Book Symposium: Interpretation — An Exact Art

by Philip Allott

[Philip Allott is Emeritus Professor of International Public Law at the University of Cambridge.]

Interpretation of any text – religious, political, historical, scientific, literary, artistic, legal – raises profound philosophical problems. Interpretation of a legal text is in a class of its own, because it can have direct and substantial social effects, determining people’s lives. The philosophy of legal interpretation is the philosophy of a fundamental aspect of social existence.

The philosophical problems of interpretation stem from the fact that interpretation is a re-presentation of a presentation of reality contained in the text, a reality which is already an interpretation by the mind of some aspect of human experience, and the interpretative re-re-presentation then itself becomes part of that reality. The circular problem of the presentation of reality in language and symbols that modify reality has traditionally been seen as a problem of epistemology – How do we know anything? What is that we know when we think that we know something?

When a text is in a moral context (what does this text say that I or we should do?), it may have a personal effect beyond the social effect. Interpretation may generate a sense of obligation.   When a text is in a legal context, it may have more dramatic effects, personal and social. It may give rise to legal relations – rights, duties, powers, freedoms, etc.   And legal relations switch on specific and powerful social mechanisms in the making and the application and the enforcement of law.

It is a familiar fact that translation into another language can never produce a perfect re-presentation of a text in that other language. But such an ideal may dominate the mind of the translator, involving an underlying respect for the intention of the author of the text. In the case of interpretation, the originating premise is that the interpretation will be something different from the text interpreted.

A speculative or imagined intention of the author of the text may be a relevant element in interpretation, but the interpretation may properly take into account an unlimited number of other considerations. The interpretative context is, in principle, unlimited. It is for this reason that an attempt to lay down general legal rules of interpretation, as in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, is futile, not least because those rules must themselves be interpreted.

Thus all forms of interpretation involve a succession of acts of creation, supplementing the creative act that produced the original text. The original text becomes the nucleus of an ever-growing living-body of interpretations, each interpretation digesting the work of its predecessors. The text comes to be what it has been made to become through interpretation.

In all forms of interpretation, there may be a sense of proper limits to freedom of interpretation, an implied and unspoken deontology of interpretation. A religious text, centuries later, may have only slender connections with its original form. A Greek tragedy is its bare text plus centuries of thought about it. A work of art is overlaid with veneers, layer after layer, of thought about the work. The only controlling obligations in such cases seem to be a duty to preserve a continuing coherence of interpretation, a sense of respect for the author, a sense of changing social and cultural contexts to which interpretation should respond.

In the case of legal interpretation, the controlling deontology is an integral part of the justification of law itself as a social phenomenon. Law is a violation of human freedom inherited from the social past, taking effect in the social present, determining the social future. Law needs a lot of justifying. Lawyers are aware of this, especially judges and leading practising lawyers, and legal academic writers. Arbitrary interpretation would be a violation of the social responsibility of the lawyer, an abuse of social power. Lawyers know that they must justify their legal interpretations in the same ways that law in general and public authority in general are justified – through respect for a whole array of contextual social and moral standards and understandings, and an ultimate duty to find and to serve the common interest.

Interpretation of International Law is in a very different situation. There are no established contextual social and moral norms and understandings of the kind that dominate advanced national societies.   The overriding international ethic is the use of crude power and diplomatic power to serve nationally determined interests, with only a weak sense of a common interest.   The systems of law-making and law-application and law-enforcement are rudimentary and haphazard.   An international legal text is a happy-hunting-ground for the extreme ingenuity and duplicity that enlightened self-interest, and the subtle minds of lawyers, can generate – and an inexhaustible source of wealth for some.   Practical examples of this abound in the torrent of legal texts created and interpreted and applied in the vast expansion of the scope of International Law since 1945.

The future of international legal interpretation will be better if the future of International Society is better – and if International Lawyers acquire a more sophisticated understanding of the nature and the problems and the responsibilities of all forms of interpretation, and especially of legal interpretation. Interpretation in International Law is an art and a game and a field of battle. It is an ultimate art of the possible, and the possible includes a better kind of law for a better kind of international society.

One Response

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post .Well , of course the whole issue is amazingly complicated , yet :

    One should notice the issue of prospectivity ( prospect ) in the interpretation of a judicial text (whether international or private or public one). The author or legislator needs always to recall or imagine prospective occurrences , in order to write future solutions in case of ….

    Yet , the capacity , of an author , experienced as he might be , won’t never cover all prospective occurrences that may take place in the future . he is very limited with simultaneous current conscious possibilities .

    Who could predict the rise ( over night almost ) of the internet , of new weapons , of social shifts ( intensive immigration in the world for exe. and so forth ….) .

    In such , retrospective re- interpretation ,of limited prospective drafting , is not at all an easy task ( in all fields of law ) . thanks

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