Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations

9 August 2012


Revisiting my old friend Sartre

I can remember the first time that I came to realize that history is a powerful tool for conveying in interpretation. History isn’t just an account of the past, a chronicle of names, dates, and places, that only becomes distorted when the facts were selected and organized according to some idea that was no part of the facts as they occurred. History is always a selection of past facts and always organized according to some idea or other. No history can be complete, including all facts, so that every history is partial, and a partial selection of relevant facts means that there must be some principle of selection, and it is the principle selection of relevant facts that is the idea that governs even the most objective of histories.

This realization that history is always an interpretation came to me when I was writing extensively on the history of logic (some time in the early 1990s, I think). This may seem an unlikely point of origin for an essentially political realization, but the history of logic, no less than the history of princes and thrones and battles, is a human, all-too-human story with its distinctive protagonists who each put forward their particular version of the events that go to make up the history of logic, and which in the most tendentious accounts culminate in their work of the individual formulating the given narrative of logic.

What is true for logic is true in spades for the histories of less abstract and more human, all-too-human stories. The narratives we rely on to orientate ourselves within the world — narratives of our own personal history, narratives of our families, narratives of our communities, nation-states, cultures, civilizations, and species — are interpretations of events even when every event incorporated in the narrative is objectively and unproblematically true. Meaning and value are given to facts and events when they are made part of a story that has meaning and value for those who create stories, those who transmit stories, and those who listen to stories.

Traditional narrative history tells a story; when you begin a story, you already know what kind of story you’re going to tell — whether it’s a romance or a comedy or a tragedy — since for any of these genres a successful telling of the story requires that the genre be “set up” in the very first lines of the tale. This has been made particularly clear by Hayden White’s detailed typology of narratives in his book Metahistory, in which he sedulously distinguishes modes of emplotment, argumentation and ideology.

Even while traditional narrative history has continued to dominate popular historical writing, academic historiography has moved ever further away from narrative models of historical exposition. In several posts I have mentioned the influence of Braudel and the Annales school of historiography, which, influenced by mid-century structuralism on the European continent (think Claude Lévi-Strauss), brought a much more “scientific” approach to writing history. Braudel’s writing is so accomplished that we scarcely notice he is writing more as a scientist than an historian, but this development was only to continue and to escalate as scientific historiography migrated to the New World and had the resources of Big Science upon which to draw.

While scientific historiography possesses the gold standard in terms of objectivity and the veracity of the facts employed, science writers tend to be much less sophisticated and less subtle writers than traditional historians, so when the inevitable popularizations of ideas in the vanguard of science emerge they tend to be penned with the kind of naïve optimism one would expect of the Enlightenment, with a generous admixture of theological posturing and ham-handed moralizing (I have briefly addressed the latter two in Higgs: what was left unsaid). The result is that when scientific historiography enters the marketplace of ideas, it, too, is freighted with meanings and values that are independent of the facts presented, although the scientific framework of the discovery and exposition of the facts sometimes conceals the moral message.

Well, none of this should really be new to any of us. Any sophisticated reader is already aware of the cautions I have formulated above about interpretations versus facts, and already in the nineteenth century Nietzsche put the whole matter in a particularly unambiguous formulation when he said that, “Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying ‘there are only facts,’ I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations.” Nevertheless, my recent reflections have once again impressed me with the importance of this observation.

I have mentioned in several posts how much Sartre’s lecture Existentialism is a Humanism has influenced my thinking over the years. I was reflecting on this again recently, and the lesson that I took away from this most recent review was the importance of taking responsibility for our interpretations, including if not especially our interpretations of history.

Here is a passage from Sartre that I quoted previously in Of moral choices and existential choices, in which Sartre has just told a story of how a student came to him to ask whether he should stay at home to be a comfort to his mother or if he should leave to join the resistance:

“…I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel — from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

By concluding this passage with, “no signs are vouchsafed in this world,” Sartre is not only saying that each must take responsibility for explicit decisions and actions, but also for our identification of signs and what we make of them. Contrary to Sartre’s declaration of the absence of signs, I think that most people do sincerely believe that signs are vouchsafed in this world. I have come to think of this belief in signs as a way to avoid responsibility for one’s interpretations. If one says, e.g., “a rainbow appeared in the sky as I was contemplating suicide, and I realized that this was a sign from on high that I should not kill myself,” one is surrendering one’s autonomy even while acting — the moral equivalent of keeping one’s cake and eating it too.

I don’t think that most people have a problem with the explicit judgments they formulate when they say things like, “I think…” or “I believe…” or “I have decided to…” since these are clear statements of personal responsibility for one’s decisions and actions. But interpretations can be much more subtle — in some cases, perhaps in many cases, interpretations are so subtle that they are difficult to understand as interpretations rather than as cold, hard facts.

Individuals who have never had their Weltanschauung called into question are particularly vulnerable to giving their interpretations an air of facticity. In so far as travel can place an individual into a situation in which everything formerly taken for granted is questioned (something I touched upon in Being the Other), one of the virtues of travel is to make one aware of one’s Weltanschuung, and to know that there is nothing necessary about the particular interpretations that one gives to particular states of affairs.

Of course, travel in and of itself is not enough. Some people, when they travel, surround themselves with their compatriots so that they are never exposed to an unaccustomed world without the support of like-minded fellows. People do exactly the same thing without bothering to travel: i.e., always surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals and never placing themselves in a situation in which their beliefs can be radically questioned — or even gently questioned.

Thus we see that the work of taking responsibility for our interpretations is the painful work of self-knowledge even to the point of self-alientation. For this, few have the requisite hardihood. But we must try.

For those who do possess the intestinal fortitude for self-examination that reveals interpretations as interpretations, stripping them of their spurious facticity, there is an added aesthetic benefit: it is from this point of view, seeing the world for what it is, that we are able to see and to forget the name of the thing on sees.

The uninterpreted world — what Husserl called the prepredicative world — is an ideal, and as an ideal it is likely to be elusive and difficult of accomplishment. But that is no argument against it. As Spinoza said, All noble things are as difficult as they are rare. Taking full responsibility for our interpretations is both difficult and rare, but it is a noble ideal to pursue.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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