On Interpretation 1

You should read Kant!

You should read Kant!

(End of a discussion between Hans Albert and Herbert Marcuse at the  European Forum Alpbach 1967.)

1. Interpretations of philosophical texts can differ so widely that the discussants claim that their opponents have not even read the texts they are talking about, let alone that they have understood them.

The requests to read Kant were the result (not only) of different interpretations of the Critique of Pure Reason. I can’t remember in detail the discussion I experienced as a young student at the European Forum Alpbach, but I do that Herbert Marcuse and Hans Albert referred to the same text passages.

2. In Vienna after the war Wittgenstein and the philosophers of the Vienna Circle were not even worth mentioning in academic philosophy.

For analytical philosophers still a few years ago Hegel and Heidegger were proponents of simple and dangerous nonsense. Meanwhile quite a few of them develop new sympathies for metaphysics and a combination of Continental and Analytical philosophy is a good choice if you want to pursue an academic career.

The variety, the range of interpretations of Nietzsche in Germany before, during and after the days of the Third Reich is amazing.

According to some interpreters Richard Rorty, Martin Heidegger, Jaques Derrida, Ernst von Glasersfeld or Paul Feyerabend belong to the most important philosophers of the last century whilst according to others they are not philosophers at all ... and similar claims were (and still are) made of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

Allegations that a text or a book does not belong to philosophy have for a long time been used as a popular killer-argument against qualifying works such as dissertations or habilitations. It was said of a still famous British Wittgensteinian that to study with him is bad for an academic career and the same was claimed for Richard Rorty in Princeton and Paul Feyerabend in Berkeley.

The fame of philosophers in their lifetime often fades away soon after their death and sometimes starts vanishing already once they turn emeritus ... but then they may get a chance for a renaissance once they are dead long enough.

3. What would be the result of lining up the interpretations of Kant of more than two hundred years except a library of several thousand volumes? A deeper and deeper understanding of Kant? New Aspects? A critique of earlier Kant-interpretations? New Light? And the same applies for Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza, Descartes and all the other great dead in the history of philosophy. Have the differences become less and the quarrels died down? Has it been decided what belongs to which body of texts, where which fragments belong to, which posthumous editions or translations are reliable and which are not?

Which works of philosophy will be forgotten (like the fine writings of the pragmatist philosopher F. C. S. Schiller) and which ones will continue to proliferate new interpretations: this is a matter of contingency and depends on conditions which cannot be standardized. Philosophical fashion is hard to predict.

Do interpretations of philosophers get more consistent in the course of time? Or because the interest in them is dying down and less work is done “on” them? 

Sometimes the actuality of philosophers depends on when they have died, except this has happened a very long time ago. Anniversaries of birth and death of Plato & Co are not celebrated with congresses or conferences. However, when philosophers have been dead for no more than two or three hundred years, anniversaries are often a welcome chance for re-evaluations and new assessments.

What would have been the impact on the reception of Wittgenstein if he would have edited and published the Philosophical Investigations or even  On Certainty himself? 

In the "arenas of philosophy" (an expression by Kurt Flasch) the discussions are about interpretations, about rankings and evaluations and the ongoing competition between philosophical schools and methods. 

Who belongs to the heroes, to the good guys, and who belongs to the bad guys, these are classifications which have changed in the course of history more than once.

4. "The curricula of philosophy mainly consist of ... reading and interpreting texts." This is a quote from the homepage of a well-known department of philosophy and may serve as an indication for the importance of interpretation in philosophical education and philosophical discourse in general. The idea that we first read the texts and only then interpret them, leads to a strong distinction between text and interpretation, -- except when we “really” “stick close” to the text. 

Is it possible to imagine a non-interpretative reading of texts? Evangelical Christians sometimes emphasize that they do  not interpret the bible -- but they already do so via the translation and even more by preaching the gospel. And of course books like  "What Jesus ( or Lenin, Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin) really said" are interpreting their title-heroes.

5. Interpretation is related to explanation, translation, analysis, exegesis and critique, to different ways of reading, to commentaries, evaluations, and judgments. 

