Context&element;: What is a valid interpretation?
Posted: 09 August 2008 02:43 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Many with an education within the humanities has a superficial, and in essence, fallacious view of what constitutes “valid interpretations” of a text, an object found in an archeological dig, or whatever.

The whole of deconstructionism says, for example, that “anything goes”, that no interpretations are better than others. For example, myth is as valid an interpretation of the world as we see it as science is. It is all a “discourse”.

Instead of bothering with this charade and facade of intellectuality, I’d like to make a couple of key points here concerning interpretation.

Take the incomplete sentence I. “He was a *i** man”.

Where *’s are unkwown letters.

There are, of course, numerous valid interpretations of this sentence:

a) “He was a nice man”
b) “He was a vile man”
c) “He was a rich man”

and so on.

Without further RELEVANT information, we are unable to pick out which is the most likely one.

But, we can still dismiss, without any further evidence, a whole lot of options, like:
d)“He liked to gamble on Sundays”,
e) “He was a dour man” etc, none of which has the slightest support in the evidence we’ve got at hand.

These are INVALID interpretations, and are to be a dismissed.

Now, assume we get some more context, the next sentence:
II. “But poor folks liked him nonetheless”.

Now, does this increase the likelihood of on of the three sample meanings?
Indeed it does, on the base assumption we are faced with an internally coherent text. Option c) is perhaps the most probable, with b) following next, whereas a) would be an extremely jarring interpretation.

And so on.
Note, however, that d) and e) are still to be dismissed, the further provided information make none of them more valid, even though e)+II. makes good meaning.

The points I would like to make is that:

1. Context of a statement provide oppportunity to reduce ambiguity of the component statement(s). Some earlier possible interpretations recede into improbability.

2. Context may give us clues to valid interpretations of I. that previously escaped us.
For example, suppose II. read: “His doctors tried and tried, yet couldn’t find the cause of his disease”.
Here, this gives us the clue that the valid interpretation g) “He was a sick man” is perhaps the likeliest, not a)-c)

3. A valid interpretation of “the whole” cannot, in its part-interpretation of the component be an invalid interpretation of that component.

For example, if we are given a whole text, and our interpretation requires us to interpret I. as “really” saying d), then this interpretation of the whole is simply invalid.

Similarly, if the interpretation of the whole contradicts each of the possible interpretations of the component, then that interpretation of the whole is false.

For example, if you take a text, omit 3/4 of it, and on basis of the last fourth make an interpretation of the whole, even if it blatantly contradicts the elements in the omitted 3/4’th, you have just made an invalid interpretation of the text as such.

But this type of “interpretations” are all too common, unfortunately, in many areas of life…

Furthermore, on a related point:
4. Insofar as you, due to having more info on your hand thinks you can puzzle out a new meaning of an earlier puzzling component, what is required of you is to prove that your NEW part-interpretation of the earlier statement is, in fact, a VALID interpretation of that statement, IRRESPECTIVE of your newfound interpretation of the whole.
It is NOT sufficient to present a coherent “interpretation”, and by reference to its coherence or some other diversionary tactic argue it is valid and true, you need to show it applies precisely for that earlier, troubling bit.
Otherwise, you have just presented a figment of your imagination, not worth bothering about.

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Posted: 09 August 2008 11:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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The physicist John Wheeler proposed a variation of the game of 20 questions. 

A group of people in a room decide who is to be “it.”  That person leaves the room expecting the remaining people to come up with some object, person, or thing that is to be guessed by asking yes or no questions.

What the people in the room actually decide is not to have any definite thing in mind.  Rather, they decide on a strategy for answering questions: (1) When giving an answer, a person must have something definite in mind and give a true answer about that thing; (2) Every answer given must be consistent with all previous answers. 

“It” now comes back into the room and begins questioning.  Even though there is no definite thing that has been decided, this process of questioning eventually identifies something.

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Posted: 09 August 2008 12:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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burt - 09 August 2008 03:29 PM

The physicist John Wheeler proposed a variation of the game of 20 questions. 

A group of people in a room decide who is to be “it.”  That person leaves the room expecting the remaining people to come up with some object, person, or thing that is to be guessed by asking yes or no questions.

What the people in the room actually decide is not to have any definite thing in mind.  Rather, they decide on a strategy for answering questions: (1) When giving an answer, a person must have something definite in mind and give a true answer about that thing; (2) Every answer given must be consistent with all previous answers. 

