On interpretive charity

When I was in grad school, I remember there being some discussion among my professors about interpretive charity. The basic idea is simply good sense: try not to interpret what you hear or read as coming from a moron. The background assumption is that most people are not morons, and so if there are two or more possible interpretations of what someone says, and one of them is something only a moron would say, go for the other interpretation. Obviously, the strategy sometimes fails, since people are sometimes morons. But usually the strategy succeeds as getting to what people intend to say.

Okay, a basic example. I now say, “The greatest distance is that between two people in a crowd.” If you interpret what I say as some statement about spatial distance, you will quickly conclude I am a moron. But maybe what I mean has something to do with “distance” in familiarity, or sympathy, or love or something. Is it more likely that I — or anyone — is such a moron as the first interpretation implies, or that I was trying to be poetic?

But in grad school, I fell into the trap of using “interpretive charity” as an excuse for doing history of philosophy in a bad way. (And in this I think I was not alone.) The trap goes something like this. Great Dead Philosopher says X. But if we take him at his word, he will be open to the fatal objections that McPhee raised against Gumperson’s analysis of modal de re predications in that seminal 1973 article that turned contemporary metaphysics on its big ear. Now it would be terrible if GDP were a victim of such dire objections. But wait! Maybe there’s a way to save GDP. If we reinterpret what he says, and supply some extra quantifiers, then look! We have a plausible theory that’s immune to McPhee’s objections! Hence that must be what GDP intended. For he surely wasn’t a moron, was he?

But of course GDP can fail to be a moron while at the same time never having considered McPhee’s objections. I firmly believe that most of the GDPs would need at least 10 years of grad school before they would have any talent at doing the sort of very specialized academic philosophy done today. It’s not that we’re smarter individually. But, collectively, we’ve devoted many more manhours of heavy thought into these philosophical questions than any single GDP ever could. So, yes, we have much more sophisticated and plausible theories.

So some limit has to be placed on interpretive charity. Maybe: “Try not to interpret someone so that they turn out to be either a moron or someone implausibly well-informed.” You have to be able to declare, at some point: “For crying out loud, he never would have thought of that!” But, unfortunately, the over-application of interpretive charity has turned out to be a useful device for scholars to show off their analytical skills alongside their knowledge of some GDP’s writings — just the kind of things grad students can clasp onto and excel at. So it probably won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

What morons.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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5 Responses to On interpretive charity

  1. Kleiner says:

    Very interesting, and I was instructed in a roughly similar way by my profs (particularly at Boston College). As you say, it is not an altogether bad thing. In fact, particularly with our students who are too often prone to think that something old cannot possibly be informative, it is a useful counter-move.
    Perhaps some of the problem comes from people trying to ‘save’ a philosopher (I am surely guilty of this with Aquinas sometimes!), rather than just trying to advance a position (that may no longer be Aquinas’ even though he got the ball rolling on it) that might get us somewhere.

    I will confess to something: while I am prone to read figures like Aquinas with this kind of interpretative clarity, I am not always so willing to go to the mat for others like Descartes!


  2. Rob says:

    Nietzsche, it seems to me, is a particularly complicated case. There’s of course the risk of being overly charitable in compensation for the abuse his work has suffered under the hands of Nazis and (from whom emancipation is still underway) postmodernists. But what, I think, poses the greatest difficulty is the proleptic manner in which he articulates his views, as a foretaste of what will be confirmed and developed in the future. And this creates, for me at least, a temptation to perhaps infer from what I imagine would be a likely approval of some contemporary sophistications to thinking that those sophistications are there to be uncovered in his work. (GS 354 (“On the Genius of the Species”) which seems to me to foreshadow Davidson’s notion of triangulation, might be an example.


  3. Huenemann says:

    And it doesn’t help when he claims to mislead intentionally, as Mike discusses over here.

    Sometimes, though, I think Nz’s anticipations are like Nostradamus’s predictions — vague enough to be instanced by very different things.


  4. I (read suitably charitably, of course) predicted this entire discussion.


  5. Pingback: “Steelmanning” and Interpretive Charity – iftttwall

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