I have posted on this matter previously and here, again, I am responding to something written by Peter Kivy, one of the leading contemporary philosophers of art. In "Paraphrasing Poetry (for Profit and Pleasure," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69: 4 (2011): 367-371, Kivy addresses the issue again. The article is polemical, mainly directed against points raised by Peter Lamarque who himself had criticized Kivy's previously stated theory. Despite this polemical nature, the article leads me to think once more about the issue of paraphrase. Kivy believes that poetry is paraphrasable, which for him, simply means that we can interpret its meaning. He further denies Lamarque's claim that the only proper way to read poetry is under the idea of form-content unity, where the content (meaning) cannot be separated from the form. Kivy thinks that reading under the idea of form/content unity is one way to read poetry but not the only way. He thinks that someone like Lamarque would deny that one could read Paradise Lost as a theological tract and be reading it as poetry, and he thinks this would be wrong. I tend to favor pluralism, and I would therefore agree with Kivy on this point. Kivy's reason for his pluralism is somewhat different, however, from one I would give. He is a realist about meaning and so his reason is simply that "A serious, complex poem like Paradise Lost has so much going on in it that a reader...cannot possibly 'get it all' " with one approach. (373) No being a realist I do not believe in the idea of "getting it all." I even think that many of the good readings of Paradise Lost will be seen as contradicting each other or at least as being in some sort of conflict: this is not a possibility for a realist like Kivy. I wonder, also, why various different kinds of readings of Paradise Lost cannot all be under the notion of form/content unity. Does form/content unity really deny giving a theological reading to Paradise Lost? Kivy thinks his opponents will say that his pluralism will allow a reading of the poem that just concentrates on how many times Milton uses "e" but, and I agree, although we have no theory of poetry to exclude this, we do not really need a theory to do so, and we do not want to a priori rule out the possibility that it might provide a viable reading under some theory.
Now, if it the paraphrase contains the content and it is possible to get the content without reading the poem then why bother reading the poem? Is reading the poem rather than reading a good critic's interpretation of it really necessary or even useful? This carries over to reading philosophy books in philosophy classes. Students might ask us why they should read the original work by, say, Hume, when we have provided perfectly good lecture notes, and surely our lecture notes are better than anything they could come up with in terms of explication of content. I am deliberately not using as an example a philosopher who is known for his or her poetic or literary style. The hard and interesting case is Hume. To what extent is philosophy, even of the most straightforward sort, paraphrasable? Of course it is paraphrasable, but the question is, what do we get with a paraphrase? This has an immense bearing on the philosophy of education since we give our students papers and exams in which we expect them to paraphrase philosophical views and we judge these paraphrases based on how well they "get it." Interestingly, we are (or at least, many of us are) willing to accept many different kinds of paraphrase of the same philosophical work as correct. Of course we also have a clear idea when the student gets it wrong. A correct paraphrase shows understanding, and understanding is what we want from the student.
Kivy himself raises the issue of paraphrasing philosophy and they have to do with the issue I just raised: why do we think it valuable for students to read Hume in the original? Kivy gives three reasons for this, two of which I think are of little importance: i.e. the text might have great literary merits independent of its content (this gets us back to the original issue of whether form can be separated from content, and so is not helpful as a reason) and the reader may be curious "as to what the original text is like." The interesting reason is that "the reader might be at a sufficient level of philosophical sophistication to want to make up his own mind about the meaning of the philosophical text by consulting it directly, particularly as the 'experts' will doubtless differ on points of interpretation." (375) This seems plausible at first. However, most students in Introduction to Philosophy are not at a very high level of philosophical sophistication and are unlikely to want to read texts in the original (or even be able to see why this would be a good idea). So why do we philosophy teachers want them to do it, and why do they often in the end get something out of it. One reason is that we want them to be autonomous thinkers. Another is that many of us think that these texts are rich in meaning and open to multiple interpretations. These two points are connected: autonomous readers do not just accept the interpretations of the past but come up with their own interpretations. To follow Hans Georg Gadamer, they ideally engage in a "fusion of horizons" with the text. Moreover, it is the possibility of rich new interpretations with new readings that keeps good old texts alive. Interpretation is a form of dialogue with the great writings of the past.
So back to the paraphrase problem. It is not that paraphrase is impossible: each student who reads a poem or a philosophical text paraphrases when describing its meaning. The problem is in believing that any paraphrase is final: that's the heresy of paraphrase. The heresy is to believe that the text of the paraphrase can substitute for the original text, whether it be poetry or philosophy, that reading the teacher's lecture notes is as good as reading the text. There is another reason. The teacher's lecture notes or the teacher's written out interpretation are only as good as the teacher's understanding of the text, and this is just one understanding. It probably a good understand, deserving even of the highest marks, but still only one of unlimited possible good interpretations. Reading only the teachers interpretation reduces the liveliness of the exchange since one is two removes from the real thing. You can't fuse horizons with Kant by reading Guyer's book on Kant, even though his is the best current interpretation. The experience of understanding is deadened or flattened if one seeks to replace understanding the paraphrase/interpretation with understanding the text itself. Reading Guyer's interpretation is helpful in not getting Kant totally wrong or in testing one's own interpretation or in knowing what the current state of play is in interpreting Kant, but it is not something that replaces Kant, and this is not just because the literary quality is lost. I don't think that losing the literary quality is a big deal: Kant is not know for his literary virtues, although he does have a few good sentences. An important point is that every paraphrase leaves out things that the paraphraser believes is not essential to the content. But it is always possible that someone else reading Milton or Kant will find what is left out to be essential.
I also like Michael Dummett's explanation for the unparaphrasability of philosophy which Kivy gives and partially endorses: philosophy "aims not to formulate theses detachable from their author's expression of them, but to provide insight into very complex conceptual tangles." (375) However, Kivy thinks that this idea only applies to non-mainstream styles of philosophical writing (in which he includes Plato, Spinoza, Augustine, Descartes and Nietzsche). Mainstream philosophy is in "straightforward expository form." According to Kivy, only when the type of writing departs from the mainstream is "the philosophical content...not detachable from its mode of expression." One oddity to all of this is that it is not clear what great philosopher or even what really good philosopher is excluded from this class of non-mainstream philosophers. The list of non-mainstream philosophers that Kivy offers is already stellar and I see no reason why it should exclude Hume, Kant, Quine or Kivy himself. That is, I think there would be a problem with having students read my paraphrase of Kivy as a substitute for reading Kivy himself. So why does Kivy think that the non-mainstream philosophers are different? He says "to get the full content of them and, in particular, to understand how these thinkers construed the very nature of the philosophical enterprise, one must experience the particular mode of expression and content. For the particular mode of expression reflects a philosophical method, and a philosophical method has implications for what the philosopher construes philosophy to be about." But isn't it interesting that Kivy can only come up with great philosophers in his list of non-mainstream philosophers and comes up with no great philosophers when he talks about mainstream philosophers. So wouldn't that imply that mainstream philosophers are more closely allied to interpreters of great philosophers than they are to great philosopher since both attempt to write in a style that is easily paraphrased? Kivy thinks that the strong thesis that great philosophical texts cannot be paraphrased would also imply that one cannot learn Newtonian mechanics without reading Newton's original texts. But, on my view, this is a reductio of Kivy's position on this point since this is precisely the place at which philosophy is much more like literature than like science.
Interested in learning more? See my book: Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Broadview Press, 2012. Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents. You can also buy it fro Broadview.