2011 Is A Year of Interpretation!

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!

6 replies on “2011 Is A Year of Interpretation!”

  1. Hi Yang! Great to see you posting here.

    I’m not sure what you’re describing is really a general theory—it just sounds like a concatenation of an open-ended bunch of particular theories. I’d have thought that a general theory of interpretation would have to derive whatever it has to say about particular sorts of reading from a unified, general account. Otherwise, what makes it *one* theory?

  2. It is indeed interesting that there are several conferences on the same general topic. Does anyone have any idea why?

    I think general theories do tend to have variable implications. The ideal gas law (PV = nRT) implies that under certain conditions the pressure of an ideal gas will be A, under other conditions the pressure will be B, etc. And the theory that the force of gravity on objects near the earth’s surface applies an accelaration of 32 ft/sec2 is only a program for calculating the resultant motion based on the other forces at play, which differ.

    If I were hired to argue against general theories of interpretation as such, I’d argue not on the basis of the idea that general theories make uniform recommendations, but rather on the basis of the indefinite variety of relevant factors for interpretation. The ways texts can differ, the ways other available information can differ, the ways the available skill sets and other resources of interpreters can differ, the ways audiences can differ – these seem virtually unlimited. Hence perhaps no format for a list of non-general theories (such as the format you give) can claim to suffice, and a fortiori no general theory can be true.

    That’s how I’d argue even if we weren’t construing “interpretation” so broadly as to include projects that don’t aim at accuracy (about “what the text means,” on some reasonable conception or other of that).

    I’m inclined to say that if accuracy is not among one’s limiting purposes, then what one is doing is not properly called “interpretation” (though it could be pretending to interpret, e.g. if the purpose is the practical value of the audience’s believing the claims about the text, so that the project inherently involves having the audience think one’s claims are accurate).

  3. Welcome, Yang! I think that Bill raises a good question: what might explain all the interest in interpretation? I suspect that at least two factors are at work:

    (1) At this moment of increasing cross-tradition, cross-national, and cross-linguistic exchange, the question of how we (in various different configurations of “we”) ought to relate to textual traditions is very much open. The conferences in question all include both Chinese and non-Chinese scholars and two of the three will take place in multiple languages. One can furthermore detect, in the background of the scholars involved and/or in their paper titles, a variety of philosophical orientations. These diversities make the issue of the proper relationship to past texts both difficult and vital.

    (2) It is also significant that within some of the currently influential philosophical approaches, “interpretation” is thematized, albeit in somewhat different ways. Thanks to the work of Quine and Davidson, among others, interpretation is a significant topic in Anglo-American philosophy, and this approach has its proponents in the contemporary Chinese philosophical scene. The stress on hermeneutics within continental European philosophy of the last century is also well-known, and is extremely influential in many Sinophone philosophy departments (and cognate departments, like Chinese literature, etc.).

    If all this diversity explains why “interpretation” might be getting all this attention right now, it also makes more pressing the question of whether any agreement on (some aspects of) a general theory of interpretation is likely to be forthcoming. It would be marvelous to get reports from these conferences as to whether any sort of consensus or general conclusions emerge from the discussions!

  4. Thanks for the explanations, Steve!

    I too would be very interested to hear about these conferences.

    Two topics that strike me offhand as uninteresting are: (a) the question whether interpretation is possible, and (b) the effort to work out a comprehensive normative theory for all interpretation. Maybe that’s just because I’m unimaginative about what sorts of things people might say in those areas.

    What strikes me as interesting is the prospect of learning some more specific questions and answers people might offer about aspects of interpretation, or interpretation of particular kinds of text (such as the kinds we find in early Chinese philosophy). For I wouldn’t be at all surprised to be surprised by new and interesting ideas of those kinds.

  5. Dan, Bill and Steve,

    These are really thought-provoking comments! Many thanks! I am actually leaving tomorrow for China to attend the Jinan conference on interpretation. My next post will be my report of the conference. More to follow…

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