Notes by Hans L Zetterberg for discussion at the Hohfeld Seminar, Hotel Gellert, Budapest, June 1-4, 2009, sponsored by Torsten och Ragnar Söderbergs Stiftelser. 

Hohfeldian Tables and Semiotic Squares as Tools of Economic Jurisprudence

The Emic and the Etic

What is the difference between ordinary language in a society and the scholarly language used by scientists, jurists, and critics in the study of that society? Anthropologists have contributed to our understanding of this by developing a distinction originally proposed by the linguist Kenneth L. Pike between emic and etic language. The state of the art was illuminated in 1988 by a four-hour debate before an audience of 600 members of the American Anthropological Association, later published in a book edited by Headland, Pike, and Harris (1990).

Emic sentences are those that tell how the world is seen by particular people who live in it. Studies based solely on participation use only emic sentences and result in emic propositions and conclusions.

Etic sentences, by contrast, contain additional information besides emic communications. They are sentences of an observer or an analyst rather than that of a mere participant. They form the language of science, scholarship, jurisprudence, and cultural criticism rather that of pure reporting.

We can celebrate the American jurist Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld as a brilliant constructor of a broad emic language of law out of (a) mundane emic conversations about human rights and (b) epic fragments by judges based on emic tales told in their courts. 

Etic observation may contradict emic truths. The anthropologist Marvin Harris requires that the analyst also be an observer, not only a participant.

An emic sentence can be proven wrong if it can be shown that it contradicts the participants’ sense that entities and events are similar or different, real, meaningful, significant, or appropriate. – – –
Etic statements cannot be proven wrong if they do not conform to the participants’ sense of what is significant, real, meaningful, or appropriate. They can only be proven wrong by the failure of empirical evidence gathered by observers to support the statement in question (Harris 1999, pp 31-32).

Not everyone agrees with Harris. Presentation of museum exhibits divorced from their emic context has been cited as a blatant practice revealing Western bias, not its science. There are four positions among intellectuals on emic and epic.

A first position refers to the scientific method as used in the natural sciences and some social science such as economics. The researcher may use emic language only if it is confirmed by observation and is consistent with propositions that can be confirmed by other researchers using the scientific method. This is also the position of Harris.

A second position is an acceptance of those etic sentences in analyses that are consistent with the researcher’s intellectual tradition of choice. This pre-chosen tradition may be Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, Thomism, or some other. A Marxist may, for example, reject certain emic reports from the field as ‘false consciousness’ while accepting others as relevant information about class relations.

A third position refers to poststructuralist philosophy. It dismisses the need for any etic considerations in analyses. It stays entirely with emic expressions. Many modern ethnographic museums take this view, thus attempting to present exhibits without what they see as the bias of Western interpretations.

A fourth position explores the possibility that the emic language actually contains a deep structure that is the appropriate etic language for the proper study of mankind.

All these positions have some merits in different stages in the development of knowledge in social science. The first position makes the established scientific method an ultimate arbiter when emic and etic statements are in conflict. The second one incorporates parts of other people's thinking in our own systems of thought, including our ideologies. The third makes us familiar with other people's thinking but it does not integrate it with our own thinking. The fourth one is a line of reasoning that is least self-evident, and is the one we will explore as a promising strategy in the social sciences. It is the position of Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology. In jurisprudence it is particularly well illustrated by Hohfeld’s work.  

In his seminal paper from 1913 Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld sharpened the analysis of epic vocabularies of rights by separating four constituent parts of rights. They can be illustrated by a dialogue in an encounter between an immigrant from a country with a non-English mother tongue (Ego) and a teacher of English (Alter). On the left side we spell out the content of the rights involved in mundane (emic) language and on the right we note its formal properties in Hohfeldian analysis in (epic) language.  

Emic language


Epic language

Immigrant: Please teach me English!

Teacher: Yes, I am an English teacher.


Ego: I have a claim that Alter does X.

Alter: I have a duty to do X.

Immigrant: I can choose you or someone else to teach me English?

Teacher: Yes, you don't have to learn English from me.


Ego: I am at liberty do or not to do X.

