Interpretation vs. Explication II: choosing between Truth and Objectivity

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.

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.

5 Replies to “Interpretation vs. Explication II: choosing between Truth and Objectivity”

  1. Hi Shyam, thanks for this detailed post. I think I must be missing something important, though. You distinguish between interpretation and explication, saying that the former is “entirely subjective” and that 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.”

    First, I’m not sure why we should think interpretation is entirely subjective. Surely interpretation has to do with facts about the text and its context and not only the interpreter’s beliefs? If I want to interpret Aristotle as arguing that virtue is a matter of will to power, that is a bad interpretation, no matter how strongly I believe it, as I am constrained at least in some manner by the meaning of his text!

    Second, I’m unsure how one can do explication without interpretation. In your explanation of explication you say, “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.” But if I want to explicate A’s perspective on ethics, as you’ve put things, I need to look for his reasons–and these are reasons which he has expressed in a text which requires interpretation! And ven if one could isolate a claim C of A without interpretation and then look for reasons which together successfully entail C, I’m not so sure that this would mean we have gotten A’s reasons for C. After all perhaps A’s reasons do not entail C. Perhaps A has reasoned poorly in some way. Or perhaps there are different sets of reasons which entail C, and A had one in mind, different than the ones I discover.

    Have you seen Peter Adamson’s recent post on doing history of philosophy? If I have understood you correctly, I imagine you think some of his advice is wrong-headed, since you find interpretation not to be the first step (unless what I mean by “interpretation” is not what you mean by the word) or to be philosophical. But maybe explaining where you think he’s gotten things wrong would be helpful, if you think he has?

    • Hi Malcolm,

      Thanks so much for your response. I’m sorry for the delay. I didn’t want to respond in haste and it took me a while to figure out what might be the point of divergence between your impressions and what I wrote. and then life inserted itself into the mix. I also inserted myself in your follow up post that had to do with Adamson’s rules. I don’t think I agree with everything he has to say. But her I want to focus on your response.

      As a preliminary response I note that it is not uncommon to engage in expansive talk of interpretation (to mean something like ‘understanding,’) and ‘facts’ (to mean something like evidence) so it will seem difficult to go from these wide ideas to my criticisms of interpretation. It will seem on the basis of such a wide idea of interpretation and the facts as though I am denying that we should understand texts on the basis of the evidence. But I do not deny this. For my part I defined interpretation as a specific method of explaining the significance of a text in terms of what the interpreter takes to be true and contrasted it with explication. So my criticisms of interpretation are of this model that I specify. But, I derive my account of interpretation from philosophers such as Ingarden, Gadamer, but also Quine and Davidson. So I think my criticisms speak to a wider, shared idea that goes by the label of “interpretation.”

      A secondary note is that just as there is a more specific philosophical idea of “interpretation” defended by philosophers, so too is there a wider, general idea of a fact that philosophers (certainly since Frege) work with. A fact is a true proposition. Thinking about understanding as an act of interpretation that concerns the facts is hence analytically connected as interpretation is an explanation of a text in light of what you take to be true, and facts would be these truths, it seems. But I think the main problem here is that the evidence that plays a role in scholarly assessments, in any domain of serious credibility, is objective and what is objective may not be a true proposition.

      So my response to your first point is to disagree that the facts are relevant to reading a text, for a text might be counterfactual, which is to say that it could be comprised of false propositions. Moreover, we may be completely unsure about whether the propositions that comprise a text are true or false, and yet we can in this state of agnosticism read texts accurately, which means that the facts, or knowledge of them, is not relevant to reading a text accurately.

      My response to your second point falls back to my second criticism of interpretation above. The reason that interpretation does not seem subjective, I think, is because of a conflation of truth, or the facts, with what is objective. But there is an important difference: a valid argument is objective, though it may be comprised entirely of false propositions. If we have to understand an argument—that is the reasons of a philosopher in support of their conclusion —in terms of the facts, we will be blind to its objectivity. But this blindness to objectivity is what renders interpretation subjective. So interpretation I think falls afoul of basic considerations of reason: validity.

