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Cool Thesis of the Week: LiLu Sexton

Each week, The Quest profiles the thesis of one senior whose work is worth sharing with the Reed community. The purpose of this column is to increase awareness among Reedies of the work being done in various academic fields and to make disparate forms of scholarship accessible and understandable to all.

LiLu Sexton studies H.L.A. Hart’s linguistic philosophy, which gives guidance as to how to understand the concept of “law.”

Society relies on law for structure. But what gives structure to law?

A big part of the answer is language, says LiLu Sexton ’12, of Brooklyn, New York. LiLu is writing her spring-fall Political Science thesis, advised by professor Peter Steinberger, on the linguistic philosophy of H.L.A. Hart, and how this informs his understanding of the nature of what law is.

“When we use the word ‘law,’ we are really playing a specific language game. People have agreed to play by those rules.”

Hart, who LiLu calls “probably the most important legal philosopher of the twentieth century,” argues in the school of Ordinary Language, which understands the meaning of language as dependent on its context. Words do not have meaning in and of themselves, he says; instead their significance depends on what words are around them, and what context they are said in. People using language are “intentional actors,” LiLu says, who intentionally “produce a meaning through signs that can be understood by whomever is receiving the communication.” Understanding language requires a logic, she says, and “part of that logic is recognizing intentional actors and a variety of other factors contextualize the meaning of words and phrases that we use.”

For example, LiLu brings up the case of a baseball umpire who declares a player “out”: If an ordinary person outside of the context of a baseball game says “he’s out,” it means one thing. But, LiLu says, in a baseball game, “when an umpire says ‘he’s out,’ we understand that as a conclusion from the rules and marrying that to the facts of the case.” The declaration has a different meaning.

In the same way, according to Hart, the meaning of laws can not be understood in the same way as though they were said in just any context. “When we use the word ‘law’ or words that are legal concepts like ‘right,’ ‘duty,’ ‘contract,’ we are really playing a specific language game,” says LiLu. For example, “when we say person A has a duty to pay person B 10 pounds… we are supposing a system in which rules exist,” she says. “People have agreed to play by those rules.”

Bearing this understanding of law in mind can help clear up some difficult misunderstandings surrounding the concept. “We use words in many different ways, and people tend to blur those contexts, and that causes a lot of confusion,” says LiLu. For example, law frequently deals with topics like murder or theft, which also fall into the realm of morality. But the “language game” of morality is a distinct one from that of law, argues Hart, and it does not play a role in law. “If we confuse morality and law together,” says LiLu, “we tend to say Nazi law is not law because it is bad law.” However, “it was a law.” But using H.L.A. Hart’s conception of law, “if we divorce the two, we can say that Nazi law is reprehensible… and I’m not going to obey it on moral grounds.”

This, Lucy says, offers a cleaner idea of the concept of law, which avoids such confusion with outside considerations like morality. Language is at the heart of law, she says, and those who study law would do well not to forget it. No matter what legal question someone may ask, says Lucy, “you can’t ask that question and answer it without playing the language game.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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