Monday, January 25, 2016

Is Interpreting a Literary Text Like Giving a Non-Technical Account of a Technical Idea?

I think so. Not completely, of course, but the similarities are worth thinking about.

There are two basic similarities: 1) Neither activity is well-defined. There is no explicit procedure to follow and not certifiably correct result. 2) Neither the non-technical account nor the interpretation can do the cultural, intellectual, and symbolic work done by the text or material from which they are derived.

The problems of literary interpretation are well-known and have been extensively discussed off and one over the last half-century. As a practical matter, critics do not come to agreement on the interpretation of texts. Some of this difference has to do with intellectual tools – one wouldn’t expect a Marxist and a Freudian to come up with the same interpretive results. But no one believes that sort of thing accounts for all the differences among interpretations.

Literary texts are complex objects existing in one type of discourse. There simply is not well-defined procedure for translating literary discourse into expository discourse.

Similarly, subtle technical ideas – for example, quantum indeterminacy, entropy, or fractal dimensionality – exist in one kind of discourse, one generally requiring mathematical expression, and they cannot readily be translated into expository prose. Metaphor and analogy are important in the process. Some non-technical accounts are better than others, and some attempts may well be flat-out wrong. But none can be exactly correct, for such correctness requires technical discourse. And you cannot use even the best non-technical accounts to do the work of the technical idea itself. But then no interpretation of a text, or set of interpretation, does the same imaginative and emotional work as the text itself.

There are, of course, differences between the two activities. Informal accounts of technical ideas are created for the benefit of people who do not have the conceptual background necessary to master the technical concepts. But interpretations of texts are not intended for people who cannot read the texts themselves. Interpretations presuppose that one has read the understood – in some robust sense – the text. It is not unusual for interpretations to be unintelligible to people who have read and enjoyed the original texts.

Interpretations of texts thus have a somewhat different relationship to the text than informal accounts have to technical accounts. Interpretations, in some sense, seek to explain the texts they interpretation where explain is understood to imply some kind of causal account. Informal accounts of technical ideas do not attempt provide causal accounts of those ideas.

Still, in both cases, we are dealing with two different types of discourse. Translating between them is somewhat different from translating from one natural language to another. But I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

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