18 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2005
Language plays two roles in acquiring knowledge of foreign law. One is obvious - it provides access to information. Language also performs, however, a second function that is less frequently acknowledged, but no less important: it shapes what we know. This knowledge-shaping (or "cognitive") role conditions all knowledge of foreign law, and it is seldom explored. This article focuses on one aspect of this cognitive role of language. It examines the ways in which assumptions about the authority of legal language shape and often fundamentally distort our knowledge of foreign law and foreign legal systems. My central claim is that the capacity of authoritative language accurately to convey information within a legal system tends to be inversely related to its capacity to create accurate knowledge for those outside the system (system outsiders). Put another way, the more authoritative the text, the greater the discrepancy is likely to be between its intra-system value (i.e. to users within the system) and its inter-system value (i.e., its value to an outsider).
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