Meaning, Understanding, and the Politics of Interpretation
ABSTRACT: In his essay "The Politics of Interpretation: Spinoza's Modernist Turn," Berel Lang attributes to Spinoza the view that interpretation presupposes or implies a political framework-in effect, that interpretation is itself a politics. The thrust of Spinoza's argument is against "interpretation from authority," i.e., against the view that the meaning of a text can be determined by an external authority. Understanding cannot be coerced, according to Spinoza. In my paper I attempt to make the relationship between reader and text even more direct and "free" than it is in Spinoza. I argue that any approach (such as Derrida's) which posits an interpretation between reader and text places constraints on the notion of a democracy of free readers. I argue that in a truly literate democracy readers have the right to claim that they have understood or grasped their texts without having any kind of intermediary placed between themselves and their texts, regardless of whether this intermediary takes the form of an external authority (in Spinoza's sense) or an interpretation (in Derrida's sense). In the course of the paper I draw upon Michael Dummett's philosophy of language in order to critique the "humpty-dymptyism" of the interpretationist school. I place myself firmly on the side of Alice in Through the Looking Glass, and spend some time discussing the significance of the difficulties which she experiences with the nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky."
Most philosophers of language who have referred to the confrontation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Chapter Six of Lewis Carroll's book, Through the Looking-Glass, have used that famous scenario to illustrate certain contrasting approaches to a philosophy of language. In general, most philosophers who cite the famous scenario tend to take the side of Alice against Humpty. I want to suggest, however, that, while Alice is right about something, she is also wrong about something. I want to suggest that she makes a mistake, not in her philosophy of language, but in her politics, especially the politics that surround the act and practice of reading. She makes a mistake not in the course of her defence of the objectivity or publicity of meaning, but in her acknowledgement of Humpty as a putative authority on meaning. She makes a mistake, one might say, about the nature of her rights and powers as a reader.
This mistake becomes apparent when we contrast the scenario in Chapter Six with a less famous but equally significant scenario that occurs in Chapter One of Carroll's book, a scenario which occurs shortly after Alice enters the Looking-Glass House. This is the scenario in which Alice first picks up and tries to read the text of the poem 'Jabberwocky'. At first glance it makes no kind of sense at all since it seems to be written in a strange language; then she realises that she knows the language after all, that the script of the text has...