Cosim’s dissertation — Intention and Interpretation in Law — supervised by Stephen Neale (with Noël Carroll and Jeremy Waldron), will be completed soon. Its subject is interpretation and meaning in legal contexts. Cosim uses a Gricean theory of communication to constitutively explain the basis of duties, immunities, powers, privileges, and rights – the legal profile – possessed by actors within a legal system in virtue of their legally authoritative communicative intentions and relations to one another. This allows him to speak clearly to what’s communicated between legal agents and how to interpret that content using available evidence. That account is then applied to statutory interpretation and contract law. Using the notion of creative interpretation, which Cosim develops by analogy with some species of literary and musical interpretation, Cosim discusses how the law, using new conceptual resources, creates new authoritative interpretations to flesh out previously confused, inchoate, or indeterminate content. This study allows us to go, in a limited sense Cosim describes, beyond what legal actors actually communicated via some text, while carefully maintaining an epistemically objective inquiry. Cosim applies that project of creative interpretation to the idea of reasonable doubt in criminal law and that of actual malice in defamation law. Creative interpretation can also be used to address vague or borderline cases. Cosim concludes by suggesting avenues for future work in administrative, and constitutional, law.
Cosim is keen on applying the theory of communication and his ideas on interpretation and creative interpretation in other areas of law and philosophy; some of these are sketched below, along with a project in explanation.
Constitutional interpretation will have to take very seriously the so-called dead hand problem: the constitution was written a long time ago in very different circumstances and it’s difficult to amend. To allow arbitrary judicial rewriting of the constitution would amount to arrogation of extraordinary power by (unelected) judges, but, at the same time, one does not wish to have the goal of constitutional interpretation be a return to year zero in a system of law with stare decisis (where prior judicial precedents have a force that increases with time and the amount of law reliant on them).
In administrative law, Cosim seeks to address what constitutes a reasonable interpretation (or, more often, reasonable creative interpretation) of some enabling statute by the bureaucracy. Here, the guiding idea is that legal officials use statutes to establish boundary conditions in an objective way on the kinds of policies that can be lawfully pursued.
In international law, Cosim wishes to speak to the foundations of human rights in a way that makes clear their constitution in terms of distinctively human values, and which will speak to their global scope and practical motivational scope. Cosim also wants to explore the notion of ius cogens (peremptory) norms of international law.
An extension of the Gricean mechanism to epistemology would have significant explanatory power. We can ask what happens when the thoughts to be induced via Gricean communicative intentions are partial beliefs (or credences). Essentially, one utters something with the intention of raising (or lowering or possibly reaffirming) one’s credence that such-and-so obtains, and he intends his interlocutor recognize that very intention. (There’s a thorny issue of what the difference, if any, is between believing to degree d that something obtains and d% believing that something obtains, which Cosim hopes to explore.) We then get to the issue of what constraints, if any, there are on the credences one can possess. Some (e.g., radically subjective Bayesians) argue that there are no constraints, while others argue that rationality imposes certain constraints, like avoiding synchronic or diachronic Dutch Books. Using rational limitations on the formation of communicative intentions helps to decide this question, or so Cosim conjectures.
Another area where Cosim reckons the Gricean theory of communication can pay dividends is ethics. Cosim is sympathetic to a prescriptivist account, but one desires a prescriptivism with a firmer rational basis for the idea of universal normative prescriptions, and which doesn’t involve a convoluted logic of imperatives (or paradoxes when imperatives embedded in conditionals). By carefully examining communicative intentions and their animating formatics – Stephen Neale’s term for the cognitive process of how communicative intentions are formed – we can hopefully make some progress on these issues.
Nozick proposed that certain retributive theories of punishment are communicative in the foregoing Gricean sense. By mating this idea with that of lex talionis (as described in work by Reiman, Waldron, and Kramer) as a qualitative criterion to deal with the matching problem faced by retributive theories, Cosim aims to develop a more complete theory of communicative – not merely expressive – punishment. This work should also address issues in communicative forgiveness (including its legal analogues: amnesty and pardon).
Cosim should also like to extend his treatment of creative interpretation to literary and musical criticism in aesthetics. The critic’s focus is often less on providing reasons to find some work beautiful than on structural considerations or questions of a piece’s significance. The latter of these is not directly a function of what an author (or composer) communicatively intends, but of the interaction within a culture of her communicative intentions.
A distinct project will involve careful taxonomy and classification of different kinds of explanation, e.g., abductive, causal, constitutive, Darwinian, etc. It’s Cosim’s hope that this project will lead to work that makes clear what each kind of explanation can – and cannot – accomplish, along with realizing how different forms can – and cannot – be combined in inferences without danger of equivocation. Along the way, one can tackle the issue of whether functional explanation is suspect, along methodological individualist lines argued by Elster. Examination of these issues will occasion looking at case studies in several special sciences.
Cosim has served on several academic committees, but he’s proudest of his role assisting with CUNY Graduate Center’s weekly philosophy colloquium series. He has been Doctoral Research Fellow and Quantitative Reasoning Fellow. Before coming to philosophy, Cosim worked as a lawyer (mostly handling litigation in real estate and securities). As an undergraduate, he did work in biophysical chemistry.
Contact Cosim Sayid via e-mail.