition to Strings of Thought 5-19-2018

                               To Gadamer

Though eye must squint, eye must explore the bird
Who plays at the horizon of the word,
Whose far tints flash, far notes lag as it hops 
Beyond and back from where the language stops.

For the entire "Strings of Thought" as it currently stands, see here.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Why Legal Writing Is "Doctrinal" and More Importantly Profound

It is high time that we end the disparate treatment of legal writing professors and the use of such disparaging labels as "non-doctrinal" for the profound and essential subject matters which they teach. It is also high time that we reject the absurd Langdellian notion that practice taints scholarship.  I discuss these points in more detail here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Addition to "Strings of Thought" (2/7/18)

2/7/18 A legislative bill or other proposal isn’t simply a string of words on a page. Instead, a legislative bill or other proposal involves concepts (the signified) to which words (the signifiers) refer with varying degrees of precision.  Legislators debate the concepts signified and the signifiers as signifying such concepts.  Justice Scalia therefore oversimplifies how language works when he claims that “the only thing one can say for sure was agreed to by both houses and the President (on signing the bill) is the text of the statute.”  (Reading Law, p. 376) Justice Scalia oversimplifies here because any such text was adopted as part of a greater whole, as signifiers of concepts involved in the bill.  For example, a statute reading “All cars must drive on the write side of interstate roads” adopted by both houses of Congress and signed by the President no doubt likely means “All cars must drive on the right side of interstate roads.” It’s hard to believe that both houses and the President agreed on “write side” instead of “right side” of the road. I at least cannot “say for sure” that they did. Justice Scalia concedes the same by acknowledging what he considers “the rare case of an obvious scrivener’s error.” (Reading Law, p. 57)  In the real world, of course, obvious scrivener’s errors are hardly rare.

The entire text of "Strings of Thought" can be found here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Addition to "Strings of Thought" (1/30/18)

Legislative Intent

1/30/18  Legislative “intent” lies in legislatures’ speech acts and not legislators’ speech acts.  That is, legislative “intent” is the speaker meaning of legislatures not legislators—confusing the two is a category mistake. For example, when the legislature adopts a rule requiring drivers to drive on the right side of the road, the legislature has performed a directive speech act adopting a rule to some end or purpose (such as changing driving patterns to enhance road safety).  When the legislature censures someone, it has performed an expressive speech act condemning someone for some end or purpose (such as discouraging future bad behavior on the part of public officials).  The different purposes (and the plans involved in such purposes) distinguish the different types of speech acts. Recognizing this distinction between legislature and legislator speech acts avoids pseudo-quandaries such as “How can we ever aggregate the subjective intent of countless legislators to determine legislative intent?” or “How do we include the intent of a legislator who votes for a bill for unrelated reasons?” Instead, we ask: “What is the objective bill or proposal (and the concomitant purpose or plan or both) properly adopted by the legislature?”  We also ask: “What are the objective concepts involved?” while acknowledging such concepts can have yet-to-be explored threads and extensions.

1/30/18 A legislature typically speaks best when it adopts a bill or other proposal (and any concomitant purpose or plan) after reasonable debate by legislators.   Although individual legislators’ speaker meaning in such debates can be highly relevant evidence of the legislature’s speaker meaning, legislators’ speech acts are not legislatures’ speech acts. 

The entire post of "Strings of Thought" can be found here.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Addition to "Strings of Thought" (1/21/18)

Speaker Meaning

1/21/18 “Original” speaker meaning includes the unexplored.  Imagine I buy a netted device I categorize as “my hammock” before I unbox and see it.  On the next day, I unbox “my hammock,” count its strings, and note their makeup and weave. On the third day, I tie “my hammock” between two trees.  I broadly gauge its new shape when tied into the world. On the fourth day, I refine “my hammock’s” new shape:  it contradictorily resembles both a canoe and a crescent moon. On the fifth day, I wonder whether “my hammock” now qualifies as a bed and tentatively conclude that it does. On the sixth day, I lie down in “my hammock” and see interesting new views from its vantage point. On the seventh day, I rest with no hammock thoughts in my head.  The “original” meaning of “my hammock” thus casts a wide and variable net not captured from day one. Instead, day by day through day six, I have obtained fuller and fuller understandings of “my hammock” including how it intersects with (and provides vantage points to) the world to which it is tied.  Thus, any “original concept” signified by “my hammock” is larger than any “original conception” (or first-day conception) of something boxed and unseen, is larger than any second-day conception adding counted strings, their makeup, and their weave, is larger than any third-day conception of the hammock as tied, and so on.  Furthermore, for those seeking speaker meaning, any “original concept” and any preceding daily conceptions don’t sleep the seventh day.

