Totality and Legal Theory

The most iconic use of the “whole truth operator” in everyday language is in legal discourse. The oath for sworn testimony in common law systems commits the witness to“tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. The law of perjury that punishes violations of the oath can give us limiting conditions that illuminate the meaning of these terms. The case law on perjury provides a rich source of data where speakers, unencumbered by philosophical commitments and theories, reflect on what “the whole truth” means.

Typically, commentators start their analysis by noting that the totality requirement is not to be understood literally. Not every omission will be a case of perjury. Still, people have been convicted of perjury despite not saying anything technically false. In addition to reported court decisions that make explicit the reasoning about the conditions under which the “whole truth” was or was not told, we will also look at jury instructions that aim to explain the term to laypeople. In the academic literature, explanations are often given in terms of Gricean communication maxims that blur the boundaries between semantic core and pragmatic penumbra of the terms in legal reasoning. We will use the reported case law as a data source of reflective, yet philosophically untutored intuitions about what counts as the whole truth.

The formula of the oath as "the whole truth and nothing but the truth" originated in the common law jurisdiction of medieval England, finding its way in sometimes subtly altered form into the formula for the oath in other common law jurisdictions. The first year of the project will analyse how we can account for the underlying intuitions through a rigorous formal framework. But are these intuitions and concepts universal, or do they reflect the particular role of a witness in the adversarial process? German law for instance permits at least the accused to be less than truthful as witness in his own trial.  We can therefore try to test our results and at the same time potentially extend them by embedding the project  in a wider comparative-legal setting. This will help to clarify a notoriously difficult legal doctrine and might result in better jury instructions.