Interpreting Our World

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Hermes, the messenger god.

George Meade made a big contribution to sociology, but, as Huebner wrote, he is mostly known in a discipline he didn’t teach, for a book he didn’t write, and that’s where things get interesting.

The book, Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, was published in 1934 after Meade’s death, and consists of what Huebner calls a collage of stenographer and student notes of his lectures, and unpublished manuscripts. Both the stenographer and students wrote down their interpretation of what they thought they heard Meade say, which was in turn interpreted by an editor, based on his understanding of Meade’s work. In other words, what you have here is an edited version of what people thought they heard Meade say, and a double interpretation of it, and yet, “experts” reinterpret that to argue about what “Meade said”. Fact is, we don’t know exactly what Meade said or meant, all we can do is add our own interpretation of it.

In the real world, academics create careers from becoming “experts” on the works of famous writers and thinkers, arguing amongst themselves what they said, reaching some sort of agreement on what some of it means, and using it as a slap down when others interpret it differently. Others become “experts” on esthetics as film and music critics, etc., implying there is some sort of standard of excellence, and they know it. Sadly, both groups can make or break careers and the creative work of writers and artists. At a baseline level, they assume a mechanistic world in which one can analyze and know things with certainty.

Finally, socially, we live in a world in which people have strong beliefs in their interpretations of reality, but should they? People thinking like this must overcome three challenges to their way of thinking.

I start with Meade, because he made an important contribution to how we understand communication. Before we had language, we used our bodies to send messages, and, to understand a message, we must interpret both words and what our bodies say. All messages potentially have multiple meanings from which we pick one, and that interpretation becomes the basis on which we respond. We do this instantly and unconsciously.

Words are just sounds we make, and, as symbols, we attach meaning by matching them to things for which, as Wittgenstein pointed out, you must belong to a community of speakers to know what they mean. One doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with a dictionary to realize different words can have several meanings, the way we pronounce them can change meaning, and so does the way we use them in sentences. Hence, language is not a mechanistic process constructing meaning, as incorrectly believed by communication experts, logical positivists, some language experts, etc. Rather, as Meade pointed out, we actively create meaning in the moment.

We don’t just interpret language when communicating, we also interpret visual, auditory, and other sensory signals to create a context, and bring our personal and collective social learning into play. In other words, we interact both with others, and a historical and social perspective to create meaning and interpret it. Every interpretation reinterprets the past through the lens of a new perspective, which changes the past and determines the direction of future interpretation, which, in turn, determines how we act and interact.

To be human is to collectively construct a world of meaning that makes sense, but we constantly change it, hence sense-making and interpretation is a constant ongoing stream.

What this means for “experts” and believers is, since they were not there when a philosopher, creator, writer, etc., spoke or wrote, they don’t know the context in which it was done, what they were thinking, how their social and personal histories, etc., contributed to it, hence all re-readings are interpretations. Some may be more complete than others, but there will always be multiple interpretations which are all valid, and we have no way of accurately verifying what the creators, writers, etc., intended. My journal contributions are rejected by a reviewer, claiming to be my peer, given the authority by the journal to do so, stemming from him or her being selected as “one of us”, which reinforces the prejudices, biases, and stereotypes of that select group, without the opportunity to engage in a conversation, or dialogue, in an attempt to discover what I’m saying and why, in Meade’s terms.

This blends into the second issue “experts” face, how do you know your interpretation is the correct one? To do that, we must either assume some people through study, and so on, know more, and are therefore qualified to speak on behalf of the creators, or a community of “experts” agreeing they are right. Which, in turn, assumes a clockwork mechanistic world, which you can accurately know through analysis. Using the same argument, you become a designated “expert” which is a social role, which itself is a complex process that can’t be put to the test, other than through the social mechanism that created it.

Which creates another problem, if our deepest shared belief in a mechanistic perspective, which dominates the Western world, itself is just another perspective of reality, we can never accurately know what others really mean, and there are no experts.

If that reality is complex, as I argue, we use our interpretations pragmatically to thrive and survive, which works most of the time, but not all the time. A complex changing world unpredictably unfolds over time which forces us to constantly revise our interpretation and understanding of it.

Karl Popper argued we can never know what is true with certainty; it only remains true until we can falsify it, which is like Peirce’s argument around pragmatic belief; we believe something is true until that truth no longer works, in which case we must revise it and create a different belief. Popper also argued one cannot falsify the theories of quantum mechanics, which means it is not a science in the way of the mechanics of traditional Newtonian physics. What Popper didn’t see is his latter argument is based on interpreting our world, and his understanding of science, in terms of Newton’s mechanistic clockwork reality. Perhaps quantum mechanics can be falsified, but not in a traditional way.

We continuously interpret the world and our social world, which academically falls under hermeneutics, named after Hermes, the Greek messenger god, which studies how we interpret communication, texts, social symbols, etc. But Hermes is also the god of rhetoric, travelers, thieves, merchants, and orators, as opposed to Alethia, the goddess of truth, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom. For me it means our interpretations and beliefs of what we hear, see, and experience are not the same as them being true or wise, and it is important that we are aware of it. There are many merchants of falsehoods, who steal or twist the truth and sell it to us, hence, when it comes to interpreting and make sense of the world, we should be careful what we buy, and from whom.