“Original” intent?

While listening to two guys discuss Constitutional theory, I was struck by how odd the phrase “original intent” is. Original intent is just intent. What other intention is there? How can a text intend anything other than what its author did? How can a text even be anything except what its author intended? What is there to “being authored” except being what the author intends? To think a text can take on an intent apart from its author is yet another instance of the odd and absurd belief that Contemporary men have about tools being able to take in a life of their own (like when we fret or crow about how computers technology will improve to the point where computers will think- which is about as reasonable as thinking that towel making will improve to the point that towels will become chinchillas, or airplanes will become so graceful that they will turn into swans and pelicans.)


  1. Bill Parkyn said,

    September 28, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    What is meant by ‘original intent’ usually occurs in opposition to liberal mis-interpretatons, such as supposed rightsto abortions, pornography, nude dancing, and flag-burning, but denial of public displays of Christianity. The opposite of ‘original intent’ is Recent Intent, which emanates from the whimsies of the Supremes. Original intent can be discerned from the extensive ratification conventions of the 13 states, and the legislative and congressional deliberations on the amendments. Only after exhausting them is it permissible to go elsewhere for clarification (not interpretation, which implies a foreign language).

  2. September 29, 2009 at 4:36 am

    You are right about the circumstances in which the phrase gets used, and there is some need in these disputes to distinguish older and newer precedents based on the same text. But “recent intent” is an oxymoron when said of a text. Coining a name is no guarantee that the thing named exists, or even that it is possible. I’d be the first guy to insist that words can have more than one meaning, but there are limits to how far new impositions can extend.

    The real sorrow of “original intent” is that it hides both sides from the basis of their arguments. By thinking that there are really diverse intentions of a single text, we avoid having to confront the scandal of law- can one generation bind its descendants? Can the intentions of our fathers place limitations on their sons? Those who advance “original intent” say yes. Those who want to free us from “original intent” say no, for whatever reason. We are in a muddle now, and we think there are somehow many “intentions” in one text, and we can fight among them. But there is no such thing. There is either a text that binds, or a new law every generation.

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