How To Do Things With Signs: Semiotics in Legal Theory, Practice, and Education
72 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2020 Last revised: 13 Nov 2020
Date Written: January 8, 2020
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
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation