Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

M.A. in Philosophy


Philosophy and Religion

First Advisor

Robert Westmoreland

Second Advisor

Donovan Wishon

Third Advisor

Steven Skultety

Relational Format



Textualism is the theory of legislative interpretation championed most famously by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Textualism adopts twin interpretive commitments: (1) the meaning of a legislative text should be discerned by application of long-established canons of construction, the most important of which is that the text means what its words convey; and (2) a legislative text means what it meant at the time it was enacted. This paper examines the first principle, and in particular Scalia and treatise coauthor Bryan A. Garner’s belief that it mandates that judges forswear any consideration of legislative intent. This paper assess the presupposition that linguistic meaning can be divorced from speaker intent. The paper explicates Scalia and Garner’s theory that linguistic meaning is purely conventional and critiques it in light of analyses of language philosophers to the effect that meaning is part conventional, part intentional. It then demonstrates that a number of Scalia and Garner’s own canons of construction require attributions of legislative intent. When they sense this tension, Scalia and Garner tend to claim that they are interpreting the legislation in view of its “textually manifest purpose,” but they fail to make any meaningful distinction between such purpose and an intent they are imputing to the enacting legislature. The paper concludes that the intent-purpose distinction is a false one that makes for disjointed interpretations and obscures the real debate over legislative interpretation: how wide to set the interpretive parameters.

Included in

Philosophy Commons



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