Our Word Is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts

Our Word Is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts

Our Word Is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts

Our Word Is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts


Words can be misspoken, misheard, misunderstood, or misappropriated; they can be inappropriate, inaccurate, dangerous, or wrong. When speech goes wrong, law often steps in as itself a speech act or series of speech acts. Our Word Is Our Bond offers a nuanced approach to language and its interaction and relations with modern law. Marianne Constable argues that, as language, modern law makes claims and hears claims of justice and injustice, which can admittedly go wrong. Constable proposes an alternative to understanding law as a system of rules, or as fundamentally a policy-making and problem-solving tool. Constable introduces and develops insights from Austin, Cavell, Reinach, Nietzsche, Derrida and Heidegger to show how claims of law are performative and passionate utterances or social acts that appeal implicitly to justice.

Our Word Is Our Bond explains that neither law nor justice are what lawyers and judges say, nor what officials and scholars claim they are. However inadequate our law and language may be to the world, Constable argues that we know our world and name our ways of living and being in it through law and language. Justice today, however impossible to define and difficult to determine, depends on relations we have with one another through language and on the ways in which legal speech-the claims and responses that we make to one another in the name of the law-acts.


The role of ordinary language in relation to the imperative of expression, is
that it is less in need of weeding than of nourishment.

—Stanley Cavell, “Passionate and Performative Utterances,” in
Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow, p. 188

What is law? How is it related to language? For many, it is a truism that law is a matter of language that cannot be captured by rules. For some, it is equally obvious that law may be unspoken and unwritten, that modern law is a matter of useless language or that attending mainly to words misses the violent reality of law. For others, by contrast, law is a matter of more or less effective if-then statements; for many students, despite what some of their professors say, law is precisely a matter of rules.

This book investigates modern law’s relation to language in the context of such divergent views. To those who ask, “What is law?” the book argues that answers today lie in exploring further law’s relations to claiming and hearing. Claims assert truths and demand recognition. Law, like language, may deceive or lie or go wrong in its claims. Further, law may mishear and be misheard. Modern law nevertheless shows great care for language. From the care that law accords to language, this book shows, one learns about speech; reciprocally, through language and speech, one learns about law. Both language and law bind us; they entangle and obligate us to one another and reveal the world to be one in which “our word is our bond.”

Obama’s flubbed presidential oath shows some of the entanglements of language and the care that law takes around language. On January 20, 2009, Barack Hussain Obama was sworn into office as President of the United States. Or was he? Before Chief Justice Roberts, who himself had stumbled slightly over his words, Obama swore that “I, Barack Hussain Obama, do solemnly swear that I

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