Whenever we offer an explanation of what we have read we offer an interpretation. Interpretations are based on understandings. If you ask me to give an interpretation I might do so verbally or in writing. My interpretation of a text, whether literary, religious, or philosophical, will change over time in the sense that if you ask me to give an interpretation later it will be different from the first one. A good interpretation, for me, is one that fits that text well and satisfies me. A really good interpretation does this for a lot of people who have read the text carefully. Although there are interpretations of musical works and of dances I will focus here on interpretations of literary works and visual works of art, although I may have a thing or two to say about interpretation of philosophy. Most of my comments here will take off from Steven Davies' chapter "Interpretation." in his The Philosophy of Art. Early on Davies says "interpretation is called for when a thing's meaning or import isn't obvious." (107) I would say that if you like reading, understanding and interpreting you should not wait to be called to interpret. You can give your understanding or write your interpretation of any text at any time. The meaning of the text might seem obvious, but this does not mean that it would be fruitless to write an interpretation of it...and necessarily in doing so you will construct for the public your unique understanding of the text. There are very few literary works or movies that have not been subjected to interpretation. So it is hard to know what would count as something with a meaning so obvious that interpretation would be a waste of time.
Davies gives as an example of not needing interpretation your neighbor saying "good morning" as usual. Well, he is right that there is no need for interpretation here. But the kinds of texts we are talking about here, i.e. in philosophy, religion, poetry, and art, are quite a bit more complicated and, as Davies himself admits, they call for interpretation. He admits that "interpretation is likely to be needed in understanding complex, multi-layered, extended discourses offering the possibility of more than one reading." (108)
There is some confusion about the relationship between interpretation and translation. Translation, that is, of the kinds of texts that concern us here, always requires interpretation. The words you choose in the second language depend on the understanding you have of what you have read in the first language. We even say sometimes that a translation is an interpretation, although normally we think of an interpretation as a more complete account of your understanding. Bear in mind that as you create an interpretation you are also modifying and improving your understanding. You may have a pre-understanding before you start to write an interpretation, but the interpretation is not just a recording of your understanding.
Davies speaks of a kind of interpretation that "looks to uncover meanings beyond those that are plainly presented." (108) Those who give interpretations clearly want to express the meaning of what they interpret, but they need not make a big distinction between covered meanings and those that are "plainly presented." Whatever seems at first to be plainly presented may be open to interpretation as much as anything else. Freud, when he was engaged in interpreting dreams, often found that the things which at first seemed to be plainly presented really needed interpretation.
Davies makes a seemingly useful distinction between a poem and a text, the text being just an ahistorical word sequence. But if I face a text I always face something in a historical context, so it is hard to know how the distinction is really useful. There is no "slab of language regarded ahistorically and apart from any occasion of use" (116) or rather, you can regard a text in this way, but what would be the point? Isn't it just confusing to say that both Cervantes and the imagined character Menard "use the same text" as though they were shopping for texts, say in a grocery store, and as though a text were like an avocado that could be used for different purposes. When I read Cervantes I read one text, and when I read Menard (assuming his text actually existed), I read another text, and the two mean very different things although in terms of words in sequence they look the same.
Davies' purpose is to assure that in the case "of works of art correctly identified as such, usually the range of plausible interpretations isn't unlimited..." as it would be for what he calls "texts." I do not think what he calls "texts" exist, but I do think that there is no clear limit to how many possible interpretations there can be for what I call "text" (and what he calls "poem"). The same text (in my sense, i.e. what I am reading) may be interpreted by an unlimited number of people over an unlimited period of time, each interpretation being at least slightly different, and this is true even if the interpretations meet Davies' constraint of acknowledging and respecting "the poem's identity-conferring contents..." (110) i.e. the historical circumstances of its creation.
