Interpretations are Tools, Concepts are Demons

I’m currently using Davidsonian radical interpretation as a model for understanding the obstructions presented by very alien minds and phenomenologies – posthumans, aliens, cats, etc. However, much as I admire Davidson’s writings I don’t really want to be a Davidsonian. For example, I don’t think that content is constituted by how others might interpret it in ideal conditions. Entertaining or having a certain content is at bottom a power or disposition – it’s a state that makes a difference to what one can do, it exercises influence on actions, etc..

Ray Brassier refers to humans animals “with the capacity to be gripped by concepts” (Brassier 2011). I find the implicit analogy between concept use and possession suggestive, though it does not incline me to his view that concepts are inferential roles or articulations. If contents are real powers with “grip” then “uninterpretable content” is an oxymoron – for it would be a causally inert property whose possession makes no difference to the possessor or to anything else (Heil 2003, Ch8).

Such properties need not be identical to inferential roles because inferential roles are manifestations of powers and powers are not identical to their manifestations. Nonetheless, assigning inferential roles ( interpreting) may be a good way of predicting and manipulating the behaviour of the possessed.

If one is a Davidsonian radical interpreter, interpretation can be thought of as using a sentence with a familiar role in some interpreting theory or metalanguage – e.g. “The box is a trap” – and proceeding as if a state of the interpretee (an utterance or mental state) has the content which manifests this role. I suggested this approach in 2004 back when I was more sympathetic to the interpretationist cause. At that point, I was only dimly aware that this was a way of instrumentalizing interpretation and divesting  it of its pretensions to constitutive status (I’m slow this way). Interpretability is just a spinoff of the fact that concepts and contents exert influence and have results we can track and use.

Thus understood, radical interpretation is semantic modelling as extreme sport. We create an artificial idiom that means something for us – the interpreting “theory” – and consider the degree to which another being shares that idiom (Roden 2004, 200-1). Success in interpretation need not depend on mirroring the content of the alien state we wish to understand. For example, the state by virtue of which the raccoon is able to represent the fact that a box is a trap will presumably differ from “The box is a trap” in not being a grammatically structured sentence in a public language but a brain state of some kind. However, if the modelling procedure helps us to shape and cope with cat, raccoon, posthuman behaviour the interpretation can be warranted on purely pragmatic grounds.

In Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language, Bjorn Ramberg imagines an idealized hard case involving people who are solely concerned with events that happened two days ago (Ramberg 1989, 120). We might not be able to appreciate what is it like to be entirely preoccupied with two day old events, but this does not mean that we cannot detect this temporal fixation and interpret those who have it. For example, we might have a theory that says of a temporal displacee that s (an utterance in the displacee’s language)  uttered at time t is true if and only if p – where p reports some event two days prior to t. Of course, realizing that use value in the form of fluid communication might require more than just a helpful simulation. It would require the interpreters to become sensitive to the point of view of the displacees. So from radical interpretation we arrive at the threshold of cyborg becomings. But that’s another story.

Brassier, R. (2011). The view from nowhere. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, (17), 7-23.

Heil, J. (2003). From an ontological point of view. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ramberg, B. T. (1989). Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language. Blackwell.
Roden, D. (2004). Radical quotation and real repetition. Ratio, 17(2), 191-206.



4 thoughts on “Interpretations are Tools, Concepts are Demons

  1. Another provocative post. I would object, of course, that framing the problem as one of interpretating ‘very alien *minds* and *phenomenologies*’ immediately commits you to a problematic anthropomorphization of what it is you are interpreting, which is to say, something perhaps not so alien after all. So for instance, one could argue that contemporary neuromarketing firms, who are heavily invested in accurate interpretation of audience responses, leverage that accuracy precisely by circumventing the ‘person’ and looking to the subpersonal. In more and more aspects of technological society you find these interpretative circumventions of the ‘mental’ (contents that can be reported) driven by various gains in efficiency. The ‘personal idiom,’ in these interpretative contexts, is simply defective, given that the ‘mindreading triumverate’ of explanation/prediction/manipulation is so obviously better served by subpersonal idioms.

    The worry then is that the best even a modified Davidsonian approach can provide is the prospect of interpreting very alien systems as ‘people,’ not unlike the way we interpret (not so alien) cats and racoons! I would argue that the only way out of this impasse is to adopt a position that allows you to *interpret the person out* of the human, thus allowing you to use the idiom that arguably has to be universal, given that we share the same universe with these very alien systems: the natural.

    1. Thanks for these comments, Scott – and, yes, I concede all these dangers. The discussion needs to be multiply hedged. I suppose the point of this – admittedly, informal and fragmentary – post is to bring the anthropomorphism to the fore, to suggest that interpretation skims the surface of cognition rather than constituting it in some way. Interpretation, on this account is a way of representing other systems in terms that are homely: it is inveterately, ineluctably anthropomorphic (if performed by anthropoids). The fact that some state S is interpretable as X (e.g. where X marks some inferential role representable in the interpreting language) is a perspectival or phenomenological fact about S like the fact that discs have an oval projection when tilted. It says something about how S would seem to the interpreter. It does not necessarily describe the properties that allow S to contribute to the cognitive economy of a creature or system and it need not work out well for the interpreter either.

  2. And the interpretative radicality doesn’t end there. If you look at non-conscious, non-verbal communication between humans, for instance, it becomes clear that the interpreter can itself be bifurcated, often drawing disparate conscious and nonconscious conclusions – as in instances where it seems that we ‘knew it deep down’ even though we ‘told ourselves otherwise.’ So I guess the question becomes, given there are yet other complications, the degree to which a consideration of Radical Alien Interpretation requires some completely different paradigm. Is hedging enough, do you think? I see what you’re saying – interpretation needs to be always relativized to some interpretative economy – but given that humans are quite adept at, for instance, interpreting water-stains as messages from God, when it comes to aliens we seem to need some kind of Universal criterion (beyond belief/rationality) to be able to arbitrate our interpretations.

    I have no answer to this question. All I know is that it makes me want to reread Solaris!

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