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Hart and the Metaphysics and Semantics of Legal Normativity

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Kramer, MH 


A number of philosophers in recent years have maintained that H.L.A. Hart in "The Concept of Law" propounded an expressivist account of the semantics of the legal statements that are uttered from the internal viewpoint of the people who run the institutions of legal governance in any jurisdiction. Although the primary aim of this article is to attack the attribution of that semantic doctrine to Hart, the article will begin with some metaphysical matters – the matters of reductionism and naturalism – that often lie behind the development of expressivist approaches to the semantics of normative discourse. After briefly exploring those metaphysical concerns (to which I will return later), the article will begin its main discussion by rehearsing the distinction between the semantics and the pragmatics of utterances. It will then delineate the doctrine of expressivism which the aforementioned philosophers have in mind when they ascribe that doctrine to Hart. Although I will make reference to a few such philosophers, I will focus chiefly on an article by Kevin Toh that has been the fountainhead of all the subsequent attributions of expressivism to Hart. As will be argued herein, Toh and like-minded philosophers have gone astray in imputing to Hart a semantic version of expressivism. Notwithstanding that Hart’s theory of law can aptly be characterized as expressivist, that characterization is appropriate only when expressivism is understood as an account of the pragmatics of legal statements rather than as an account of their semantics.



Legal Semantics, Expressivism, H.L.A. Hart, Non-Cognitivism, Legal Pragmatics, Naturalism, Minimalism, Reductionism

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Ratio Juris

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