Alter: I have no claim that Ego does X

Immigrant: I want to use the English you teach me to find a mate, to get a job, to worship, to get a degree, perhaps even to be an English teacher like you, or whatever — except to insult or deceive others.

Teacher: I do not care how you use the English I teach you. 



Ego: I have the power to dispose of X as long as I don't violate any rights of other persons


Alter: I assume no liability about any disposition of  X.

Immigrant: I don't want to let you or anyone else to make change these conditions.

Teacher: I shall have no possibility to change the way you use the English I teach you.


Ego: I am immune from any attempt by any Alter to change my powers over X.

Alter: I have no power to change Ego's conditions for disposing of X.

Hohfeld (1913) concludes that "the term ‘rights’ tends to be used indiscriminately to cover what in a given case may be a privilege, a power, or an immunity, rather than a right in the strictest sense..." (p. 24). His full analysis reveals a right as a package of four separate prescriptions in any social encounter between Ego and Alter, i.e. claim, liberty, power, and immunity. The ‘claim’ is an explicit expectation (prescription) that others should accept what I do. The ‘liberty’ is the explicit expectation (prescription) that I have other options and am not forced to do everything I have a right to do. The ‘power’ is that I am allowed (can prescribe for myself) to do anything. (I have changed the latter into “doing anything as long as it does not violate the rights of others” to bring it in line with the most common contemporary formulations.) The ‘immunity’ is the expectation (prescription) that others will respect these rights of mine.

Hohfeld helps us separate existing rights from magical ones. When a politician or someone else proclaims that "Everyone has a right to education" This is a statement of the type "I have a dream that everyone gets an education." Dreams have immunity. Such statements become genuine rights only when amended to indicate who has the duty to provide: "Everyone has the right to an education and it is the duty of the state (or church or family or the employer, etc) to provide schools for everyone."  

Hohfeldian Analysis of Contemporary Market Transactions

A use of Hohfeld’s distinctions in a modern economy may require some additional emphases. First, modern economy, as already Hohfeld suggests, clearly separates the goods or services involved in a transaction from the title or entitlement to the goods and services. More than in Hohfeld's days, we now talk about the market economy as the exchange of titles to property, rather than as the mere exchange of actual physical belongings. Second, we nowadays often have to separate transactions involving barter, money, and credit. The growth in the credit economy has been enormous since Hohfeld wrote his analysis. Third, modern exchanges of property rights often involve guarantees. Consumer protection has also greatly advanced in the modern economy.

A Hohfeldian analysis of a dialog in our days between a buyer and seller of a car may be used to illustrate these additions.


Emic language


Epic language

Driver: Please, sell me a car.
Yes, I am a car dealer.


Ego: I have a claim that Alter does X.
I have a duty to do X.

Driver: I can choose you or someone else to sell me a car.
Yes, you don't have to buy a car from me.


Ego: I am at liberty to do or not to do X.
I have no claim that Ego does X.

Dealer: If you do buy it from me it will cost you Y dollars.
I want to leave my old car to you as part of the deal. I will pay you in installments and give you Z dollars in down payment.


Ego:  I want the title to X for Z money, the barter B, and the credit C.
The title to X is yours in exchange for Z money, the barter B, and the credit C

Driver: I can use the car that you sell me any way I want except recklessly against any other vehicle or person on the road since that would violate the latter's claim to be safe from such attacks. I may drive the car, let someone else drive it. When the credit is paid off I can rent it out for money, sell it, give it away, destroy it.

Dealer: I do not care how you use the car that I sell to you. 



Ego: I have the power to dispose of X when the credit is paid off, and as long as I don't violate any rights of others.


Alter: I assume no liability about any disposition of  X.

Driver: What help will you give me if this car does not work as expected?
Dealer: We pay for any fabrication faults in the car for three years or 10'000 miles, whichever comes first.


Ego: I have after-the-purchase claims regarding X.
Alter: I give the guarantees G.

Driver: I don't want to allow you or anyone else to change these conditions.
I shall have no possibility to change the ways you use the car that I sell to you.


