Principles of Radical Interpretation



Principles of Radical Interpretation



How should we set about interpreting an alien language and the people who speak it? Specifically, how should we ascribe beliefs to others? One idea is that we should use a principle of charity: ascribe to others the beliefs that we have, so that interpreter and interpreted converge in their belief systems. This principle will apply both to logical beliefs and beliefs about ordinary matters of fact. Much has been written about the principle, and I won’t repeat any of that here. Instead, I will give a simple but instructive counterexample. Suppose I encounter an alien tribe in the deepest jungle and present members of the tribe with a cell phone, and suppose they have never seen a cell phone or any other electronic device. They will clearly not form the belief that the object in front of them is a cell phone—they have no such concept. They have no beliefs about cell phones or any similar technology. It would be absurd to appeal to the principle of charity in ascribing such a belief to our natives (perhaps what they believe is that the thing they are holding is a piece of a star fallen from the sky). Sometimes it is suggested that the principle of charity should be amended to a principle of humanity, which prescribes that we should ascribe the beliefs we would form if we were in the epistemological position of the native. Thus if the native is presented with a visual illusion, not known by them to be such, we should ascribe the false belief appropriate to that illusion, not the true belief that we have in knowing about the illusion. But this won’t help with the cell phone case, because presenting the native with a fake cell phone will not warrant assigning to them the belief that the object is a cell phone (as opposed to a fake cell phone); for again, they have no such concept.

            What if they are presented with a familiar object, say a rabbit—should we say they believe it is a rabbit, thus sharing our belief? Not necessarily, since they may have beliefs about the animal in front of them that excludes them from having the zoological concept rabbit: they may believe of rabbits that they are gods not animals. They do not share our beliefs about rabbits. The problem is that they believe that this thing is a god, not an animal, and hence they don’t apply the concept rabbit to the thing in question. Maybe they have the concept rabbit and apply it to certain kinds of rabbit only; when it comes to white rabbits, say, they withhold the concept, since these creatures they take to be gods, not animals, and hence withhold the rabbit concept. So we can’t ascribe a belief to them based on what we believe. We can’t use ourselves as the yardstick of their beliefs, since they differ radically from us about what the world contains. What if they are convinced skeptics who never believe that anything they experience is real? They don’t even share our belief that a square object is in front of them, let alone our general beliefs about nature, the weather, world history, the good, and the beautiful. Charity will get us nowhere with these independent thinkers, just as it will get them nowhere with us.

            So how can we interpret them? The difficulty applies even to logical beliefs: what if they subscribe to a deviant logic? We obviously can’t interpret them as holding to our logic—they may be convinced intuitionists or even adherents of para-consistent logic. We surely don’t want to say that no one can believe in a deviant logic, or that a deviant logician cannot be interpreted as holding the logical beliefs they in fact hold. We need a way to ascribe divergent logical beliefs, as we do divergent factual beliefs. No theory of interpretation that requires belief convergence between the interpreter and the interpreted can be correct. We need another principle entirely. I propose what I shall call “the principle of culturality”, for want of a better label. The general idea is that we need to take account of the material and cognitive culture of the people we are trying to interpret. Thus there are no cell phones in the material culture of our earlier tribe and their religious culture decrees rabbits to be gods. In order to interpret a people we need to look at their technology, life-style, interpersonal relations, and so on: do they have agriculture, maps, idols, money, advanced tools, animal sacrifice, and so on? This is all observable and accessible before we have made any belief attributions. We must also take note of their ecological niche, the acuity of their sense organs, possibly their genetic make-up, as well as their general level of sanity (interpreting a schizophrenic will require special methods). We will then ascribe to them the beliefs that all these factors suggest—and these beliefs may diverge dramatically from ours. They may be constantly hallucinating on drugs, possessed of only the most rudimentary tools, incurably superstitious, logical nihilists, and completely un-self-critical. In other words, we need to do serious empirical anthropology. Merely recording the stimuli that trigger their assent behavior isn’t going to cut it.

