The significance of postmodern theories of interpretation for contractual interpretation : a critical analysis

Du Toit, Gerhard (Stellenbosch : University of Stellenbosch, 2006-03)


The objective of this study is to examine the significance of postmodern insights regarding interpretation (especially the rejection of intentionalism) and subjectivity for contractual interpretation theory. In Part One (consisting of chapters 2-5), the leading postmodern insights on interpretation, individual autonomy, texts and intentionalism are discussed. This is done by analysing the present interpretive practice in four chapters: 1) Different theories of interpretation ranging from objectivism and natural law theories to post-structuralism are discussed in chapter 2. 2) In chapter 3 individual autonomy (as advocated by liberal theorists) is contrasted with communitarianism in order to problematize the notion of contracting parties as autonomous, self-regulating beings. By highlighting criticism against liberalism and communitarianism, and also by suggesting critical self-rule as an alternative, the assertion that contracting parties are autonomous and self-regulating is contested. 3) The process of textual definition is critically analysed with emphasis on the position reflected by the application of the parol-evidence rule and also post-structuralist ideas on the definition of texts in chapter 4. It is shown that textual definition consists of interpretation rather than identification. 4) The nature of intention and the process of intention “discovery” are analysed in chapter 5. Because of the centrality of intention in contractual practice, alternative theories on intention (and its role during interpretation) are postulated and it is suggested that post-structuralism can provide a critically reflective theory of intention. It is clear (from the critical analysis of intentionalism) that the way intention is presently approached is theoretically flawed. It is also apparent from the critique of liberal beliefs held regarding the nature of interpretation, subjectivity and the definition of texts that the theoretical foundations of these beliefs are fundamentally flawed. A critical re-imagination of contractual interpretation is necessary. In Part Two, questions about the justifiability of the present interpretive theories are posed. In chapter 6 the practical implications of a new theoretical basis for contractual interpretation are considered by examining the way various rules of interpretation are influenced by the new theoretical basis of interpretation. Three “rules” are examined: 1) The golden rule of interpretation is examined because of its reliance on intentionalist assumptions; 2) the parol-evidence rule is examined because of its relation to positivist assumptions about the definition of texts; 3) the relevance of bona fides as a substantial remedy during the interpretation of the contract is analysed to reveal assumptions about the nature of legal subjectivity in which the present consideration of the bona fides is grounded. It is shown that rules depend not on their content for operation, but rather on the assumptions upon which they are grounded. In short, we do not have to do away with our rules of contractual interpretation, but we have to re-evaluate how we apply those rules. The final part of this dissertation consists of a summary of the conclusions drawn during the course of this study.

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