International Law, Pragmatics and the Distinction between Conceptual and Procedural Meaning

Jennifer Smolka, Benedikt Pirker


Using examples from international law, the authors demonstrate the usefulness of pragmatics in studying legal interpretation. In order to do this, they draw on Relevance Theory as a major theory in modern pragmatics. In pragmatics, there is an ongoing debate on the distinction between conceptual and procedural meaning. The paper unpacks this debate and shows how it can be employed to better explain interpretive processes in international law. Procedural meaning occurs in, among others areas, connectives such as “and” and “or”. These connectives frequently appear in the provisions of international treaties. Examples of substantive and procedural norms in international treaties illustrate how procedural meaning plays a central role in interpretation. The article also reveals how interpreters of law are generally unaware of the influence of procedural meaning on their interpretive decisions.

Cite as: Smolka & Pirker, JLL 7 (2018), 117–141, DOI: 10.14762/jll.2018.117


international law; legal interpretation; linguistics; pragmatics; Relevance Theory; conceptual meaning; procedural meaning

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