Almost everything can be interpreted, whether man, nature, word and world, literature or god. We interpret data, clouds, texts and much more; in this paper however I want to restrict myself to the interpretation of texts.Philosophical texts get interpreted, analyzed, discussed, criticized, commented, translated and explicated. We read “into” texts to understand them. If we only want to know approximately what they are about we read them “across” or “diagonally”, or we can decide for an “exact reading” so we can then interpret them “more closely to the text”. 

In English we can differentiate multiple types of reading: Critical Readings, Close Readings and Distant Readings, even Absolute Readings and Radical Readings plus Re-Readings and Fresh Readings; quite common are readings named after different philosophers, for example Hegelian, Wittgensteinian, Aristotelian and Kantian Readings, nowadays Rortyan, Lacanian and Zizekian Readings. And I still remember my perplexity when many years ago Richard Rorty wrote in a letter that he does not quite understand my Feyerabendian Reading of Wittgenstein.

6. Now, what is the relation between text and interpretation? A text that is interpreted is often itself no more than an interpretation of texts the author has read. Primary literature is frequently to a large extent secondary literature to other texts, which we may be unaware of. 

The relationship between text and interpretation can be determined in at least two basically different ways: namely as a  dualist relation or as a  non-dualist relation .

The dualist mode of interpretation can be sketched like this: A text, for example the  Critique of Pure Reason, gets interpreted differently. When this happens two levels are presupposed: a "lower" text-level where the text "lies" or "stands" or simply "is" and an interpretation-level "situated-above". The interpretations are directed towards the text, they get referred to it and an evaluation/weighting of the interpretations is principally possible: depending on their relation to the text they are either correct or not, adequate or inadequate. The relation to the text determines whether the interpretations match the text, whether they correspond to it, or whether they are accurate or not, do justice to the text or not. 

The text has an authority over and against the interpretations, it serves as a referee, as an instance and a criterion for competing interpretations. At the same time the text itself is dumb and silent, but fortunately the interpreters represent the text, they speak on behalf and for it.

7. The dualist mode of interpretationdoes not only dominate philosophical discourse, it also determines many teaching-learning situations, including seminars at universities. 

Here is an example: A student writes a seminar paper on the  Critique of Pure Reason (or a section of it). The professor usually rates/grades/judges the student paper depending on if the basic ideas have been grasped, if the student has understood the text, if he considers additional literature and puts his work into a certain context and if the argumentation is clear, consistent and comprehensible. 

According to the self-understanding of the dualist mode the professor checks the interpretation of the student above all “against”/”on” the text  (“am” Text ), by referring it “to” the text - and in addition he may as well judge and grade the student paper for style and length and even for spelling. But what does it mean to check the interpretation “against” the text? How shall this work? The professor already interpreted himself the Kant text  before the Kant-seminar started and therefore before the student interpreted it. In other words, the professorial interpretation precedes the student interpretation and in addition the professor has a certain knowledge of the Kant literature, that is of various interpretations of Kant - otherwise presumably he would not have offered the seminar on Kant to begin with. The foregoing knowledge of the professor, his ante-knowledge -- even if it is not made explicit and remains largely tacit – forms together with the text the reference basis for the student’s interpretation of Kant that is going to be rated/graded by the professor. 

This "tacit knowledge", this subliminal knowledge, is necessary to judge the work/paper of the student. Why? Well, the Kant text alone is not judicious, is not capable of discriminating, does not talk by itself -- and Kant is no longer available as an interpreter of his own text. 

In practice the student paper is not judged “against”/”on” the text: The text forms the common starting basis for both, the student’s interpretation  and the professorial interpretation. The professor tends to judge/interpret the student’s interpretation primarily from his own professorial interpretation of the text and, more generally, from his own authoritative teacher’s opinion - which has a higher authority than the student’s opinion. Only in rare cases the student’s interpretation might change the opinion of the professor and therefore possibly result in a change of his own interpretation so far.

