Dworkin’s “Semantic Sting” and Behavioral Pragmatics

  • Brian E. ButlerEmail author
Part of the Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy & Psychology book series (PEPRPHPS, volume 18)


Ronald Dworkin in Law’s Empire famously utilized what he described as the “semantic sting” to explain both why the concept of “law” is an essentially contestable concept and because of this why the concept of law is also essentially interpretive. Ultimately Dworkin’s theory makes law and legal practice on all levels turn on, in his terms, an essentially semantic dispute over what the best conception of law is. That is, law is in all its worldly glory ultimately an interpretive concept based upon a conception of meaning centered upon semantics. I argue that law is better analyzed as a set of embodied and socially embedded practices and that emphasis upon the interpretive or “semantic” aspects of law crowds out the more important behavioral and concrete aspects of legal practice. The claim in this chapter is simply that even the most sophisticated conceptual or semantic analysis of law in terms of a core set of concepts is indefensibly reductionist. If semantic theories of law have a tendency to crowd out the recognition of practices, of embodied social ways of life, then the real “semantic sting” is in accepting the semantic move, and not in any disagreement over how semantic content is to be identified.


semantic sting behavioral pragmatics Ronald Dworkin legal interpretation semantic content 


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Howerton Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Department of PhilosophyUNC AshevilleAshevilleUSA

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