Vol 18 No 1 (2018)

The Meaning of “Literal Meaning”

Lorena Ramírez Ludeña
Faculty of Law, Pompeu Fabra University – Barcelona
Published July 22, 2018
  • Literal meaning,
  • Descriptivism,
  • New theories of reference,
  • Legal interpretation


Although references to literal meaning are frequent in the legal field, it is not easy to determine what “literal meaning” means. In general, it seems to be considered as unproblematic not only by many legal scholars but also by lawyers and other participants in the legal practice. In this paper I will show that this position comes about because an intuitive view of language is assumed according to which words are related by competent speakers to descriptions that determine reference. However, this descriptivist approach is shown to be problematic in reconstructing our linguistic practices. In contrast, New Theories of Reference (NTR) provide a plausible account of our common and legal uses of words. In this paper I will present a version of NTR that avoids the criticisms that are normally addressed to them. I will also show that this version of NTR has advantages when compared to the traditional descriptivist model. In the legal field, this version of NTR allows us a better understanding of how legal interpretation works.