UNBOXED: Things Can Always Be Variously Interpreted
“Things can always be variously interpreted” is one of the major ideas of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and it is central to relativism, skepticism, perspectivism, Existentialism, and Postmodernism. Some say that this opens the gates to all interpretations, such that we can never argue that anything is true or tell anyone they are wrong, but this interpretation of relativism is quite wrong. Just because there is more than one interpretation and perspective does not mean that all interpretations and perspectives are equally right or valuable, nor does it mean that we can’t argue that our own interpretation is better than others. Saying that things are not black and white does not make them the same shade of grey, and having an open mind does not require a closed mouth.
We do not have isolated individual perspectives that are entirely our own. We share perspectives and interpretations the same way that we share physical perspectives when we are close to each other and face the same direction. We can share perspectives and interpretations with others in the same place and time, or share them with others over thousands of years and with the entire earth between us.
If I tell you, “There is peanut butter on the table”, you would likely think that there is a jar of peanut butter sitting on top of the table. If I tell you, “There is peanut butter on the cat”, you might think that a child smeared peanut butter on the sides of the cat. We often use ON to mean both touching and above, but we also use it to mean touching and stuck to, which could be on top but also on any side of a thing. You likely have clothes on you, unless you are watching this naked, but you likely do not have them in a folded stack on top of your head.
Because we are typically in the reach of earth’s gravity, and most things are not sticky, we often include ABOVE in our understanding of ON automatically, which is why we understand “There is peanut butter on the table” as a jar on top of the table. If a child had smeared peanut butter on the side of the table, we would likely misunderstand, misinterpreting the statement. Because we do not balance jars of peanut butter on cats often, as it is cruel and unusual, we understand “peanut butter on the cat” as peanut butter stuck to the cat, and we would be wrong if it was balanced in a jar on top of the cat. ON can be variously used, and so it can be variously interpreted, correctly and incorrectly, and we can share these interpretations.
IS can also be variously interpreted. We use IS in two ways, exclusively and inclusively. When we use IS exclusively, we are saying that two things are one and the same thing, identical to each other and different from everything else, the way that each individual thing is exclusively itself and has its own exclusive identity. However, if we only used IS this way, then if we say Batman is blue, and my car is blue, then my car would be Batman, as well as the color blue itself. If we say Batman is blue, this is different than saying Batman is Bruce Wayne. When we say that Batman is blue, we understand that Batman is one of many blue things, included in a group, not identical to the color, because we are not in the habit of claiming that people and colors are identical.
This is why Gongsun Long, a philosopher and logician in ancient China, famously argued that a white horse is not a horse, an argument that works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English. While a white horse is one member of the group of all horses, “a white horse” is not the same exact thing as “a horse”, as “a horse” can be many different colors, unlike a white horse. In one way, a white horse is a horse, inclusively, and in another a white horse is not a horse, exclusively. In the same two ways, I am my finger, as it is a part of me, but I am also not only my finger, as I am much more than a finger, so I am and am not my finger. Understanding this, Gongsun Long choses to use IS counterintuitively, in the way we typically do not when talking about white horses and the group of all horses, purposefully leading us to misunderstand and misinterpret him when he says a white horse is not a horse.
Even when IS is used inclusively, to include a thing in a group, it can be understood absolutely or relatively, as universal or general. If I say you are a good person, it could mean that you are absolutely perfect, or it could mean that you are generally good overall, but have some flaws and have made some mistakes. If I say that tigers are dangerous, this could mean that there are no safe tigers, or it could mean that tame tigers exist but they are rare and even the safest should still be watched closely. Wittgenstein said that in arguments, both sides tend to interpret the other side as making universal claims, and then give counterexamples, but interpret their own claims as general, which allows for counterexamples.
OR is also used exclusively and inclusively. If we are at a car dealership, and I tell you that I will buy you a truck or a convertible or a van, and you pick out both a truck and a van, I would say, you can have one OR the other, but not both. I am using OR exclusively, so you can’t have more than one, exclusive choice. If we are at a buffet, and I tell you that you can have eggs, or salad, or steak, or sausage, and you choose eggs and sausage, you would not expect me to say, “Hey, I said you could have eggs OR sausage, not both!”. At a buffet we expect that you can have more than one choice, and that I use OR inclusively.
In all of these examples, it is the context that frames the situation, determining how we automatically understand things unless the frame changes or we consciously choose to interpret them differently. The only way we can consciously choose is if we see that the things we interpret can be interpreted differently.
Some say there are things that cannot be variously interpreted, that only have one exclusive, objective and absolutely correct interpretation, excluding all others. Descartes argued that 2 + 3 = 5 can be doubted, could be an illusion, but there seems nothing more certain as an example of absolute truth. We are taught to substitute the symbols 2, plus, and 3 for 5, and to understand abstract numbers linearly, as if we are lining up objects in a row to count them. What if we reinterpret this not as a line of objects, but as sides of a square that resets after each set of four? If so, we can choose to understand 2 plus 3 as equal to one, not five. We can share and understand this alternative interpretation.
While we don’t have a particular use for this kind of math, we could come up with one. Leibniz invented the binary system still used by computers today, which uses only two numerical values, half of our square math, which uses four. Leibniz, who was in touch with Christian missionaries in China, was inspired by the Chinese abacus and Yi Jing divination system, which attempted to symbolize all of the natural world with solid and broken lines. Leibniz was one of the inventors of the mechanical calculator, the ancestor of the modern computer. If a system of math that has only two numbers seems useless, we are making good use of it right now.
Looking at the various ways we share and oppose perspectives and interpretations shows us how we frame situations and allows us to critically think about how we see things and how we could see things differently. While we don’t need to reinterpret everything, reinterpretation is good for growth and change. Relativism, skepticism and perspectivism do not prevent us from saying something. Rather, they allow us to say much more, relatively speaking.