Ego: I am immune from any attempt by any Alter to change my powers over X.
I have no power to change Ego's conditions for disposing of X and Ego shall have no power to change my conditions of credit and guarantee.

What we read here is a usually hidden or unconscious background of norms for any modern transfer of property in a correct way. A market in today’s economy is a continuous exchange of properties until they end up with the person or organization that is willing to pay the most. As we see, it is a very intricate process, and there is actually nothing self-evident in an exchange in a market economy. It is a complex human achievement. Again, please note that what we actually pay for is the title to the car. With a title come the listed powers to dispose of the property and the mentioned immunities.

Property rights are held by collectives or individuals. Properties may be peacefully transferred in other ways than trade: by inheritance, by gifts, and by taxation.

The power to dispose in a property right includes a series of quite separate functions, i.e. to personally use or consume the property, lend it to others for pay or for free, use it as a collateral for a loan, give it away to anyone, sell it, or destroy it. A seller, as noted in the dialogue, may restrict the buyer's use of all or some of these functions until the property is fully paid.

In any transaction in a market economy it is money that is central, not the goods. A change in the car dealer's wealth is correctly measured in the accounting systems by the money he makes on his transactions; it is at best only proximate by the change in his inventory of unsold cars. Speaking strictly, as many economists nowadays do, a market economy is a continuous exchange of titles to goods and entitlements to services until they end up in the power of the highest payer. Price controls by governments, churches, cartels, mafias or other agencies do not belong in a market economy.

Methodological Aids

Hohfeld (1913, p 24) stated his ambition in these words:

“An effort will be made to pursue this method:

Jural Opposites

Rights    no-rights

Privilege    duty

Power    disability

Immunity    liability

Jural Correlatives

Right    duty

Privilege    no-right

Power    liability”

These were apparently the words that Professor Hohfeld put on the blackboard when lecturing on this topic at Stanford University in 1913. To discuss these components of rights and no rights in a running text, it has proven easier to present them as a table, as in Figure 1. In this table I have followed the practice by American scholars to change “Privilege” in the original text to “Liberty.”

Figure 1. Hohfeld's Distinctions Showing Ego’s Rights and Alter’s Burdens

Ego's Right

Alter's Correlate





















The brilliance of Hohfeld's distinctions lies not only in its specification of four meanings of right in column one, i.e. claim, liberty, power, and immunity. In the second column the necessary complements of a functioning right are added, namely a responsible response from others. Only by specifying who has to deliver on a claim do we have a genuine right. Finally, in the third column we have Hohfeld’s negation to the four rights. This is helpful since it states what is valid whenever we conclude that no rights are present, a beneficial situation for human freedom. A society in which everything is a right or a duty seems unbearably restricted and void of human freedom.

Hohfeld's usage of the contrariety anticipates modern semiotics by half a century. Let us look at the semiotic way of presenting this type of intellectual material. It is my suggestion that progress in Hohfeldian analyses will be faster if we break it up in smaller so-called semiotic squares.


A healthy child of linguistic structuralism is the theory of signification called semiotics. (For a brief introduction, see for example Martin & Ringman 2006). In America semiotics is linked to the work by the philosopher Charles S. Peirce. In Europe it has had great intellectual victories in Copenhagen under Louis Hjelmslev and in Paris under Agidas Julien Greimas. The latter invented a basic tool called the Semiotic Square (Greimas 1966). It is based on the idea that signs have no meaning in themselves but get meanings through their relationships, as Hjelmslev said, or their differences, as the pioneering de Saussure had put it earlier.

Greimas' starting points are any opposite concepts found in language such as truth vs. untruth, masculine vs. feminine, life vs. death, good vs. evil, in short, anything that can fit the "S1 versus ~S1" formulae. This obviously may include rights vs. no rights, or rather an element-of-right vs. no element-of-right. Like Hohfeld, Greimas added contrary notions and complementary notions and placed all four signs in the corner of a square as in Figure 2.

If we take the standard textbook example of the opposites of femininity versus masculinity, and place them into a semiotic square we obtain a pay-off in the form of two new concepts "the bisexual" (S1+ ~S2) and "the asexual" (~S1+S2) in addition to the original ones, "femininity" and "masculinity".

