Thursday, June 13, 2013

Can there be a single, comprehensive, correct interpretation of an artwork?

Philosopher Robert Stecker (in "Art Interpretation" in Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Literature ed. David Davies and Carl Matheson, Broadview Press, 2008) argues that "questions about the interpretations of artworks not only can have correct answers but a single, comprehensive correct answer" although he also thinks this view can be consistent with the idea that there can be many perspectives on art that may produce equally good interpretations of the same work.  I think that Stecker is wrong, and that there can be no single, correct interpretation.  Stecker seeks, counter-intuitively, to combine Critical Pluralism and Critical Monism by reinterpreting Critical Pluralism to no longer deny the view that there can be a single correct interpretation of a literary work.  Part of the disagreement between Stecker and myself must be based on different ways of interpreting the term "true."  Stecker sees truth as a matter of correctness, and distinguishes this from acceptability.  The standard view of truth in the analytic tradition, to which Stecker belongs, is that truth is a matter of correspondence:  "snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white.  Sentences are the things that are true or false, and they are true if they correspond "point by point" with the facts that they describe.  I am more attracted to the pragmatist theory of truth, that truth is a matter of what works, and the Heideggerian theory of truth, where truth is something that emerges in the process in inquiry and has great significance.  Heideggerian truth is closer to wisdom than standard analytic versions of truth.  A pragmatist/Heideggerian approach to truth (PH truth) would downplay the distinction between truth and acceptability since it would not accept the reduction of truth to correctness or reduce acceptability to something purely subjective or fictional.  That is, the truth (as correctness) vs. acceptability disjunction, is based on a radical dualism between the objective and subjective which is denied by the theory of PH truth. 

Stecker assumes that "all correct interpretations about a given work are conjoinable into a single true interpretation" since standard logic tells us that true propositions, when joined, yield true propositions.  This, to me, shows a deep misunderstanding of the nature of literary interpretation.  Interpretations are not simply conjoined sentences proposed as truth.  They are, to be sure, a series of sentences, but unlike the realm of logic, the sequence of the sentences in the series is immensely important.  Interpretations are literary works in their own right.  We usually read them sequentially from beginning to end, or if we jump back and forth, we still see them as presented in a specific order in which later sentences and paragraphs illuminate what came before.  Moreover, it is less important that each sentence be true in some sense (many may be mythical, hypothetical, ironic, or even outright false) but that truth emerges from the reading of the interpretation as a whole.  A literary interpretation is an organic whole, and Stecker's entire analysis fails to see this because it is based on a model that allows sentences to be interchanged randomly without any concern for that fact.  To put this another way, a literary or other art interpretation is not true simply because it contains true sentences.  Moreover from a PH truth perspective these individual sentences can only be considered true insofar as they participate in the truth that emerges in the whole which is the interpretation.  Stecker has allowed himself to be seduced into belief in Critical Monism by this trick of formal symbolic logic, a trick that cannot be applied to the real world of art interpretation.

Stecker allows for interpretations that are acceptable but not true, but I would argue that his conditions for acceptability show that his notion of truth is anemic insofar as it excludes them.  For instance, he believes that enhancing appreciation can make an interpretation acceptable although not true.  What exactly would count as enhancing appreciation that did not also enhance our understanding of the work or of the world through the work?  I would suggest that you cannot do one without the other.  Stecker admits that acceptable interpretations must be consistent with some of the facts about the work.  I would argue that mere acceptability is too weak-kneed to be of much value in interpretation of art.  We do not want something that is just acceptable  As a teacher I think of the acceptable paper as one that passes, and no more:  a C+ paper, let's say.   It does, of course, make sense to speak of facts in a way that fits correspondence theory when we are speaking of uncontroversial truths about works of art.  A good literary interpretation minimally requires that it not be contradicted by the work itself.  For example, this novel contains sentence X.   However, talk about facts is usually governed by concepts that are conditioned by theories, and so in the interpretation of art, the non-controversial facts only provide a base-line for testing interpretation.

Stecker says he thinks of acceptable interpretations as neither true nor false, as simply "asking us to imagine the work in certain ways" i.e. "in terms of a further fiction" for example an ideology.  This is an important place where he goes wrong.  Imagining works in certain ways is one of the main paths by which truth emerges.  Imagining a work in such a way as to relate it to contemporary interests can help to bring the work alive again.  Bringing a work alive is a matter of making it have truth value, one perhaps it had lost.   Truth is something dynamic, something that happens, on the PH view.

Stecker says that when it is suggested that we think of King Lear as an example of theater of the absurd we should not think of this as asserting that King Lear actually represents characters in this modern way.  He thinks that interpreting works in such a way as to "shed light on the meaning of our own times" as Martin Esslin put it, is precisely not to be concerned with the truth of the interpretation.  It seems to me, rather, that this is the best way to address the truth, i.e. from the PH truth perspective.

Stecker thinks he can combine Critical Monism and Critical Pluralism by insisting that all the true interpretations can be combined into a comprehensive true interpretation, and yet (he adds) there may also be a multiplicity of interpretations that are acceptable because they enhance appreciation through getting us to see things in different ways, although they are neither true nor false.  The distinction is dualist in an important way:  it depends on a radical dichotomy between subjective and objection and, importantly, between fictional and non-fictional.  Stecker fails to recognize that essential role that fiction plays in the construction of truth, at least of the deeper truth that approaches wisdom. 

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