by Dave Maier
The word “interpretivism” suggests to most people a particularly crazy sort of postmodern relativism cum skepticism. If our relations to reality are merely interpretive and perspectival (I will use these terms interchangeably as needed, the idea being that each interpreter has her own distinct perspective on a world not reducible to any single view), our very access to objective facts seems threatened. Nietzsche, for example, famously says that “there are no facts, only interpretations” (a careless misreading, but let’s not get into it here). Fast-forward to Jacques Derrida and the whole lit-crit crew, who claim that everything is a text; and with the triumphantly dismissive reference to that notorious postmodern imp, the game is over. Interpretation is for sissies; let’s get back to doing hard-nosed empirical science (or objective metaphysics).
On this account, the opposite of “interpretive” is something like “representational”: our successful beliefs simply get the world right, with no (subjective, open-ended, wishy-washy) interpretation required. This makes sense up to a point. Our beliefs portray the world as being a certain way, not as (primarily) meaningful or enlightening or useful, or whatever is characteristic of our favored interpretations. On the other hand, to distinguish belief from meaning in this way makes it seem as if interpretation does not concern itself with belief or inquiry at all. Yet even if interpretation is not the same as inquiry, or meaning the same as belief, they are – or so we post-Davidsonian pragmatists claim – more closely intertwined than this dichotomous account would indicate.
One way to sort this out is to jump right into it with a close analysis of the notions of meaning and belief in the manner of the later Davidson and Richard Rorty’s frustratingly dodgy use of same. We’ll do more of that later on (he warned); but today I wanted to try another tack. It is generally accepted that history in particular is an interpretive discipline (a “humanity,” not a “science”), yet it is commonly accepted as well that historians deal in facts. If we can see how this conceptual accommodation works in the narrower context, we may be able to transpose it, or something like it, into our larger one. In this post I will set the problem up, leaving you in suspense until next time when I reveal a possible solution. Read more »