60 Tex. L. Rev. 405 (1981-1982)
Keep off the Grass, Drop Dead, and Other Indeterminacies: A Response to Sanford Levinson

handle is hein.journals/tlr60 and id is 427 raw text is: Keep off the Grass, Drop Dead, and Other
Indeterminacies: A Response to Sanford
Levinson
Gerald Graff*
In legal practice it is usually all right to treat laws as if they
were solid things whose effects have definite spatial boundaries
and material consequences. When a semiotician starts examining
laws as a patterned system of meanings their insubstantiality be-
comes evident, and the inquiry presses on both jurisprudence and
epistemology.
-Mary Douglas'
The anthropologist Mary Douglas' point here seems to me right,
and insofar as Professor Levinson's paper echoes her point, it seems to
me right too. Not only lawyers but most people harbor superstitions
about the nature of language and meaning. These superstitions assume
that meanings reside in language somewhat the way furniture resides
in rooms-securely there where the interpreter can see, identify, and
grasp them the way we can see, identify, and grasp tables and chairs.
Holding this conception of language, one is naturally going to be dis-
turbed when a semiotician or some other new-style theorist of language
comes along and says it isn't so at all, and points out that meanings
have nothing like the substantiality of tables and. chairs. Even worse,
this theorist says that the words by which we signify tables and
chairs are only somewhat arbitrary sounds, that even the visible fur-
niture of the world is insubstantial, for the language we use to describe
that world segments it in culturally conditioned ways. The more ver-
tiginous the theorist makes things appear, the more inclined we are to
cling to what's left of the common sense view of language, according
to which words are essentially names of things and the meanings of
words are securely fastened like barnacles onto the things the words
denote. Those professionally concerned with the law may feel an espe-
cially strong need to cling to such superstitions lest the stability of their
occupation, not to mention the stability of the law itself, be threatened.
I suspect that the legitimate inspiration of Sanford Levinson's pa-
' Professor of English, Northwestern University. B.A. 1959, University of Chicago; Ph.D.
1963, Stanford University.
1. Douglas, The Future of Semiotis,-SEMOTCA--(forthcoming 1982).

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