The Nature of Legal Concepts: Inferential Nodes or Ontological Categories?

37 Pages Posted: 17 May 2007 Last revised: 24 Dec 2013

See all articles by Giovanni Sartor

Giovanni Sartor

European University Institute Law Department

Date Written: October 18, 2009


I shall compare two views of legal concepts: as nodes in inferential nets and as categories in an ontology (a conceptual architecture). Firstly, I shall introduce the inferential approach, consider its implications, and distinguish the mere possession of an inferentially defined concept from the belief in the concept's applicability, which also involves the acceptance of the concept's constitutive inferences. For making this distinction, the inferential and eliminative analysis of legal concepts proposed by Alf Ross will be connected to the views on theoretical concepts in science advanced by Frank Ramsey and Rudolf Carnap. Consequently, the mere comprehension of a legal concept will be distinguished from the application of the concept to a particular legal system, since application presupposes a doctrinal commitment, namely, the belief that the inferences constituting the concept hold in that system. Then, I shall consider how concepts can be characterised by defining the corresponding terms and placing them within an ontology. Finally, I shall argue that there is a tension between the inferential and the ontological approach, but that both need to be taken into account, to capture the meaning and the cognitive function of legal concepts.

Keywords: legal theory

Suggested Citation

Sartor, Giovanni, The Nature of Legal Concepts: Inferential Nodes or Ontological Categories? (October 18, 2009). Artificial Intelligence and Law, Vol. 17, 2009; EUI Working Paper No. 2007/08. Available at SSRN: or

Giovanni Sartor (Contact Author)

European University Institute Law Department ( email )

Via Bolognese 156 (Villa Salviati)
50-139 Firenze

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