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A History of Ambiguity$
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Anthony Ossa-Richardson

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780691167954

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691167954.001.0001

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Forensic Idols

Forensic Idols

(p.73) Chapter Two. Forensic Idols
A History of Ambiguity

Anthony Ossa-Richardson

Princeton University Press

This chapter examines the role of ambiguity in a hermeneutic setting that sees it only as doubt and never as plenty, namely, the English common law, where discussions about the nature of ambiguity serve as a proxy for a deeper controversy about what it means to interpret a text—a will, a contract, or a statute. Of the three hermeneutic disciplines—literature, law, and theology—it seems best to begin with the law for three reasons. First, its setting is closely bound to the rhetorical discourses discussed in the previous chapter. Second, legal hermeneutics stands somewhat apart from scripture and literary exegesis in that it never countenances the legitimacy of deliberate ambiguity. Third, of the three subjects, law is the most essential to society. If it was important to determine the sense of a line in Horace or St. John, it was far more so in a contract, for at stake there was not merely a grasp of the classics or the soul's eternal salvation, but money. Indeed, the machine of legal practice, of arguing and deciding cases, has always held to a rhythm of finding and resolving ambiguities. Rather than trying to cover all bases in the history of legal ambiguity, the chapter approaches the topic through its connection to the more fundamental hermeneutic problem of intention.

Keywords:   ambiguity, doubt, English common law, interpretation, legal hermeneutics, deliberate ambiguity, legal practice, legal ambiguity, intention

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