Legal Interpretation: The Window of the Text as Transparent, Opaque, or Translucent

20 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2011

See all articles by George Taylor

George Taylor

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

Date Written: July 26, 2010


It is a common metaphor that the text is a window onto the world that it depicts. In legal interpretation, the metaphor has been developed in two ways – the legal text as transparent or opaque – and the Article proposes a third – the legal text as translucent. The claim that the legal text is transparent has been associated with more liberal methodological approaches. According to this view (often articulated by critics), the legal text does not markedly delimit meaning. Delimitation comes from the interpreters. By contrast, stress on the opacity of the legal text comes from those who give priority to the text rather than to any separable purpose lying behind the text. Frederick Schauer, for example, argues that rule-following requires treating a rule’s generalization as entrenched and hence opaque. The Article’s emphasis on the legal text as translucent builds on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur and emphasizes the interrelation of text and context. To comprehend a legal text by reference to its context is to appreciate the light that the context brings to the text and renders the thickness and color of the text no longer opaque but translucent. The text is translucent to its context. The context is not outside the text but part of it. Attention to the text without regard for its external context may distort its meaning. The Article exemplifies this perspective by drawing on recent work by Laurence Tribe and Justice Breyer and applies it briefly to recent Supreme Court jurisprudence. The Article frames the attention to the legal text by referencing the debate over the text as transparent, opaque, or translucent in literary and philosophic interpretation.

Keywords: Legal Interpretation, Statutory Interpretation, Constitutional Interpretation, Hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur

Suggested Citation

Taylor, George, Legal Interpretation: The Window of the Text as Transparent, Opaque, or Translucent (July 26, 2010). Nevada Law Review, Vol. 10, p. 700, Summer 2010; University of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-03. Available at SSRN:

George Taylor (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )

3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States

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