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LanguageLog on Justice Breyer reading J. L Austin


Submitted by syntaxfactory on July 7, 2011 - 10:51am


FYI: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3248

In a recent interview, Supreme Court Justice Breyer lists the five books that have influenced his thinking the most. Among them: J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words. Breyer says:

"JL Austin was an ordinary language philosopher. When I studied in Oxford, I went to one of his classes and I read his books. How to Do Things with Words teaches us a lot about how ordinary language works. It is useful to me as a judge, because it helps me avoid the traps that linguistic imprecision can set. If I had to pick a single thing that I draw from Austin's work it would be that context matters. It enables us to understand, when someone makes a statement, what that statement refers to and what that person meant.

"When I see the word "any" in a statute, I immediately know it's unlikely to mean "anything" in the universe. "Any" will have a limitation on it, depending on the context. When my wife says, "there isn't any butter," I understand that she's talking about what is in our refrigerator, not worldwide. We look at context over and over, in life and in law."

More fascinating thoughts at the LanguageLog Blog!

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