Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Science of Culture/The Culture of Science"

April 25, 2003
Michael Krausz (Philosophy)

Interpretation and Its Objects

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Michael began by laying out a distinction that divides interpreters of cultural achievements into two groups. One group assumes that for any object--say, a work of art, music or literary text-- there must be only one single admissible interpretation. The other group assumes that for some objects, more than one interpretation is admissible. Michael calls the members of the first group "singularists" and those in the second one "multiplists." The two terms are asymmetrical, since singularists take a bivalent view: they find opposed interpretations contradictory and mandate one interpretation for all. Multiplists are more encompassing: their understanding of interpretation is multivalent. They acknowledge tensions between various interpretations without insisting that they are exclusive. Multiplists may find some interpretations inadmissible; they may also defend incongruent interpretations. But for multiplists, convergence in interpretation does not constitute singularism, because they offer no overarching standard to adjudicate betwen contenders. In his books, Rightness and Reasons and Limits of Rightness, Michael gives a range of examples of this sort of interpretation--of the work of Beethoven, Van Gogh, Kiefer, Wordsworth--as well as the example of a dead baby found in the Ganges River: it that object accurately described as "morally unsullied or cursorily dumped"? Such interpretations may be opposed, but they are not exclusive. Other examples come from the scientific realm, at the level of quanta (very small things). Light, for instance, is described both as particles and as waves; these are mutually compatible qualities. Singularism, then, is not a criterion of science.

Out of this framework, Michael posed three puzzles:

Summing up his three questions, regarding Michael welcomed our solutions. Finding it difficult, at first, to translate his analysis into "lay speak," we tried imagining examples of different measurements that would not alter the idea of the object measured, such as describing routes through the city in terms of blocks vs. in terms of landmarks. But are instructions about the identity of the object themselves interpretations? What happens when we reduce a midsized object to its subatomic particles? Has the object changed? If you can be clear about the object of interpretation before you interpret it, then singularism is possible. A translation between two moduli which leaves "no irrational numbers" tells us very little, since such numbers were an invention of physicists. If equivalency is only a matter of convention, the "legislation" of defining one modulus in terms of its relation to another is sufficient to show singularism. The question here is one of conventionality vs. a description of the "real state" of affairs.

Multiplism, in contrast, involves true intertranslatability when talking about an agreed-upon object. When we identity what we are interpreting, perhaps we should focus not on objects but on interactions. Doing so is fundamental in subatomic physics, where not objects, but fields, with properties of energy and mass, are studied. There has been a shift in terms of what is interpretable: physicists consider those fields, by which transmutation happens, "really what's real." But is there a "fact of the matter"? Although the world is not solipsistic, there is a "deep suspicion that we are wrong" when we take an active role in constructing identity conditions, in order to begin our analysis with determinate objects. Different interpretations will answer, depending on the identity of an object. A painting, for instance, might be interpreted by an art historian in formalist terms, by a Marxist as a product of labor. But we can generate a disagreement about interpretation only if we are talking about the same object, assigning salience to the same properties. We need to fix the object before we interpret it. A work of art is itself a cultural category we've agreed on, and it could be argued that the act of interpretation begins at the level of identifying its intentional context.

While he was in India, Michael had the opportunity to interview both Hindu and Buddhist scholars. The former assured him that, while the two groups were talking about the same thing, the Hindu view was wrong; in contrast, the Dalai Lama said that the two groups were not talking about the same thing. In order to disagree, we have to agree on what we are talking about. The issue of identity conditions is essential. This is crucial in evolutionary biology, which faces the problem of the "character concept." How do you atomize an organism in parts? Where do you cut off the genes, the sequences? A more radical perspective would involve disagreeing about identity conditions; this results in pluralism. Such debates have important real life consequences, about which some of us wanted more clarity. It MATTERS whether we understand a dead baby as a human carcass or as having become part of the larger universe. This spatial and temporal organism can be given a material, non-local interpretation or a spiritual, local counter-interpretation. Whether the baby is understood as "honored or dumped" involves two different interpretations of death. The conflict exists then at a certain level of abstraction: it is about the nature of death. If the act of interpretation is an act of inscribing meaning, to identify an object is already to interpret it. This is known as the hermenuetic circle: to give an interpretation, one needs terms in which it is understood. Is this inevitable circularity benign, vicious, fundamental, essential? Any prior agreement about the object is problematic; objects don't exist until interpretations of them are made.

The conversation will resume in person in the fall, and is warmly is invited to continue in the interim on our On-Line Forum.

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