“It” now comes back into the room and begins questioning.  Even though there is no definite thing that has been decided, this process of questioning eventually identifies something.

That would be correct for a wholly arbitrary start, but you don’t start out with nothing, you start out with a specific text, or fragment of a text.

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Posted: 09 August 2008 07:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Where are you going with this? Are you going to apply your interpretive rules to a particular text? I’m interested to see where you are going.

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Posted: 10 August 2008 02:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 09 August 2008 11:06 PM

Where are you going with this? Are you going to apply your interpretive rules to a particular text? I’m interested to see where you are going.

Well, my main point is to clarify a few issues concerning what we could call sound interpretative strategies.

In essence, they are nothing other than letting evidence have primacy, rather than post-modernist assumptions and declarations about hidden agendas, discourses that somehow by necessity warp perceptions of texts to the point where the postmodernist claims that “truth” is some amorphous, poly-valued thing, and that attempts to establish the most probable reading are nothing else than an exercises of power to gain hegemony over other, equally valuable readings.

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Posted: 10 August 2008 03:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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arildno - 10 August 2008 06:53 PM
Bruce Burleson - 09 August 2008 11:06 PM

Where are you going with this? Are you going to apply your interpretive rules to a particular text? I’m interested to see where you are going.

Well, my main point is to clarify a few issues concerning what we could call sound interpretative strategies.

In essence, they are nothing other than letting evidence have primacy, rather than post-modernist assumptions and declarations about hidden agendas, discourses that somehow by necessity warp perceptions of texts to the point where the postmodernist claims that “truth” is some amorphous, poly-valued thing, and that attempts to establish the most probable reading are nothing else than an exercises of power to gain hegemony over other, equally valuable readings.

This is an important observation, IMO, because people bring so many assumptions and even suspicions to texts that it becomes practically impossible to discuss the text in any reasonable way. A text does have a primary meaning, and attempts to “get behind” what the text actually says sometimes lead to ridiculous results. Good luck.

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Posted: 11 August 2008 10:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 10 August 2008 07:20 PM
arildno - 10 August 2008 06:53 PM
Bruce Burleson - 09 August 2008 11:06 PM

Where are you going with this? Are you going to apply your interpretive rules to a particular text? I’m interested to see where you are going.

Well, my main point is to clarify a few issues concerning what we could call sound interpretative strategies.

In essence, they are nothing other than letting evidence have primacy, rather than post-modernist assumptions and declarations about hidden agendas, discourses that somehow by necessity warp perceptions of texts to the point where the postmodernist claims that “truth” is some amorphous, poly-valued thing, and that attempts to establish the most probable reading are nothing else than an exercises of power to gain hegemony over other, equally valuable readings.

This is an important observation, IMO, because people bring so many assumptions and even suspicions to texts that it becomes practically impossible to discuss the text in any reasonable way. A text does have a primary meaning, and attempts to “get behind” what the text actually says sometimes lead to ridiculous results. Good luck.

I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of reading a book then coming back a few years later to read it again and discovering meanings in in that you missed the first time.  I suggest that in part, the meaning we draw from a text depends on us—a trivial observation, except that perhaps we can go some of the way towards quantification.  For example, I’m sure Bruce that the meaning you take from passages in the bible is quite different from the meaning taken by an uneducated fundamentalist creationist.  So far, so good and I doubt that anybody would disagree with this.  Now for something that might be challenged: I’ll suggest that there is a scale of levels of subjectivity that in a broad way can classify the sorts of meaning that a person operating at a given level would draw from a text.  We could put the dogmatic believer at the bottom level and work up from there—the social dogmatist, the complete egotist, and so on.  Within those levels, the sort of meaning a person derived from a text would depend on their ego structures and personal background.  This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equal, just the opposite, it gives some sort of measure of how an interpretation might be judged against other interpretations.  Isn’t it amazing that we can communicate at all?

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Posted: 12 August 2008 03:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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burt - 12 August 2008 02:31 AM
Bruce Burleson - 10 August 2008 07:20 PM
arildno - 10 August 2008 06:53 PM
Bruce Burleson - 09 August 2008 11:06 PM

Where are you going with this? Are you going to apply your interpretive rules to a particular text? I’m interested to see where you are going.

Well, my main point is to clarify a few issues concerning what we could call sound interpretative strategies.

