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All Interpretation is Misinterpretation: An illusory appeal

July 21, 2022 Authored by: John M. Ellis

How, then, can we account for the appeal of the view that “all interpretation is
misinterpretation”?
If I am correct, the impact of this assertion is not difficult to
understand when we simply look at a class of comparable assertions that are common enough in everyday life. The proponent of “all interpretation is misinterpretation” does
not really have a theoretical position, but he does have something else that is important
to him in a different way: a slogan. What is the function of a slogan? Most slogans carry
an essentially emotional—not a logical or theoretical—message, and this one is no
exception. Slogans are designed not to formulate theories but rather to strike an
attitude, to rally a movement, or to intimidate an opposition. This one does all three. I
will illuminate the way in which this particular slogan works through an example from a
familiar kind of context.
Imagine an everyday kind of discussion, not of interpretation, but instead of the decline
of traditional social values and of how and why, for example, delinquency and other
social problems are on the rise. Everyone is familiar with the typical attitudes that will be
expressed and with the underlying attitudes to responsibility that they represent. Right-
wing politicians would blame the courts for not being tough enough in sentencing to
provide a real deterrent. Left-wing politicians tend to blame the injustices and immorality
of a capitalist society and the disillusion of its have-nots. Parents of teenage children
are likely to blame drugs. Political conservatives may blame parental permissiveness
and lack of discipline. Social workers might stress poor housing conditions and lack of
funding for welfare programs.

Against Deconstruction by John M. Ellis


A discussion in which all of these viewpoints were represented would find it difficult to
reach a consensus, but in theory one might judge that there is at least some small value
in each of them and that a discussion of their relative weight was, in principle,
worthwhile. All of the factors mentioned are a part of the whole scene under discussion.
Presumably, progress in such a debate would consist in weighing the relations between
and mutual dependence among all of these factors. (Let us leave aside for the moment
the fact that, in the real world, this will rarely occur.) But suppose that a rather self-
important clergyman entered such a discussion, exclaiming in ringing tones, “We are all
sinners!” Now these same words might be used to good effect by a well-intentioned
person to remind those involved in the discussion that there was more than enough
blame to go around and that all might well try to understand their own share in that
blame instead of blaming everybody else. An intervention of this kind motivated in such
a way would, in effect, encourage others to continue their debate and analysis as
before, but to do so more thoughtfully and with due regard for their own responsibility.
But, in the rather more typical case of the use of these words that I want to consider
here, the motivation is different: the self-important cleric has pompously expounded
what he thinks is in itself the profound truth that is the key to the discussion. He wants to
take center stage and to have the others stop their discussion and admire his words.
Perhaps, at first, the others would take his words in the positive sense in which they
might have been used, that is, as an appeal to get them to consider their own frailties as
well as those of others, and they would go on discussing in this spirit. But this particular
cleric interrupts the debate once more to insist on his words as a position in itself. Soon
all present will see that he is not trying to encourage them to discuss more fruitfully but the reverse; he thinks he has propounded a kind of global view of the situation, an
adequate account of it that he wants to substitute for the one they are pursuing. Once
they realize this, their attitudes to him will naturally change: they will experience him as
a nuisance getting in the way of their discussion. He is simply holding up the debate; he
has no interest in pursuing the analysis of how various kinds of responsibility can be
diagnosed in the situation and how they function together to create it. Instead, his
interest is in grand, categorical statements, whose categorical and undifferentiated form
is for him the whole point; any more differentiated and informative statements would not
fit his purpose, which is to make a striking and even shocking pronouncement with
maximum rhetorical impact on his audience. He is, in effect, uttering a slogan that
contributes nothing to the inquiry and impedes its progress by interrupting the real
issue-oriented discussion that was going on.
The logic of this situation is very much like that in which the slogan “all interpretation is
misinterpretation” is used. If it were used somewhat reticently, and without any
aspiration to the status of an actual theoretical position, it could (like “we are all
sinners”) be interpreted, somewhat charitably, as a gentle reminder to all of us that we
should be careful to keep in mind both our own biases and the potential limitations of
any interpretation. But if used in a different way, in a manner that attempts to call
attention to itself as a powerful theoretical statement in categorical, decisive form, it
must be judged as an empty piece of posturing. In neither case is the slogan “wrong,”
and other participants in the debate will fall into a terrible trap if they mistakenly try to
prove that it is. The most logically accurate course, in the case of the advocate of “all
interpretation is misinterpretation,” as in that of the clergyman, is to go on with the
previous discussion and, above all, to make sure that they do not waste the time of
those who have a serious interest in continuing to think about the nature of
interpretation and of how and whether it can be supported, on the one hand, and about
the nature of responsibility and its various different kinds of manifestations, on the other.
For the slogan neither makes any real contribution to that debate nor shows any real
interest in advancing it; in both cases, the point of its use is surely to draw attention to
the speaker through the use of dramatic, categorical assertions that, however, when
looked at more closely, say nothing of substance about the issues under discussion.
Once again, we arrive at the conclusion that “all interpretation is misinterpretation” is
most easily understood if we consider it as a performance. The performance, however,
involves principally the massive effect of an apparently large claim, categorical in form,
in the grandeur of which proponents may rejoice and be exhilarated, while their
opponents are annoyed or intimidated. However, performance often involves illusion,
and that is what we have here: an illusion of intellectual tour de force, which is not
backed up by any theory of substance.
My conclusion, then, is that “all interpretation is misinterpretation” is neither a valid nor
an invalid position but no position at all. It merely creates the illusion of a position, and
those who believe in that illusion and then try to attack it are hitting empty air; small
wonder that they never seem to come off very well in these encounters. The best thing to do with it, so it seems to me, is tell its proponents that we shall all be willing to
consider their position on the nature of interpretation when they come up with one; and
that, in the meantime, we should devote our energies to studying real, as opposed to
illusory, theories.

Bibliography:

Ellis, J.M., 1989. Against deconstruction. Princeton University Press, pp. 109-112


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