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Articulating Ratio Legis and Practical Reasoning


Many irreconcilable accounts of ratio legis in legal science, often concerned with legal interpretation, suffer from being disconnected from practical reasoning. Different theories of legal interpretation which result in one-sided views of ratio legis are by-products of one-sided semantics. The first part of the chapter diagnoses this problem by providing a model of three types of one-sided semantics—upstream, midstream and downstream—and explaining how they translate into respective accounts of legal interpretation and ratio legis. The second part of the chapter presents an alternative to one-sided semantics in legal theory. The alternative account which combines semantics and practical reasoning in legal theory is based on Brandom’s inferential pragmatism. The usefulness of inferential pragmatism in legal theory with regard to the problem of ratio legis is tested and followed by extending an inferentialist account of ratio legis provided by Canale and Tuzet. A model of agent’s actions and reasons, and their impact on the reasoning of interpreters and decision-makers is the essential part of this extension.


  • Law and semantics
  • Practical reasoning
  • Robert Brandom
  • Ratio legis
  • Legal interpretation
  • Legal reasoning

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  1. 1.

    See Gizbert-Studnicki (1985), p. 52; Smolak (2010), p. 152. The courts in Poland usually apply the terms “functional interpretation” and “teleological interpretation” interchangeably.

  2. 2.

    See Wróblewski (1959), pp. 355–356; Nowak (1973), p. 104; Peczenik (1989), p. 406; Morawski (2002), p. 211; Zieliński (2002), p. 301.

  3. 3.

    See Lang (1986), pp. 27–28.

  4. 4.

    See Borowicz (2009), pp. 54–56.

  5. 5.

    This approach can be attributed to Locke. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke claims that words correspond to ideas which are caused to arise in us by corresponding objects in the world, to which the ideas correspond. With some modifications, this approached can also be found in Russell’s doctrine of acquaintance presented in his second Monist Lecture in 1918. See Russell (1956).

  6. 6.

    See Scalia (1996), pp. 18–23.

  7. 7.

    For introducing this distinction, see Greenawalt (2002), p. 283.

  8. 8.

    The characteristics of conventionalisms and their implications for legal interpretation are based on Moore (2016), pp. 130–135.

  9. 9.

    For example, such a rule in criminal law would provide that if something is not strictly prohibited, it is permitted.

  10. 10.

    In order to highlight the focus on interpretive rules, I reverse the traditional label of “interpretive semantics” associated with the so-called Extended Standard Theory, developed by Chomsky (1972), which evolved out of Standard Theory, proposed in Chomsky (1965).

  11. 11.

    This is outlined in theories of Katz and Postal (1964), and of Chomsky (1965).

  12. 12.

    The distinction was introduced in Ziembiński (1960). The derivational theory of legal interpretation was developed in Zieliński (1972, 2002). Recent expansions of the theory: Bogucki (2016).

  13. 13.

    The linguistic interpretive rules are related to the rules of the language in which the legal text was written. Primacy is assigned to the rules based on the legal definitions.

  14. 14.

    See Nowak (1973), pp. 11 and 29–34.

  15. 15.

    My claim concerns the “ultimate” grounding, even though Zieliński (1998) prioritises characteristic features of a legal text as the major factor which determines the status and contents of interpretive rules in derivational conception of legal interpretation. It has to be pointed out, however, that these textual features are also subject to cultural recognition and acceptance.

  16. 16.

    Nowak (1973), p. 173 admits it, by stating that lawyers never verify their assumptions concerning the rational legislator.

  17. 17.

    Wittgenstein has famously noted that one can adopt a pragmatist approach to rules, or that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases” (Wittgenstein 2005, § 201).

  18. 18.

    According to Sellars ‘correct’ cannot mean ‘correct according to a rule’ (Sellars 1963, p. 321). He refutes the thesis that learning to use a language L is learning to obey the rules of L. He notes that a rule which prescribes an action A is a sentence in a language which contains a linguistic expression E for A. Hence, a rule prescribing the use of a linguistic expression E is a sentence in metalanguage containing E. Consequently, learning to use the rules for L presupposes the ability to use the metalanguage containing the rules for L. Using the metalanguage would similarly have to involve the ability to use a metametalanguage, and so forth.

  19. 19.

    See Bogucki (2016), p. 266.

  20. 20.

    See Bogucki (2016), pp. 270–272.

  21. 21.

    See Bogucki (2016), pp. 272–278.

  22. 22.

    On the one hand, it holds that there are no substantive conditions of having singular thoughts as such thoughts can be generated at will by manipulating the direct reference. See Jeshion (2010). On the other, it claims that the theoretical terms of scientific theories (e.g. electron or tax-payer) should not be taken as referring to unobservable entities, but as constructs serving as tools for systematizing relations between phenomena. See Ladyman (2002), p. 155.

  23. 23.

    See DeWitt (2000), p. 31.

  24. 24.

    See also critical examination of this view in Shah (2002).

  25. 25.

    See Mathis (2011), p. 3.

  26. 26.

    About the distinction between legal and actual consequences, see Lübbe-Wolff (1981), p. 25.

  27. 27.

    See Tamanaha (1996), p. 315.

  28. 28.

    It is characteristic of the approach to teleological interpretation in the Polish theory of legal interpretation by Gizbert-Studnicki (1985).

  29. 29.

    For the paradigmatic account of institutional approach, see MacCormick and Weinberger (1986). In the Polish theory of law this approach is represented in Smolak (1998, 2012).

  30. 30.

    Another way to look at the integration problem is naturalisation of legal science, which is not discussed in this chapter. Suffice it to say that I reject it philosophically, as unfounded reductionism, and historically, as a story of failure.

  31. 31.