Figure 2. Semiotic Square Illustrated by the Opposites of Femininity and Masculinity


The exercise reminds us of the bi-sexual person who is both masculine and feminine, and of the a-sexual one who is neither masculine, nor feminine. One can use Greimas' Semiotic Square to make discoveries or innovations in social reality, for example, to provide a normative environment with a place for a-sexual and bi-sexual persons.

Sociologists may take notice that a so called fourfold table — found in abundance in their writings — contains less information than a semiotic square. Market researchers and product developers show the way here for a constructive social science; they use semiotic squares to find out cornerstones of markets and to explore whether or not the possibilities of consumer goods are exhausted. To quote French market analyst Christine Woesler Panafiey (2007): "Innovations often come about through the fusion of opposites or on the negation poles. To name but one example: water is the opposite of perfume, but all 'waters' such as 'Eau de Kenzo' or 'Eau de Rochas' which were developed in the category of light perfume as followers to '4711-Kölnisch Wasser' are non-perfume/perfume."

In short, the use of semiotic squares provides payoffs in the form of additions to what I assume Lindahl (2006), using set-theory, called our Spielraum. We get new non-trivial constellations such as ‘bisexual’ and ‘asexual’ and ‘non-perfume/perfume.’ Another advantage of semiotic squares is that we use more manageable units of analyses than full Hohfeldian tables.

From Hohfeld to Greimas

A Hohfeldian table breaks up into several semiotic squares. In Figure 3 we illustrate one that covers immunity and liberty.

Figure 3. A Semiotic Square of Rights, Immunity, and Liberty

Looking at the right side of Figure 3 we locate the basic confusion that Hohfeld revealed between right and immunity.

To say (in line with a UN Declaration) “Everyone has the right to a job” is an immune pronunciation. It can become a full right-claim only when the state has accepted the duty to give everyone a job. This would presume that the state organizes public works financed by taxes for the unemployed in any occupation. Or, it is implemented when the economy is socialized so that factories and offices can accept excess personnel and the resulting inefficiencies of over-manning. In capitalist societies a political rhetoric about jobs for everybody contains no rights, only immunities. A policy of jobs in a free society — not for everybody, which is impossible, but for as many as possible — requires a policy for as many and as big employers as possible, some in the public sector and many in the private sector. This can be facilitated, for example, by a body politic that eases business burdens and abandons payroll taxes. This is hardly what the political left has in mind when they demonstrate for the right to a job for everyone.

Looking at the left side of Figure 3 we have an illustration of Hohfeld’s discussion of condition of trespassing someone’s land: “X has a right or claim that Y, the other man, should stay off the land, he himself has the privilege of entering on the land” (p 26, italics in the original. Remember that what Hohfeld callrd “privilege” in 1913 we now call “liberty.”).

The current controversy over file-sharing on the Internet provides a good illustration. Internet is a network once invented for exchange of scientific information. Scientists have free access. A scientist normally gives up economic property rights to his findings in return for the honor of being recognized as the discoverer. This honor is made visible in citations. Such is the central reward system of science.

However, file sharing of copyrighted songs, pictures, and literary products has caused conflicts due to the different reward systems in science and the arts. The artist sells his product for a lump sum or for royalty. That is part of the reward system of art. Then art cannot readily be freely available on the Internet. Except as an explicit gift to the world from the artist.

Using Semiotic Squares as a Tool in Economic Jurisprudence

We have a joint interest in promoting the field of economic jurisprudence. Recent economic history underlines the importance of this endeavor. I would like to end my discussion with a suggestion that semiotic squares be used along with Hohfeldian analyses in economic jurisprudence. 

Consider a very basic semiotic square of wealth versus poverty in Figure 4. It pays off with degenerations into “swindling” and “miserliness.”


Figure 4. Semiotics of Wealth


Looking to the right side of the semiotic square of wealth we meet economic swindlers who engage in deceptions for personal gain. The oldest form is the use of counterfeit money. In a typical modern con game the swindler is not as rich as he (or she) pretends, and the presumed wealth is used to draw those who are richer into schemes that transfer their money to the swindler. F. Scott Fitzgerald novels The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise revealed swindling and questionable identities on more than a petty scale.

