Thanks to Elisa Freschi and Malcolm Keating for prompting me to post about interpretation and explication.
In the previous post, titled “Interpretation vs. Explication I: background (Truth and Objectivity)” I set out the logical distinctions we need in view to understand the difference. In this post I will assume these distinctions. They are relatively uncontroversial in philosophy, but they have powerful consequences. The most important consequence is that reason is objective but it might not be true. Truth is neither necessary nor sufficient for reason. Understanding the reasonableness of a position involves no particular perspective, and does not involve sympathetically seeing the world from the perspective of those who endorse the argument. What you believe is true is irrelevant to determining whether an argument is reasonable—this goes for arguments that you endorse too.
To explicate a perspective P—augustly called a “philosophy”—about topic t, is to E:
- discern the reasons of P that constitute P, which explain P’s use of “t” and to arrive at a systematization of P’s reasons that explains the uses of “t.” The systematization of P’s reasons that entails P’s t-claims is P’s theory of t. The reasons of P may be what P explicitly says, or what is entailed by P.
“Explain” here is synonymous with “entails”. When we come to the theory of t that explain P’s use of “t,” we have P’s theory of t that entails its t-claims. (We have to use “explain” when we are talking about “use” only because use is a pragmatic notion. When we switch to talk of t-claims, we can rely upon logical notions of entailment.) To arrive at P’s theory of t is to have rendered explicit what is implicit, and hence this process is explication. The process requires no sympathy on the part of the explicator, and one can hence be completely agnostic about the perspective and its reasons and yet explicate it accurately and proof of this accuracy will be that others from differing theoretical vantages could also converge on the same explication of a perspective. For those who confuse reason with truth, this will seem opaque, but the reasonable is not defined by truth, so we are at liberty to derive from the reasons constituting a perspective just that subset of entailed propositions that entail the t –claims. As objectivity is what we can converge on while we disagree, P, its theory of t , and its various t–claims are all objective.
The second step is the cumulative product of explication:
- compare theories of t : what they converge on while they disagree is the concept T.
We could call this step the consilience of perspectives.
So, for instance, to explicate Aristotle’s perspective on ethics is to look to his reasons that entail his claims about ethics. The theory that entails all of his claims about ethics is his theory of ethics. This is to render explicit his theory of ethics.
So, then, when we compare Aristotle’s theory of ethics with the theory of ethics from contrary perspectives (Kantian Deontology, Millian or Benthamite Utilitarianism, for instance), what they converge on while they disagree is the concept of ethics, which turns out to be the Right or the Good. This is what we discover as a matter of the consilience of perspectives: this is the first and major step of moral philosophical research. Every ethical theory is an account of this basic concept of the Right or the Good from some theoretical vantage. It is the conch, or the elephant grouped by the blind men. I’m almost tempted to call it the emptiness lacking svabhāva, as though it is completely at the mercy of the perspectives that converge on it—each converging theory has an account of the svabhāva of this basic concept. What it is for sure is the basic concept at play in moral philosophy: this is what theories of ethics converge on while they disagree. Having appreciated the objectivity of this central concept, philosophers are in a position to generate or propose a presentation of the objectivity that explains how and why it seems differently for differing theories, but also why some theories will have problems in accounting for the basic concept for their account is too partial, which is to say unobjective. This critical step that moves towards candidate truths of moral philosophy requires the first steps of explication and the consilience of perspectives. The entire process is one of discovery and research.
If we explicate Indian philosophy, we would look to each perspective of Indian philosophy to entail its theory of dharma. Each darśana or sub darśana would be characterized by a theory of dharma that entails all of its uses of “dharma” and by the consilience of perspectives, we identify the underlying concept of dharma as what theories of dharma converge on while they disagree.
