Legal Theory Lexicon: Words and Concepts

Claud Mccoid


Even ahead of getting into law faculty, law college students are possible to know that attorneys get the job done with phrases and tips.  But most law college students are possible to get by the initially calendar year without mastering of a single of the most essential distinctions in legal idea–the distinction in between phrases and ideas–and the closely associated distinction in between sentences and propositions.  This entry in the Lawful Principle Lexicon presents a extremely shorter introduction to the these tips and their programs in legal idea.

A word of warning.  The notion of a concept plays an important purpose in legal idea, but normally legal theorists just take the mother nature of ideas themselves for granted.  With the exception of get the job done on the mother nature of law, where the notion of a concept is sometimes interrogated, legal idea seldom discusses deep questions about the mother nature of ideas themselves.  The dialogue that follows ignores numerous important philosophical questions about ideas.  This is the Lawful Principle Lexicon and not the Philosophers Lexicon.  For an introduction to the philosophical difficulties, I advocate the entry on Concepts in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is cited in the bibliography at the end of this Lexicon entry.

What is a Concept?

Let’s start out with ideas.  What is a concept?  And how is a concept unique from the word or phrase that is used to categorical that concept in a normal language like English?  We can get started with an example.  Just one of the meanings of the word “law” refers to the method of legal norms.  “The law in the United States incorporates a correct to the liberty of speech.”  The word “law” is used to categorical an notion or concept.  The concept law can be represented by other phrases.  Most definitely, the word “law” in English is translated as “recht” in German, “loi” in French, and “ley” in Spanish.  But the concept law can also be expressed in English in other phrases or phrases.  For example, the phrase “method of legal norms” can be substituted for the word “law” in a wide variety of contexts.  Words and phrases categorical ideas, but phrases are not the similar kinds of items as ideas.  There is a conceptual distinction in between a word and the concept that the word expresses.

Words, Phrases, and Terms

Some ideas are expressed by solitary phrases, but some others are expressed by phrases (teams of phrases).  Some phrases are compositional: the this means of the phrase is established by the this means of the particular person phrases that make up the phrase.  Other phrases are idiomatic: the this means of the phrase is not the solution of the this means of the particular person phrases.  Listed here are some examples of idioms:

  • “Burn the midnight oil”
  • “Cry more than spilt milk”
  • “Devil’s advocate”

Every of these phrases has an idiomatic this means that is nicely acknowledged to competent speakers of American English, but is not reducible to the meanings of the phrases that compose the idiom.  A “devil’s advocate” is not the advocate of Satan.  “Crying more than spilt milk” does not entail milk and it does not require crying.

We can use the word “term” to symbolize a device of this means, which could be a word or a phrase.  Thus, “law,” “legal method,” and “devil’s advocate” are all conditions that symbolize ideas.  This Lexicon entry is entitled “Words and Ideas” but a additional exact title may have been “Terms and Ideas.”

Sentences and Propositions

What about sentences?  Words and phrases are put together into sentences.  Individual phrases and phrases have semantic meanings that affiliate them with ideas.  Sentences also have semantic meanings (or literal meanings), but these meanings are not just a operate of the this means of the particular person phrases and phrases that make up the sentence.  Syntax plays a purpose in sentence this means.  For the rough and prepared needs of this Lexicon entry, syntax may be thought of as something like grammar and (in the situation of published sentences) punctuation.

We can use the word “proposition” to categorical the notion that the this means of a sentence can be thought of as an summary object.  Just as a word expresses a concept that can be expressed utilizing other phrases, so too sentences categorical propositions that can be expressed utilizing other sentences.  Thus, this Lexicon entry could be translated into Mandarin or Romanian (as numerous other Lexicon entries have by now been translated).  And each sentence is this Lexicon entry could have been published utilizing a unique sentence in English that would have expressed the similar proposition.  For example, numerous sentences in English that are expressed in “energetic voice” can be rewritten in passive voice.  “I wrote this the initially sentence of this Lexicon entry” can be rewritten as “The initially sentence of the Lexicon entry entitled ‘Words and Concepts’ was published by me.”

