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Interpretation and Judgment

Richard Ostrofsky
(October, 1996)
Post-modern “anti-reason” splits irrevocably from the classical reason of
the Enlightenment over a philosophical and psychological discovery: that
all cognition depends on irreducible acts of interpretation – so that when
two people insist on seeing a thing in radically different ways, it is
meaningless to ask who is right. For example, if you see moochers and
wastrels where I see disheartened victims of economic exploitation, or if
you see living human souls where I see clumps of undifferentiated embryo
cells, there is no way to resolve our dispute by “reasoning together”. On
matters of interpretation – ultimately, on all matters whatsoever – rational
argument has no coercive power. With skillful rhetoric, you may hope to
seduce me to your belief, but no one can actually be compelled by argument
to alter his persuasion. You can call me a fool if I refuse to see things your
way, and may persuade people (even me, perhaps) that I am one; but no
inescapable chain of argument can drag me to your conclusion against my
will. On this very premise, there can be no necessity to conclude that one
opinion is as good as another, but volumes have been written in recent years
to persuade us that such absolute relativism is inescapable.
How we can judge between competing interpretations? How do we
decide that one view or opinion is stronger – or better – than another? I
would say that when we compare competing interpretations there are two
questions to ask: the question of power, and the question of cognitive
seriousness. It is crucial to draw the distinction between these two
questions–to realize that they are both possible, and that they are indeed
separate issues. The first question addresses the consequences of ignoring
the adherents of the perception at issue; the second inquires about the
inherent qualities of the perception itself. A powerful interpretation has
adherents that cannot be safely ignored. A serious interpretation has too
much intrinsic strength to be ignored. It is distinguished among its
competitors for certain intrinsic qualities that make for intellectual stature.
These qualities will include: close engagement with the issue at hand,
soundness of methodology, adroitness with the tools of inquiry, sensitivity
to the evidence, grasp of the relevant distinctions, dispassion, honesty,
clarity, elegance. As a convenient shorthand, we might say that one
interpretation is better than another by the superior integrity of the process –
the discourse – that produced it. The word integrity is used here as a
technical term, obviously, for the whole family of qualities that make the
grounds for one opinion stronger than the grounds for another – apart from
considerations of self-interest. The possibility of reason in public affairs,
indeed the basis for the very distinction between reason and “mere rhetoric”
derive from a robust sense of integrity (in the above sense) – from our
capacity and readiness to call attention to lapses of integrity in the discourse
of others, and from our capacity to suffer embarrassment when our own
lapses are exposed.
Here is the crux of the post-modern situation: One cannot develop public
understandings or construct systems of public knowledge through purely
rational adjudication of the arguments between the conflicting paradigms
and interest-groups. Still less can one find a purely rational basis for public
choices that will affect such groups different ways. The battle of competing
rhetorics – competing “spin doctors” – is inescapable. Thus it becomes
increasingly necessary either to govern by force and fraud, or to base public
choices on the integrity of public conversation around the given issue – on
their regions of consensus and on sensible compromise of their differences.
To the extent this capability is lost, civilized government becomes
impossible. Correspondingly, maintenance of the integrity of public
conversation, by policy and by example, becomes a survival task for
civilized government. A “democratic” government that persists in
manipulating and lying to its public makes the society ungovernable, and
undercuts the ground of its own existence.