There Is No Such Thing as Original Meaning
Monday, April 20, 2009 at 5:44PM
Sean Wilson

(sent to conlaw prof re: the "original meaning" of the equal protection clause)

One who says that Brown violates the "original meaning" of the sentence, "No State shall deny ... equal protection," says, in essence, that the sentence is a code of some sort. That it has some sort of secret language or something. Like you have to go into the temple to see what it really says. (It reminds me of Wittgenstein's comments about private languages).

In fact, the sentence doesn't need much deciphering as an English sentence at all -- worst case, it's a little poetic. It might be similar to the way one reads poetry when seeing it. It means to give people certain things and to provide an even-handed sort of thing.

But the point is that the meaning of the sentence is NOT determined by how post-Civil War culture behaved. That is a CONSTRUCTION. That is only an interpretation of the meaning, not the meaning itself. There are many possible behaviors that conform. That would be like saying that when Socrates first used the term Good, that we are forever bound by that implementation. The phrase "equal protection" means a family of things and has many accompanying behaviors. You cannot utter something flowery and have it mean only what the first behavioral output is. Language doesn't work that way.  If you want to regiment with language, you need rigid designators and complicated sentences. There is no such thing as an original meaning of a word that asks a person to use judgment to "follow" it.  

Imagine the constitution saying, "you have the right to dance." If they dance a certain way in 1787, is that the "original meaning" of the term? It is not, because language is not a picture. It doesn't work that way.

What I think you mean to say is that Brown is not obedient to the original racial ideology that prevailed in the mid 1800s. This is about politics, not language.    
Dr. Sean Wilson, Esq.
Assistant Professor
Wright State University
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