Max Weber ruled out personal greed as useful in the definition of capitalism:

‘Acquisitiveness’, ‘striving for profit’ — for profit in terms of money, for the largest possible pecuniary gain — have, as such, nothing at all to do with capitalism. This endeavour has existed and exists in waiters, doctors, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, corrupt officials, soldiers, brigands, crusaders, gamblers, beggars, indeed one might say in all sorts and conditions of men, during all periods in all countries of the world in which the objective opportunity to do so has been or is in some way available. It is part of the ABC of cultural history that one should, once and for all, refrain from this naive definition of concepts. Unfettered acquisitiveness is in no way tantamount to capitalism, and even less with its ‘spirit’. Capitalism may quite simply be synonymous with the subjugating or at least the rational tempering of this irrational instinct. But capitalism is indeed tantamount to the quest for profit — in continuous, rational capitalist business operations; for constantly renewed profit; for remunerativeness — since this must be so. Within a capitalist order that embraces the whole economy, an individual capitalist company would be doomed to failure if it did not orient itself according to the chances of achieving remunerativeness. (Weber 1922/1986, p. 31)

Personal greed may not be the defining motor of capitalism, but it is the sure source of corruption in capitalism, as it is in other systems.

The long version of the tenth commandment reads: "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." If it had been written in capitalist times it would have included another clause: "You shall not covet the cash flow of your employer, or his suppliers, or his customers." Top management of other people's factories, offices, wealth, and assets are the new robber barons. In the first half of the twentieth century they began to replace owners as day-to-day leaders of firms (Berle & Means 1933). In the second half of the century they formed the majority of most corporate boards. This made for professional governance by graduates of business schools. It also paved the way to the practice of non-owners to give fanciful "compensation packages" to each other. To covet the cash flow of one's employer is an ever present temptation to enrich oneself, for all employees to be sure, but particularly for modern management.

A swindling process that became highly visible in the United States about a half century ago has spread to other capitalist countries. Though a process called institutionalized evasion of norms (Merton 1957, pp. 318-319) it has become widely acceptable. The boards of the larger corporations and their chief executives have constituted themselves as an informal Fortune Creating Circle that anoints their members with fortunes. These fortunes are built by regular honoraria and salaries, perks of many kinds, year-end bonuses, stock options, huge pensions, and/or anything else that may fit “compensation packages.”

In recruitment processes to the top positions, the issue is always raised: “Can we trust him (her)?” This query may be a code for several things; it always includes, explicitly or implicitly, the candidate’s loyalty to the general level of compensation and its annual rises are current within the Fortune Creating Circle. In early capitalism you had to be the owner-entrepreneur to reach high fortunes. In the mature capitalism it is enough to be top management and/or board-member.   

With the advent of money documented only in computerized accounts, economic swindling of big corporations and government institutions has become easier for the technically proficient. The possibility to have inappropriate transactions outside of balance sheets without mentioning them in footnotes — sometimes in collusion with accountants — provides a golden opportunity for high-level corporate swindlers. By a process of institutional evasion of norms, questionable transfers of funds of business owners to managers have become next-to-normal in the business elite.

The borderline between sophisticated banking and swindles became blurred when firms on Wall Street invented a combination of "derivatives," "securitization," and "off-balance-sheet accounting with special purpose entities".

Anything that has reasonably regular payments — installment debts on credit cards, mortgages, car loans, aircraft leases, toll payments at super-highways, music royalties — has long been used as collateral for a an advance in the form of a loan. An innovation is to make such transactions by securitization. A trust is set up by a bank to receive the money from such collections. The trust issues bonds and pays bondholders interest, and at the appointed time, the principal. So far so good. Combinations of mortgages from different districts and from home owners with different credit ratings can be combined and packed as a "derivative" and also sold as a bond. Obfuscation is close at hand with any securitization of derivatives. Here starts much trouble. The risk and value of such bonds is in principle calculable, but in practice difficult to calculate. A swindle begins with an assertion to the buyer that there always will be a market and a fair price for such securities.