So for instance, I would look to the Yoga Sūtra and its entire account of yoga as providing the reasons that entail all of its few uses of dharma, but the right theory would entail all of them. I would do the same for the Sāṅkhya Kārikā. Immediately I would note that they have different theories of dharma (for instance Īśvarakriṣna depicts dharma as leading to heavenly existences but not to freedom, yet the Yoga Sūtra depicts the dharmameghasamādhi as the penultimate event prior to kaivalya). I would repeat this process for Jain Dharma (and all of its subversions) and Buddhists accounts (and of its subversions). In the Jain case I would note that Dharma is dispositional (often translated as “Motion”) and correlatively is backed up by the idea that vīrya (virtue) is an essential trait of the jīva. Moving on the Buddhist accounts the dominant theme of avoiding suffering and engaging in compassion would play an explanatory role on its account of dharma, and any satisfactory account would have to entail all the particular version of Buddhism’s uses of the term (Edward Conze it seems to me is one of the few who has come close to a successful account of this, though I think Goodman is globally right). Moving onto the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and other Brahmanic accounts, there is a long tradition starting in the Upaniṣads of moving to procedural accounts of dharma, made rather explicit in the texts such as the Bhagavad Gītā, not to mention most all of the commentaries on the Vedānta Sūtra.
When we come to compare theories of dharma, we find it centres on the same concept as what is involved in debates in moral philosophy: the Right or the Good. This is what theories of dharma converge on while they disagree. We discover this not by assumptions or focusing on the minutia of particular traditions but by following the debate.
Explicated, there is only one objective concept of dharma, not a million, and each differing darśana of Indian philosophy is a unique take on the common concept. Worth noting, of course, is that we can apply this process to any term: reality, knowledge, dravya, pramāṇa etc. The basic concept relative to these terms would be what competing theories converge on while they disagree.
What this process indicates is that we only come to appreciate what the issues are when we look at the corpus macroscopically, and this means that you can’t merely specialize in one specific tradition or theory to figure out what the issues of philosophy are. You have to be willing to look at debates from on top, and this allows a finer appreciation for what each philosophy has to contribute to debates. Further, sticking to one tradition is a bad idea for it limits the scope of theoretical dissent, but it is the dissent that renders the basic concept clear. Metaethically, the entire process is characterizable as non-analytic, non-naturalism. Each theory may have its own definition of “ethics” or “dharma” and this is nothing but the encoding of the governing theory as the perspective’s definition of “ethics” or “dharma” So no gain is made by analyzing the meaning of our moral vocabulary (hence it is non-analytic). Yet we discover what the concept is via philosophical (non-empirical, non-natural) means of research into the breadth of philosophical disagreement.
One of the outcomes of this process, I think, is that there are four basic theories of ethics: Virtue Ethics, Consequentialism, Deontology — and Yoga/Bhakti. I didn’t know that until I became really clear about what explication is about. I used to assume like many that Yoga/Bhakti is some kind of theism, but that’s a mistake (a separate post on that soon).
Another outcome or implication of this process is that research into the history of philosophy is not substantially different from work in philosophy. The history of philosophy emphasizes explication and the consilience of perspectives, while the nonhistorical emphasizes representations of what is objective in an area of debate. All are projects within philosophy. Research into the history of philosophy is not a special case of historical research for instance. It doesn’t become philological or an example of Sanskrit studies merely because the texts in question are in Sanskrit. We aren’t tracking language, or manuscripts when we engage into research into the history of philosophy: we’re tracking philosophical theories and their account of the basic concept of a debate. These are objective—philosophically objective, which means that we converge on them while we philosophically disagree.
Interpretation is by no means the basic disciplinary practice of philosophy. It does however correspond to common conceptions of what philosophy is, in the general public.
To interpret some package P is for the interpreting subject S to I:
- use S’ s reasons (or if you prefer, “premises,” “assumptions,” “beliefs,” “truths,” and even “tradition”) rS in the explanation of P.
