It looks like 2011 will be remembered as a year of interpretation. As far as I know, there will be three international conferences on this very theme in June (so June will be the month of interpretation!):
1. There is the annual ISCWP Beijing Roundtable on Contemporary Philosophy, “Classical Texts and Philosophical Interpretation: In View of Studies of Chinese Philosophy and Development of Contemporary Philosophy” at Capital Normal University, Beijing, 3 June, 2011.
2. There is the international conference co-organized by Shandong University and SUNY Buffalo: “Interpretation East and West: An International Conference” at Shandong University, Jinan, Shandong, 2-6 June, 2011.Here is the program of the conference:
3. Finally, there is the international symposium “Reading Matters: Chinese and Western Traditions of Interpreting the Classics” at Leiden University, the Netherlands, 10-11 June, 2011.
It is my impression that the organizers of these conferences have come up with the theme independently. I think there is something in the air!
I’ve always been interested in the fundamental question about interpretation, which is “How should we interpret and read texts today?.” Some might try to offer a general theory of interpretation as an answer to the question. Others might try to offer a radical “anti-theory” view, which is that one cannot (and should not) try to come up with any general theory of interpretation that is applicable to any text and any reader.
I wonder if the radical anti-theory view is based on a mistaken assumption, which is that a general theory cannot be a non-uniform theory. It seems to assume that a general theory cannot make non-uniform claims, such as the claim that different texts require different ways of interpretations, or the claim that the same text should be read differently by different readers (with different relations to the text and with different purposes). In other words, it conflates generality with uniformity. In fact, I’d argue that a general theory must take a non-uniform form.
To try to figure out a general, normative, non-uniform theory of interpretation is an ambitious thing to do. Our point of departure could be a descriptive history and typology of hermeneutic practices that have existed in various communities of readers in history. The result will be a typology of various ways in which readers with different relations with different texts interpret these texts. In fact, it is very likely that a general, normative theory of interpretation could take the following non-uniform, conditional form:
“If one’s relationship with a certain text is such-and-such, and one has a specific purpose in reading the text, one should read it in this way. If one has a different relationship and purpose, then one should read it in a different way.”
This means that our theory cannot be a uniform one. Furthermore, the theory should remain open-ended, leaving room for the possibility of emergence of radically new relationships between the reader and texts, and the corresponding hermeneutic practices in the future. Or from the past. Scholars have indeed been “discovering” surprisingly different hermeneutic practices in the past.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!