It’s all interpretation? (Part 2)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, January 27, 2011)

It’s all interpretation? (Part 2)

Some contemporary thinkers hold the view that human experience of the world is wholly and inescapably interpretive. In the case of visual perception, all seeing is, according to this view, seeing as. The idea behind “seeing as” is that all seeing is filtered by the background assumptions (perspectives, histories, languages, concepts) that we bring to our investigations. It is alleged that even our experience of an everyday object—say, a dinner fork—is completely a matter of interpretation, and such interpretation varies from person to person. On this view, we cannot truly know the actual world via direct acquaintance; rather, it’s interpretation all the way down.

Should we agree? I (and many other philosophers) think not.

Last time I argued that it’s false that all seeing is “seeing as” (i.e., it’s false that all seeing is interpretation all the way down). There is also something called simple seeing. In simple seeing an object is visually perceived but it is not classified in terms of one’s conceptual scheme. This is a non-interpreted, pre-conceptual perception/awareness: visual sensations constitute the means whereby the mind directly sees the object itself. In other words, we can know the world/reality to some extent via simple seeing (a.k.a. knowledge by direct acquaintance), and then we interpret.

Today, I will set out a reductio ad absurdum argument to show again, albeit indirectly, that the interpretation-all-the-way-down view is false. (In a reductio ad absurdum argument, we assume, temporarily for the sake of argument, that the view under investigation is true; if the logical consequences of the view’s assumed truth are false or logically absurd, then it follows logically that the view under investigation is false or logically absurd, or both.)

Let’s assume, temporarily for the sake of argument, that the interpretation-all-the-way-down view is true.

Now, consider the previously-mentioned everyday eating utensil we call a fork. Also, please consider the Disney film The Little Mermaid, the story about Ariel, a little mermaid who wants to become human. (I apologize if the Disney reference seems silly here. The Disney reference comes from contemporary philosopher James K. A. Smith, who defends the interpretation-all-the-way-down view by an appeal to Ariel’s interpretation of a fork. I am going to show via reductio ad absurdum that the fork example backfires on Smith.)

When Ariel sees a fork, she calls it a “dinglehopper” and she uses it to comb her hair (much to the surprise of the humans at the dinner table). Clearly, Ariel interprets the pronged metal object as a dinglehopper (comb), whereas we interpret it as a fork. This much is true.

However (and this is where the reductio ad absurdum argument kicks in), if it’s true that it’s interpretation all the way down (as Smith holds), then it follows that Ariel (and the rest of us) can never know the object and its properties by simple seeing (direct acquaintance). Remember: on the view under investigation, all seeing is seeing as.

But if all seeing is seeing as, that is, if all seeing is interpretation, then the thing that is “seen” and interpreted will always be an interpretation of the thing, not the thing itself. Nor will that which is “seen” and interpreted ever be an actual property of the thing itself, because the properties themselves are also things in themselves and only the interpretations of them will be “seen.”

Remember (again): on the view under investigation, all seeing is seeing as. If all seeing were seeing as, then what we would see as the fork’s shape, or rigidity, or metal would always be an interpretation of something else—not the fork’s shape itself, not the fork’s rigidity itself, not the fork’s metal itself. That is, “the object” would be something else that would be seen as prong-shaped; it would be something else that would be seen as hard; it would be something else that would be seen as silver; and so on—without end. The actual prong shape, actual hardness, actual substance (etc.) would never be simply seen.

In other words, what the actual object is in the first place, including all of its actual properties, would never be gotten to. But this means that the actual object of interpretation, i.e., the actual thing we call a fork and Ariel calls a dinglehopper, would forever be completely and always out of the mind’s reach.

So, on the interpretation-all-the-way-down view, to interpret an object X requires that X is the object of interpretation and, at the same time and in the same sense, that X is not (and never is) the object of interpretation—which is logically absurd. Reductio ad absurdum.

To drive home the significance of the above logical problem for the interpretation-all-the-way-down view, consider the following. To interpret the present words in this sentence as words requires that the reader first simply see the squiggles, i.e., simply see the actual particular shapes of the ink marks which guide the subsequent interpretation. If one never simply sees the squiggles in any sense as they actually are, i.e., one never simply sees their actual shapes, then no text-based interpretation can occur. Rather, there would be an ongoing “seeing as” with no contact with the reality of the characteristics of the squiggles themselves. Hence, my squiggles could not function as symbols that communicate the meanings I intend them to communicate; but we know that they do—as the reading of this sentence (and other well-formed sentences) attests.

Thus, it’s reasonable to think (again) that the interpretation-all-the-way-down view is false.

Why am I making such a fuss about this? I have four reasons.

First, truth is important.

Second, it’s true that we know the world/ reality to some extent via simple seeing (which is, in philosophical parlance, a species of knowledge by direct acquaintance).

Third, with simple seeing we can ground our interpretations of what is true of the world in the actual world.

Fourth, it very much seems that God has revealed truth in the actual world via simply seen objects that can be interpreted as clues or signs which communicate knowledge of Him—and such clues or signs include, for starters, written reports arising from eye witnesses to Jesus’ resurrected body.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba, CanadaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

Acknowledgements: For my criticisms of the interpretation-all-the-way-down view I am indebted to the work of philosophers J. P. Moreland and R. Scott Smith. In particular, see: J. P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power (Zondervan, 2007); R. Scott Smith, “Reflections on McLaren and the Emerging Church,” in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, eds. P. Copan & W. L. Craig (B&H Academic, 2007), 227-241; R. Scott Smith, “‘Emergents,’ Evangelicals, and the Importance of Truth,” in Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement, eds. W. D. Henard & A. W. Greenway (B&H Academic, 2009), 129-156. James K. A. Smith sets out the interpretation-all-the-way-down view in chapter 2 of his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic, 2006).

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