The entire post of "Strings of Thought" can be found here.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Strings of Thoughts

Recognizing I’ll never have time to put in finished prose or verse all the things I’d like to explore, I’m starting some strings of thoughts unfinished as of the dates entered below.  I’d enjoy hearing others’ responses to any of the strings.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Speaker Meaning and the Interpretation and Construction of Executive Orders

Here is an abstract of my latest article posted on SSRN:


This Article explores the interpretation and construction of executive orders using as examples President Trump’s two executive orders captioned “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” (the “Two Executive Orders”).

President Trump issued the Two Executive Orders in the context of (among other things) Candidate Trump’s statements such as: “Islam hates us,” and “[W]e can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred.” President Trump subsequently provided further context including his tweet about the second of his Two Executive Orders: “People, the lawyers and the courts can call [the second of the Two Executive Orders] whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” 

Friday, September 8, 2017

William Blake's "Sun at His Eastern Gate"

William Blake's "Sun at His Eastern Gate:" Countless fascinations & possibilities wax daily for those who'll take the time to see and to imagine.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Tump World and "Promiscuous Devotion to the Untrue"

An interesting read.  I plan to write an article on two forms of postmodernism covering as well the genealogies of both forms from pre-modernism and then modernism.  I believe the sustainable form of postmodernism which pushes back with experience and social pressure will ultimately overpower the other insidious "anything goes" form of postmodern practiced by Trump, Carl Rove, and others.

Monday, July 10, 2017

President Trump & Word Association

As a lover of words, I am of course interested in the following Quinnipiac poll which asked responders "What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump?"  The list provides endless fodder for analysis of speaker meaning.  The top two answers were "idiot" and "incompetent."  Did the speakers mean some subtle difference between those terms?  What about any meant difference between those two terms and such other terms as "unqualified," "ignorant," "stupid," and "clown"?  The third most frequent response is "liar."  Was "liar" meant in a different sense from "dishonest" or "con-man" which pop up later in the list?  Is "leader" (fourth on the list) a complement or is it a factual statement such as "president"  (sixth on the list)?  What about "trying"?  Does that mean the man is attempting to succeed (my guess but it's only a guess) or that he is "causing strain, hardship, or distress" (American Heritage College Dictionary 4th ed.)?  I also wonder how Originalists like Neil Gorsuch would interpret and parse each word in this list.  Reasonable contemporaneous readers can of course draw wildly different conclusions about the meanings of these words.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Embracing Life: Shakespeare and "Existentialism"

              Sartre claims that existence precedes “essence,” that “being-in-itself” is thrust upon us, that we have our subsequent brief existence to create our identities or “essences” (our “beings-for-itself”).[1]   The great American pragmatist William James also notes that we are thrust into a swirl of experience which we try to predict and organize with concepts and theories as our “tools.”[2] 

            Many years before James and Sartre, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Jaques, and other diverse characters also opine on one’s brief moments thrust upon life’s “stage.”  Lear’s naked babe, for example, cries when tossed upon that “stage.”  Interestingly, the infant has feeling and tears for coming to a “great stage of fools”[3] even though it presumably lacks language and concepts such as “stage” or “fool.”  Shakespeare’s babe suggests a pre-conceptual link to the swirl of experience—a feeling link which James’s concepts and theories for predicting and navigating experience could then supplement and build upon. (For those interested in feeling and emotional connections to the world, I have explored the subject further in my Cognitive Emotion and the Law .)

            Lear’s babe also gives us moral as well as epistemic insight. The infant “comes to” rather than “brings” foolishness to a “great stage of fools.”  Not choosing to navigate this swirl of experience, the babe can’t be a fool for just being born--any foolishness it may display must come after mere birth itself.  As Emily Dickinson also notes, mortals born into the swirl aren’t given an initial “Skipper’s” or “Buccaneer’s” choice in the matter:

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Sonnet on the Jerusalem Cross

For me, the Jerusalem Cross is endlessly inspiring:  Christ before Paul; the Kingdom that’s within; the wisdom of the Buddha; William Blake and all he tried to do, say, draw, and paint; the semiotics of the endless signified and signifier; the freedom and choice in how we frame; the crosses we bare and bear; the number 5 that I somehow took as “my” number when I was a child.  Such crosses cross beyond mere prose:

               The Jerusalem Cross

Her references are kingdoms built within,
Are centers of what is, are plots of peace,
Are emanations of Blake’s Albions,
Are heavenly vistas of Jerusalems,

Are fresh imaginations testing worlds,
Are fourfold noble truths, are eight crossed paths
That frame a centered cross that wisdom bares
To study all the crosses that it bears.