In essence, they are nothing other than letting evidence have primacy, rather than post-modernist assumptions and declarations about hidden agendas, discourses that somehow by necessity warp perceptions of texts to the point where the postmodernist claims that “truth” is some amorphous, poly-valued thing, and that attempts to establish the most probable reading are nothing else than an exercises of power to gain hegemony over other, equally valuable readings.

This is an important observation, IMO, because people bring so many assumptions and even suspicions to texts that it becomes practically impossible to discuss the text in any reasonable way. A text does have a primary meaning, and attempts to “get behind” what the text actually says sometimes lead to ridiculous results. Good luck.

I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of reading a book then coming back a few years later to read it again and discovering meanings in in that you missed the first time.  I suggest that in part, the meaning we draw from a text depends on us—a trivial observation, except that perhaps we can go some of the way towards quantification.  For example, I’m sure Bruce that the meaning you take from passages in the bible is quite different from the meaning taken by an uneducated fundamentalist creationist.  So far, so good and I doubt that anybody would disagree with this.  Now for something that might be challenged: I’ll suggest that there is a scale of levels of subjectivity that in a broad way can classify the sorts of meaning that a person operating at a given level would draw from a text.  We could put the dogmatic believer at the bottom level and work up from there—the social dogmatist, the complete egotist, and so on.  Within those levels, the sort of meaning a person derived from a text would depend on their ego structures and personal background.  This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equal, just the opposite, it gives some sort of measure of how an interpretation might be judged against other interpretations.  Isn’t it amazing that we can communicate at all?

As to that latter question, it really isn’t much other than “why does there exist something rather nothing?”.
I find that a theoretically important question, but as yet unanswerable.
But, furthermore, it shows that we can take as a (unexplained!) FACT, and thence proceed to map and study “what” exists and possibly (or not) someday acquire enough information to answer that philosiophical question.

Completely analogously, yes it IS amazing that we can communicate with each other, and we certainly haven’t reached a level of understanding so that we can answer WHY we can communicate.

But again, the fact remains that we CAN communicate, and unfortunately, that fact needs to be stressed.

Fashionable theories today within the spectrum of post-modernism basically says we are all imprisoned into specific discourses and that essentially, we can’t step outside of those.

This is a patently false view, precisely because we CAN communicate to a very large extent.
And THAT means, that the view that there can’t be any “privileged” interpretations of a text, but that for most texts, there exists an infinity of equally valuable interpretations is nothing but multiculturalist, politically correct nonsense.

We do not know WHY we can communicate, but we do know THAT we can communicate, and that is the incontrovertible basis of proper hermeneutrics and arts of interpretation.

Even providing evidence that a meaning has been distorted, say, due to a particular reader’s particular views does not in any way cast that fact in doubt, rather, it reinforces it, by showing that it IS possible to communicate properly, without a variety of significant distortions occurring.

[ Edited: 12 August 2008 06:58 AM by arildno]
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Posted: 12 August 2008 04:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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arildno - 12 August 2008 07:52 AM

Fashionable theories today within the spectrum of post-modernism basically says we are all imprisoned into specific discourses and that essentially, we can’t step outside of those.

This is a patently false view, precisely because we CAN communicate to a very large extent.
And THAT means, that the view that there can’t be any “privileged” interpretations of a text, but that for most texts, there exists an infinity of equally valuable interpretations is nothing but multiculturalist, politically correct nonsense.

This is exactly an issue I’m working on, how do we find criteria that allow us to say one discourse is objectively superior to another.  In science it’s pretty easy—does it fit the data.  Otherwise, there are complications.

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Posted: 12 August 2008 10:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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burt - 12 August 2008 08:42 PM
arildno - 12 August 2008 07:52 AM

Fashionable theories today within the spectrum of post-modernism basically says we are all imprisoned into specific discourses and that essentially, we can’t step outside of those.

This is a patently false view, precisely because we CAN communicate to a very large extent.
And THAT means, that the view that there can’t be any “privileged” interpretations of a text, but that for most texts, there exists an infinity of equally valuable interpretations is nothing but multiculturalist, politically correct nonsense.

This is exactly an issue I’m working on, how do we find criteria that allow us to say one discourse is objectively superior to another.  In science it’s pretty easy—does it fit the data.  Otherwise, there are complications.

Well, as to that, I’d say first, that the postmodernists have cheated by letting “discourse” mean anything, something, everything and nothing in a dizzying swirl without bothering to state where semantic change occurred.

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Posted: 20 April 2012 04:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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(Please excuse my english - i’m a poet fra Denmark).

