1) This is a quick thread on ‘interpretation,’ which gets tossed around a lot as a dirty word or an insult, particularly among people with a simplistic view of science or of the ‘leftist academy.’ Or of English professors.
2) Often when people use ‘interpretation’ in a negative way, they’re conflating the nature of a question with the method of answering it. I’ll explain what I mean by that.
3) Under ordinary circumstances I’m not interested in anyone’s ‘interpretation’ of the acceleration of gravity. I am, however, interested in someone’s ‘interpretation’ of the 8th amendment to the US constitution, especially the ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause.
4) With this distinction I mean to illustrate that some questions—like ‘What’s the acceleration of gravity (on Earth)?’—are best (and conclusively) answered through ordinary scientific processes, while other questions *can’t* be answered conclusively through the same.
5) This is itself a simplified way of looking at things, I know; but day-to-day disputes over ‘interpretation’ are usually clarifiable with this distinction. ‘Interpretation’ is a set of tools appropriate for some jobs more than others. So when people engage in ‘interpretation’..
6) ..it’s ordinarily to answer questions *not* for which ‘interpretation’ is preferred (for personal or political reasons, etc.), but for which it’s *necessary*. Which brings me to the second point I want to make here on this matter.
7) People also like to use ‘interpreation’ to mean ‘making up what you feel,’ or ‘having a hunch,’ or some other kind of assessment-free or evidence-free or logic-free conclusion. But that’s wrong. That’s not how interpretation works as a set of tools or methods.
8) Interpretation is empirical, meaning it relies on observation of the evidence at hand: the ordinary (or demonstrable) meaning of language, the circumstances (historical, social) in which the language occurs (making use of relevant historical sources, etc.)...
9) Interpetation is evidence-based, meaning any interpretation is only as good as the evidence marshaled to furnish it.
10) Interpretation is logical, meaning it relies on the assembling of evidence in argumentation, and the demonstration of an earned conclusion.
11) Interpreation is essential, meaning (strong claim) it’s both at the foundation of how we observe & interact with the world, & (weak claim) it’s how we processes unavoidable questions of value & ethics, like whether the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
12) So you will come across people who say things that sound smart but really aren’t, like ‘the humanities aren’t falsifiable, they’re not science’ or ‘it’s just interpretation, it’s not science.’ These people don’t understand what science is, nor what interpretation is.
13) Switching now in conclusion from the explanatory to the polemical: to the extent there are problems with ‘interpretation’—and there absolutely are—it’s most people aren’t any good at it, don’t value it, don’t think it’s necessary, so they outsource their value judgments.
14) ‘Let the market decide.’ ‘Let the partisans decide.’ ‘Let the courts decide.’ That’s easier than learning how to use rigorous interpretation to make value judgments *not* out of self-interest or ‘market logic’ or partisan piety, but bc they’re correct & you can back them up.
15) Being good at interpreation is seriously one of the most practical and ubiquitously relevant life skills. Being bad at it because you misread 10 pages of Popper is a tragic outcome. /end
(Aside: FWIW the strong claim here would need *a lot* of unpacking, and I’m not sure I’d buy most versions of it, so don’t @ me.)
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