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Constitutional interpretation


Constitutional Law | Law and Philosophy


The distinction between a concept and its different conceptions plays a prominent role in debates about constitutional interpretation. Proponents of a dynamic reading of the Constitution-espousing interpretation of constitutional concepts according to their contemporary understandings typically rely on the idea that the Constitution entrenches only the general concepts it deploys, without authoritatively favoring any particular conception of them-specifically, without favoring the particular conception of the relevant concept that the framers of the Constitution may have had in mind. Originalists argue, to the contrary, that fidelity to the Constitution requires an understanding of its provisions according to the particular conception of the abstract concepts prevalent at the time of enactment, and not those we may now favor.

My main purpose in this essay is to put some pressure on the linguistic considerations that are presented in this debate, arguing that they are much more problematic than the proponents of both positions assume. I will try to show that the debate here is actually a moral-political one, mostly about the main rationale of a constitutional regime and the conditions of its legitimacy. It is, primarily, a debate about what constitutions are for, and what makes them legitimate. But I will only get to this moral issue at the end. The main part of the essay will strive to show that the semantic considerations employed in this debate are inconclusive; the way concepts are used in a given context depends on various pragmatic determinants, and those, in turn, depend on the nature of the conversation in question. The moral disagreement is, ultimately, about the kind of conversation that constitutional regimes are taken to establish.


This article predates the author's affiliation with Cornell Law School.