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Context&element: What is a valid interpretation?

  1. Aug 9, 2008 #1


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    Many with an education within the humanities has a superficial, and in essence, fallacious view of what constitutes “valid interpretations” of a text, an object found in an archeological dig, or whatever.

    The whole of deconstructionism says, for example, that “anything goes”, that no interpretations are better than others. For example, myth is as valid an interpretation of the world as we see it as science is. It is all a “discourse”.

    Instead of bothering with this charade and facade of intellectuality, I’d like to make a couple of key points here concerning interpretation.

    Take the incomplete sentence I. “He was a *i** man”.

    Where *’s are unkwown letters.

    There are, of course, numerous valid interpretations of this sentence (I regard "emendation" as a particular form of interpretation):

    a) “He was a nice man”
    b) “He was a vile man”
    c) “He was a rich man”

    and so on.

    Without further RELEVANT information, we are unable to pick out which is the most likely one.

    But, we can still dismiss, without any further evidence, a whole lot of options, like:
    d)"He liked to gamble on Sundays”,
    e) “He was a dour man” etc, none of which has the slightest support in the evidence we’ve got at hand.

    These are INVALID interpretations, and are to be dismissed.

    Now, assume we get some more context, the next sentence:
    II. “But poor folks liked him nonetheless”.

    Now, does this increase the likelihood of any of three sample meanings?
    Indeed it does, on the base assumption we are faced with an internally coherent text. Option c) is perhaps the most probable, with b) following next, whereas a) would be an extremely jarring interpretation.

    And so on.
    Note, however, that d) and e) are still to be dismissed, the further provided information make none of them more valid, even though e)+II. makes good meaning.

    The points I would like to make is that:

    1. Context of a statement provides oppportunity to reduce ambiguity of the component statement(s). Some earlier possible interpretations recede into improbability.

    2. Context may give us clues to valid interpretations of I. that previously escaped us.
    For example, suppose II. read: “His doctors tried and tried, yet couldn’t find the cause of his disease”.
    Here, this gives us the clue that the valid interpretation g) “He was a sick man” is perhaps the likeliest, not a)-c)
    (d) and e) remains as invalid as they were)
    3. A valid interpretation of “the whole” cannot, in its part-interpretation of the component be an invalid interpretation of that component.
    For example, assume that sentence II read:
    "Very soon, that led him into financial ruin".

    Now, most certainly, d)+II is a very meaningful construction, but because d) is an INVALID interpretaion of I, therefore, d)+II is an invalid interpretation of I+II!
    b)+II IS acceptable, g)+II is acceptable, whereas c)+II is positively strange.

    To sum up:
    if we are given a whole text, and our interpretation requires us to interpret I. as “really” saying d), then this interpretation of the whole is simply invalid.

    Another example:
    if you take a text, omit 3/4 of it, and on basis of the last fourth make an interpretation of the whole, even if it blatantly contradicts the elements in the omitted 3/4’th, you have just made an invalid interpretation of the text as such.

    But this type of “interpretations” are all too common, unfortunately, in many areas of life…

    4. Insofar as you, due to having more info on your hand thinks you can puzzle out a new meaning of an earlier puzzling component, what is required of you is to prove that your NEW part-interpretation of the earlier statement is, in fact, a VALID interpretation of that statement, IRRESPECTIVE of your newfound interpretation of the whole.
    It is NOT sufficient to present a coherent “interpretation”, and by reference to its coherence or some other diversionary tactic argue it is valid and true, you need to show it applies precisely for that earlier, troubling bit.
    Otherwise, you have just presented a figment of your imagination, not worth bothering about.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2008
  2. jcsd
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