Meaning, Understanding, and the Politics of Interpretation

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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 cont...

... middle of paper ...

... the meaning of the text.

I began by saying that while Alice is right about something, she is also wrong about something. I want to conclude by suggesting that while Humpty Dumpty is wrong about nearly everything, he is right about one thing. 'The question is,' said Humpty, 'which is is to be master - that's all'. If our politics of interpretation is democratic, then the reader is to be master of the text in the sense of having full and direct access to its meaning, free from the constraints imposed practically by external authorities or theoretically by cognitive pluralists.


Carroll, Lewis (1929) Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, London: Macmillan.

Lang, Berel (1990) The Anatomy of Philosophical Style, Oxford: Blackwell.

Spinoza, Benedict de (1951) A Theologico-Political Treatise, trans. R.H.M. Elwes, Dover: New York.
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