Friday, November 30, 2012

Navigating Differences in Interpretation in Non-Philological Discussions

   Recently I was in a discussion with a group.  The topic for the evening was, "Why is Kant taken to be so important, specifically concerning epistemology."  There was one member of the discussion who's interpretation of Kant's position widely differed from the rest of the group, and it produced a lot of friction in trying to move the discussion towards the topic ("Why is Kant taken to be important").  I want to offer my reflections on how to avoid these sorts of difficulties.
   When discussing an interpretation of a philosopher there is a difference between being the philosopher we are interpreting, and not being that philosopher.  In most cases of philology, we are not the philosopher we are interpreting .  Our positions about Kant, Plato, Descartes, &c are all from the standpoint of not being them.  
   As philologists of thinkers such as those mentioned, we can see that our interpretations are the results of all of the encounters we have had with the thinker directly (primary sources) and indirectly (secondary sources) and through our own reflection on the matter.  It's very difficult to accurately construct how we have attained the understanding we have in a historical way, and I think we should be happy acknowledging that we may not give the most accurate reconstruction of our own psychologies when reading thinkers.  However, this does not need to be a barrier to discussions about philology, it should just be part of the conditions of that discussion.
   As I mentioned, there was someone who was disagreeing with the entire assembly about interpretation, and that we were unable to attend to the discussion as planned since we were embroiled in this dispute.  If we had acknowledged that our interpretations each had different histories in their construction, then we should realize that all of us are necessarily going to give a different story of why Kant is important for reasons concerning epistemology.
   Rather than debating interpretation we should have simply agreed to each express what was important about Kant's contribution to epistemology.
   If the discussion had been about who's philology was correct, then we would have been justified in our dispute.
   The  prescription  that I am recommending for these case is: mindful about the topic of discussion and to consider the justification of the dispute in light of the goal.  'Importance' (qua interest in something) is not a constitutive element of objects, and so not something to dispute over objectively.

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