Philosophy Friday: A Conversation on Interpretation

“Human, I Am who I Am is speaking to you; Take up your quill and write what the Lord, the God of your Fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, commands you. First: These words—”

“—um, wait one moment Sir.”

“What’s that? Come again?”

“Yes, I’m not quite sure how to get across what you’re talking about.”

“What ever do you mean?”

“Well, all facts are interpreted facts: in the end there’s nothing but the text and that just collapses on itself. It’s not like I’m going to transport you to the reader; the reader comes at the text with their own perspectives.”

“Okay…”

“So, for example, Ariel uses a  ‘Dinglehopper’ for combing her hair; the purpose of which was conveyed by a seagull who told her. Imagine her embarrassment when she sees a fork on her dinner table and starts combing her hair with it thinking ‘what a lovely dinglehopper’! Someone else called the thing a fork but she knows it as a different term.”

“Your point…?”

“The object might be real but we humans bring our interpretation to bear on it and turns it upside down. It really is a dinglehopper to Ariel. So, right now, you’re going to give me words to write: You know what you’re talking about (surely) but I will invariably interpret it for myself and that will necessarily be a misinterpretation. This is exacerbated by putting it in text form since neither I (nor you) really go along with the text. Whatever reality exists, all that we have are words and their context and in our situation, the context shifts: the words get a new life of their own. Even if I were to mentally project a context, it would still be an interpretation of that context and that mental projection isn’t carried over to later readers. What I would need is a community to help, and not just any community. A community that can stick around but isn’t constrained by the dangerous naiveté of modernistic thinking that they can just read and understand.”

“Indeed…”

“For example, ‘Human’ is a handy term but really, what if you’re referring to some guy named Human. That’s not my name, after all. Worse, remove the reader by 2,000 years and they might come up with all sorts of things. What if the reader is an alien who has never seen a Human? What then? What could you, Lord, asks the reader, possibly mean by such terms—even ‘speaking’. You obviously don’t have lips since you’re invisible so you must be giving me this information in some way maybe images in my head—but some other community might say that it means revealing with pulsating light but you would have to tell us which one is right. There’s just an infinite amount of play whenever it comes to terminology. In the end, what’ll happen is that for each person reading whatever it is you will have me ‘write’ (whatever it is you mean by that) will interpret the information differently. No one will really get it unless done in a sort of community that you approve as having done it right.”

“But that would only happen after the fact, eh…?”

“Yes, exactly. We’d each have to do it and then you’d have to give your mark of approval. But frankly, even then the mark of approval is up for interpretation and ultimately way too overbearing. What’s important is the text and the reader. It’s just the way it works with finite creatures who come at the world with a point of view. You’re going to have to speak down to us, in our weakness but even then it won’t be good enough: we are limited by what we see and our understanding of it. We’d just have to trust you (or whatever we think you’re saying) and do what we like—or what the community demands.  It’s enough to give me a headache! So, Lord (or whatever I have interpreted that to mean) I’m sorry, but I think we need to make sure we don’t expect too much out of this whole writing business.”

“Ah. I understand. Well then, do you see that bottle labeled rat poison over there?”

“Yes Lord, this one?”

“Yes. Take some for your headache.”

“Um, it says rat poison…”

“Here, hand me it real quick. Okay, there…now it says Tylenol.”

“Okay…”

“Take some for your headache.”

“I think you’re missing the point, Lord: it said Rat Poison; the context is that in my community, we define Rat Poison as going in there…”

“Come now man, that’s an interpreted fact. Nothing exists beyond the text! Whatever the objective meaning of the thing doesn’t matter—it’s not like you tasted it to find out if it’s really poison or not. You’re simply misinterpreting whatever the author of that text meant when he wrote Tylenol (or Rat Poison) on that bottle. Your community has told you that such things labeled ‘rat poison’ are rat poison but all that is a matter of traditional thinking; you should really turn that modernist idea upside down and challenge it. The label reads Tylenol now. And now I’m telling you that I have approved the message on the bottle.”

“But Lord, it’s really poison! It said so!”

“Are you suggesting, O’ Human, that someone, yes a stupid, fallible and finite Human, was able to communicate information that points to objective facts despite the notion that you believe all facts are interpreted?”

“…”

“Are you noting, O’ Human, that there is something beyond the text ? That indeed, there is a limited sphere of play between the words ‘rat poison’ and ‘Tylenol’?”

“…”

“Are you suggesting that if another community removed by 2,000 years believed that this bottle contained Tylenol, or say Licorice, or whatever phonemic symbols they decide to attach to something perceptually Good instead of Rat Poison (or anything deadly) and ate it, their headaches would be magically cured? Does not the poison remain poison despite your interpretation of that?”

“…”

“Better yet, do you think that I—the one who created the tongue, who formed the mouth, who originated language, who created light from the basis of my imagination—can’t use language, even your language, to give objective facts? I who can slay a man and raise him up again, I who can make the Leviathan play, I who can dot the canvas of the heavens with stars and galaxies—I can’t speak perfectly with the language that I created and subsequently have someone record that?”

“…”

“If you can speak perfectly introducing yourself, writing books, and pointing to rat poison, do you think me so weak, in my infinite power and majesty, that I can’t possibly reveal truth, objective truth, without it fizzling when it reaches your insignificant ears? I am the Infinite God who formed man, who saw the cosmos before they were formed, who knows the end from the beginning and is never taken by surprise: my word does not come back empty—and you choose to put the stop at the spigot of Infinite at your community’s contextualized interpretation?”

“…”

“Now, Derided Human, pick up your quill and write. Again, from the top: These words are faithful and true; he who has an ear to hear let him hear…”

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