8. When the professor judges/interprets the student’s interpretation of Kant, then this judgment can manifest itself in simple gradings with or without additional comments, or, when a thesis or a dissertation is at stake, in an extensive review. Such a judgment/grading/review of the professor interprets the interpretation of the student. In this way the interpretation of the student gets “for the time being” the status of a text. 

So now in the dualist mode the interpretation of the student relates to the judgment/interpretation of the professor like a text to an interpretation. But this is not made explicit: The professor is not going to say that he refers his interpretation of the student’s interpretation to it and that he checks his interpretation against the student’s interpretation. 

The student perhaps may do this, especially when the professorial judgment turns out to be critical or even negative, but the professor will not normally listen to him and therefore the student will make his judgment of the judgment of his interpretation of the text by the professor only explicit in rare cases, for example when he wants to complain about an unjustified judgment/ interpretation.

9. The dualist mode of interpretation is based on the idea of the reference of interpretations onto the text and of a resulting, follow-up judgment of these interpretations. It is often neglected or even ignored that the judging of an interpretation as true or false, as coherent or incoherent, is preceded by  two interpretations: namely, in our example, by the student’s interpretation and also the (often unspoken) professorial interpretation of the Kant text. These interpretations compete with each other implicitly; however, the interpretative authority rests with the professor. 

The interpretation of the student is not judged against the text but via its coherence or incoherence with the professor’s own interpretation, whereby both interpretations - the student’s interpretation  and the professorial interpretation - are compatible with the text.

10. The professor interprets the interpretation of the student, who interprets the text by Kant. He will say that he interprets/judges the interpretation of the student against the Kant text, but for this purpose the text needs to be “enriched” by and combined with the professorial interpretation. Only based on this combination can the student’s interpretation now be interpreted. The student’s interpretation changes/mutates/turns through the professorial judgment-interpretation into a text.

11. In short, the dualist philosopher and professor interprets the student text on the basis of his own interpretation of Kant. By combining his own interpretation with the Kant text and presupposing it to the student’s interpretation, he can, so to say, judge the student’s interpretation “objectively” “against” the text: It is from this presupposed, depersonalized, professorial interpretation that the student’s interpretation gets judged/rated. And the result of this judgment is foreseeable: Insofar as the student’s interpretation deviates from the professorial interpretation, it does not correspond to the text, does not match the text; the text is misinterpreted, has not been understood properly, etc.

12. A non-dualist mode of interpretation . What difference does it make? 

Like dualists, non-dualists hold seminars and judge the essays, papers, the interpretations of their students. But the non-dualist does not attempt to judge the seminar-papers “objectively” and “against” the text. For the non-dualist the text relates to the interpretation like an interpretation  so far to an interpretation  from now on . Each interpretation forms, together with the text, a new text for further interpretations.  

The Kant text, which the non-dualist professor presents to the students for interpretation, forms a common starting base for follow-up interpretations. 

The text is neutralistic: it allows any interpretation and has no selective power. The professorial interpretation has nothing compulsory/obligatory and does not appeal to an allegedly/supposedly neutral basis of reference, which is nothing else but one’s own interpretation once again.

13. So now a question might be: Are all interpretations equally valid in a non-dualist mode? Well, for the text all interpretations are equally valid - at least the text remains silent about it. But this only means that the text alone is unable to serve as a decision basis for competing interpretations. 

Perhaps we can empower the decision basis to make (cognitive) decisions, if we enlarge it and present the text with the help of an additional interpretation? This way the text does gain decisional power: albeit only  for one’s own interpretations and  against  any deviating interpretations. However this argumentative step is open to all competing interpreters and therefore leads into stalemate positions; it only has an effect on our discourse if the power of interpretation is unequally distributed – such as when, for example, a professor judges the interpretations of students.

Josef Mitterer is an Austrian philosopher.

Next: On Interpretation 2 here

The Beyond of Philosophy

The Beyond of Philosophy 1 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 2 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 3 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 4 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 5 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 6 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 7 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 8 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 9 here

The Beyond of Philosophy 10 here