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Conventionalism, 58 Southern California Law Review 177 (1985)


Conventionalism is a viewpoint, most closely associated with the later writings of Wittgenstein, that emphasizes practice and context. It holds, for example, that we understand a concept not when we grasp some fact, but when we can successfully use that concept within a language game or a defined context, and that truth is a function of the agreement of those participating within a practice rather than the other way around. There's nothing "out there," and even if there were, we couldn't possibly know it. Stanley Fish has developed a general theory of interpretation that also emphasizes practice and context and accordingly might be seen as a branch of conventionalism. His concern was first with literary texts; he is a Milton scholar and, with the publication in 1980 of Is There a Text in This Class?, also established his preeminence as a literary theorist. In a number of recent articles, however, he moved on to legal texts, and in one sought to criticize an account that I gave of constitutional interpretation.

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