Friday, 10 August 2012

Beneath Interpretation… Distinction Between Understanding and Interpretation

SHUSTERMAN, R. (1991) Beneath Interpretation. In: D.R. HILEY, J.F. BOHMAN, and R. SHUSTERMAN (Eds.) The Interpretive Turn. Cornell University Press. pp102-128

“we can only test our prior understanding by subsequent interpretation (…). Considerations of this sort have led Gadamer and other hermeneutic universalists to the radical claim that ‘all understanding is interpretation.’ But this claim, I have argued, is not only uncompelling but misleading in suggesting that we can never understand anything without interpreting it. For in many cases we are simply satisfied with our initial understanding and do not go on to interpret; there are always other and usually better things to do. Moreover, if we could never understand anything without interpreting it, how could we ever understand the interpretation itself? It, too, would have to be interpreted, and so would its interpretation, and so on ad infinitum. As Wittgenstein notes, ‘Any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets.’ Interpretation must ultimately depend on some prior understanding, some ‘way of grasping…which is not an interpretation.’ This is just a point of philosophical grammar about how these notions are related: understanding grounds and guides interpretation, while interpretation enlarges, validates, or corrects understanding. We must remember that the distinction is functional or relational, not ontological. The prior and grounding understanding ‘which is not an interpretation’ may have been the product of prior interpretations, though now it is immediately grasped. Moreover, it need be an explicitly formulated or conscious understanding, and the ground it provides in not an incorrigible ground.” (p122)

Shusterman sees the distinction between understanding and interpretation not as ‘all understanding is interpretation,’ nor a metaphysical state of being (ontological), but as relational or functional. The relationship can be described as, “understanding grounds and guides interpretation, while interpretation enlarges, validates, or corrects understanding” (p122). As he points out if understanding is interpretation and we could never understand anything without an interpretation, then “how could we ever understand the interpretation itself?” (ibid.).  Hirsh (1976) agrees and urges that when the person interprets they first are trying to match what they sense with what they already know in order to first understand before and interpretation and explanation can begin.  Validation is a factor in interpretation and can be placed within systematic process of understanding > construction of meaning > interpretation > validation. When validation is achieved it is “only with respect to known hypotheses and known facts” (Hirsch, 1967, p170). Palmer (1969) points out that in itself understanding is a preliminary act of interpretation from which future interpretations are built. 

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