Why Interpretation Matters?

As storytelling creatures, we humans interpret words, texts, conversations, and the world all the time. We make sense by interpreting. We learn this early in life and get so good at it that soon enough we stop noticing that we are interpreting, not to mention what results from our meaning-making activity and why we have interpreted something in a particular way. Most of the time, it happens in the background.

Yet, our interpretations shape the way we see the world, other people, ourselves, events, and relationships among all these. They are the way we see and understand. We notice the significance of interpretation only when something goes wrong. Misunderstandings are the most common examples. It is safe to argue that they represent one of the universal human experiences. Who can honestly say they have never been misunderstood or have never misunderstood someone else? If misunderstandings are so commonplace, this alone serves as a validation of the claim that interpretation matters.

Example of Objectivity

How would you define the concept of objectivity? Many of us use this word today to show that something (a claim, belief, statement) is unbiased, as close to the truth as possible. Indeed, we talk of objective truth and knowledge, implying that it is stripped of any personal influence of the individual conveying it. Facts are, we say, objective (i.e., value-free), while opinions are not (i.e., value-laden).

I have written on objectivity and truth in the past, but here I want to focus on the historical and cultural embeddedness of our interpretations. Because we are accustomed to interpreting the meaning of objectivity in this way, we can forget it is a word, a concept, and thus, a cultural construct. It is not the same as some mathematical truth or a rule of logic that remains universal across time and space. Many of the words we use daily have had their meaning shaped and reshaped throughout the ages and cultures. Probably more than we realize.

That is one important reason we find it easier to understand the texts written after the Scientific Revolution, starting from the early modern times, than, say, those from the Middle Ages and the antiquity. We can read the words and think that we know what they mean when, in reality, the cultural context has changed so much that our modern interpretation of that word is not applicable to its earlier uses. These interpretations are similar to discovering new worlds.

So what about objectivity or objective knowledge as a concept? Well, as it turns out, before it was redefined as unbiased and value-free knowledge, it had a different meaning. Here is what Jens Zimmermann writes in his excellent 2015 book, Hermeneutics: a very short introduction (with my highlight).

“When it was first used in medieval theories about knowledge, the Latin word objectivus simply indicated the appearance of an object to the mind. Only after Descartes do we assume that knowing objectively means to screen out the context of our own lives in order to attain certain knowledge. Eventually, people came to think that the only way to fulfil this requirement for true knowledge was through the scientific method of the empirical sciences. Most of our current divisions between knowledge and belief, reason and faith, science and religion stem from this historical development.”

Zimmermann, p.23

keep exploring!

Resource used: Zimmermann, Jens. Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Image credit: Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

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