Laws in Linguistics

In this post I want to outline delimitation of my project that has been floating around in my mind from the beginning.

The word ‘law’ is used in both legal studies and fundamental physics. This was one of the big motivators for the project, prompting an explanation of whether these two kinds of law have something in common. You could expand this further because laws are used in almost every discipline, at various degrees of generality. Some examples are:

  • Avogadro’s Law: Equal volumes of gases at the same temperature and pressure have the same number of molecules.
  • Dolbear’s Law: The ambient temperature is linearly proportional to the frequency of a snowy tree cricket’s chirping.
  • Goodhart’s Law: When you use a particular statistic as a measure for overall quality, it is no longer a good measure (e.g. ATAR scores).
  • Godwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.
  • Cole’s Law: Thinly sliced lettuce

It would be interesting to look at all these incarnations of law and try to find what makes them all ‘laws’. Such a project would use linguistics and sociology, and would look at what ‘law’ means according to different societies.

I am doing something different. A linguistics project goes from the top down, starting with accepted uses of the word law, and trying to find what they have in common and generalise this to a definition. I am instead going from the bottom up. I look at various theories that define a law from first principles and involve but are not dependent on society’s usage of the word ‘law.’ Specifically, so far I have looked at the theories of Kelsen, Lewis, Armstrong and Finnis.

I think that I will have more success with a bottom-up project because I have a background in analysing things (through maths and law), and no background in linguistics. The two methods do not seem like they will work well together – it seems to me that linguistic use of words has very little respect for logic, consistency or common sense (e.g. the change in the meaning of literally, or phrases like ‘I could care less’). I think it’s unlikely that, when Dolbear came up with his law, he spent a while meditating on the concept of what a law is, thinking to himself ‘Is this really a law?’ I don’t think that examining accepted uses of the word law is a good way to see the underlying structure.

Instead, I look directly at the structure (or at least, possible structures that have been proposed by clever people who thought about it a lot) and try to find logical/procedural similarities between the different structures.

I like a quote from Finnis on this subject:

The truth is that the ‘ordinary concept of law’ (granting, but not admitting, that there is one such concept) is quite unfocused. It is a concept which allows ‘us’ to understand lawyers when the talk about sophisticated legal systems, and anthropologists when they talk about elementary legal systems, and tyrants and bandits when the talk about the orders and the customs of their syndicate, and theologians and moralists… There is no point in trying to explain a common-sense concept which takes its meanings from its very varied contexts and is well-understood by everyone in those contexts. My purpose has not been to explain an unfocused ‘ordinary concept’ but to develop a concept for use in a theoretical explanation of a set of human actions, dispositions, interrelationships, and conceptions’

  • Natural Law and Natural Rights, page 278
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