      If I might editorialize, I think one of the ways that this blindness manifests is in conflating two different kinds of propositions: the first order proposition “P ” that comprises a text, with a metalingusitic or metatextual claim that describes what is in a text, such as “S says that P.” The latter can be factual, while the former counterfactual. But if I conflate the two (as though knowing one involves knowing the other), then I treat P on par with S says that P, and then I treat the factual status of the latter as the factual status of the former. This conflation usually shows up in the view of people in the Hermeneutic tradition that there is an interpretive circle etc., one must know something about the whole text to understand its parts and vica versa. With this conflation comes the idea that in studying philosophy we have to do philology for we have to have the facts of the text down in order to understand its claims. But as P on par with S says that P are logically different it’s a mistake.

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  3. Thanks for elaborating on that, Shyam. I am deeply grateful to you for being ready to discuss your ideas (incidentally, I also hope this discussion will work as an appetizer for future readers of your book).

    I am still uncertain about several elements in your reconstruction:
    1. You speak of explaining and interpreting as two basically different options. As if one could leave aside one’s subjectivity completely, or be completely determined by it. You might be a hard-core analytical philosopher, but I am sure you will need to agree that one does not read texts in an epistemic vacuum, as your position seems to require. As for me, I think the best one can do is to be aware of one’s departing position, so as to compensate one’s biases, not to do as if one had not any.

    2. I am not sure that your departing point is as solid as you present it. For instance, I am not sure we can assume that Sanskrit texts always existed in the form they have been edited the first time (see Formigatti’s study of the genre of avadānas for many interesting examples of the opposite). Further, I am not even sure we can assume that they all meant the same while using the same word. In fact, I think we can prove that the opposite was often the case. Just like “Republic” in the name of different states means different things, so did śabda mean “sound” or “language” in Nyāya or Mīmāṃsā respectively. They did not disagree only about what makes X be X (what it means to be good, in your example), but also about the nature of X. In other words, I see the Indian world as far more complex than you do. One can simplify it while teaching, but one has to be aware that this simplification is somewhat artificial and deeply dependent on the stage of *our* understanding (i.e., on the editions, translations and studies we can count on etc.).

    • Hi Elisa

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m sorry for my slow response. I didn’t want to knee jerk my post. Whenever I started formulating a response, it grew, and grew, and then I would try to make it a bit shorter.

      I think that our epistemic position and subjectivity is not relevant to accurately reading a text, for if we know how to read a text of a specific discipline, we are reading it objectively. This is different than reading it factually or in terms of what we take to be the facts. If I can read a text objectively, I can explain it as something that is controversial, but then I’m under no pressure to depict it in terms of my biases. But if I have to explain the text in terms of what I take to be true—interpretation—then my biases are required for reading the text, and I need to be aware of them because I rely on them. So I propose that we reject this method of reading that makes use of our biases. I take it that this is one of the purposes of philosophical training that it leads us to engage with material objectively, and what is so challenging about this enterprise is it asks us to be objective about our thoughts (propositions) and their concepts. This is challenging especially as they are common conflated with our beliefs (our pro attitudes towards propositions) and our theories (our take on common concepts of disagreement). But it is easy if we allow that our thoughts and concepts are controversial, and not exhausted by our attitudes and theories.

      My response to your second point is perhaps a little less clear only because I think that you characterize my position in ways that I wouldn’t, which means that we might actually be far more in agreement than it seems. But for instance, I don’t think that my position commits us to any view about the historical facts of texts as they came down to us. In some ways, I’m not interested in that question. I think that philology is its own discipline and philosophy is a different discipline and that truths of these disciplines are quite independent. Hence, I take it to be madness to try to draw philosophical conclusions about what a philosophy text commits us too by figuring out who wrote it, or what its provenance is.

      But I am surprised that you think that my view commits us to an oversimplification of the Indian world. On my view, for instance, what Indian philosophers take to be dharma differs, and each theory paints a different picture of the comment concept. So each will have differing definitions of “dharma” and describe its properties differently and variously. My point is merely that the disagreement across theories tells us what the concept is: the concept is what theories of dharma converge on while they disagree. But in my fourth chapter in the introduction, Beyond Moral Twin Earth, Beyond Indology, I consider Subcontinent Dharma (i.e. India), where differing national languages have a differing and competing definition of “dharma.” I concede the point that differing systems will have differing takes and perhaps even differing idiolects that employ the same word. In fact, I think these considerations make my point: it’s not the facts or our beliefs or word meanings that drive the discussion but the objectivity of the basic concepts that we can disagree about.

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