By CONSTANCE A. JOHNSON
There is a way to reconcile different interpretations to arrive at truth. Speaking at the Library, law professor Ronald Dworkin proposed a general theory of interpretation, one that would be useful in describing the nature of interpretation in a wide variety of fields and that would allow for the determination of which view of whatever is being analyzed is correct.
Dworkin suggested that interpretation is a collective activity; interpreters in their search for truth interpret laws, documents, works of art or periods of history based on their understanding of what the value of interpretation should be in their field. Of lawyers considering possible interpretations, he said, “We read, we puzzle, we puzzle again, and then we come to a judgment” about truth.
Dworkin delivered a lecture titled “Is There Truth in Interpretation? Law, Literature, and History,” at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on Oct. 26. He drew widely on examples from literary and artistic interpretations, in addition to well-known disputes in interpreting legal documents, such as the disagreements over the meaning of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and over whether the First Amendment applies to corporations.
Dworkin asked how truth can be determined correctly when experts disagree so widely. He dismissed what he called the skeptic’s view that there is no right answer; this, in itself, is an interpretation. He further distinguished skepticism from simple uncertainty.
He also rejected the view of some that the truth, especially in artistic endeavors, should depend on determining the intention or the state of mind of the person who created the art. This view of interpretation, Dworkin suggested, does not apply in other fields of interpretation, such as history. It is also rejected by some literary critics, who describe the author as only the first reader of a work of literature. Dworkin posited that there could be an understanding of interpretation that would allow for truth to be determined and that would apply generally, across many fields of intellectual endeavor.
The theory of interpretation he proposes, which he called the responsibility theory, has two main aspects. First, he argued, interpretation is a collective endeavor; we can interpret because others have in the past. Second, interpreters suppose that their critical efforts have a point, embody some value. For example, lawyers interpreting documents might disagree greatly on specific laws but agree that the general purpose is to serve justice. Similarly, the aim of literary criticism is to identify excellence in writing. The true interpretation, Dworkin claims, is the reading that best serves the responsibility of the purpose of interpretation.
Dworkin also described three different families, or genres, of interpretation: collaborative interpretation, in which the interpreter is in partnership with the creator, such as a musician performing a composer’s work; explanatory interpretation, in which, for example, the meaning of historical events is determined to draw out an important lesson, without any idea of collaborating with historical actors; and conceptual interpretation, which is in effect what philosophers do.
Applying his thoughts to the field of law, Dworkin suggested that the Constitution and other legal documents are interpreted correctly when the role of interpretation itself is interpreted correctly. It is wrong, he argued, to say that there is no right answer. Justice lies not in trying to make up the law, but in finding the law. He concluded by saying that although law is not literature, it is closer to poetry than to physics.
Dworkin is professor of jurisprudence at University College London and at the New York University School of Law. He was educated at Harvard University and Magdalen College, Oxford, before studying at Harvard Law School and later clerking for Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He is widely known as an author and lecturer on philosophy and law and was awarded the Holberg Memorial Prize in the Humanities by the Kingdom of Norway in 2007.
Dworkin spoke at the Library as the inaugural lecturer in the Frederic R. and Molly S. Kellogg Lectures in Jurisprudence, a biennial series of talks on legal philosophy, endowed by the Kelloggs, to be given at the Library of Congress. Frederic Kellogg attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School before earning a doctorate in jurisprudence at the George Washington University. Kellogg served as assistant U.S. attorney and as adviser to Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson during the Watergate crisis; he is now the Sir Neil MacCormick Fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Molly S. Kellogg graduated from the University of Texas and served as executive assistant to U.S. Congressman J. J. Pickle for 30 years. She is co-chairman of the Board of the General Henry Knox Museum in Thomaston, Maine.
The audience was welcomed by Roberta I. Shaffer, the Law Librarian of Congress, and the lecture itself was introduced with remarks by Frederic R. Kellogg.
Constance A. Johnson is a senior legal research analyst in the Law Library of Congress.