“The Whole is Sometimes Less than the Sum of Its Parts: Toward a Theory of Document Acts.” Language and Cognition, vol. 6, no. 1. With Todd Oakley.
We present in broad outline a theory of document acts, using the influential Supreme Court opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803) as our principal test case. Marbury has a superabundance of rhetorical questions. They make up a significant and stylistically prominent portion of the total linguistic material of the text, yet they all but disappear from Marbury’s citation history and thus its content as an enduring jurisprudential entity. To account for these facts, we examine Marbury as a whole text addressing a particular situation, as a pastiche of constructions, and as a tool of jurisprudential decision-making. The intersection and independence of these ‘modes of being’ call for an overarching theoretical framework capable of accounting for facets of documents’ existence at three distinct but interpenetrating strata: system, artifact, and construction. We base our theory on primordial cognitive capacities for joint attention and joint commitments, with the strata as consequences of embodied human minds born into and embedded in intersubjective environments filled with and shaped by documents and their circulation. The closed system of United States Supreme Court opinions makes an excellent case for a theory of document acts that will eventually be used to understand and explain more open-ended systems.