    Alternative, and traditional, account of expressions’ meaning would ascribe primacy to semantics. This may be the case in artificial languages, but not in natural ones. For more criticism against the traditional account of semantics, see Brandom (1994). In his more recent work, Brandom elaborates the skills and practices that are sufficient or necessary to ascribe meaning by providing a methodological framework of analysis expanded by pragmatic meta-vocabularies; see Brandom (2008). A less technical depiction of discursive practice can be found in Brandom (2000).

  32. 32.

    This proposition follows directly from Kant’s account of concepts understood as rules, the application of which can be subject to normative assessment as either correct or incorrect. Brandom does not share later Wittgenstein’s ultimate scepticism about such assessment, stemming from the possibility of infinite number of different language games. On the contrary, he believes that there are certain core practices, such as asserting which make a general pragmatist account of language possible. Justification or the attribution of responsibility for Wittgenstein could be just another language game, whereas for Brandom it is implicit in natural language discursive practice.

  33. 33.

    In legal theory, deontic statuses are conceived of more narrowly than in Brandom’s philosophical work. E.g. a deontic status of an action is typically considered as something expressed in statements about whether it is according to the law. See Bulygin (2015), p. 307.

  34. 34.

    See Brandom (2000), pp. 82–84 and 93–96.

  35. 35.

    In the classical tradition a division of syllogisms into theoretical and practical comes from Aristotle who said that practical inference leads up to or ends in action. The major premise indicates something good or something that ought to be done. See De Motu Animalium 701a, 12–14 and Nichomachean Ethics 1147a 6–7, 28–30. A concise formulation of the task of practical reasoning was provided by Aquinas: “Practical reason judges and pronounces sentence on matters of action.” Ratio practica iudicat et sententiat de agendis, STh, 1–2, q. 74, a. 7 co. Rhonheimer develops this line of thought: “The judgments of practical reason have as their object good as regards acting from the aspect of its truth. Like the speculative intellect, the practical intellect knows truth. Known good, therefore, is ‘practical truth’.” Rhonheimer (2008), p. 169 (notes omitted).

  36. 36.

    This theme is famously developed by G.E.M. Anscombe: “The mark of the practical reasoning is that the thing wanted is at a distance from the immediate action, and the immediate action is calculated as the way of getting or doing or securing the thing wanted.” Anscombe (1957), p. 79.

  37. 37.

    According to G.H. von Wright, Hegel in his Logic “construed purposive action as an inference, leading from the subjective setting of an end through insight into the objective connections of natural facts to the objectivation of the end in action”. Von Wright (1978), p. 47.

  38. 38.

    See Warner (2005), p. 259.

  39. 39.

    See Brandom (2000), p. 89.

  40. 40.

    A given preference or desire is only a prima facie reason for a given action, because different preferences may compete, and many alternative actions can be chosen as conclusions of instrumental inferences. E.g. if one’s desire is to stay dry when the rain sets in, one shall open an umbrella, find shelter under a tree, etc.

  41. 41.

    This account seems to be closely modelled on Kantian categorical imperative, although a Kantian would probably assimilate all three types of reasoning to that pattern. An agent performing unconditional inference has reasons for action which are expressed in a different rational ‘ought’ than the prudential or institutional one. E.g. if it is wrong to harm anyone to no purpose, and repeating the gossip would harm someone to no purpose, one shall not repeat the gossip (see Brandom 2000, pp. 84–85).

  42. 42.

    Institutional legal statuses are usually very similar to what Jeremy Waldron calls a condition-status in law: it arises out of conditions into which anyone might fall in virtue of some facts (e.g. being a minor or a bankrupt) or choices (e.g. marriage or being an alien) (see Waldron 2009, p. 242). E.g., if one occupies a status of employer, according to the Polish Labour Code, this should be treated as a sufficient reason for providing safe working conditions for the employees. If one is a professional soldier, one has a status-related reason for not being a member of the board of a commercial company. If one has the status of a refugee in Poland, one has a reason for applying for residence card. The most general institutional legal status would probably be identical with being under jurisdiction (of a state). Statuses as specifically good reasons would obtain for anyone enjoying the same status, which is typical of law.

  43. 43.

    For instance, if one has the status of a bank clerk, and one is going to work, one is required to wear a tie. A deontic scorekeeper would consider it a good institutional inference not only for an individual agent, but also for any other agent who occupies the same status. Thus, the status-based premise should be considered as objective (whether based on further factual or normative premises), because—if the scorekeeper is committed to the other agent’s occupying that status—such a commitment would correspond to a good reason for action for that agent (see Brandom 2000, p. 91).

  44. 44.

    In a sense Dworkin rightly argued that Hart suffered from a ‘semantic sting’, because he thought that lawyers follow certain linguistic criteria for evaluating propositions of law (see Dworkin 1986, p. 45). Jerzy Wróblewski might also have ‘suffered’ from it, since his interest in language led him to developing a ‘semantic conception of a legal norm’ (see Wróblewski 1983).

  45. 45.

    Much work in the pragmatics of legal language continues to focus on Gricean and post-Gricean pragmatics (see e.g. Soames 2008, Solum 2013, and Marmor 2014).

  46. 46.

    Interestingly, Hart’s successors, J. Finnis and J. Raz, each in his respective way of either New School of Natural Law or Legal Positivism, seem to be focused on practical reasoning at the expense of language (see notably Finnis 1990, 2011 and Raz 2009).

  47. 47.

    This statement may require some qualification, especially in civil law systems, where ‘prior decisions’ should be understood, e.g. in case of newly enacted statutes, as legislator’s decisions.


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Dybowski, M. (2018). Articulating Ratio Legis and Practical Reasoning. In: Klappstein, V., Dybowski, M. (eds) Ratio Legis. Springer, Cham.

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