2012/03/22

How can text enable governance?

How can beings with diverse ways of understanding use symbols to communicate and cooperate with one another, and give us laws that we might understand the way they meant them, when they did not always understand them the same way among themselves? It is an ancient question. After all, no two of us understand things quite the same way, and most of us don't even understand things the same way from one day to the next. Spouses sometimes don't learn to understand one another after decades together.

If you choose to dwell on the differences you would conclude that it is impossible for people to ever reach agreement on anything.

But they do.

You don't have to dwell on the differences. You can choose to focus on the commonalities, on the underlying principles that unite them, even if none of them deeply understand or can explain those principles themselves.

The answer is that while some of the differences may be important, and indeed, may be fatal, people who want to work together can usually find a way to reach common understandings, at least common enough to get by. Spouses who don't understand one another can still learn to finish one another's sentences, and to live together in some kind of harmony, or at least an armed truce.

Constitutions, statutes, contracts, customs, traditions, symbiotic relations among social species -- all of these rest on achieving a common understanding. But it can take some work to bring out those underlying principles. It is easy, in doing so, to pick apart their words as though they chose them with more care than they did, but that is often a mistake. Text must be read with due regard to the circumstances of its composition, the pressures to make haste and get through the moment. Lawgivers themselves sometimes get it wrong, leaving us to discern their functional, if not their motivational, intent.

After all, the alga and fungus that make a lichen would be hard pressed to deliver a learned exposition on the principles that unite them. It is up to the biologist to articulate the articles of their social contract.

See New Year's Greeting.

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