As ideas are to phrases and phrases, so propositions are to sentences.  Again, a word of warning: this see of the relationship in between ideas and propositions is controversial in philosophy, but for the needs of the Lexicon, I am ignoring numerous of the foundational difficulties about the mother nature of ideas.

A Typical Mistake: Mistaking Definitions for Ideas

Listed here is a extremely typical slip-up manufactured in tutorial legal producing: conceptual difficulties are described as definitional difficulties.  For example, in an short article about foundational difficulties in intercontinental law, the creator may say that a dispute about the mother nature of intercontinental law is a definitional dispute.  Of study course, it is probable that the dispute is seriously about the this means of the phrase “intercontinental law,” but it is additional possible that the creator is conversing about the concept of intercontinental law and that the dispute is conceptual relatively than definitional.  Just one way to see the variation is to request these questions: (1) could the dispute be expressed in a unique language?, and (2) could the dispute be reframed in English utilizing other phrases?  If the solution to equally of these questions is “yes,” then there is a great prospect that the difficulties are conceptual and not definitional.

Of study course, numerous disputes are simply terminological, but terminological disputes can be averted by stipulated definitions.  If stipulation won’t deliver a way close to the difficulties, then the dispute is not seriously about the this means of a word or phrase, it is in fact about a concept or the mother nature of some form.

Ideas and Conceptions

There is a Lexicon entry on the concept-conception distinction, which is regularly invoked by legal theorists.  This distinction was manufactured well-known by John Rawls in A Principle of Justice and was adapted to legal idea by Ronald Dworkin.  The gist of the notion is that specified ideas, such as justice, are contested.  There are unique theories about the mother nature of justice and these theories contend with just about every other.  These competing theories can be described as “conceptions.”  So we have unique conceptions of the concept justice.  Recognize that the debates more than the mother nature of justice are not about the definition of the word “justice.”

Linguistic Determinism (the Whorfian Speculation)

Just one of the tips about the relationship in between phrases and ideas is associated with Benjamin Whorf and is sometimes called “linguistic determinism” or “the Whorfian hypothesis.”  The gist of this notion is that our language decides our ideas.  Thus, it is claimed that Eskimos have 50 phrases for snow or that the Hopi do not have a concept of time.  This Lexicon entry will not likely explore the empirical and philosophical difficulties raised by debates more than linguistic determinism, but I do want to alert readers that they should not casually assume that linguistic determinism has been confirmed by social experts.  It may perhaps be the situation that the Eskimos do have numerous phrases for snow (as extremely the latest investigation purports to present), but that does not entail linguistic determinism.  The notion that the Hopi lack a concept of time is almost certainly wrong.  In advance of you make major assumptions about linguistic determinism, do some serious investigation!


As is usually the situation, this Lexicon entry hardly scratches the surface area.  I hope that the tips that I have released listed here are ample to give you a perception of the variation in between phrases and ideas.  The bibliography incorporates some solutions for added readings!

Linked Lexicon Entries

  • Lawful Principle Lexicon 028: Ideas and Conceptions
  • Lawful Principle Lexicon 075: Metalinguistic Negotiation
  • Lawful Principle Lexicon 076: Organic Kinds and Ethical Kinds
  • Lawful Principle Lexicon 079: Communicative Written content and Lawful Written content


  • Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire  (Harvard College Press 1988).
  • Maite Ezcurdia, The Concept-Conception Distinction, 9 Philosophical Troubles 187-192 (1998).
  • W. B. Gallie, ” Essentially Contested Ideas,” 56 Proceedings of the Aristotelian Modern society167 (1956).
  • Eric Margolis & Stephen Laurence, Ideas, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011).
  • Matthew McGrath & Devin Frank, Propositions, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018).
  • Christopher Peacocke, A Research of Ideas (1992).
  • John Rawls, A Principle of Justice (1971).
  • David Robson, There seriously are 50 Eskimo phrases for ‘snow’, The Washington Put up, January fourteen, 2013, and fitness-science/there-seriously-are-50-eskimo-phrases-for-snow/2013/01/fourteen/e0e3f4e0-59a0-11e2-beee-6e38f5215402_story.html?utm_term=.4055baefca32.

(This entry was past modified on February 7, 2021.)

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