Naturalizing Interpretation: A First Approach on “Hardware” and “Software” Determinants of Legal Interpretation



In matters such as legal interpretation, analytical legal theory (ALT) has long focused on the structure of thought rather than on the psychological process of thinking. In doing so, despite accepting that interpreting is a psychological process, linguistic and logical analysis was favored in lieu of sociological, psychological and behavioral enterprises. This is mainly because the latter—dubbed, at the best possible scenario, “soft core science”—contradicted, in his predictive aim, the paradigm of the “free-willed rational man” that ALT presupposed. But here is the twist: the model seems flawed. Rationality does not entirely explain the functioning of the human brain. Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology state the case that the human brain functions in such a way that it primarily replicates our genes over our interests or wills. In this paper, we submit that it is perhaps time to conceive “naturalizing” legal interpretation by complementing the anthropologically spare model of ALT by attending to the both blades of the scissor in Simon’s metaphor: the invariants of both language and human interpreters. Our point of departure is the neoskeptical theory and the highlighted voluntas of legal interpretation in legal realism à la génois, particularly that of Riccardo Guastini. We are primarily interested in a theory of legal interpretation with explanatory power: describing and explaining what input (that is, what combination of facts and reasons) produces what interpretative output. Our claim is that a theory of interpretation (lato sensu) will necessarily be incomplete if it does not address the conditions of the human interpreter and account for the difference between “hardware” and “software”, or, as we call them, the permanent (P-)conditions and contextual (C-)conditions of the interpreter. In our first approach at an explanatory model, the description of actual interpretations of legal agents—as well as the underlying legal arguments—is a depiction of variables that, in turn, are dependent upon invariants of human behavior. It is these biological and psychological invariants of interpretation statements qua empirical data that are subject to analysis. We conclude that addressing contextual conditions is also necessary: each contextual condition is unique and variable, but the “existence” of contextual conditions and their impact on the interpretative output is a permanent condition and should therefore be addressed in a comprehensive explanatory model.


Legal interpretation Legal realism Human behavior Evolutionary psychology Mind and context 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Lisbon School of LawLisbonPortugal

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