Legal Hermeneutics and Philosophical Hermeneutics

I wanted to call this blog Notes from a Lover of Sights and Sounds because I wanted this to be a space where I could express myself both as a philosopher and as an attorney, and to make clear to anyone interested just where I am coming from as a scholar.  In the past, I have found that among philosophers I am often perceived as being an attorney and among attorneys I am often perceived as being a philosopher.  The charge of being an attorney from a philosopher usually means that I am being associated with being a lover of sights and sounds, with paying too much attention to sensible particulars (facts, history, context, and/or the corporeal world in general) and not enough attention to abstract ideas.  The charge of being a philosopher from an attorney usually means I am being associated with overthinking things, with pursuing lines of inquiry that lead nowhere, and with being engaged in a series of frivolous theoretical pursuits that are of no use to anyone.  But, from my point of view, there is room for both of these identities in my academic life and particularly in my scholarship.  In fact, for me, the two identities work harmoniously together, interwoven into an approach to untangling and attempting to solve various problems in the realm of social justice with the tools of both theory and practice.

It is in this way that legal hermeneutics operates as the backdrop for all of my legal scholarship, and philosophical hermeneutics acts as the backdrop for all of my philosophical scholarship.  That is, I approach questions of legal meaning by starting with an interrogation into the history of a given law, including the sociocultural context in which the law came into being, its legislative history, and the purpose it was thought to have been designed to achieve.  I then make normative inquiries into the ethical palatability of the historical purpose in light of changing cultural mores, attitudes and needs, followed by recommendations for change.   I approach questions of meaning in general (philosophical meaning) through a similar attention to the same kinds of considerations: history, context, usefulness, normative value.

Of course, this context-based approach to questions of social justice necessarily entails being guided by a set of normative values that I have come to accept over the years as legitimate and worth pursuing in my work.  This set of values includes:  racial equality, gender equality, equality for members of the LGBTQ community, and equality for people with disabilities.  In my dissertation, I spoke of equality for members of marginalized, oppressed, and subjugated groups.  This language is still applicable.

In summary, what I do in my scholarship is try to untangle the biases, prejudices, preconceptions, assumptions, and falsehoods that operate to oppress members of marginalized, oppressed, and subjugated groups.  I do this by using philosophy to deconstruct the concepts that support that bias and institutionalized oppression and by using legal hermeneutics to deconstruct the laws that have operated to reinforce that oppression.

It is my view that the problems of social justice cannot be solved in a purely theoretical manner.  There must be consideration for “sights and sounds,” including those contained in history and in contemporary factual contexts.  At the same time, I appreciate the power of philosophy to assist with this pursuit, especially its precision and clarity. To solve a problem, we must first determine what it is.  Philosophy is great at helping with that task.  But, we need an attention to facts and other practical considerations to complete the job of achieving social justice because injustice does not happen in the abstract.  It happens on the ground.

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