Her signifiers are two crossing lines,
Four smaller pairs, too, eight paths framing round

Just four right angles centering sixteen more
That also form at most a single square--

Or four or five depending on the count.


(The cross's lines are personal as well
  In ways they interweave both "H" and "L,"
  In ways they cover Everyone with "E"
  Should some find some initials tough to see.)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Nature Hath Framed Strange Fellows" William Shakespeare and Natural Law

A. Introduction
             Natural law theorists might turn to The History of Troilus and Cressida to start building their case.  They might begin with Ulysses’ lofty outline of the “natural” order:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center          
Observe degree, priority, and place,                            
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,                    
Office, and custom, in all line of order,                       
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol                        
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered                         
Amidst the other; whose med'cinable eye                         
Corrects the influences of evil planets
And posts, like the commandment of a king . . . .[1]                      

Such theorists might then use Ulysses’ further stirring words to blend such “natural physical order” with a “natural order” in law and morality as well:

Take but degree away, untune that string,                      
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets                
In mere oppugnancy.  The bounded waters                          
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores              
And make a sop of all this solid globe;                         
Strength should be lord of imbecility,                          
And the rude son should strike his father dead;                 
Force should be right; or rather right and wrong,             
Between whose endless jar justice resides,                    
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.[2]                             

As far as it goes, it is hard to imagine a more eloquent case for natural law than this.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Shakespeare and Legal Positivism

            Despite his limited formal education, Shakespeare’s works display a great deal of legal knowledge.[1]  As a part of Shakespeare’s vast imaginative universe, his storylines and characters help us (among countless other things) to analyze the command form of legal positivism, a form of legal positivism holding that laws are commands of sovereigns backed by threats of punishment. Various scenarios in the plays help us see how such an approach cannot succeed.  As I plan to show in subsequent blogs, Shakespeare also: (a) beautifully lays out arguments for natural law only to demolish them; (b) centuries before Holmes formulated his prediction theory of law (the theory that the law is a set of predictions as to how the courts will act in certain circumstances), Shakespeare penned plays that help us see how such theory fails; and (c) Shakespeare otherwise gives us insightful bits and pieces from which we might begin generating a workable jurisprudence complying with the semiotics of law and its inherent restraints.[2]   In this first of four planned blogs (all four of which draw from my longer article Let’s Skill All the Lawyers), I’ll briefly explore the command theory form of legal positivism using insights from Shakespeare.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Neil Gorsuch? Originalism and the Ten Commandments

Current Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch claims that judges should “apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward, and looking to text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be ....” On its face, this is at best an odd claim. Laws are generally forward looking in their desire to govern future behavior. And even if we could always focus back to determine legal meaning, why would we want to disconnect meaning from ongoing life in such a way? Why, for example, should the absence of email in George Washington’s day mean our modern use of email isn’t covered by our modern notions of “speech”? Excluding email from “speech” today would be silly and we have refined “speech” to include email in both law and in life. Of course, if we refine meaning for “speech” and “email,” why shouldn’t we do the same for other things in other contexts as they change with time? It’s hard to see how Originalism’s odd backwardness isn’t fatal from the outset.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Rethinking The Elect

                            The Elect

Take that long-suffering slave:  if she instead
Were master, could descent dissent and shed
Vile arrogance slaves shirk and in its stead
Renounce the life that life inherited?

Take that starved, broken pauper:  if instead
Of life so harsh he often would be dead
He had a fuller purse, was fuller fed
Would he have known to offer paupers bread?

Take that queer soul who's “different”:  if instead
He'd turned out “normal” would he think a dead
Queer's better than a live one, too, and spread
Intolerance majorities have bred?

Is this not Grace?  Spared from such tests as these,
Has God not favored his minorities?

In a time of Trump when I fear many devalue diversity and many more do not see the frequent grace in minority, struggle, and lack of material wealth, I highlight this poem from Charms and Knots.  I also highlight the poem for a time when many no longer appreciate the endless powers of formalist verse.  Apart from the inherent power of sonnet form, twelve same-rhymed lines followed by two fresh rhymes actually participate in the grace and rarity of difference (indexical expression of the point to use Peirce's terminology).