Friday, September 26, 2014

The subjectivity of interpretation

It should go without mention that no two individuals see the world or interpret it in exactly the same way. The lenses whereby we interpret the world around us have been molded by our own subjective experiences throughout our lives. Heck, even the same object can mean one thing to one person, and mean a completely different thing to another.
But, can this gap between interpretations can be bridged, and can we at least agree on some things? Well unfortunately it is not clear that agreement entails identical interpretation. Let’s take an example—an example I’ve utilized before—to illuminate this fact. I know more about my father than most people do, because we both spent the last years of his life together, just him and I. Now, this means that if some other gentlemen who knew my father said “John was funny,” and I agreed, then it seems obvious that we both agree on the fact that humor can be predicated of my father. Now, here it seems that our judgments are identical because we are both predicating the same thing (humor) of the same subject (my father).

However, it’s actually in the subject (my father) where we find subjectivity rearing its head. For even though the gentleman and I both have the same symbol as our subject, our interpretation of this symbol goes much farther than the simple concept we have just predicated of him and have agreed upon. Why? Because a subject, in order to be recognized by one, must already have other predications of it. To shift to another example, if I say “the pencil is sharp” I am utilizing the pencil as the subject in my proposition. But, in order to recognize the concept of “pencil” I have to already understand other things about it—namely, that it is yellow, has an eraser, is capable of writing etc.

This is why our interpretations of a symbol or concept can differ even though we have made the same judgment or predications of it, because the subjects of our predications already carry so much extra baggage with them. To return to my first example, even though the gentlemen and I can agree that John was funny, I will still have a different (and more intimate) interpretation of what the symbol “John” means than the other man.
This illumination into the subject of interpretation has significant consequences for how we communicate and understand. It means that subjectivity is present and pervasive even where the most objective of statements is made. It means that two people can never have identical interpretations about a subject even though identical judgments can be made about it. And it means that we should be quick to listen and slow to make assumptions regarding a concept or subject that one is expounding, because chances are our interpretation is very different than theirs.

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