A common theory of interpretation is called intentionalism. The assumption seems to be that there is a thing in the author's mind distinct from what was written in the text which is the author's intended meaning for the text. I have always found this implausible. It is clear that the author intended to say exactly what he she said in the text: unless there is a transcriber's error, what you see is clearly intended as such. But the thought is that there is this other thing, this other set of meanings behind the text and lodged in the mind of the author, a thing called the author's intended meaning for the text. Presumably this thing is made up of different words or of the same words in different arrangement. But if it were in a different arrangement, why wouldn't he have used that one rather than the one he used?
I won't deny that reading other things the author wrote before, during or after the time she wrote the text helps us to understand what she meant. Nor would I deny that interpretation is largely a matter of trying to understand what the author meant. But sometimes interpretation is just as much a matter of trying to understand how the text can illuminate its subject matter, or more generally, the world. It might be that the text can do this in ways not anticipated by the author, or that the author denies that the text illuminates the world in the way you think it does. But I don't think that would invalidate your interpretation. The author, as it were, puts her baby out into the world and it takes on a life of its own. Like most parents, the author cannot control the baby when it grows up,
Moreover, a lot of authors like to have their texts open to the possibility of multiple interpretation anyway. I have no problem with isolating something like "the author's meaning," which is the meaning intended by the author, as long as literary critics still allow it that someone can provide a good interpretation of a work that would be denied by the author.
Davies is worried about an infinite regress argument in relation to intentionalism, and responds: "If we are to reject this argument, we must show that there are knowable intentions that do not require further interpretation. There must be certainty that can't be denied about what the relevant intentions or mental states are. And its true that in practice we often act this way. That is, we interpret what others say or do by reference to their intentions and we regard those intentions as knowable, unambiguous, and as self-explanatory." (112) This may be why Davies thought that interpretation is only needed when the meaning of something is not obvious. However, how many things really are unambiguous or self-explanatory? Isn't it rather that we have a cut off point and we take certain things as unambiguous to move on?
Again, Davies seems to think it is natural to understand interpretation of religious, philosophical and artistic texts as though this was just like interpreting things like morning greetings. But the gap here is enormous. Even in everyday life we constantly interpret and reinterpret the intentions of others, and we are often told by others that we have totally misunderstood their intentions.
Davies writes "I assume...that we're not barred in principle from discovering what others, including literary authors, intend." (113) Well, you can assume that we can construct theories of what they intend, and these theories are called interpretations. But can we ever be assured of getting this interpretation exactly right? I suspect we are barred from that. Also I suspect that there is nothing really ultimately to discover. Intentions are social constructions and they are negotiated: they also evolve, as do memories in general (which has been well established in psychology).
Another thing we shouldn't forget is that authors create relatively long works and then review these before publication so that the act of publication involves an intention that the whole thing be taken quite seriously together. That is, the author already provides a lot of context for interpreting her words: i.e. the other words in the same text. These are the most likely to illuminate the meaning. Words from other texts the author has written earlier or later in life may reflect a different perspective entirely. We should not forget that on the particular day the work gets sent out the author has authorized the text as is. Looking at other things he she may have said may help us to understand what is said here, but none of these other statements have that particular time stamp.
Davies speaks of the author's intentions being among the "external factors that cooperate with internal features to determine the work's content." (115) I wonder whether we can ever make a clear distinction between internal and external. Aren't intentions internal to the work? If they are not then it would be fruitless to try to interpret the work in term of intentions. But aren't various contextual factors of its creation also internal to the work? Doesn't Davies himself talk about the identity of the poem as being more than what he narrowly calls "text"? A text is a rich thing: its has many layers. Some layers may seem relatively more external or internal: that's about the most that can be said.
Many object to intentionalism that it does not allow for multiple interpretations. But Davies says that the "The multiple interpretability of artworks is consistent with the claims of moderate actual intentionalism" And so, the critics miss their mark. The reply by the intentionalists is that meanings in addition to the intended author's meaning can exist, and also that artists may intend a variety of plausible interpretations. Yet the two points seem to be in conflict. It the author intends multiple meanings then there is no one author's meaning as posited in the first reply to the objection.