I think it’s true that
“Many with an education within the humanities has a superficial, and in essence, fallacious view of what constitutes “valid interpretations” of a text, an object found in an archeological dig, or whatever.”

However it’s also true that many without an education within the humanities has a superficial and uninteresting understanding of notions such as text, interpretation and for instance deconstructivism.

Whats the point of criticising something on the level of a cartoon or some strawman-characterisation of “postmodernism” and so on ...?

I think many people have a tendency to transgress the boundaries of “their” subject, not realising that they sound just as stupid as they proclaim the other side do, when they try to take care of deep problems with a snap of a finger.

Remember that its possible to be nothing like a relativist on a range of “hard” issues, and at the same time realizing that subjects are more or less open for interpretation, and that interpretation is’nt an easy or open and shut phenonomen. In many cases its not even easy to come to agreement over what can and should guide the interpretation. (as a matter of fact a range of interpretations guided by different interests can be pefectly valid and not relativistic at all). It is also quite litterally true that there in many cases is a relationsship between “privileged” interpretations and power. Some (very few) not so bright people have claimed that this means that science is not governed by truth (/true experimental evidence, prediction and so on) but only by power. This is stupid as a general claim. But very few of the relevant authors say something like that. Rather the interesting texts that come out of french philosophy and so on, say and investigate other things. Much more specific and nuanced, and typically about issues where you would be hard pressed to deny that there is a fight going on about controlling interpretations and so on and so on. Think gender. Think racism. Think ideology. Think politics. Think litterature. Think! In all these subjects (and more) the case of interpretation is not open and shut. Rather there is a whole range of interesting things going on which is examined and discussed in the litterature (which not seem read judging by most comments).

The view that “for most texts, there exists an infinity of equally valuable interpretations” does not sum up anything I have read of serious authors on these subjects. A sensible approach to begin to comprehend the issues involved could be to ask if its nonproblematic to agree on what an interpretation should aim for, what should guide it, how we should value it, and so on. Of course it is not easy (or something you can decide by certain procedures). All these questions and more are up for grabs. Not only in a airy sort of philosophical game, but every day.

Take for instance the first posters example with the incomplete sentence:. “He was a *i** man”. (Where *’s are unkwown letters.)

Of course most of the thoughts and points raised in the post is valid. Not every interpretation is eqally valid. Some fits better with known facts than others, and given certain information the probabillity of som interpretations rise or fall. This is not the point of the real positions. A way of treating your example in light of the humanistic insights from “postmodernism” and other schools of thought, would be something like this:

In reality it is not corrrect that the task you describe is to parse the incomplete sentence. Rather the complete post is the message we are given. In this post you describe an incomplete sentence in a certain way, and contextualize it in a certain way. You have every right to do that. But it means that your argumenation in a way is question-begging. You (try to) set up the rules. Out there in the world (or in the world of texts) we seldom find an incomplete sentence tagged with “incomplecte sentence”. You have laid down a paradigm where the sentence is understood as incomplete. This can be (or not) perfectly reasonable, but it is not done by magic. It is done by (in this case) you, and involves also on this level interpretation by both you as sender and us as receivers. Here one could continue with concepts like preconceptions, interpretational fellowship (/group), and so on.
Also, what should guide us. Are you for instance mostly interested in what the sentence said (assuming it was printed on paper and some letters got rubbed out later). Or are you mostly interested in what was meant by it (by the sender). Or are you mostly interested in what relevant (who is relevant?) readers from the same time and place as the note would understand by it? All these questions (and more) can have very different answers.

The word “discourse” is not so out of place here. The way the first poster frames the question of interpretation is precisely relevant to a certain discourse. That is to say, it is a way of talking/writing/thinking that carries values with it, and uses certain parts of our vocabulary. It is not in any way meaningless to say that this way to discuss interpretation is a part of a larger discourse, and that other discourses are possible and relevant if one wants to form a better and more complete understanding of whats involved.

The humanities have developed a long range of concepts which capture some of the complexities of interpretation. Sometimes “they” overstep their boundary and say stupid things about physics or somehing like that. That is very annoying, i agree. On the other hand it can be equally annoying to listen to naive people that think they can sidestep a heep of questions, nuances, concepts and hard problems, just by a lack of understanding of the insights of the (best of the) humanities.

(Hm. I wonder if my written english is good enough for this ... I also wonder what posessed me to reply to a thread from 2007. Oh well.)

[ Edited: 20 April 2012 05:02 AM by DanishPoet]
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