The trust, or what remains of it after initial sales of any bonds, may get off the books of the bank by including it in a so-called special-purpose entity, preferably incorporated in a low-tax place such as the Bermudas or Cayman Islands. With this innovation in off-balance sheet accounting, the bank no longer eats into its capital requirement for further lending. The bank merely books profits from such lending transactions. It does not have the normal costs for increasing its base of own capital when lending more, nor the risks of defaults in the stream of payments from credit cards, mortgages, or whatever was included in the trust. 

Is securitization of derivatives combined with off-balance sheet accounting a swindle or just financial inventiveness? Joseph Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University, had his view formulated at the beginning of the bank crash of 2008 when on October 21 he told a congressional committee, that this "securitization was based on the premise that a fool was born every minute. Globalization meant that there was a global landscape on which they could search for those fools — and they found them everywhere."

Most of these fools “born every minute” have birth certificates in the form of MBA-degrees from business schools. After the turn of the century there has emerged an unfortunate, (Harvard-inspired?) conformity in curriculum and attitudes of the business schools and their student bodies. Business school graduates the world over were given unrealistic birth rights to expect excessive compensation packages. An MBA-degree might now be de-meriting until the business schools learn, not only to better separate swindling from wealth creation, but also learn to better see business and economy as a part of a total society in which people in other societal realms are their equals. To get rich is not anything intrinsic superior to the holding of political office, demonstrate scholarly competence, deliver artistic beauty, or to carry sacredness or virtue to your community in the course of every-day living.


Looking to the left side of the semiotic square of wealth (Figure 4) we meet misers. The typical miser hoards gold and other symbols of riches and does not spend money on investments or charities. Misers are stingy also when it comes to buying comfort for themselves. They do not want to reveal that they are wealthy.

It is not illegal to be a miser. Morality rather than law is invoked to cope with miserliness. But the moral message is mixed. Many moral doctrines actually say that it is better to save money than to spend it. But are hoarders of money actually nobler than spendthrifts? On a personal level they may or may not be. But on the societal level they are not superior according to the rationality of economics. A nation of misers is not conducive to economic growth; too many trades that add to wealth are simply left undone.

Moral doctrines that affect misers hold that you must share your wealth with the poor. Dickens' master miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is rewarded with happiness when he finally does so. However, there are also moral arguments to the effect that providing workfare is better than providing welfare in the form of the dole. A job gives a person new social encounters at the workplace. It gives discipline to the individual. It gives taxes to the body politic, something appreciated by politicians.

Philanthropy is not the same as charity. Charity is giving to people who are without food, clothing, shelter and the other necessities of life. Philanthropy is giving donations to projects and institutions within the areas of culture, science, religions, health, and others that lack sufficient sources of revenue from taxes or sales. Philanthropists can be private citizens, non-profit organizations, companies, or foundations. Individuals may donate their time as well as money. Their names may appear on bronze plaques in buildings, on a page in a theater or concert programs, in the title of a professor’s chair, in the Foreword to a technical book, next to an exhibition in a museum. Foundations are the most sophisticated forms of modern philanthropy.

Tax legislation is decisive to philanthropy. In the United States at the time of this writing, a philanthropic foundation must give five percent of its total resources (capital, interest, dividends, and capital gains) annually according to its charter, or, send this money to the tax authorities. Interviews carried out among the many private individuals in New York who are philanthropists (Ostrower 1995) included a question as to whether the deduction for contributions should be eliminated and let the state use the additional tax revenues for the philanthropic projects. One of the respondents answered “If I wanted this I would move to Sweden."

Any country sensitive to the detailed needs of its population should have legislation that encourages and facilitates philanthropy. Ministers for culture, research, health, and education may assume omnipotence and promote the idea that they, themselves, can meet all needs of their society through political channels. Surely they can do much, but we can extend a well-known thesis — Hayek (1954) — and say they don’t have information about all that has to be done. Thus there is always room for private philanthropy.     



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