Monday, February 27, 2012

Interpreting Philosophy to 'Accept or Contradict'

(This is a reaction to this post, however it gives voice to a concern I have had for a long time.)

"The more conventional opinion gets fixated on the antithesis of truth and falsity, the more it tends to expect a given philosophical system to be either accepted or contradicted; and hence it finds only acceptance or rejection. It does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive unfolding of truth, but rather sees in it simple disagreements. The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the later; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead." -Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

   When interpreting a text we can tell if our current understanding is satisfactory or if it still requires more work. Being satisfied does not necessarily mean that we understand something that is being said, but could also include something about the text generally, such as, finding it to be nonsense. Whatever satisfies us in our understanding of a text I will refer to as satisfying our 'interpretive goal'. These interpretive goals are often unclear to us and be satisfied in many ways, but insofar as we find ourselves satisfied to end our struggle in understanding a text (or even a sentence or word), then we have met our interpretive goal and we should be able to give a self report of what we understand. (A self-report then may contain "I don't know, I sort of blanked on most of it." If that was satisfactory, then you can tell a lot about the 'interpretive goal'.)
   Sometimes our readings are more narrow, such as, when we seek to more fully understand some concept in a text by the rest of the text, while other interpretations are more broad, such as, when we are happy to just understand the words and sentences as we read, perhaps just waiting for something to strike us as counter intuitive or novel. We probably develop habits that we are not aware of (just as in other things) that also impact our reading. In any case, the end (or ends) one has in mind when reading a text, whether explicit or implicit, is going to set a standard for how satisfied we are with our understanding. I mention this because of a particular danger in reading to decide if one 'accepts or contradicts' a text; If this tendency towards accepting or contradicting is an explicit or implicit interpretive goal does make a difference, though usually I think it is an implicit goal, since I find many readers to not explicitly consider their interpretive goals or heuristics, but, whether it is explicit or implicit, this sort of interpretive goal hinders a helpful interpretation.
   (By a helpful interpretation I mean any combination of the following: the reader learns something; it becomes possible to contribute to a project in a positive way; new problems are opened up, or opened up anew; a better understanding of why the writer has written what they have is available. There are many other possible ways for an interpretation to be helpful that I will not list here.)
   The reason why I say that reading to accept or contradict hinders helpful interpretation is not claiming that these interpretations are not helpful entirely, but rather that the spirit of this interpretation is not helpful due to what can satisfy it. For example, it is possible for me to find something that seems to be in error (or correct) in the text, and if this satisfies my interpretive goal (which would be to accept or reject the text), then I will have no motivation to try to test this understanding without having yet another interpretive goal; we can frequently fill in a problem with a text as we continue, or by altering the meaning of term, and discover that we had not gotten the author's point. If we explicitly maintain the goal of accepting or rejecting, we may be able to get around this, but if we only maintain it implicitly there is a much greater risk of stopping short with just a superficial disagreement or agreement with the text.
   The difference between implicit and explicit interpretive goals becomes important here. When our goals are explicit - or made explicit - we have an opportunity to attend to method. If I know that I am trying to agree or disagree with a text, I also know that I need to be able to understand the position I disagree with. Further reflection can tell me that in order to disagree (or agree) I need to be able to show how it was possible to maintain the position (is the author lying? Is there an outstanding empirical fact they, or I, do not possess? &c). This can be a real engagement with a text, and no longer becomes limited by just showing an author to be right or wrong so we do not need to deal with them, but forces us to truly understand the logic in play in the discourse (between the reader and author), and, quite frankly, to treat the writer as a rational being (i.e., one who has consistent thoughts, even if they may be presented in a confused way symbolically). However, maintaining and instructing this goal can habituate a reader to implicitly maintaining it, at which point we can fall into the errors above.
   Like all activities, we cannot completely jump over our own shadows, but we can implement procedures and attend to practices that can help to avoid misunderstanding.
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