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Legal reasoning and interpretation

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-T010-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Legal reasoning is the process of devising, reflecting on, or giving reasons for legal acts and decisions or justifications for speculative opinions about the meaning of law and its relevance to action. Many contemporary writers, such as Aulis Aarnio (1987), Robert Alexy (1988), Manuel Atienza (1991) and Aleksander Peczenik (1989), propound the view that legal reasoning is a particular instance of general practical reasoning. They suppose, that is to say, that reasoning can link up with action, guiding one what to do, or showing whether or not there are good reasons for a proposed course of action or for something already done. They suppose also that in law reason links up to legal decisions in this way. Both suppositions are well founded. Law regulates what to do and how to respond to what has been done, doing so within an institutional framework of legislatures, lawcourts, enforcement agencies and the like. It is a feature of legal institutions that they are expected to have, and usually do give, good reasons for what they do, and to do this in public. Legal reasoning is therefore not only a special case of practical reasoning, but a specially public one.

Rationality in action has at least two requirements: first, attention to facts, to the true state of affairs in relation to which one acts; second, attention to reasons for action relevant to the facts ascertained. The former aspect concerns reasoning about evidence; the latter, reasoning about rules or norms as reasons for action. In law, such rules and other norms have an institutional character. But how are these applied – by some kind of deductive reasoning, or nondeductively? Behind the rules of the law, there presumably lie other reasons, reasons for having these rules. What kind of reasons are these, developed through what modes of discourse? A discourse of principles, perhaps – but then how do reasons of principle themselves differ from rules? Reasoning from either rules or principles must always involve some process of interpretation, so how does interpretive reasoning enter into the practical reason of law? Answering such questions is the business of a theory of legal reasoning. Legal reasoning is to be understood as a form of practical reasoning concerning these very issues.

Citing this article:
MacCormick, Neil. Legal reasoning and interpretation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-T010-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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