Language: October 2005 Archives

The latest comments on my post about the English expressions 'more unique' and 'more pregnant' raise an interesting argument against strict constructionism as a method of interpreting the Constitution (as opposed to originalism, which I myself hold; see this post for the distinction). The preamble to the Constitution reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

A strict constructionist interprets an expression in an exact and literal, according to what the basic fundamental terms mean. An originalist (of the Scalia variety, anyway) interprets according to what the expression would have meant when it was written. The expression 'more perfect union' illustrates nicely not just the difference between the two but why strict constructionism is unworkable. The original meaning of that expression is pretty much the same meaning it would have in our mouths today, at least with respect to the use of the word 'perfect'. As I say in the post on 'more unique', something can be closer to something and be called "more unique". The expression in that context simply means closer to uniqueness. The same is true of being more perfect. The union will be closer to being perfect according to the preamble. That's how an originalist will interpret this. A strict constructionist, however, has to take the expression according to a literal, wooden application of strict rules about words and their meanings, without the common understanding I just explained of how this expression isn't like most expressions of something being "more X". A strict constructionist has to take the expression 'more perfect union' to be referring to something that is going to be literally more perfect than it already is, which is impossible. If it's perfect, it can't be more perfect. If it's not perfect, it can't be more perfect. There are basic linguistic reasons why it's wrong to correct people on this in ordinary discourse, but a strict constructionist can't avail themselves of these, because they don't involve strictly interpeting constructions.

Those who have followed my posts on translation, particularly Bible translation, can apply this lesson to the so-called literal translation issue as well. I'll leave that as the cliched exercise for the reader.

An Empirical Question?

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[Crossposted at OrangePhilosophy] My fellow OrangePhilosopher Dave Bzdak and I just had a conversation with Don Arentz, one of our colleagues in teaching at Le Moyne College, about what seems to be an empirical question but seems difficult to see how it might be empirical. How big is your vocabulary? It would seem that the question is indeed an empirical matter. Yet how would you go about empirically investigating it? Dave suggested maybe it would be in principle possible but only if you kept track of every single word you ever encountered to get a list of all the words that might be in your vocabulary, and then you investigated to see if they were still in your vocabulary at a given time. Could you do this, though? I'm not worrying about the possibility of coming up with a list of all the words you've ever encountered. Suppose you could do it. That's in principle possible, I would say, even if in practice it would be amazingly difficult to implement. Given that list, could you determine which of those words are in your vocabulary at any given time? It seems that, if you could, then you would know how big your vocabulary at the time was.

So suppose I want to know how many of those words are in my vocabulary right now. I could presumably go down the list to investigate which ones I know, right? I'm not sure it's so easy, though. I could recognize some words that I know. But wouldn't there be others that I know and don't recall the meaning of just by seeing the word in isolated form? There are some whose meaning I would remember if I saw it in the right sort of sentence that would trigger my memory. Of course, there would be others that I don't know but would get from context, in which case I've just added a word to my vocabulary. I shouldn't count those. I wanted to know how many were in it before I started the investigation. What if I'm not in a position to distinguish between the cases when the sentence triggers my memory of what a word means and cases when the context helps me add a new word to my vocabulary? It's not clear to me that I could tell the difference. If that's right, then the exact count of my vocabulary isn't really empirically discoverable after all. That's really weird. Does that mean the size of my vocabulary is not really an empirical question?



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