Interpretation vs. Explication I: background (Truth and Objectivity)

Happy belated Solstice to all! I hope everyone is having a good holiday.

Thanks to Elisa Freschi and Malcolm Keating for prompting me to post about interpretation and explication.

The distinction between interpretation and explication to my knowledge has not been the focus of much attention in the literature. As I note in the introduction to the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics, interpretation is supported and entailed by the dominant approach to thought in the Western tradition and hence the bulk of what is produced by this tradition treats interpretation as the epistemological default for accounting for research. It is however a dud as an account, like its correlative account of thought (argued and not merely claimed in the Handbook).  Explication in contrast is how philosophers read and understand texts, and it constitutes the first means of philosophical research. It is transmitted not as a theory but as the basic disciplinary practice of philosophy.    In the Western tradition there is a historical tension between philosophy and the dominant ideology of interpretation. What we find in Indology, where interpretation reigns as a means of studying Indian thought, is a mere outcome of the politics of the West.

Understanding the difference between explication and interpretation requires some background logical distinctions to be explicit—distinctions that will probably not be news to us as philosophers. The distinctions are between: the objective and the subjective, and between truth and inference. We can summarize the most basic distinction of interest as the distinction between truth and objectivity.   I note that the distinction is not new, but yet rarely something that we draw explicit attention to.

In a subsequent post, I’ll set out the distinction between explication and interpretation.

The Objective vs. Subjective

Indian philosophers were fantastic at exploring this distinction between the objective and subjective and had differing ways of exploring and representing the distinction (such as the Jain parable of the elephant and blind men, Nāgārjuna and emptiness, or the depiction of Viṣṇu holding a conch).  The distinction is exemplified by the difference between a mirror and a reflection.  A mirror is something that can be observed from differing perspectives, and how it appears will depend on the perspective. But yet it’s the same thing viewed from differing perspectives. The mirror as the object hence plays the role of accounting for how we are viewing the same thing, while we disagree about how it appears.  Objects on the whole play this role: they are what we converge on while we disagree. We can contrast this with a reflection: the subjective. This is nothing that can be viewed from differing perspectives. Rather, the reflection that one observes in a mirror depends entirely upon the perspective, and who and what is present to view the reflection.

The distinction makes room for two kinds of truths: truths about objects (that reveal the object in its entirety—what we discern in research by tracking objects from differing perspectives) and truths about subjects.  We can misrepresent the objective and the subjective and hence there is room for the objectively false and the subjectively false.  The objective truth about a mirror, for instance, will reveal the properties of the mirror that allow us to appreciate how it appears differently from differing vantages (including its reflective properties from one vantage that renders it as though invisible) and the subjective truth will be an accurate description of what we see when we look in the mirror.

Validity vs. Truth

The second distinction that we need is the distinction between validity (good inference) and truth.

Validity is the force of a deductive argument that guarantees that the conclusion has to be true, if the premises are true. This is the relationship of entailment. This is the essence of formal reason, and something that philosophy professors spend a fair bit of time impressing upon their students, who often like to use the word “valid” for something like “I agree with that.”  This is a mistake. A bunch of true premises and a true conclusion does not make for validity. So merely believing what is true does not render one reasonable and hence merely agreeing that the premises and conclusions of an argument are true is no guarantee of its validity.   Correlatively, a valid argument can have false premises and a false conclusion. So one can believe falsely and yet be reasonable and hence one can disagree, completely, with what is reasonable.  Truth is neither necessary nor sufficient for reason. The idea that truth is essential to reason is a formal fallacy though it lacks a name. (I call it the fallacy of putting satya before ahiṃsā—more on that later.) A valid argument with truth premises is called a “sound argument.”

For those who want to note that inductive arguments operate according to differing criteria (inductive arguments need not be valid to be strong), it’s worth noting that an inductive argument can be strong but fail to have true premises, and they can be cogent with true premises, yet with false conclusions (like a good meteorological argument).  Here too, truth is neither necessary nor sufficient for reason.

A valid (deductive) argument is an argument whose validity (it’s reasonableness) is something that we can converge on from differing dissenting perspectives. You might agree with the premises for instance, while I reject them, but we can yet appreciate the argument to be valid it if it is. The validity of the argument here is objective, like a mirror: how the argument seems to us (whether we take it to be sound or unsound) will depend upon our theoretical perspective and yet we can converge on its validity.  But, and importantly, if what we want is a sound argument (a valid argument with true premises) we have to establish its validity first, and then determine whether the premises are true or not. If we try to go first to truth, we confuse the basis of validity with truth, which is both unnecessary and insufficient for validity.  This is why in philosophy we can make a lot of progress while being agnostic about philosophical truth: philosophical understanding begins with discerning the validity of an argument, and having identified it we are in a position to assess whether the premises or conclusion are true or not.  Being sympathetic and open minded is importantly not part of this process as the validity of an argument is objective: what we can see from all perspectives while we disagree.


Truth vs. Objectivity


Truth and objectivity are not the same. Reason is objective but it might not be true. Whether and what you believe is true is irrelevant to determining whether an argument is reasonable. There is no privileged perspective from which one conducts research into the reasonableness of an argument: it is apparent from the outside just as the objectivity of a mirror is determined from the outside.  To think that there is a special perspective to determine the reasonableness of an argument is to confuse its objectivity with the subjectivity of someone who endorses it: that is like thinking that we have to determine the properties of a mirror by looking at our reflection in the mirror. From this angle, you will miss its objectivity.

About Shyam Ranganathan

Shyam Ranganathan is a philosopher in the Department of Philosophy in York University, Toronto. His research interests cover ethics/political philosophy, the philosophy of thought, philosophy of language, and South Asian philosophy.

One Reply to “Interpretation vs. Explication I: background (Truth and Objectivity)”

  1. Pingback: Interpretation vs. Explication II: choosing between a truth and objectivityThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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