Interpreting Interpretation (Or, Understanding Understanding)

I have been thinking about writing a post or a small series of posts on words and language. Specifically, I want to talk about how words tend to become devoid of useful meaning when repeatedly used or misused. I am not speaking of how a word or a phrase can have multiple meanings or connotations. After all, language is not stuck in the mud. Think of it this way: Sometimes there are words or phrases that are meant to encapsulate more nuanced or even complex ideas; shortcuts, if you will. That is fine as long as the word or phrase actually is a shortcut to understanding the larger idea, when it actually communicates something that meaningfully adds to a conversation. But then the word or phrase catches on and becomes a trend. At this point, the word starts getting thrown around and inserted into any and every conversation without regard or intention to use it meaningfully. Sometimes (at least in my observation) such words not only fail to advance a conversation but are used with the intent to stop it in its tracks. People seem to not want to reason together to come to mutual understanding (mutual understanding does not imply mutual agreement), but only to defeat an interlocutor to whom one is opposed.

But really, all this is a just a matter of interpretation, right? Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that there are “no facts, only interpretations. And this, too, is only an interpretation.” Here I am not going to explicate what Nietzsche meant in this quotation. But in common parlance the word “interpretation” is a substitute word for “opinion.” By the way, that is not what Nietzsche meant.

Opinions are not inherently bad. We all have opinions, and it is rather difficult to be a being with the capacity to reason and not have opinions. The issue is whether an opinion is justifiable or reasonable. But let us face it. No one ever says “that’s just your opinion” because they have sympathy for what you are saying. We typically (and wrongly) tend to say that as a way of saying “I do not agree with you and I am not going to take the time or effort to counter you.” We dismiss the claim of the other by diminishing it as just their opinion. So “opinion” is presumed to be something inferior.

I could write another post just on opinions. But what I am getting at here is that I have noticed people sometimes use the word “interpretation” interchangeably with “opinion.” Of course, there is a sense in which an opinion is an interpretation (or more so an articulation of an interpretation). You cannot really offer an opinion without having interpreted that which you have an opinion on. My concern—what really gets to me—is that the word “opinion” has been reduced to its most negative understanding and that, when substituting the word “interpretation,” a very poor understanding of the word “interpretation” results. But interpretation is really about how we understand the world about us and the conditions that create understanding. I am of the opinion that the word “opinion” has been greatly abused and perhaps I’ll write about that sometime. Here I am going to write about what interpretation is, why you cannot not interpret, and why getting that is a very good thing.

Hermeneutics is what we call the field of philosophy that studies interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to hermeneutics as the art of understanding and in his writings used the word “interpretation” and “understanding” interchangeably. Thus, to interpret something is to attain to an understanding of it (right, wrong, or otherwise). Further, interpretation and meaning go hand in hand. To interpret something is to come to some sort of idea what something means.

To be clear, interpretation is not something you simply choose or choose not to do. Whether you are reading this blog post, watching a game on the television, engaged in a conversation, looking at a piece of art, walking through a beautiful landscape, arguing with a spouse, or…well, name any activity you can think of, you are interpreting. That is, you are making sense out of it and drawing meaning from it. This is one reason it is important to understand that an interpretation is not just an “opinion,” especially when opinion is taken to mean simply a personal, subjective belief. To suggest to someone that their view is “just their interpretation” is unaware of what interpretation is. Of course, it is their interpretation! It is what they take whatever the subject matter happens to be to mean! What else would it be if not their interpretation!

The irony is that when someone says another’s view is just an interpretation, they are giving (in light of their own interpretation of interpretation)—wait for it—an interpretation! Believe me (or not), but when someone says that is just your opinion or interpretation, do not expect them to offer, by contrast, a carefully thought out, fact-based, reflective position. Make no mistake, however. You do not utter any thought or conviction that is not an interpretation. I think Richard Palmer said it best in a book published in 1969 on hermeneutics. He said, “Interpretation is, then, perhaps the most basic act of human thinking; indeed, existing itself may be said to be a constant process of interpretation.”

“Wait a minute!” you exclaim. Once I look at the facts of the matter, am I not simply speaking the truth? I am either wrong or right, but that is not a matter of interpretation, it is a matter of the facts, right? The facts do not care about my interpretation! Not exactly. Okay, some things are more apparent. 2+2=4 is not a matter of opinion (actually, it is, but that is for another post). Consider this, though. You do not simply understand the bare fact of 2+2=4. You think you do, but you do not. If I say to you that 2+2=4, but you have no concept of what 2 is, what 4 is, what addition is, or what equals is, you simply are not going to get it. So your understanding of 2+2=4 is conditioned on your pre-understanding of the concepts that make up the equation. You can shout at me all day that this math equation is objective truth whether I understand it or not. My simple response is this: “A lot of good objective truth does you if you do not understand it!”

Hermeneutics (interpretation theory) does not concern itself with the objectivity of objective truth. Hermeneutics is a lot more concerned with how you understand. Because any truth that cannot be understood does precious little good for anyone. And the rather interpreted fact of the matter is, understanding (interpretation) is a process that accompanies you whether you know it or not, like or not, understand it or not. And if you have any opinion on what I am writing, you are interpreting what I am writing or there would be nothing for you to have an opinion about. You have a take (an interpretation) about what I am saying and you have something to say about it.

Alright then. What does this have to do with pretty much anything at all? Well, it has to do with pretty much everything. But since it is hard to write about pretty much everything and you do not want to read about pretty much everything, I will talk about a little something. Refer back to the first paragraph. In the posts that follow, I want to talk about words and language and how their misuse, disuse, and abuse is really making reasoned discourse an exercise in Sisyphean frustration. Interpretation, in the philosophical sense, can rescue us from pushing the stone up the hill only to have it roll back again, making us feel as if we are forever at the start.

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