April 25, 2003
Michael Krausz (Philosophy)
Interpretation and Its Objects
Prepared by Anne Dalke
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
- Is it perhaps a mistake to uniquely associate intolerance or
oppression with singularism, and tolerance or liberation with
multiplism? Multiplists are generally assumed to be less repressive
and more liberating in their views, therefore more effective in
enhancing the possibility of worthwhile lives. It is presumed that
the "cognitive dexterity" of multiplists enables them to understand others, and so
help achieve reconciliation. But a
singularist might be cognitively dexterious as well, having developed
an imaginative capacity to understand a range of views, while finally
admitting only one of them as correct. Closed- and open-mindedness,
in other words, are not co-extensive with singularism and multiplism.
So why has multiplism been understood as more conducive to tolerance?
- The second puzzle involves a possible difference in kind between
singularism and multiplism. Does the distinction between them
collapse into two points on a continuum, determined only by how much
one interpretation is preferable to others? In which case--if the
singularist has good reasons for preferability, and can disqualify
alternative interpretations as inadvisable--there is no difference
between the positions; the singularist is just identifying the interpretation which far outstrips others. The mutiplist reveals the
reasonable element of every story: without searching for one
admissable interpretation, perhaps the work of the multiplist is more
conductive to empathetic efforts. But why should that be so?
And do the different positions make any practical difference? One might
imagine a singularist mediator in the Middle East, India or Ireland, for instance,
who elicts the accounts of two estranged parties and then arrives at
a single interpretation of those accounts. There
may also be a subsidiary question: If the preferred interpretation
accounts for the essential part of the object under scrutiny, how is that
part identified? There are legitimate differences of opinion about what is
salient, significant, meaningful. Competition may exist on the
level of identifying exactly what the object of interpretation is.
- Here is the third puzzle. Michael began by affirming that, as a point
of logic, singularism and multiplism are exclusive, and that with respect to a given object of
interpretation both conditions cannot be invoked. But Bernard
Harrison and Patricia Hanna hold that one and the same object of
interpretation may answer to either, or both, singularism and multiplism.
Are singularism and multiplism exclusive, because
logically contradictory? Need they be? A given object
may answer either to an exclusive or multiple interpretations. Some
say that what makes a difference is the practice within which those
interpretations are nested. Others claim that we may obtain
simultaneous measurements that differ only in terms of the modulus used. But
does a plurality of moduli constitute a multiplist position? Singularism exists if two different
forms of measurement are mutually translatable without any residue of irrational
numbers, if there is no incongruence. There may be an
important priority in invoking one measurement or the other, in which case the
incongruence comes simply from an impropriety of use. In any given context, there can be a
single right measurement. But is the same
intentional object being measured? If there is a shift in the
referant, in what is being measured, then multiplism--and the
putative connection between multiplism and singularism--fails.
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.
- the relative interpretive tolerance of multiplism and singularism,
- the ultimate collapsibility of the two terms, and
- their exclusivity,
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
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Tuesday, 29-Apr-2003 23:13:51 EDT