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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. Agreement on a series of marks without more has no meaning in itself. In struggling with Justice Scalia’s remarks, we thus must ask whether on the face of these remarks he has committed the fallacy of conflating signifiers of meaning with meaning itself. Legislators do not agree simply on certain ink marks but on what they believe those ink marks signify. Their duty is to legislate, not to produce mere marks of ink.
If we instead take “text” to embody 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”? The series of marks itself cannot prove such unanimity, much less any specific meaning. Even if we take such off-the-page text as referring to words with standard or dictionary meanings, we know that words have multiple such meanings (“left,” for example, can mean, among other things, a direction or the past tense of “leave”). A series of marks referring to a series of words in itself thus does not tell us which standard meanings were in the heads of legislators when they read (if they did) drafts of the bill.
This Article therefore broadly explores semiotics through a lawyer’s lens, hopefully simplifying as much as possible much of the complex, divergent, and, frankly, sometimes baffling terminology used by those who explore semiotics. This Article will first continue below with a general definition of signs and the related notion of intentionality. It will then address the structure and concomitants of signs, the nature of speech acts that are of interest to lawyers, the sign classifications used in legal analysis and rhetoric, the role of signs in careful legal thought and good legal rhetoric, the unfolding of the signified and the fixation of mean- ing debate, the semiotics of speaker vs. reader meaning, and some brief reflections on semiotics and the First Amendment. Finally, this Article also provides an Appendix with further terms and concepts helpful to lawyers exploring semiotics.
I hope this Article’s broad overview of semiotics underscores the vital importance of semiotics in law and in legal education reform. I also hope this Article inspires readers and legal education reformers to explore the vast worlds of semiotics that elude the page constraints of a general overview.
*Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law