            Someone might object that the principle of culturality is not a rule like the principle of charity. That is quite true: it just tells us to take everything observable into account, particular the totality of the people’s culture. The principle of charity, by contrast, can be applied without any knowledge of the particularities of the natives’ culture—we simply ascribe what we ourselves believe, knowing already exactly what that is. This will work for any subject of interpretation, no matter their culture. But that is totally unrealistic, since people can differ enormously in their beliefs: beliefs are inherently protean in nature. Instead, we should adopt a far more context-sensitive and multi-dimensional approach, recognizing the extreme flexibility of belief: people can believe just about anything if they put their mind to it. We cannot sidestep the complexity of interpretation by adopting a simple rule like the principle of charity; and we may have to accept considerable uncertainty as to what the other believes. There may be para-consistent idealist creationists out there who don’t even believe in rabbits and square objects. They are no doubt mistaken, but they are not conceptually impossible.

            There are also children, animals, and Neanderthals—all of whom need interpretation. The principle of charity will not be of much help with them, since they will not necessarily agree with normal human adults in the beliefs they form. What about the denizens of Plato’s cave or intelligent underground worms? The case should be compared with ascertaining the chemical composition of a distant planet. It’s no use assuming that a distant planet will necessarily resemble the earth in its chemical composition, on the principle that we have no alternative than to use our local environment as a model of any environment (as if all planets must converge geologically with earth). Instead we must observe the environment local to the planet being investigated, by spectral analysis and whatever other data we can glean—we look at the peculiarities of the planet itself. If we followed a principle of “charity” in astronomy, assuming similarity between every celestial body and our own planet, we would end up with a hopelessly uniform account of astronomical reality. Not every object out there is the size and mass of the earth, with the same quantities of basic elements and geological structure. Not all planets have the same “planetary scheme”.

            And the same point applies to radical interpretation directed inwards. We also seek to discover what goes on in our unconscious—we need a way to figure out what beliefs and desires exist there. For the sake of concreteness, let’s accept a Freudian account of the unconscious: how shall we find out what we unconsciously think and feel? One view would be that we should use a principle of charity: we unconsciously think and feel what we consciously think and feel. But what is striking about Freud’s unconscious is how much it is supposed to differ from our conscious life; so charity would get things quite wrong. Instead, we need to adopt a more circumspect and holistic approach, appealing to free association, dreams, neuroses, jokes, slips of the tongue, and the early family dynamic. We need to look at how the unconscious manifests itself in our lives—as we need to look at the way other people’s minds manifest themselves in their lives (particularly in culture). Using a principle of charity will not do justice to the variety of minds. The basic assumption of that principle is that there is uniformity of the mental across all peoples and all types of mind: we all believe and desire pretty much the same things. So we could generalize the principle of charity into a “principle of uniformity”: all minds are pretty much the same—the same as ours, that is. And this is not an empirical discovery (as with linguistic universals) but a methodological requirement: we can’t interpret unless we assume uniformity.  [1]

This is like a principle of uniformity for planets: all planets resemble the earth. Granted, there may be some similarities between the various minds and the various planets, but they won’t be as great as the principle of uniformity supposes. We can’t sidestep empirical anthropology and astronomy by announcing an a priori principle that guarantees that everything resembles the local conditions. Just as there can be different “astronomical schemes”, so there can be different conceptual schemes. Surely no one would advocate a principle of uniformity in biology, according to which every species must have the same basic anatomy and physiology as humans—there is clearly great variety in animal bodies. We don’t do zoology by consulting our own bodies and then assuming every body is built like ours; we have a look at other bodies and find out their individual structure. Radical interpretation is no more conducted from the first-person standpoint than radical zoology is. And it is perfectly conceivable that a group of believers disputes every opinion we hold, from what is in their immediate environment to the general nature of the universe. Things differ from place to place and any method for discovering how things are needs to respect this variety. Projecting our own mind into the mind of the alien other is not the way to further human understanding.


  [1] It would be different if it were a natural law that everyone shares the same beliefs, but that is not the reasoning behind the principle of charity (and is very implausible); the idea, rather, is that charity is the only viable method of belief attribution.

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