Originalist Methodology

27 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2016 Last revised: 19 May 2017

See all articles by Lawrence B. Solum

Lawrence B. Solum

University of Virginia College of Law

Date Written: May 19, 2017


This essay sketches an originalist methodology using ideas from legal theory and theoretical linguistics, including the distinctions between interpretation and construction and between semantics and pragmatics. The Essay aims to dispel a number of misconceptions about the methods used by originalists. Among these is the notion that originalists rely on dictionary definitions to determine the communicative content of the constitutional text. Although dictionaries may play some role, the better approach emphasizes primary evidence such as that provided by corpus linguistics. Another misconception is that originalists do not consider context; to the contrary, the investigation of context plays a central role in originalist methodology.

Part I of this Essay articulates a theoretical framework that draws on ideas from contemporary legal theory and linguistics. Part II investigates methods for determining the constitutional text’s semantic content. Part III turns to methods for investigating the role of context in disambiguating and enriching what would otherwise be sparse semantic meaning. The Essay concludes with a short reflection on the future of originalist methodology.

Suggested Citation

Solum, Lawrence B., Originalist Methodology (May 19, 2017). University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 84, 2017, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2764466 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2764466

Lawrence B. Solum (Contact Author)

University of Virginia College of Law ( email )

(434) 924-7932 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.law.virginia.edu/faculty/profile/lbs5w/2846137

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