"When Is Using a Firearm Not Really?" – An Eminent Philosopher of Language Helps Us Decide

Scott Soames, Philosophical Essays, Volume 1: Natural Language: What It Means and How We Use It (Princeton University Press, 2009); Scott Soames, Interpreting Legal Texts: What is, and What is Not Special About the Law (2007). William Edmundson Philosophers of law and philosophers of language used to hang out together more. H.L.A. Hart spent Saturday mornings over at J.L. Austin's in the 1950s and 60s, hashing out questions of meaning and usage with Paul Grice. Hans Kelsen did not think much of Wittgenstein, but in the 1920s he chummed around with Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, and other members of the celebrated Wiener Kreis, the Vienna Circle of philosophers who were making the analysis of language a foreground concern. But, as the twentieth century wore on, practitioners of the two specialties wandered apart. For thirty years on, legal philosophers have tended to dwell on somewhat inward debates over legal positivisms and postscripts thereto, while philosophers of language have been on a great hunt for a semantics of natural languages generally, which has led them to investigate things like naming, reference, and the truth conditions of modal and counterfactual statements. True, the philosophers of law have tried to keep up with the philosophers of language; but, the philosophers of language with the philosophers of law? Not so much. There's no shortage of legal philosophy that purports to say what philosophers of language would say about law, but next to nothing directly from philosophers of language about law. Are we legal philosophers getting it right? The silence from the other side of the table made me uneasy. So I was excited to run across this essay by Scott Soames. Soames is Director of the School of Philosophy at USC, where he can lunch with Andrei Marmor, the distinguished philosopher of law. The essay is the concluding chapter of the first volume of Soames's collected essays, most of which have to do with technical topics in philosophy of language. The Introduction to the volume is a useful preliminary survey of his views of such things as why linguistic structures aren't likely to map onto the psychological substructures of linguistic competence, and the respective roles of semantics and pragmatics, as reflected in his "least common denominator" view of semantic content. At the end of the Introduction, Soames pauses to reminisce: Continue reading ""When Is Using a Firearm Not Really?" – An Eminent Philosopher of Language Helps Us Decide"

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