So whereas explication requires a careful logical distinction between the truth of our reasons and their logical merit as constituting valid inference, interpretation does not. We are supposed to move from what we as interpreters take to be reasonable or true to an inference about what a third party perspective claims. This is invalid: the truth of my beliefs places no constraint on what you can believe if we are interested in something objective. But if it’s all subjective, then third parties are reduced to figments of our imagination and then of course our beliefs would play a role in the determination of third party views in the way that our beliefs would determine truths about fictitious characters we make up. And interpretation is subjective: it relies upon the perspective of the interpreter for the determination of third party views. It is worth noting that interpretation corresponds to the unschooled notion of philosophy as a completely speculative affair that depends completely on the background or perspective of the philosopher. If interpretation is right as an account of understanding, we are not tracking anything objective when we are doing philosophy: it’s all perspective.
On this account, Indian views on “dharma” would be filtered through the subjective outlook of the interpreter. When “dharma” is used in accordance with what the interpreter takes to be ethics, then she understand the use to be ethical. When it is used in accordance with what the interpreter takes to be metaphysical or ontological, the use is said to be amoral and metaphysical. In this way, uses of “dharma” in Indian thought are correlated with theoretical distinctions of the interpreter.
The result of this nonphilosophical approach is the usual gloss that “dharma” has many meanings and is used in a “bewildering variety of ways” (as Gerald Larson puts it). Each use of “dharma” is correlated with the subjective distinctions of the interpreter. This is the default approach in what I call Orthodox Indology and I catalogue its profusion (for a list of such claims, see p.52-55 of the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics).
The problems with interpretation are numerous.
- First, it’s completely subjective.
The outcome of an interpretation depends entirely on the beliefs of the interpreter (unlike the outcome of explication that does not) and hence a psychological change in the interpreter’s outlook would shift what Indian uses of “dharma” are counted as ethical and what are not.
- Second, it fails to distinguish truth and objectivity.
Perhaps, for the sake of argument, your beliefs about ethics are true—as true as it could be. Further assume that it is objectively true: your moral outlook is factual. This does not entail what others can believe about ethics, if the topic is objective, for they could be mistaken. So even if the Indologist is right in their definition of “ethics” it entails nothing about what Indians could believe. Yet interpretation renders the interpreter’s beliefs dispositive of what others could believe. This is proper if Indian philosophers are figments of our imagination but if they were and are real, it is inappropriate.
- Third, because interpreters engage in subjective reasoning, they do not distinguish between what is objective (what we can disagree about) and what is intersubjective (what we agree on).
Interpreters hence confuse the convergence of objectivity with the agreement of intersubjectivity and treat the intersubjective as objective. This is how the politics of privilege and hegemony are generated: the common cultural and philosophical background of a group of interpreters serves to create a hegemonic view about what uses of “dharma” count as ethical and which do not, based entirely on the culture of the scholars in question.
- Fourth, because of the third problem, interpretation produces an unobjective corpus that confirms the biases of the dominant culture, which is then treated as the literature everyone has to master in order to properly interpret Indian thought.
- Fifth, and perhaps most maddening, interpreters will claim tolerance for diversity, falsely: they will criticize explicators for understanding Indian discussions of “dharma” as all of them ethical for this involves imposing a view about ethics on Indian sources not present in the text.
This is mad as the false tolerance depends upon the interpreter assuming what “ethics” can be about (mostly not what Indians called dharma), which is an imposition on the freedom of philosophers to disagree. So interpreters are the ones imposing their views on ethics on to what Indian philosophers can claim and it turns out that an Indian philosopher can only have a view that is ethical if it agrees with the interpreter. The philosophical problem this points too is that interpreters confuse their theory of a term like “ethics” with the concept ethics. So when an alien uses “ethics” according to a differing theory, these uses are correlated with first person distinctions of the interpreter and the concepts multiply (hence dharma is said to have many meanings).
- Sixth, interpreters will be given to repackaging their own incompetence (to see anything but from their own perspective) as a conceptual constraint on third parties. (Because they cannot believe “ethics” to be anything but x they conclude incorrectly that Indians cannot be understood as talking about ethics when they deny x.)
This goes back to Kant’s ironic claim to be endorsing a Copernican Revolution, when he was merely reinforcing the earlier Geocentrism—see the preface to the second edition to the First Critique. My intransigence is not a constraint on anyone else.