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Fr. 391

September 14, 2013

Is everything interpretation? This is the case that Günter Abel makes in his work Sprache, Zeichen, Interpretation. Under the banner of a “general philosophy of sign and interpretation”, Abel maintains all of human life’s most fundamental activities (e.g. speaking, thinking. doing and knowing) are inextricably linked to an interpretive praxis and the usage of signs. To support this bold claim, Abel proceeds to demonstrate that the way in which consciousness interacts with sense impressions constitutes an interpretative process, insofar as consciousness must make sense of those signs which the outer and inner life provide it. Reflection follows this same basic pattern in that the one reflecting must grasp a complex of signs and find or create a set of relations that holds between these signs. Action itself unfolds in time with the actor’s interpretation of the causal chain (itself a chain of signs) leading up to the moment of deliberation and action as well as that of the causal chain following the eventual moment of action. The world and consciousness’ relation to it thus turns on a successions of descriptive, symbolic and interpretive complexes; any claim to the contrary does no more than peddle a pernicious illusion to those who would listen. It is thus that every consciousness is caught up in worlds of interpretation, unfolding as they do in a set of discrete spheres of life. 

Such is Abel’s claim: the individual’s relation to oneself, other people, objects and the world can be mapped to one three-step process endlessly repeating itself with no exceptions. Despite Abel’s persuasive arguing to this effect, one might still wonder the claim is too hasty, reductive or both. Is there nothing in the world that is not interpretation? To pursue a parallel line of reasoning, one might hold that everything in the world is politics or political in that speech, thought, knowledge and action are intrinsically political. Insofar as speech and action bear on the public world that one shares with everyone, determines this same world, and is forced to find compromise formations in virtue of the determinations made by those others, there is revealed a distinctly political push and pull between the determinations of various individuals acting in concerted fashion, indifferently or in adversarial relations to one another. But what of thought and knowledge? The political nature of these might be asserted in two ways. First, if thought and knowledge are modeled on and follow the structures of speech, then by sheer homology the former would be political as well. In addition to this somewhat less interesting contention, there is a second, according to which the individual’s thoughts and (putative) knowledge change the effective constitution of the world for him or her. Yet this world is the same as that on which the thought and knowledge of others bear, and so the effective constitution of the world is caught in the same push and pull above. If, for example, an individual finds the world and the people living in it to be barbaric, for this individual and those nearest him or her, the world will be found to be barbaric through and through, that individual included. Such is the political character of thought and knowledge.

Still, the same question might be put to this second contention parallel to that of Abel’s: is everything political and is there nothing that might fall outside the realm of the political? Are even banal thoughts or statements such as “I am hungry” to be understood as political in that they alter the effective constitution of the world for the thinker and speaker, determining it as a place where nourishment is to be found and thus exercising a form of domination over it? What then becomes of interpretation, which was equally universal?

Is politics interpretive? Is interpretation political? If both cases can be made equally well and both are thus total causes in some sort, insofar as there can only be one total cause, these two must coincide.  It is not, however, clear that these terms are identical, synonyms of one another. If they are not synonyms, then one must be subordinate to the other, yet there is considerable difficulty in determining which is to be subordinated to the other, as a case could be made for both.  From this, it follows (or is implied in some non-technical sense) that everything within the world unfolds following a plurality of causes, among which the interpretive and political might be classed with other such total causes from the history of philosophy and knowledge in general, that of science, God, history, amongst others.

The lesson to retain is the following. Although the argument can be made easily enough in philosophy, the urge to totalize our hypotheses and arguments must be resisted and room for minority retained. There is always a case to be made, but it does not follow from this that the case need be made. This is precisely what makes the principle a principle: its (capacity for) explanatory power. Yet the mere idea of explanatory power does not necessitate that all other potential sources of explanatory power be explained away by that power and principle under consideration. This would seem to follow instead from the totalizing instinct that is part and parcel of the history of philosophy.

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