It’s difficult to determine what the claim of a (philosophical) text is. And thinking about today’s topic, I feel like I haven’t even mentioned the crucial difficulty. I don’t know about you, but for me things start moving once I begin to look at relations between texts. It’s like listening to a conversation. Once you listen to different voices, each of them is more distinguishable. It’s the relation to other texts that makes the aims, claims, and arguments visible in the first place. I’d even say that figuring out the claim of a text is impossible unless we understand what the claim is responding to.
Why is that? I suppose that it has to do with a very simple fact about sincere conversations: no one will just start out by making a claim. I won’t get up in the morning and start a conversation by saying: “By the way, I think, therefore I am.” Claims are responses. They might be responses to questions, refinements or corrections of other claims. And this is why texts don’t make much sense unless we see them in relations to other texts. To put the point in a more technical fashion, claims make sense if you consider them in inferential relations, not if you solely consider them in relation to phenomena or facts. So if someone talks, say, about consciousness, you won’t be able to say much beyond that if you only think about the relation between the claim and the phenomenon (of consciousness). Only when you begin to see how it relates to a specific question, to other tenets or a competing claim will you be able to assess it.
Now you might want to raise the following objection: Surely, you will reply to me, surely you can assess a claim in relation to a question or a different claim. But why should it not be possible to see a claim in relation to phenomena? At this point, I can only hint at an answer: This relation will leave the claim underdetermined. The reason is that the phenomenon is not ‘on the same level’ as the text. It’s like making a pointing gesture into the midle distance without at least attempting a description of the kind of thing you want to point at. Of course, you are able to consider an extralinguistic phenomenon or state of affairs. Think of a red elephant! Now there are a thousand things you can say about that elephant: you can talk about anything in relation to the elephant. Only in response to a specific question can you make a claim that stands in an inferential relation. If someone asks you: “What does the elephant look like?” or “What colour does it have?”, you can claim that it is red. Only such inferential relations make claims in texts determinable.
If you read my earlier piece, you might now hold this against me: But you, Martin, listed various interpretations of Ockham’s “mental propositions”; and these were not primarily standing in relation to other texts but to the phenomenon that was assumed to be picked out by the term “mental propositions”. Sure, the interpretations might have been shaky, but they were intended to get at the extralinguistic facts that Ockham wanted to explain! – Well, although that might seem to be the case, it’s not really true. Even if these interpretations were not formed in explicit relation to other texts of Ockham’s time, they were still formed in relation to contemporary texts. Such texts might remain unmentioned as tacit presuppositions. But if I say that Ockham is or isn’t like Fodor, I compare the Summa logicae to Fodor’s Language of Thought. There is always another text. But if we want to provide accessible interpretations, it’s better to say what these texts (or presuppositions) are.
Now there are of course many possible texts that I can relate any given text to. How do I pick them? – That depends. Of course, there will be your personal associations to begin with: other texts that a given text makes you think of. “This sounds like that”, you might think without ever writing it down. Although you perhaps won’t admit what you initially thought of, keep it in mind. It might be important one day. The next question to ask is what kind of interpretation you want to give. If you are interested in current philosophical topics, think about pertinent texts. If you want to provide a historical analysis of the claim, it will be good to figure out what a text is actually responding to. Now you enter the field in which you can make true and false assertions about the text. But don’t worry. It’s so hard to assess such assertions that any false claim is better than remaining silent. (I mean that.)
But how do you go about determining the claim now? No matter whether you want to give a more philosophical or historical interpretation, it’s important to look for a point of contact. Such a point of contact is a more or less explicit way of relating to another text, either by paraphrase or direct quotation. It might be a term, a phrase or even a paragraph. A point of contact is evidence for a historian: another text has been responded to. But it is way more than that. In finding a such a point of contact you make sure that two texts (and you) share a common ground: something that is agreed on or disagreed about. There are several ways of estabishing a point of contact, but it seems sensible to begin by distinguishing at least three approaches:
(1) If you analyse a text historically, you might begin by looking for quotations or references to other texts. This gives you a first idea of what an author relates to or disagrees with. If you’re lucky you’ve now found something that the claim is a refinement of or an opposition to. So here you can begin to figure out what is being claimed.
(2) If you read secondary literature, you’ll often find that it disagrees about certain points of contact. Figure them out. If there is no clear point of contact, people might be talking past one another.
(3) If you’re more interested in the topic than the historical ties of the text, you can establish a point of contact by relating it to any text you find pertinent. Here, you might follow your initial associations and wonder why you thought of them.
In any case, by establishing a clear point of contact, you’ll provide your reader or interlocutor with an accessible piece of evidence that a discussion can focus on. Texts talk to other texts. In this sense, establishing such a focus between texts, shifting it, or making a new emphasis in an existing one under discussion is a good way to enter a debate or to begin looking at it.
8 thoughts on “Talking texts. Conditions of a good interpretation”
Admittedly I haven’t read a lot of contemporary professional philosophy but this seems brilliant to me. And very helpful for writing. Thanks for sharing these tips. I can only assume this is going to be a book…?
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Thanks so much for your kind words! Yes, I hope to write something on “understanding, expressing and applying ideas”. But the blogging is really encouraging and becoming a thing in its own right (for me): unsystematic and a lot more interactive (than writing a book).