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Relativism in Legal Thinking: Stanley Fish and the Concept of an Interpretive Community

Torben Spaak

Stockholm University; Stockholm University

April 1, 2006

Ratio Juris, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 157-171, 2008

Relativistic theories and arguments are fairly common in legal thinking. A case in point is Stanley Fish's theory of interpretation, which applies to statutes and constitutions as well as to novels and poems. Fish holds, inter alia, (i) that an interpretation of a statute, a poem, or some other text can be true or valid only in light of the interpretive strategies that define an interpretive community, and (ii) that no set of interpretive strategies (and therefore no interpretation) is truer or more valid than any other. In this article, I discuss these claims critically and argue that the very idea of an interpretive community is more or less unintelligible, and that in any case Fish's theory is self-refuting.

I begin with a few words about the methods and techniques of statutory interpretation(Section 2). I proceed by introducing Fish's theory of interpretation, giving special consideration to some difficulties in Fish's account of the concept of an interpretive community (Sections 3-4). I then introduce two types of relativism, cognitive and moral (Section 5), and argue that Fish's theory asserts cognitive relativism in the shape of conceptual relativism and relativism about truth (Section 6). Having done that, I consider Donald Davidson's well-known objection to alternative conceptual schemes (Section 7) as well as the popular charge that relativism about truth is self-refuting (Section 8).

Number of Pages in PDF File: 26

Keywords: Fish, interpretation, conceptual relativism, interpretive community

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Date posted: August 10, 2006 ; Last revised: July 13, 2009

Suggested Citation

Spaak, Torben, Relativism in Legal Thinking: Stanley Fish and the Concept of an Interpretive Community (April 1, 2006). Ratio Juris, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 157-171, 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=923432

Contact Information

Torben Spaak (Contact Author)
Stockholm University ( email )
S-106 91 Stockholm
46 8 16 45 89 (Phone)
46 8 612 41 09 (Fax)
Stockholm University ( email )
Stockholm, 106 91
+ 46 8 16 45 89 (Phone)
+ 46 8 612 41 09 (Fax)
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