Subjective Interpretation pt. 2

Is there text, or only interpretation of text? How can we know things if we are subject to our own interpretations of things? Do words have objective meanings?

I feel that these three (very large) topics are interconnected somehow. Let’s take the last question first. On first glance, it seems that words have objective meanings – A means X regardless of whether or not I personally think it does. On closer examination, however, this seems to be a weak case. Language is not a tight system – following Wittgenstein, I maintain that language is indeed a messy and imperfect communicating tool. Language has evolved – words have changed meanings over the centuries (for an excellent study on this, see C.S. Lewis’s brilliant ‘Studies in Words’). To posit objective meanings for words seems to require some kind of platonic notion of a form of a word –  that somewhere out there is X, in all its X-ness and objectivity. Our language would be simply modifications on this form of X – since the form of X here has a pure objective meaning. But, given the evidence against this view, I’m inclined to think otherwise.

This is not, however, to say that language is a purely subjective thing – we do not simply give to words the values which we wish. So words appear to be neither purely objective or purely subjective. So how do words acquire meaning?

On a more theologicallevel, I can say that God is the ultimate ground of meaning, in the highest sense. I find this quotation by Prof. John Lennox to be very illuminating (it’s paraphrased, but gets the point across well enough):

‘When Christ says that He is the Alpha and the Omega, and by extension all the letters in between, what He is saying is that He, as the Word, is the alphabet by which all meaning is spelled.’

Biblically, language plays some interesting roles – the opening of the Gospel of John comes to mind, in which the Word was made flesh. Interestingly, Erasmus translated ‘word’ as ‘conversation’. In the beginning was The Conversation. David Bently Hart provides some interesting thoughts on the Word (translated from the Greek word ‘logos’):

‘Logos, before it was reduced merely to a “word” conveying facts, or to “reason” in the philosophical sense, or to “principle,” or to the ground of “logic,” referred to being as that power of gathering that brings all things forth into the light of being, holding them together in the unity of the world while also allowing them to shine forth in their separateness.’

– David Bently Hart: … e-twilight

So in a sense, words do have more objective, universal meanings – but at the same time, God allows them to shine in their ‘separateness’ in what was for Wittgenstein a perfectly fine way, if not a bit messy and dare I say fun way. Language derives its ultimate meaning from God, as do all things. However, in our finite world, language takes on some very interesting properties and weaves its way through our existence in a way that is quite interesting. (Much, much more can be said about this ‘theology of language,’ – I’ve barely scratched the surface here).

Of course, this still leaves the immediate problem of language and meaning unsolved in a deeper way – and again, here I follow Wittgenstein:

‘For a large class of cases–though not for all–in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ (Philosophical Investigations)

Use, however, refers to its use in a system of representation – and on my own view includes how it is used in public, our concepts, our environment and most importantly for Wittgenstein, what matters to the speaker. All of these things effect language. I’ll finish off this rambling with an part of an article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Depending on one’s environment, one’s physical needs and desires, one’s emotions, one’s sensory capacities, and so on, different concepts will be more natural or useful to one. This is why “forms of life” are so important to Wittgenstein. What matters to you depends on how you live (and vice versa), and this shapes your experience. So if a lion could speak, Wittgenstein says, we would not be able to understand it. We might realize that “roar” meant zebra, or that “roar, roar” meant lame zebra, but we would not understand lion ethics, politics, aesthetic taste, religion, humor and such like, if lions have these things. We could not honestly say “I know what you mean” to a lion. Understanding another involves empathy, which requires the kind of similarity that we just do not have with lions, and that many people do not have with other human beings.

When a person says something what he or she means depends not only on what is said but also on the context in which it is said. Importance, point, meaning are given by the surroundings. Words, gestures, expressions come alive, as it were, only within a language game, a culture, a form of life. If a picture, say, means something then it means so to somebody. Its meaning is not an objective property of the picture in the way that its size and shape are. The same goes of any mental picture. Hence Wittgenstein’s remark that “If God had looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of.” Any internal image would need interpretation. If I interpret my thought as one of Hitler and God sees it as Charlie Chaplin, who is right? Which of the two famous contemporaries of Wittgenstein’s I mean shows itself in the way I behave, the things I do and say. It is in this that the use, the meaning, of my thought or mental picture lies. “The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it.’


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